A couple of weeks ago, I watched a movie called Short Term 12. Unlike most of the movies I’ve blasted through over quarantine, it was not a comfort re-watch, but quite the opposite; an anxiety-inducing, somewhat-stressful look at counsellors who work closely with at-risk teens in America. From the beginning, you are placed right in the middle of the discomfort, messiness and general chaos of these places, where workers improvise daily to bring love and support to a huge variety of kids.
The movie opens on the counsellors, on their break, telling a new employee, Nate, a story about one of the kids they used to work with. Just as Mason (the storyteller) gets near the end, a kid bursts out of the home, shirtless and screaming and absolutely tearing across the grass. The workers snap into action, dropping their cigarettes and coffees and sprinting after him, eventually subduing him and calming him down. While restraining him, Mason nonchalantly finishes the story to Nate, helps the kid back in and, looking over his shoulder, declares, “Welcome to Short Term 12”.
This film doesn’t allow you to watch passively; you’re fully immersed, fully affected, and fully left with a mixture of optimism and sadness for these kids (the reason for optimism becomes clear as you watch it…). It was tempting to try and shake this experience off, forget about it and move on. But then I started thinking about certain elements of the film, and one in particular; the relationship between female counsellor Grace, and new kid Jayden.
Jayden joins the centre an embittered and rude teenager. Although not much about her situation is revealed at first, we slowly learn the story of her getting there, through Grace’s repeated attempts to empathise and listen. Grace doesn’t use fancy language, or a sickly-sweet smile and singsong voice, but instead slinks down the wall beside Jayden, getting her hands dirty. This is when we also learn of Grace’s past and the potential, I think, to see God in a story like this.
This story is far from conventional. Without ruining it, Grace learns to help Jayden by breaking rules, disregarding authority and generally just being there for her when everyone else dismisses her, including herself. When I dress it up like that, it can sound like a certain table-flipping man, but on the surface, it can certainly seem like another story of a God-less place. We learn that Grace has a similar history to Jayden; one of abuse and neglect, and this allows her to truly connect with Jayden. This also, I think, is where God is evident.
Even though I say I won’t, it’s funny how often I limit God. It’s easy to swallow ‘light’ stories of God being present in chaos and pain, but disregard those that seem too rough, too edgy, too far gone to be part of his kingdom.
We can forget that God could use people with grim pasts like Grace’s to help people with struggles like Jayden’s. That he can use protest to make real change. That, ultimately, people who seem so distant from us in terms of class, culture, upbringing etc. are just as important to him as we are. It’s not a different God ministering to Jayden through Grace, it’s the same one.
I would imagine that counsellors who work in these situations get rigid training, with clear guidelines on what to do and what not to do when it comes to child support. And then I would imagine there’s the reality of these places, where you have to improvise, adapt and essentially acknowledge that ‘the book can only get you so far’. Without wanting to be heretical (although I have toed that line before), I think this can apply to the Bible too. Although we acknowledge its power to root us in learning and teaching, the actuality of the world we’re living in needs to be acknowledged too. At some stage, we have to lift our eyes out of the book and see what’s happening around us. The world can seem so chaotic right now; where can we see elements of God shining through? Perhaps, what are we ignoring and refusing to notice in the midst of protest and real change?
I don’t think this is a revolutionary idea for people. But it certainly helped me to see beyond what I would expect of God and into where He already is, getting his hands dirty. Empathy is the driving force behind Grace’s response, and it’s empathy that allows us to see people beyond what their past is. To expand our view of what God can be to one that works on his own terms, regardless of the box we may have put him in. To recognise that the God we’ve grown up with or been met by is the very same God who is working through protest and pain both here, and in the US too. He’s some multi-tasker.
Theme photo from ‘Short Term 12’