Can you remember your first conference? I can. It was a youth conference at a hotel in San Diego, the ballroom-turned-conference room in its lovely shade of cream with far too many sconces on the walls.
I was 15, it was a youth retreat, which I’m sure was so much fun for all the other hotel guests that weekend. The speaker was Kara Powell, a youth pastor I had not heard of.
But she was awesome. She was the first female youth pastor I had heard preach. Meanwhile, I’d spent three years already toying around with the idea of ministry, but doubting that I could because of my gender.
And she was tall! Like me. Maybe taller! Which had nothing to do with anything God did that weekend. But it made me happy. Still does.
As we listened to her on the final evening, she challenged us to take action to influence the issue of poverty by sponsoring children. And I can’t remember her exact words, but I remember her message well. She had a wonderful balance between teaching us the importance of the cause, motivating us emotionally to be involved, and not really accepting any excuse we might offer for opting out. Her essential message was, You have the heart for this, and you have power to address it. So do it.
I sponsored my first child that night; a girl from Guatemala. I was so excited that I could practice my beginner Spanish in the letters I wrote her. I left that weekend with a real sense that I was being more of who God wanted me to be because I took action for this child. It was the first time that I felt like I could actually do something about what was wrong in the world.
What Kara did for me is simple and profound. She took seriously the power of young people to effect change for a cause. She called out the best in us, and cheered for us when we rose to the occasion.
Over a decade later, Kara is still having huge impact on teens by not only serving in her church but by equipping youth leaders with great research and resources at the Fuller Youth Institute. The first sponsorship ended when my child moved, and I sponsored another, and another, five in all so far. I am working with college students and try to emulate her in how I coach and guide them in their service and social justice work. Whatever I do in ministry, I do a bit better because of her.
No matter what age you are, there are people a season or two (or more) behind you. You can take seriously their power and potential to work for the best things in this world. Did someone once do that for you? How did they do it? Was it a message in a conference room or at a camp, a conversation over burgers, an experience they invited you to share? Or have you been able to offer that to others, maybe as a teacher or youth worker?
Happy birthday, Kara! Thank you for what you’ve done and I look forward to the future.