A former travel magazine editor, 29-year-old Midwest native Jess Hoffert is taking a 6-month break from the cubicle life to become immersed in the colorful culture of Southern California.

Busting fears and busting a move

Busting fears and busting a move

It doesn't take much for my Sunday School classes to spin out of control. I've been regularly teaching a group of around 20 kids between the ages of 9 and 12, and I often leave class wondering if I had that much energy when I was their age (the answer is probably "yes," but I think I channeled that energy in a quieter fashion). The kids were pretty good listeners during the first couple classes I taught, but now that they've discovered my big weakness (discipline), they've been testing the waters of how much they can get away with before they're reported to their parents.

I'm still trying to find the right balance between admonishing them when they're misbehaving and rewarding them when they do something positive. And I've learned that Takis are the Golden Ticket when it comes to prizes for good behavior. But I struggle to raise my voice with these kids. Because for many of them, church is their only refuge.

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Pastors Richard and Becky have worked hard to make sure Príncipe de Paz is a true sanctuary, where everyone is welcome and you can check judgment and fear at the door. I love that. So much. But it's easier said than done. I learned just how deep some of the fears of these kids go when I introduced a new Sunday School curriculum a couple weeks ago. It's called FearBusters, and it explores ways in which we can "bust" our fears (through prayer, faith, knowing God is always with us, etc.). To introduce the series, I had all of the kids write down and share something they were afraid of.

Among the expected responses from a group of 2nd-6th graders (snakes, spiders, the dark), I also got responses that put my stomach in knots: The government. School shootings. The future.

The "future" response really got to me. I feel like that's such an adult worry to have. But it makes sense if you look at the things many of these kids' families face: low income paired with rapidly rising housing costs, broken relationships due to immigration and/or drugs, and fear of deportation. 

It's enough to make you feel hopeless. And it suddenly transforms a group of loud kids who refuse to listen into vulnerable children of God who need every ounce of love and compassion that you can give them. This is why I struggle with discipline in my Sunday School class.

But despite the fear that lies beneath the surface, there's much to celebrate and be hopeful about. I see it in the passion of our youth who partake in events like this past weekend's March for Our Lives protests across the country. I see it when the kids at church are sharing their candy and playing games together. I feel it when I get a spontaneous hug from one of the kids, or if a little one looks up at me and expresses their desire to be held.

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And even though I know I can't eliminate the underlying fear in these kids—as much as I'm dying to—I try to find ways for them to take their mind off the serious stuff and soak up the simple joys of life. Like singing. And dancing. And being ridiculously silly.

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I know I've mentioned this before, but one of the greatest joys for me has been teaching the kids songs that I learned as a kid growing up in the church. I can still clearly remember sitting in the wooden church pews at the Lewiston Church of the Brethren and learning the hand movements to "Peace Like a River." If anyone had told me that 20-plus years later, I would be teaching that song to a group of Hispanic youth in Southern California AND be living next to Disneyland, I would have told them to dream on. But here we are. 

Despite the fear that follows us, life can be crazy beautiful sometimes. And choosing to dance in the midst of despair can be the most powerful thing. Even the only thing that makes sense.

Don't just stand there ... bust a move.

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