I believe in a kid named Joey.
My arms were burning. I kept moving them in the same rhythm I had been for an hour: pushing and pulling. Every two seconds a wave would smack against our two-seater kayak and hit my face with a cold spray, courtesy of Lake Superior. I kept paddling, but I couldn’t help getting frustrated with the kid in the seat in front of me because his paddle hadn’t touched the water in half an hour. His name was Joey Kashkish, a troubled First Nations teenager from an Ojibwe reserve in Ontario. There we were in the middle of the largest lake in the world with sparkling water and green islands all around us – and he wouldn’t even look up. The sun was baking me inside my black neoprene wetsuit and my face was peeling and sunburned. I just kept on paddling, hoping that I could paddle hard enough to magically soften up the kid in the front cockpit.
That was the summer of 2006. In 2004 and 2005, my church had sponsored our youth group to go into Joey’s home reserve to run a week long summer bible camp for the local kids. The summer of 2006 was different though. My friend Aaron and I were going to the reserve for six weeks to help a missionary named John who wanted to take some of the older teenagers on kayak trips. We weren’t dealing with little kids anymore.
It wasn’t long before I met Joey, a charismatic sixteen-year-old who was like most of the other kids on the reserve: he wore urban style clothes and played soccer or baseball every evening, but he had also lost several family members to suicide and was dealing with problems at home. Somehow, he always managed to have a grin on his face. I made it my goal to become his friend, but I felt like I had no way to relate to him. His parents were alcoholics, my parents were elders at church. His uncle was the town drug dealer, my uncle was a pastor. Somehow, we were able to convince Joey to come along on one of our kayaking trips to Lake Superior.
That trip created some of the most memorable moments of my life. We paddled all day every day. We passed rocky cliffs 300 feet high, watched eagles fight over fish, encountered a hungry bear, camped on tiny islands, and took morning dips in the forty degree water. Out of all that, though, the moment I remember best came when Joey stopped paddling. After sitting still for half an hour, he started to talk. I stopped paddling, and talked with him, then listened to him. He surprised me with so many deep questions, questions that other kids like him probably have. One question led to another, and before long I was sharing my faith with him. That kid – abused at home, addicted to drugs and alcohol, living in a community with a horrifying suicide rate – he listened to me like no one else ever had.
That night Joey went berserk. Withdrawal was hitting him pretty hard after five days away from home. He started throwing things. He even stole a kayak and tried to paddle back to mainland, and it was two miles before we caught up to him. I wondered if what I had said to him earlier was gone.
I still wondered two months later when I got home. I still don’t know today. What I do know is that now I have a good friend named Joey, and I believe there is hope for his future and for the future of the culture that he belongs to.
I believe in a kid named Joey.
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