And in this enormous pile of stuff, I found some letters from some very special people. I mentioned that back in the early 1980s, I was almost the only nationally-known clergyperson who thought Dungeons & Dragons harmless. So, I kept getting calls and letters from young people who were put upon by the adults in their lives. My Sunday School teacher says I'm in danger of going to hell if I don't stop playing those games. My mother is on me all the time. The Baptist Student Union is kicking our gaming group out (this from Auburn University). Sometimes they came to me direct, sometimes TSR (the publisher of Dragon Magazine and the whole run of D&D games) would refer one to me that had written them in anguish of soul.
Two stand out in particular. David was eleven years old. He lived in my parents' town. His mother knew my mother. He went to a very strict fundamentalist church, and he was bright for his age. His mother didn't understand what he saw in his hobby, but she loved him and wished he could get some guidance she could trust. My mother gave her my address, and so David sent me a letter and his picture.
Mike was, oh, probably fifteen or nearly so. He lived in Ontario. He wrote the Editor of Dragon, who sent his letter on to me. There was a deeper pain going on there than just a bright kid that others didn't understand. I answered his letter.
Both David and Mike wrote me back and forth for some time: David probably for a couple of years, Mike for maybe five or so. In both cases -- in all such cases -- I realized that I had been given an awesome responsibility. These young people wanted to communicate, adult to adult (or as nearly adult as they could be to an admired adult), about the things that moved them most deeply. Yeah, we wrote back and forth about fantasy and games. But since both started with religious situations, we wrote back and forth an awful lot about God. And about other things, too. In my hands was the ability to do great good, but also great harm. I always understood that we would go as far as they were comfortable going in whatever topic they raised. And when they were satisfied and quit writing, that was okay. The adult in such a relationship must always be the adult. One shouldn't be stuffy, but maintaining the right boundaries to the relationship is always up to you, not the youth. Both boys' families were aware of our correspondence.
In the current world of social media, I have continued to operate on the same basis. If a youth wants to "friend" me on Facebook or LiveJournal, I will accept his or her friend request. But I won't badger and bother my young social media friends. I won't send or say inappropriate things. And I will always remember who I am (and whose I am) when posting something they might read or sending them something directly.
The potential for abuse in such relationships is immense -- but so is the potential for right guidance. The world has gotten weirder and meaner since those long ago days when David and Mike and others reached out to me. Nowadays, BSA warns adult leaders not to send anything directly to a youth without copying it to another person. That's probably wise, but it also puts a layer of mistrust between people. And there are always those few, young or old, who desperately need to talk to somebody, write to somebody, say what is tearing at their guts or ravishing their minds. To whom can they turn when all of us are reduced to reaching out to each other in astronaut's space mittens?
I found myself praying for David and Mike -- both of whom are in their forties now, I suppose. And I prayed for other boys and girls who had given me their school picture, or made me a card or whom I saw on a list of attendees at some Christian education event or Confirmation class.
"Will you instruct the children in every place?" the candidate for ordination in The United Methodist Church is asked. And we all say Yes, because the answer is required. But again and again, with kids in church and Scouts in camp and those whose letters have dropped over the transom to me, I have tried to be for them the loving and wise adult I wished I'd had in my life at their age. I said Yes to the inquiring bishop, like all the others. And I have kept my vow.