The recent weekend retreat to Hume Lake Christian Camps didn’t end well for a group of urban Fresno teens. Coming home from their “mountain high”—a time of bonding, mentoring and worshiping with 800 other junior high and high school students—an inner-city youth group was on a bus that experienced mechanical difficulties. At some point on the long descent from 7000 feet, the bus driver attempted to pull over on a dirt turnout. Two things happened nearly simultaneously at this point. First, the driver misjudged the length of the turnout and the bus lurched as the front bumper came to rest on the hillside. Next, the cabin began to fill with smoke from brakes that had been overheating for quite some time. Scared and frightened, one teen opened the emergency exit in the ceiling thinking that the students were in a bona fide emergency (as they had been instructed to do at the start of their journey by the bus driver). Understandably, other students began to panic. Fortunately, there were no injuries and the bus was not damaged.
While that may have resulted in a traumatic experience for the teens, the mechanical problems were not the primary issue in ruining the weekend for this youth group. Further complicating the matter, KMPH posted an inaccurate “breaking” report of the story on their Facebook page, causing far more damage than a minor bus mishap.
The news organization errantly reported that a “crash” was “caused when driver was distracted by unruly teens trying to open escape door while bus was in motion,” and then in a later post that an “unruly teen trying to open an escape door distracted the driver and contributed to the wreck.” Such reporting amounted to nothing more than hearsay; it was erroneous and falsely accused innocent teens of causing the bus to “wreck.”
But that still isn’t the worst part. The urban teens implicated in the story were upset that they were being blamed (in an age of instantaneous news feeds, they were able to follow along on Facebook in real-time), but they were devastated when the comments on the post began to stream in.
- “That Dam kid should b[e] punished for distracting the driver and causing the incident.”
- “It was the teens fault that caused him to have the accident the teen needs to pay for all the damage he caused !!!!!!!!”
- “I Pray His Parents Put the 'Fear of GOD' into that Snot Nosed Punk Child!!!”
- “He shouldn't be trusted. Proverbs 23:13, Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die."
- “The kid should pay for EVERYTHING - little bully, should be extreme punishment minus prison.”
There’s more. A lot more. Many comments worse than the ones above, full of curses and condemnation. I’m sickened by them.
Due to KMPH’s irresponsible reporting, and the hundreds of negative comments that ensued, a group of urban teens were demoralized, stereo-typed and falsely accused. In my opinion, this is nothing short of bullying, and completely undeserved.
“What’s the harm?” many might ask (including KMPH when they were confronted with the inaccurate reporting). The harm comes in this: these kids are growing up in one of the toughest, most under-resourced, at-risk neighborhoods in Fresno, and the way they were treated on Facebook reinforces the negative view of life that they already have. They are at a disadvantage in so many ways. They don’t have the resources of nice schools, fine arts, well-stocked grocery stores, the latest up-to-date movie theaters, opulent libraries and so on. They are at risk of joining gangs, becoming pregnant and dropping out of school. They don’t have transportation, discretionary spending money or stable home environments.
But they do have something many middle-class Facebook readers and commenters don’t have. They have community, hope, faith, family and love. I know these kids (the actual kids that were on the bus). They smile, they laugh, they sing, they dance, they create, they overcome. I hang out with them intentionally because I know that they have much to teach me about my own faith. They inspire me to be a better person.
They live in a place where neighbors watch out for each other’s kids, where whole neighborhoods celebrate holidays together, where people of many cultures reside in harmony and where the best tacos in Fresno are sold on nearly every street corner (Yum!). When violence shows up on their block, these teens band together, stand strong and endure, again and again and again. They engage life head on. They surmount adversities that would cripple that average teenager. They are real heroes to me.
Words hurt. Negative words especially hurt adolescents who have been continually bombarded by accusations and stereotypes. At such a formative stage of development, negative messages repeated over and over tend to impair the identity of a teenager.
But words can also be used to bless. We need to use words that bless our youth not bring them down. And when we have the chance to encourage teens who have grown up hearing mostly curses and condemnations, let’s not assume the worst about them but rather work hard to counter negative influences with words of hope, affirmation and love.
For one group of urban teens, the damage has been done. Unfortunately, they may remember the hurtful words associated with a bus trip more than the positive, spirit-filled words of a weekend retreat. But I still have hope. These are good kids—really good kids—and I believe in them. We just desperately need more people to believe.