By Jenna Ebener
For the second time, I was a chaperone surrounded by 1,100 middle-school students at a youth group retreat in the mountains. A band was playing Christian music enthusiastically. Everyone was standing, singing and praising God. I normally would have felt a sense of joy and love as I soaked up all of the positive energy around me. Instead, it came as a great surprise to me when I became overwhelmed and completely shut down. I wanted to smile, sing along to my favorite songs and be there for our youth, but I simply could not find the energy.
This moment was the first time I vividly felt God’s presence yet could not fully come to him. I felt him everywhere and I followed along with the songs in my head, but I was not able to run into his arms and accept his comfort.
This experience made me truly realize how draining this school year has been on me. Being a school social worker in a special education school is wonderful, yet also intense and always filled with new challenges. I love the opportunities to push myself to creativity, new limits and a closer relationship with God. However, I had experienced five medically fragile students pass away in less than two months during the fall, amid a particularly hard year. Even though I thought I was recovering from the rough semester, my body, mind and spirit were clearly stretched too thin.
As the youth group retreat continued, my state did not improve. I was easily overwhelmed. I take in emotions from those around me, especially during heightened times, such as a retreat. Oftentimes, I simply feel the emotions. Without putting a label to them or even processing them into thoughts or words, tears appear in my eyes, whether from sadness or joy. It is difficult to describe, but it is like I am getting a glimpse into what God feels as he looks on his children. Normally, I see this empathy as a heavy but wonderful gift. However, during the retreat, I could not figure out what to do with the onslaught of emotions. It did not help that I was getting down on myself for not being there for our youths.
I was blessed with a leader in our group pushing me to take care of myself first and then the youths. I was also blessed to be at a retreat with a focus on being made in God’s image. I stopped berating myself and realized that even though I was not in a good place, I was where I was. I might not be the person I want to be, but this is who I am right now and God still loves me.
As I went on a walk in the middle of a talk that unexpectedly brought up the pain from having five students recently die, I began acknowledging what I was feeling and offering it up to God. As I felt each wave of emotion, I told God what I was feeling, I thanked him for it and then offered it back to him. I did this over and over until the intensity of the feelings passed. I took comfort in Mary, who of all people knows true suffering as she had to watch her son die for humanity. I still had a day and a half left of the retreat and asked God to show me what I needed. Deep down, I knew I just had to make it to adoration that night and then I would get the answers I so desperately wanted.
To be continued…
(Jenna Ebener, who has a Master of Social Work from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, is a social worker at a school in Colorado for students with disabilities.)