It was a little less than two years ago in a hotel room in Fort Smith, Arkansas after a volleyball game as I sat in bed across the room from one of my teammates, Elissa, when I knew I had met a lifelong friend. We had won the match against our conference rival, keeping an undefeated conference record in reach, but that wasn’t the center of our conversation. It was the first time we had roomed together and instead of getting caught up in the details of our recent victory, we started talking about playing for God’s glory. And that’s when it happened. A friendship blossomed. Fast-forward to today and we’re doing life together. We’ve reached the point where we can ask each other the tough questions that tug at the issues of our hearts. We pray through the hard times and praise at the smallest victories. This past Spring Break, Elissa went to South Padre Island for Beach Reach. After hearing about her experiences and seeing the twinkle in her eyes that clearly conveyed her awe of God’s goodness, I also had the pleasure of reading a paper she wrote for class about her trip. After shedding a few tears, I knew this was a story that needed to be shared.
Grab a cup of coffee, get cozy, and bask in the glory of God and how He is moving in some of the most unlikely circumstances. He is so good!
A Personal Essay:
Being at a party sober is like being that one confused puppy at the dog park that tries to keep up when out of nowhere the community tennis ball smacks him in the face and he’s nearly run over by the herd racing after it.
I guess that’s kind of how I felt standing in the middle of Coca-Cola Beach on the last day of Spring Break at South Padre Island. Surrounded by blaring music, erotic dancing, unusual partying mechanisms, and hundreds of wasted college students, the party had nearly doubled in size since the day before.
“Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from? Oh, that’s cool” had been the introduction to my attempt at being friendly most of the week. As a natural introvert, talking to strangers is usually completely out of the question for me. You have your life, I have mine. Maybe I’ll smile at a familiar face while walking to class, but to actually have a conversation with someone of whom I know nothing about and appear to have nothing in common with. That’s a definite no.
As is turns out, people visiting South Padre during Spring Break are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet. Especially if they’ve had a bit to drink.
At one point during my South Padre adventures, a couple of friends and I decided to start a classic game of “volleyball” with our new stranger-friends. In reality, it was more like stand around in a circle-like shape and attempt to keep the ball from hitting the ground by awkwardly punching at it while wearing a bikini and laughing uncontrollably.
As a collegiate volleyball player, I can assure you that’s not how you play volleyball. But regardless, this volleyball experience was one of the most fun and unique I’ve ever had. People would see us playing and jump right in, acting like they were going to compete in the Olympics or something. Then they swing and miss. Well at least you’re trying, right? Just when I was ready to give up, our circle managed to keep the rally going for more than 2 contacts. This remarkable achievement prompted an impressive cheer before one of the stranger-friend guys in the group decided to make the game a little more interesting. And the volleyball drinking game begins.
As if talking to a stranger wasn’t uncomfortable enough. Now I have to play with the fear that if I make a mistake I will be forced to take a lovely, or rather not-so-lovely, drink of vodka and backwash from the bottle in the middle of the circle.
Don’t mess up, Don’t mess up, Don’t mess up.
The ball goes racing over my head as I reach up a second too late. Next thing I know the vodka bottle is being shoved in my face by the guy that came up with this genius idea. Everyone’s chanting drink, drink, drink. I stand there holding the bottle and mumble some lame excuse, but no one is listening. So with the cap still on, I tip the bottle up, set it back down, and fake a nice big swallow faster than you can say South Padre Island. I never tasted a drop.
I don’t like vodka. Strangers scare me. It smells like pot. What in the world am I doing here?
It all made sense before I left.
This spring break, I’m going to go to South Padre Island with a group of students from my church and we are going to make a difference. That was my plan.
Every spring break, groups of college students from universities all over Texas chose to spend their spring break helping others on South Padre Island rather than participating in the partying. We gave out free food and safe rides across the island. We hung out and played volleyball with people. We had conversations with people. We prayed for people.
But standing there in a sea of drunken chaos, I doubted my ability to make a difference. I doubted God’s ability to make a difference. Even after I got there, I was a little unsure of why I’d decided to go and throughout the week I struggled to see the good is such an ugly situation.
And then I met a girl named Stephanie.
It was the last night of the week and my group was scheduled to give van rides from 10 p.m. till 3 a.m. At this point in the week, most people recognized our vans and would call in if they needed a ride. But everything had become so crazy that most of the time we just picked up groups from the main club on the island.
After dropping off one particularly crazy group, I sat there in the brief moment of silence, thinking. Five minutes earlier our van had been packed beyond capacity with sweaty intoxicated strangers. One girl was practically sitting on my lap while another guy breathed heavily over my shoulder. I smiled through the disrespectful comments. I laughed as they talked about partying on the beach. But after they got off my heart hurt.
Every direction I looked, I saw wild, out-of-control madness. The street was a parking lot of drunk drivers. Dancing, screaming, laughing people gathered in masses outside. People banged on our windows when we stopped and flipped us off when we couldn’t pick them up.
In that moment everything around me turned into a blur of slow-motion and I was left trying to figure out how in the world I had gotten myself into such an awful, dangerous situation. Everything in me wanted to give up, to pack and go home, to accept that I couldn’t make a difference. But, no, that wasn’t an option. We still had two hours left in our shift. So I pulled myself together and prayed for strength.
A few minutes later our van pulled up to a hotel and a group of about five students climbed into our van.
Louis’, that’s where they were going. It’s a five minute drive on a normal day, but at least 30 minutes in the traffic.
“Hi, what’s your name?” I asked the petite girl that sat beside me.
“Stephanie,” she answered.
That was the start to the most real conversation I’ve ever had with a complete stranger. We started talking about school, life, spring break, the usual small talk. But something in me told me to ask her about her faith. When I did, I got to hear her story.
She told me about growing up Catholic. About how she stopped going to church in college and had recently started going again. She told me about her family and about her struggles. She told me about how far away God seemed to be sometimes.
Her story wasn’t abnormal or spectacular, but it was real. She asked tough questions and I didn’t have all the answers. All I could tell her was how Jesus had changed my life. I didn’t preach a rehearsed version of my theological viewpoints. I simply had a conversation and allowed my faith shine through.
When we arrived at their destination I asked her if I could pray for her before she got off the van. She said yes and asked that I pray for her family and her safety. I prayed a short prayer, said Amen, and prepared to say goodbye.
But then something beautiful happened.
“Wait,” she said. “Sometimes I doubt that God is real and that he hears my prayers. But right now I know that he is real.”
So with all of her friends already standing outside, she asked me to pray again that we wouldn’t doubt. So I prayed. Not just for her doubt, but for mine. All week, I had doubted the power and goodness of God and in that moment I realized how wrong I had been. She had been able to see the goodness of God exactly where I had thought it impossible.
After she got off, I cried. I cried for the brokenness for the world. I cried overcome by the goodness of God. It felt so good to just cry.
I went there to serve people and help my peers, because I thought they were the ones that needed help. But I realized that in reality, I need help just as much as the next guy. Sometimes, what people need most is simply someone to listen to their story and accept them for their mistakes.
I went there hoping to make a difference, but it wasn’t me who made a difference on that island. Alone, nothing I said would have made a difference. But with the power of Christ, my words had the ability to change a life. Not because they were coming from a moral person. Not because I had done anything good. But because I, a broken person, received grace.
Stephanie is a real person. Callie, Thomas, Cambria, Lauren, Brent, Morgan, Kendra. They’re real people. They have real problems. They feel real pain. But the good news is that there is a real God who knows that pain and died for that pain.
That truth will always be enough to make a difference.