My youth group’s fine arts program was a robust organization. I’d been a part from its inception, proudly standing in the second row of the choir loft singing a song called “Sounds of Heaven,” a staple on Christian radio around that time. I felt grown and mature singing with the other teenagers, no longer a member of the children’s choir. A few years into the program, I directed my first drama, a few years after that, I was directing all of the dramas. We ballooned from a choir of 15 to a choir of 50 and our drama teams went from one ragtag group of kids to five formidable teams full of talented and well-trained teenagers. Together, we praised God the way Psalm 149 instructed, by praising his name with dancing and by singing for joy.
The time we spent rehearsing choir songs, vocal ensemble harmonies, and dramatic timing bound the teenagers of our church together in a very specific way. Beyond the bond that forms spending every Sunday afternoon together for years, we were unified in our love of creating something that allowed us to be inventive and productive with the gifts we were given. Of the many dozens of dramas I wrote, choreographed and directed, much has been lost in the rat king jumble of my mind, but a few linger like bright balls of light.
Late in my tenure as director, I pieced together a group of girls, all of whom were expressive and passionate, to bring the proverb of the vine and the little foxes to life. Song of Solomon 2:15 reads: Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes. This is basically saying we need to take hold of what can ruin and hinder our faith. That could be the people who don’t build us up or the untamed vices we let run free, but it could also include less tangible things that get stuck in our spirit—bitterness, jealousy, negativity, fear or anger. This proverb is telling us to rid ourselves of these things—these foxes. That’s a fairly universal concept and the verse goes on to explain that we can’t do this on our own; we need God to help lift those things out of us. This message of our human need and our supernatural reliance was what I worked with these girls to embody and convey on stage.
Never underestimate the focused determination of a woman. The nine girls in the group threw themselves, quite literally, into bringing this message to life. To elevate the takeaway from the proverb of the foxes, we placed it in the context of a girl their age and the struggles she faced in her daily life. Within that human story was the truth of the vine.
Our particular brand of drama was very popular among Pentecostal churches at the time. Taking a song or a series of songs we’d splice together, we told a story using pantomime and interpretive movement. They were dubbed “human videos” due to the visual nature of conveying the meaning and the message of the music on stage. Later in my life, I’d spend two years in grad school studying visual rhetoric which at its root is the study of the correlation between the things we see and how they make us feel. These two phases of my life were intrinsically connected, something I’d unearth years after the fact.
When we reached the part of the song where it was time to illustrate the foxes, I told the girls we were going to create a vine out of humans and the smallest of them would cascade down the vine to portray the wily fox. While they trusted me—I’d been their leader since most of them were old enough to be in the youth group—I saw smirks on some of their faces. They weren’t all strong, weren’t all limber, and weren’t all extroverts. Some were short, some were tall. Some were stout, some were thin. It was a group of diverse young women but together, I knew they were the perfect patchwork for bringing this simple yet meaningful little story together.
Taking inspiration from cheerleading stunts I’d seen in Bring It On and lyrical movement I’d seen during awards shows and music videos, the girls and I set ourselves to building the vine. The two tallest stood in the center, directly in front of each other, each with another girl sitting on her shoulders. I envisaged Jack’s beanstalk, its limbs twisty and thick with leafy sprouts that he could use as ladder rungs. The girls’ arms became the branches, their hands the leafy sprouts. They stood tall and strong, as proud a vine made of teenage girls there ever was. This was the simple part. Then, it was time for the shortest girl to become the fox—something that required her to climb to the top of the human-made vine and then find a way to spiral downward. Thus began an afternoon of trial and error, mostly error, as we worked to choreograph a small girl’s slow spirally descent down a vine of her peers.
We took it easy at the beginning. I held her suspended in the air as we rehearsed her action in slow motion and gradually, I lessened my support for her weight so she began using the vine as her prop. She was a doer, both proactive and zealous, and when she decided she was ready to give it a try without anyone’s help, we went for it.
Nine girls ended up in a pile on the ground.
The girls rehearsed in an oversized hallway at our church’s youth center. At that point, there were so many drama teams rehearsing in tandem that we had to utilize whatever space was available. For those girls, that hallway space became their ballet bar, their practice room and their tumbling gym. Time after time, our fox fell on the ground and time after time, she got up and tried it again until she and her vine-mates found a rhythm that worked. In the end, she did swing down the vine as the fox and on top of that, she made it look easy. Those young women overcame my amorphous, overzealous overreach of an idea by problem-solving together in a way that’s never left me. They personified power; a triumph of both heart and will.
