Traveling mercies

My youth group and I had a reflective and enjoyable winter retreat in Pittsburgh. The only thing left on our agenda was lunch and a leisurely trek home (or so we thought). Traffic on I-79 was clumped bumper to bumper and the road surface was greasy. “Hope traffic thins out in a bit,” I said to the other adult in my car. “Too many people going way too fast.”

Almost on cue a car in the passing lane fishtailed and then spun across both lanes of traffic. As vehicles went every which way to avoid collision I noticed that a car was merging into my lane, yet I had nowhere to go as a truck was right on my bumper. I took my foot off the gas and steered onto the snow-covered berm to avoid both vehicles. My trusty Toyota came to a gentle enough stop (considering the circumstances) and its engine was still purring. “We’re alive. Thanks be to God,” I said with equal amounts of devotion and surprise.

Ahead of us in a snowbank was the car that fishtailed. After cautioning everyone to stay inside my car I approached the other vehicle. The driver, a student from down south, was unharmed but pretty shaken. I listened as she recounted her experience. She repeated several times that she had never been in an accident before.

“The good news is that you still haven’t been in an accident. You’re in a snowbank,” I said. “You’re ok, everyone in my car is ok, and somehow none of the other cars collided.” We inspected her car and it appeared to be roadworthy. I shoveled out a path the best I could. She still had quite a few miles to go before she made it out of the storm. I hoped I didn’t sound too worried when I said, “I’ll pray that you reach your destination safely.” I walked to the rear of the car to push and it got traction almost immediately. The driver rolled her window down and said, “God bless you” before merging onto the highway.

I don’t spend much time dwelling on that miserable winter, but this story came to back to me at a conference recently when I was asked to articulate my philosophy of youth work. I was trying to come up with an answer from my head (knowledge, expertise) when I felt moved to give an answer from the heart.

Like the excitement on I-79, sometimes the most significant moments in youth work are unplanned. You are thrust into a dilemma and you improvise the best you can to keep everyone safe. You focus your full attention on the person most in crisis and help them regain stability and perspective. You work with the tools at hand to help them get unstuck and moving again. You are acutely aware that you only share a leg of the young person’s journey and pray for traveling mercies: “May she reach her destination safely.”

Another school year is coming to a close. Many other activities have already wrapped up in anticipation of the different routine of the next several months. Thank you to all the teachers, scout leaders, coaches, mentors, and youth workers who shared a leg of the journey with young people this past school year. In the words of fellow traveler journeying through life, may God bless you.

Ian Eastman, M.A. promotes the wellbeing of our community at Family Services of Warren County. The Kwik Fill Kinzua Classic Bike Race is August 10. Register at and benefit the work of Family Services.