April 2008 - Vol. 18

portrait of a Detroit youth by Yvette Rock 

Henry’s Question

By Sarah Hughes

Searching questions from inner city teens
The question suddenly crashed through the conversation. “Why are you a Christian, Sarah?” fired Henry, a 14 year old kid from the inner city of Detroit. The others turned to look at me. There was silence as they waited for my reply.

I had graduated from high school only a year before and was living in Detroit for the summer to do mission work with Youthworks-Detroit, an outreach of the Word of Life Community. In moving to the inner city, I had felt painfully young and unqualified for urban outreach, although excited to be doing what I could for the people of Detroit, as they struggled with very real issues of poverty, violence, and racial tension. Through a program called Street Team, we had hired a group of inner city high school kids to provide them with needed job experience. The program also aimed at sharing the gospel with them, something the teens needed much more desperately than the scant hourly wage they made working for us around the city. I had been given the awesome opportunity to be a witness to these teens as I worked side by side with them every day that summer. But when Henry’s question came, I floundered.

That summer afternoon in Detroit stands clear and sharp in my memory. It was just another normal day of work, washing windows in a school, until the weight of the question dropped through our idle chatter. Henry was probably the shortest kid on our crew. Fourteen years old, impish and cheeky, he was always goofing off or wandering away absently when he was supposed to be working. It was hard to ever take him seriously, much less get him to listen. Always an entertainer, he would make up stories about his past for us, pretending he came from somewhere other than Detroit. The question was all the more surprising because it came from Henry. Did this goof-off kid really care? But why would he have asked if there wasn’t something in him that was interested?

What’s the answer the world desperately needs to hear? 
Yet to my shame, when the question came, I wasn’t ready with an answer. “Why are you a Christian, Sarah?” My mind jumbled frantically for words. “Well, um,” I began, not sure where to start. “My parents were Christians, and I was raised as a Christian, and…” I trailed off. Before I could collect my thoughts enough to continue, the conversation was off again, running in a different direction. I’d had that one split second opening to share. In hesitating, I had failed. Failed miserably, and I knew it.

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Once upon a time, I memorized that verse from 1 Peter 3, but the message didn’t quite hit home. I thought I knew why I was a Christian, but was I really ready, ever prepared and on my guard, to tell anyone who asked me? Apparently not, and as a Christian, that’s unacceptable—the world around us desperately needs to hear our answers. 

If Christ has truly impacted my life as I claim he has, I should have had a great answer for Henry’s question, but in the moment no words had come. The question has haunted me ever since, an amazing opportunity that I let slip through my fingers because I wasn’t ready. Henry didn’t need superficial, circumstantial answers about Christianity. What did it matter to him that I was raised in a Christian family? That meant nothing in his situation. Instead, Henry needed to be pointed to the living God, available to all regardless of their circumstances and upbringings. Surrounded by violence and pain and poverty in Detroit, he needed to hear the truth of the overflowing hope and life Jesus brings. He needed to be shown Christ who is the reason why. 

Speaking Christ’s life-giving message of hope
That moment when Henry asked the question taught me a lesson. I realized that I needed to grapple with the real reason for my Christianity and consider if I am actually ready to put it into words for anyone who asks. I should be always ready to shout to the world the life-giving truth that has been so generously given to me. Why am I a Christian? I am a Christian because in Christ I find life and am set free. I know that only through Jesus’ saving work am I saved from the bondage of failure and inadequacy that is my own sin. Not only do I find an answer to my inherent inability, but in God alone I find the abundant goodness and beauty that my soul needs and desires. As I walk with Christ, I find fullness of life for today and precious hope for tomorrow because I know my God reigns and will make all things new in his perfect timing. These are the truths of why I am a Christian that I want to convey to the world. 

Looking back at that summer, I wish I could re-live the moment when Henry asked the question, so that I could tell him the real reason why instead of giving a half-baked superficial explanation. While I can’t change the past, by the grace of God I can pray for Henry and live each new day seeing it as an opportunity to show my hope to those around me and to be ready to tell them the reason why. In Jesus, my failure is wiped out, and I am given grace to stand and try again. I pray that I live every moment in a way that shouts to the world the why of my life. And when the question is asked of me again, I hope to be ready to give my answer. 
Sarah Hughes is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. She is actively involved in student evangelism with University Christian Outreach.

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