The youth center in which we rehearsed was a relatively new addition to the church. On a Sunday morning, seemingly out of nowhere, our pastor gave a presentation he said would forever change the direction of our congregation. He brought the kids downstairs from Children’s Church and together with we teenagers, the young people’s contingent sat on the steps of the stage. Usually when a Pentecostal preacher calls for the teenagers to come down to the front, he’s ready to start laying hands and calling down fire from Heaven, but instead, he announced that he felt God instructing him to build a youth center in the lot next to our building. Instantly, the congregation burst into tears and applause, cheering for this answer to people’s prayers I wasn’t even aware they were praying.
He then called all of the teachers to join us at the altar. My aunt, a teacher for many years, came to the front with tears streaming down her face. In my imagination she grabbed the microphone from our pastor’s hand, but the reality was probably much less aggressive. In any case, she ended up with a microphone in her hand and tears in her eyes as she told the church, “I dreamt this happened. This week, I had a dream that someone was standing on the stage telling us we were getting a building that would be a haven for our kids.” It was evident to everyone in the room that God had everything to do with this decision and while the issue of paying for it would take time and even more prayer, the foundation and steel beams of the youth center eventually began to rise.
One Sunday, during that time of construction, I and the rest of the teenagers were in the middle of one of our late Sunday afternoon drama rehearsals over in the church. I was tired, they were tired, and we weren’t getting anything done. We rehearsed every Sunday afternoon for three to four hours and did so nearly every week of the year. This was on top of our commitments at school which among our teenagers included drill teams, bands, basketball and volleyball teams, and choirs. At some point, your mind and body need a rest. Outside, rain dumped down on our town. It was the type of downpour you can’t see through; the type that cleanses the Earth be it mud or concrete and washes away the ick and the excess. The girl who in a couple years would become the fox on the vine flippantly suggested we abandon rehearsal and go play in the rain. Mostly, people try to stay inside from the rain or they at least attempt to stay as dry as they can. Rarely do we as adults, young or otherwise, spend a chosen amount of time standing in the pouring rain.
Years later, while interning in New York City, a rare summer thunderstorm settled over the city. I sat inside a communal meeting room with my fellow interns, playing cards and listening to the sound of the downpour land on the tin roofs in the alley between the Hell’s Kitchen buildings. I uttered, “Why are we not out playing in this rain?” In unison, we kicked off our shoes and ran into the alley—waterfalls of rainwater funneled off the roofs and balconies pouring down on us, quenching our boredom.
In the same way the sound of the New York thunder beckoned we interns to dance in the street, so the Texas rain beckoned we teenagers to revel in the purity of a thunderstorm. Running outside, we allowed ourselves to become drenched and together, we walked over to the half-built youth center. The steel beams were in place and certain areas had roofing, but the large central part where the gym would be was open to the sky. We spun in the downpour like school children, sliding in the water that puddled on the bare foundation and allowing the deluge to wash away the ick from our tired minds.
On less rainy nights during its construction, my friends and I would sneak into the dark shell of the soon-to-be youth center and explore the open spaces that would become Sunday School rooms, bathrooms and offices. We became the building’s first real inhabitants, filling the cavernous spaces with impromptu concerts and conversations and laughter. We sat on piles of two-by-fours and talked about school and the future and the stars in the open air above us, it becoming a haven for us before the doors were even installed.
Once complete, it had all the amenities a youth center could entail. Half of the building was for the children, the other half for the teenagers. A large indoor playground with twisty slides and heavily padded landings was installed on the kids’ side and regardless of your age, it was awesome. During the post-high school discipleship program of which I was apart, we’d be at the youth center for one event or another almost every night of the week. Most nights, we’d climb up the outside of the indoor playground equipment to perch atop the slides, unseen by passersby, to relax in the steady stream of air conditioning and talk about God or life or Will & Grace. Each classroom featured a wall-sized mural of a jungle or an ocean or a space station or a castle. I thought they were gorgeous so I imagine through the eyes of a child, they were truly spectacular. The other side of the building that was intended for the teenagers had pool tables and a café where the church congregated on Sunday nights for karaoke.
For a few years, the church and the programs within it thrived—hundreds of students of all ages filled the youth center each Wednesday night—but behind the scenes, paying for the building was a struggle. The church’s business manager had funneled a million dollars into his private bank account, throwing a wrench into the church’s ability to pay. I believe he went to jail for a minute but not for long. Those financial woes were coupled with waning attendance due to multiple changes in pastoral regime and by the time I left the church, the ends were beginning to fray. Not too long after that, most everyone I knew in the congregation moved on to other places of worship.
