Kingdom Scene was birthed out of a vision to encourage significant conversations in kids’ lives during their most critical years. The year before this vision began formulating in my heart, I worked at a camp for urban youth called Kids Across America. Here I learned the importance of pivotal experiences and significant conversations. Everyone who has spent time with kids has stories to share. Here is one of mine. I call it “Green Shoelaces.”

The moon shone forth through the screen windows of our cabin, so I could catch a glimpse of Rodney’s head. Tomorrow morning he would leave. Although I laid upon my bed in physical exhaustion, I wished right then and there that the world would halt, so he could never go. Through nine days of living together–the activities, the meals, the Bible studies, and the late night talks–this thirteen-year-old adult had grabbed a piece of my heart.

I never understood why he liked to sleep on the floor so much with the fan blowing in his face, but there he was, all 170 pounds of him. As I watched him sleep, I attempted to relate to his home life–growing up in Austin, father leaving the family, mother dying of AIDS, taking part in the activities of a gang, and at times scrounging for meals. He had informed me about his situation on many occasions. I just listened in amazement. I learned a lot from him about gang life, including initiation rituals, the brotherhood, and, sadly, the shootings. One dreary night, his eyes dampened as he revealed to me his fear of death, a fear that had recently grown stronger as he had watched a good friend die from a bullet just a month prior. I can’t even imagine it, being too scared to walk outside my own home. Who is capable of relating to this? I know I’m not. My biggest adolescent problems dealt with issues of junior high popularity and batting at the bottom of the lineup on my baseball team. My family was always there for me with food on the table and arms open wide with love. They still are. I wonder what I would be like living in his circumstances. Probably angry at the world, frustrated with life, but then again, he didn’t know any other way.

Because tears swelled in my eyes trying to picture what he had to go back to, I decided to dwell on the happy times of this past week. He embraced the camp environment enthusiastically. During football, he ran the ball with passion. During gathering, he belted out our cabin’s cheers with pride. And, during our devotions, he never could quite grasp the message, but I can still visualize him asking that same question: “Could you explain that again?” The memories of his enjoyment of the week created a lump in my throat. I realized that I could not win, so I buried my face in my pillow and bawled. The night was quiet and peaceful. The silence was broken only when I raised my head for a breath of cool air and let out a sob. My body was drained physically and emotionally, but my thoughts were irrepressible. Physically incapable of shedding another tear, I slept, hoping that the morning would never arrive. Throughout the night, I could hear in my dreams the words that he spoke to me after just three days of camp: “This place is paradise. I don’t ever want to leave.” But the bus was departing soon.

“Good morning, Kids Across America. Rise and shine! The buses are here so bring your luggage to the K-Dome.” The speakers blared more loudly than usual. With sleep in my eyes and hair disheveled, I slowly raised my head from the pillow to find twelve somber faces and twenty-four eyes silently asking for guidance. “Alrrriighty then,” I shouted in my best Jim Carrey voice, “Let’s start heading up there.” They could tell it sounded differently than usual, but at least life in cabin nine brightened a little.

I carried what felt like a truckload of suitcases and duffels up to the top of the hill, and darted from bus to bus waving goodbye to my campers. The K-Dome was filled with confusion–twelve buses, fifty counselors, three hundred campers, and a zillion bags. Because of the chaos of it all, I missed the departure of couple of my boys. I wasn’t going to miss Rodney’s, though. I couldn’t imagine not seeing him off as he traveled past the gates of his safe haven. Where was he though?

“Dallas and Austin, please load your bus immediately.”

This was horrible. The one goodbye I wished to cherish forever had to be rushed. Where could he be?

After scanning the pool area, the dining hall, the ropes course, and the archery range, I looked down the hill toward the cabins and saw his figure out in the distance walking toward me. He held something in his hands, but I could not make it out.

“Rodney, your bus is leaving,” I yelled.

He approached slowly holding green shoelaces in his hands. “Will you take these and throw them away for me?”

“Sure Rodney, what is that?”

He handed them to me and said, “This is gang stuff. I had it here at camp. Don’t need it no more.”

“Why is that?” I had to ask him.

“I been thinking. I realize this place is paradise, but really just because of one reason – Jesus. I wanted to be taking paradise with me, so I asked him in my life for forever. Don’t need the stuff no more. Got a new family and you part of it.” Then he put his arm around me, but for just a second, and got on the bus. That is my last memory of him.

As the bus pulled away, I meandered toward the wooden bench next to the court and thought about the transformation that had taken place within Rodney. He came to camp a man who had raised himself. Throughout the week, he grew into a young boy, a boy who embraced the loving arms of his Father. I had to go wish Quincy and Ira farewell, but I held on tightly to the shoelaces. I could not stop thinking about Rodney. Still can’t.

The Kingdom Scene dream is to create catalysts for more moments like this one. Pivotal experiences and significant conversations change lives. And, in this particular case, that life was mine.