So, we had this tornado.
A little over six months ago our small community of 3,000 in northwest Georgia was gut-punched by a series of storms that culminated in an EF-3 tornado that touched down in the heart of Ringgold then forever scarred the ridge at the south of town. It came back down on the other side of the ridge as an EF-4 in a residential area. Despite the complete destruction of nearly every open restaurant, hotel, & a few hundred homes, only 8 lives were lost. There is no “only” in a death toll, but considering the damage we experienced some disbelief that our community wasn’t grieving a larger number.
The properties of Ringgold’s high school & middle school were among the hardest hit, with extensive damage to the media center & offices at the high school and the complete destruction of the 8th grade wing at the middle school.
There are three high schools in our county. Our church primarily serves two, Heritage HS & Ringgold HS. We’re on the far east side of the county and Lakeview-Fort Olgethorpe HS is a town away on the west side of the county. When I came to Ringgold four years ago Heritage was still under construction and with one or two exceptions everyone in the youth group was a Ringgold Tiger. Ringgold is one of those towns that people don’t seem to leave, so generations of RHS tradition permeated much of the town’s identity, an influence that echoed in the halls of its churches.
Enter Heritage High School. When you build a new school, obviously, you have to build the best school that money can buy. It would be stupid not to. And to their credit, when they built Heritage they did spend some money on RHS as well, updating its cafeteria, adding an auxiliary gym and new offices. But there was gruff disinterest in the why of why Heritage HS should legitimately have a nice new school, despite the fact that it was the first new high school in the county in 30 years. Good fuel for rivalry. No biggie.
But in the aftermath of the storm that rivalry grew poisonous. With a month left of school, the best option was to share the campuses of HHS & HMS in half day sessions. The Heritage kids went in the morning and the Ringgold kids went in the afternoon and for the first time the Ringgold students not only had to see firsthand but were forced to exist in the new school. Even Ringgold teachers were talking about how difficult it was to go there–“It’s just not fair,” was a common sentiment from the adults.
As I went back into the schools this fall, the tension was palpable. It didn’t help that Heritage chose the RHS/HHS match-up for its Homecoming game and then lost in overtime (they’ve yet to beat RHS in football) with an extra point kick banging off of the upright. And that tension started to spill over into our youth room.
It crept in quietly, taking advantage of a couple of other tensions we already had in place. A strong group of middle school youth, primarily from one of the schools, had been slowly setting themselves apart from the group by their behavior for a couple of years. Not “raising the bar” behavior, “shut up and put away the phone” behavior. Most of our group is well-behaved; they… weren’t. Most of our group participated well in worship; they didn’t. But in an odd happenstance, that interior group has grown significantly (they’re now mostly in the 9th grade). No other group brings more visitors, a large percentage of which stick around and become regulars. So the bubble within the bubble grew and when the tension hit this fall, it had to be addressed. Ringgold’s hatred of Heritage had swelled, and Heritage kids talked about the tornado and the destruction in Ringgold as if it hadn’t happened to them too. A “tornado prank” was planned for the RHS/HHS football game requiring a 10-minute announcement from the principal at Heritage outlining the consequences of any such behavior, with a similar “let’s be friends” announcement days later at Ringgold.
Last Wednesday night we cleared the air. Because I’m bad at math I had an extra week in my scheduling right before Christmas break, so we shoved all of our plans back a week and just talked as a group. Some real honesty-without-ugliness quick rose to the surface:
“We feel like you all judge us.”
“This has become just like school. You have to find your group that you fit in with and just stick with them.”
“It’s hard to accept people here when you see them living a completely different life at school. And I know I do that too.”
The size of our group puts us in a strange balance. With 50-60 youth coming on Wednesdays, we’re on the brink of needing some intentional division for effective ministry to continue to take place. But we’re also in need of some wholeness, some sense of unity-as-identity. It’s the classic struggle faced by growing churches; how do you grow and stay small at the same time?
Crap. I hope you haven’t read this far looking for the answer suggested by the title. I don’t have it. Our group has identified the problem and taken it head on; the coming weeks and months will show how well we handle things as that conversation progresses. Our parent leadership has met since last week and we’ve discussed ways of creatively mixing our small groups so that sometimes they separate by natural affinity but also at times by intentional blending across school and social boundary lines.
Where have you had success combating clique-ish division in your groups? Where have you failed?
youthworker :: musician :: friend :: twitter: @elvisfreakshow
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