My departure was calamitous and scarring. I’d had the drama program I’d spent years building pulled out from underneath me and while I was two years out of high school at that point, I was treated like a disagreeable child. The reigning youth pastor of the moment didn’t really care about the arts—something three fourths of his youth group were involved with on a weekly basis—and that friction was jarring enough to be pronounced and problematic. If that sort of church culture sounds foreign to you, imagine a new principal took over your high school and feverishly worked to minimize the performance time of the choirs and bands. Then you, the choir director, were relieved of your position as the bell rang on the first day of school and no one was lined up to replace you. Choir students would show up to an empty director stand, wondering why the director was gone since they all got along and put on great concerts together. That’s what happened when I left the church. The mechanism we’d spent a decade turning into a well-oiled machine was intentionally wrenched that afternoon, so when I walked out of the youth center doors that day feeling burned, betrayed and bruised, I had no intention of ever going back.
As the years went by, I drove past my old church and the youth center constantly. It was between the tollway and my parent’s house so even after leaving for college or moving to New York, I had to drive past it to get anywhere when I was visiting. At first, driving past it stung, like having to see an ex in the hallway every day before third period, but over time, it lessoned. I reached the point where I didn’t think about it anymore—it was just another building where great things once happened and then some really shitty things happened. Life rolled on.
But ten years later when my sister got married, she did so at the church in which we were raised. None of us attended there any longer—the church we’d known unraveled years earlier—and a new pastor and mostly new congregation had made an old church contemporary again. Such is the life cycle of many churches and out of the death of the church we’d once known, a resurrection had taken place.
The wedding took place in the chapel where we’d spent our summers preparing for VBS, where we’d learned gospel songs to sing in church and where the piano my grandfather purchased still sat on the stage. Her reception was to take place in the lobby of the youth center which we were going to transform into a flowery pavilion to celebrate her marriage. The day before the ceremony, my aunt who’d dreamt of this building steamed the tablecloths, my other aunt arranged the towering floral centerpieces, and instead of helping, my cousins and I decided we needed to do a lap around our old stomping ground.
The lights in most of the building were off, giving the youth center a passed by, abandoned aura. Even if this was happenstance, I appreciated it for my own nostalgic benefit. We wandered into the area where we, as teenagers, played pool, sang karaoke and attended service. The same couches and chairs we’d power-napped on sat next to the walls and the air smelled the same as it once had. It was still and quiet, as if no time had passed at all—as if drama practice was to start in a few minutes. We opened classrooms and closets, taking note of all that had changed and all that had not. We snuck into the gym where we’d voiced puppets for Children’s Church and wandered through the kids’ rooms, the walls still covered in the same murals. They hadn’t been touched up since they were first painted and a patchwork of scuffs now made them look sad but still, the former beauty shone through—much like the building itself. It’d been a decade since any of us had been inside the center and it felt as if we were on a self-guided journey through our upbringing—like visiting an abandoned amusement park where you’d spent every summer or the original Visitor’s Center in Jurassic Park.
Then, as we turned a corner, my cousin said, “This is where we built the vine.”
It was. It was the same hallway where she and the team of girls worked steadfastly to build the vine for the tiny fox to climb and it became, for me, the most poignant moment of the tour through our pasts. Other parts of the building held memories like fireflies in a jar, vivid and bright but trapped behind years of hindsight. Yet this moment, exactly ten years after we’d left for the last time, felt alive, as if the energy never left that spot. I could see the fox spiraling around the vine and the girls working together to make it happen. I saw them topple in on themselves, a pile of giggling and frustrated teenagers, and I saw them get up and try again. I saw them triumph and in a way, reliving it released me from the few sour memories that were still tethered to that building.
I realized there were bitter clots inside my spirit. Though I’d moved on and no longer felt the sticky remnants of hurt or frustration, those resentments were tucked away inside of me. I wasn’t clinging to them or watering them so they could grow, but I’d never found closure for them either. I’d left them as loose ends. But standing again in the building I’d seen rise from the ground, prayed in daily, and held countless hours of rehearsals, those clots washed away. Standing in the wide hallway, I found myself left only with fond moments of meaning and worth.
At the wedding reception, I reminisced fondly with other youth center expats, reviving and reliving moments worth remembering. A song here, a story there. It was a lovely and airy reunion that felt less like digging up the past and more like a happy exhale.
Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.
That building ended up being closure where I didn’t know I needed any. Like the little foxes, any wedged-in remnants of bitterness in my spirit were caught and finally, I rid myself of them.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.