As one goes through ministry there are times you look back and you just have to laugh. You laugh because of if you don’t you will cry. I think this is most prevalent in youth ministry. Youth ministry opens up opportunities for disasters to happen at any moment more than being the preacher behind the pulpit, at least this is my observation so far in my ministerial career. The reason for this because youth tend to want to go more places than adults. During the summer I planned two trips a summer for the youth. In 2004, we planned out our annual trip to Lake Junaluska but little did I know this would turn into the most memorable and worst trip I had ever taken with a youth group. This story is 100% true and only by the grace of God did it not snowball into something far worse than it was.
Each year Lake Junaluska hosts weekends for youth groups to come up and experience a great speaker, small groups and wonderful worship. I really hope that as our youth groups starts up in the fall that they will look to these trips as options in the future, and I hope what I am about to tell you doesn’t scare you away from it. I think they were called Jubilee weekends back then, now they are called Surge Weekends. What every you call them for four days youth groups from all over the jurisdiction come up for a great weekend of fellowship and worship. There always seemed to be a ton of groups from Mississippi and Tennessee and not many from North Carolina.
These weekends were always planned the same and we planned out what to do with our free time on Saturday afternoon and many of the groups go out white water rafting or enjoy the mountains in some way. We had planned on going rafting after Sunday’s service, so on Saturday we decided that heading up to Sliding Rock, only about 45 minutes away, would be a great idea. It was an activity that was going to be free or at least minimal cost and the youth were excited about the adventure. So after a quick lunch we took off up the mountains towards Sliding Rock.
Sliding Rock is in Transylvania County in the heart of the mountain of North Carolina. The roads we had to take up there were constant switch backs. People on the back of our church bus were waving hi to the people in the front as we went around these curves. This is a good time to bring you up to speed on the transportation we have on this trip. The youth drove around in a 15 passenger bus. It is still in use today but it is a beast of a vehicle. It is an oversized bus with a storage compartment on the back and on the way up to the mountains the air conditioning went out. So there are 16 people on this 15 passenger bus heading up the mountains to go to Sliding Rock. There were 12 youth and four adults. We had taken two vehicles up but to take this short day trip we piled into the bus.
The cool air in the mountains didn’t make the hour trip too bad to sliding rock and as we pulled in we were greeted with misfortune, it was closed. Sliding Rock has a little parking lot next to it that is watched over by Pisgah National Park Rangers. The rains earlier that week created too much water coming down the creek. This meant sliding down Sliding Rock was not safe and the rangers had said no one could go down. We asked if we could go look at it at least and they said sure and so we started to look for a parking spot. As we got past the ranger station and into the parking lot, Joe, the youth worker that was driving looked up at me, I was sitting at the front seat, and said, “I think we are losing our breaks.” In this parking lot there is a patch of trees in the middle of it which made a nice cul-de-sac. I told him to try and drive around that so we could test these breaks some more. As we did the bus wouldn’t come to a stop even when he had the pedal to the floor. The breaks worked at about 5% but after two laps around the circle of trees and a call for “assume crash positions” we stopped in a parking spot. There was no way we were going to head down a mountain on switch back roads with 12 youth and four adults back to Lake Junaluska.
Once we landed the adults pulled out their cell phones to start making some calls for help but there was no signal in this side of the mountain in the middle of Transylvania County. We adults looked at each other and made a decision. Two of us decided to talk with the Rangers up there to see about calling for help and the others took the youth to see Sliding Rock. The Rangers were more than generous and made calls out on the CB radio to another station which had a land phone. That person called a flat bed tow truck and located a repair shop in Hendersonville that could take a look at the bus. They made another call to Lake Junaluska to send a van up there to pick us up. It would take both of them a couple of hours to make it up all we had to do was wait. So wait we did.
This was early afternoon and the mountains were gorgeous. Some of the youth explored the creek that flowed over the rock; others laid out on the pavement and took naps. It was a peaceful and quiet afternoon. The tow truck arrived a couple hours in and we watched our bus get loaded up taken away. We prayed that the tow truck would have good breaks on the way down and now all we had to do was wait for us to get picked up by Lake Junaluska. We waited some more by cutting up and goofing off as only youth groups can do. Four hours in we talked with the rangers again and they confirmed, via CB radio, that people were coming they just had other things they HAD to do for the other conferences before someone could be freed up to come get us. We still had plenty of time to get back, enjoy dinner, and be there for the traditional walk to the cross they would do at each of these events, a highlight that many of the youth looked forward to, especially the part when all the youth would yell “Praise God” at 10:00 at night into the mountains and hear it bounce off all the peaks that surrounded the valley.
