By CHRIS COPLEY
4:00 PM EST, December 27, 2012
Jacob Rockwell has a tough job. The Boonsboro native has a year-long position as a member of a Youth Encounter team, bringing the Christian message to youth groups and nursing homes in northern Midwest states.
But that's not the tough part.
The tough part is ministering to people who are deeply hurting or who have questions about their relationship with God. After Rockwell and his teammates present an inspirational, musical program, team members mingle with the audience and minister one on one.
Sometimes the conversations get emotional. Rockwell said he listens and tries to offer support.
"For us, it's not necessarily to uphold any particular view or way of life on them, or even our own point of view," Rockwell said. "What we're there to do is to tell them, 'You're loved, you're worthwhile. I don't need to know who you are, or what you've done. You're worth my time.'"
Rockwell, 20, graduated from Boonsboro High School in 2010. Youth Encounter is an independent, Lutheran nonprofit organization. Rockwell spoke with The Herald-Mail from home, during a holiday break from his evangelism duties.
H-M: Tell me about what you do.
Rockwell: Youth Encounter forms teams of young adults, and then they send us out to different parts of the country. And there are some international teams. We go to different churches, spend time with youth groups. We also go to nursing homes, some schools. We try to spread the gospel, as well as just hang out with the kids and the people we're with and get to know them.
How did you get involved in Youth Encounter?
I had met someone who was on a team when I was still in high school. I had thought about it, but hadn't really looked into it. Then, coming in to this stage of finishing my first few years in college, I didn't have anything to do. I finished freshman year at Malone University in Ohio, and (I wasn't) headed in any specific direction. I looked into (Youth Encounter) a little bit more, and filled out an application.
What is Youth Encounter looking for in team members?
They like us to have a general faith and set of beliefs in what God is and who God is. One of the main ways we work with kids is through music, so there is a music audition. That's not their primary focus, but there is an audition. I sing and play guitar.
How long will you be involved?
August (2012) to August (2013).
Where did you go for this tour?
We started out in Minnesota — the organization is based out of St. Paul. Then we went to a camp in Wisconsin (for) a month of training. We went to Iowa for a bit, Kansas for a bit, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a bit, and a few other states.
When you're working with kids, what are you trying to do?
Our ministry is about planting seeds — providing a safe environment (for people) to open up and tell us about their lives, what they're going through.
So how does it go?
I guess one of the more memorable events we have done is, just recently, we were in Wisconsin at a church. Did a lock-in for the kids there. We had done our general program for the kids, to open things up, then we just hung out with them for a bit. For my teammates, they had a lot of kids coming up to them and talking a bunch of different things — sexuality, school, home life, different relationships they were in. It was really moving for me. There were a lot of kids praying, reliving a lot of stress and emotions. We had a lot of good conversations and good relationships opened up there.
How do you deal with the emotion? How do you process it so it doesn't stick to you?
For me personally, I just have to take a step back. I have a list of kids I pray for on a regular basis. A lot of times, we know they have someone at that church who is caring for them. Sometimes we'll let the pastor know: "Hey, you might want to keep this kid in your thoughts and prayers, because they're struggling." It's a comfort to know there is help available for them if they need it.
What sorts of things do you say to address their hurt?
In general, I let them know I recognize that's a challenging situation for them. 'You are going through these things, but you are loved, and there are people around you in your community who care about you. There are people who are willing to take care of you. And God loves you and care of you.' And I offer to pray with them.
How do you sustain yourself in that ongoing demand?
It's really challenging to stay faithful. We try to get in daily devotions, whether it be as a team or individually.
Have you grown in your own spiritual life?
Yes, absolutely. It's built my confidence in the church as a whole, to see all the ministries that churches do. There is such great loving compassion shown everywhere we go. You look at the way the disciples traveled around, just went from home to home, which is in a sense what we're doing. People are willing to open up their homes and fridges to us. It's really cool to see that.
Have you encountered things that were tough to deal with?
I personally have not come across any situations that were too tough to deal with. But nursing homes have always wiped me out. It's way easier for youth to hide their struggles and pain, but we can recognize the signs when someone wants to talk to us.
But in a nursing home, it's all there on the table for you to see. The physical ailments are so obvious. I have a lot of respect for the people who work there every day.
What will you do after the first of the year?
Come the new year, it's what they call "event season." You get a broader base of kids. You get what I call "quake zones" — larger regional gatherings in a hotel. They'll get a professional musician — a big name — to perform, and there's workshops all weekend that kids will attend.
You must get some people who question how God could allow horrible things to happen to people. How do you talk to people about disasters like the Newtown, Conn., killings?
I am a person who will probably proclaim that I don't have all the answers. I also have had plenty of struggles and had those questions myself. So I don't have an answer for that, but I believe in the power of love. That's something we all need and something we all long for.
Most importantly for me is to speak love into the midst of the pain. We're not there to show a right or wrong answer, but rather to show them they're loved. That's what it boils down to.
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