At 6:00 pm we still hadn’t gotten picked up and luckily some other tourists felt sorry for us. A lady in a black and white dress offered the group something to drink and we were most grateful. But at 6:00 the rangers informed us that they were closing the small ranger station and had to lock the bathrooms. After the last bathroom break the Rangers verified that someone was on the way and should be there any minute. They felt confident they could leave and we trusted them since they had the only access to communication to the outside world. As they left there we stood, in the parking lot, with towels and bathing suits and nothing else. We were stranded at Sliding Rock with no way to communicate and in the middle of the mountains. But help was on the way.
7:00 pm rolled by. Still no help had arrived. We adults were starting to get worried now. This was plenty of time for some to drive from Lake Junaluska and back almost four times now. Where were they? The youth were starting to get hungry and attitudes were starting to show up. They youth were great though through all of this and we couldn’t blame them. The ranger station was locked down but people still showed up to slide down the rock. With the rangers gone there was no one to stop them. I told the youth they were more than welcome to go but none of them wanted to after sitting there for almost 6 hours hearing the rush of the water go down the rock.
Around eight o’clock, after a discussion with Gene Evans, a mountain biker who stopped by after a ride for a quick dip. I agreed to go with him down to a campground, about 5 miles away which had a payphone. I took off with this stranger, leaving 15 people behind, and honestly not knowing what would happen. In hindsight, two of us adults should have gone and two stayed, but after almost 7 hours of waiting we were starting to lose our minds a little. I got to the campground and called the Lake. When I got a hold of someone they informed me that they had already picked us up. In the nicest tone I could muster I said, “No, we, the youth group from Hawthorne Lane UMC, are still stuck in the parking lot of Sliding Rock and have been since about 1:00 pm this afternoon. I assure you that we are still here and growing very impatient.” They assured me someone was coming out ASAP and I hopped back into Gene’s Subaru.
Before I headed back to the parking lot I asked Gene if he wouldn’t mind swing by some place I could pick up something to eat. We stopped at a Taco Bell and I ordered as many tacos as I had cash for, about 1 per person. When I got back everyone was relieved and engulfed the tacos, saying it was the best they had ever had. Soon after Gene left a Transylvania Country Sheriff showed up and said that someone called and let him know there was a youth group stranded up here. He hung out with us and protected us from the darkness and bears some feared were lurking in the dark woods.
Around 9:30, after eight hours in that parking lot, the van from Lake Junaluska showed up. We piled in and after a stop at McDonalds we got back to the Lake. On the way back we made other arrangements with one of the youth worker parent’s churches to borrow their church van for the rest of the trip. At 11:15 Joe and I headed out for another hour and a half trip to meet up with his dad and pick up their church van. Around 2:00 am I feel unconscious in my room.
The next day we finished up the event, headed out to white water rafting and everything went great. On the way home in our borrowed church van, the back left tire blew and there on Interstate 26, Joe and I had to force the wheel off and change the tire while we gathered unsolicited advice from all knowing youth and dodged cars going 70+ mph down the interstate.
We all got home safe and sound. No one was hurt and we all had a great story to share. But as I reflected on this trip and the events that took place I started to realize what had happened. We were the Jew who was left by the road side to die. Ok, we weren’t left to die. What had actually happened was there was another youth group from the same event who broke down about 10 miles before us. Lake Junaluska came and picked them up and thought it was us. What they didn’t know is that there were TWO youth groups stranded. We weren’t left to die but if it wasn’t for the strangers that helped us out, the lady in the black and white dress, Gene who took me to make a phone call, or Officer Queen who stayed with us, things could have been worse, a whole lot worse.
During that trip youth were amazing, coming out of their shells and watching out for one another. The youth workers kept calm and everyone safe. What I learned from this trip is that sometimes in life you are helpless. You are stranded, hurt or broken and there is nothing you can do to get yourselves back up and going. In those cases you will have to lean on the strength of others. You will have to lean on the people of this world to help you through. You will have to open your eyes to see who God is using to help you through the storms in life. You will have to see the world differently, and start looking for those Good Samaritans.
Our challenge is to let others help us. Let God use those around you to help get you through this situation. The common mistake which keeps people from getting the help they need in today’s world is because they think they can do it on their own. What are you personally struggling with? Where are you stranded in life? Is there someone who is reaching out to you asking if they can help that you keep pushing away? The person on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho would never have been helped if he didn’t let someone help. We would still be at Sliding Rock if we didn’t break down, ask for help, and accept the help that was provided. We have to learn to let go of our personal pride and ego and to let God come in and do God’s work. Our challenge in life is to look for the Good Samaritans when they are offered and to let them in.
And all God’s people said…Amen.