Those who shepherd teenagers in a congregation’s life deserve more than a star in their crown. They earn the whole royal wardrobe, from queen’s tiara to king’s socks. I write from experience — as a youth leader in my mid-ministry years, all the way back to the first youth group meeting I went to in the old parish house of our church.

Though the building is long gone, I can picture that front room of what had been someone’s home, a fireplace on one wall, a glowing Coke machine in a corner, and Al Bombard blocking its light as he calms his junior high school flock. We are sitting on the floor, restless and noisy. But Al gets our attention, and tells a story about how real God was for him during WWII. The room is quiet now, and I listen intently, and hold that story in memory to this day.

Al was a member of the legendary 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles. As a kid, I didn’t even know the import of that membership, or even what D-Day was. All I know is that Al was a soldier and the story he told us was about hearing the voice of God. Literally. He can still tell it with all its detail, but as a seventh-grade boy I got the essentials. Al was in a foxhole one night, and there was a lot of shelling going on. From a nearby farmhouse, someone called to him in the middle of the night. He thought it was a buddy, and went to see what was up. The old house was abandoned, and sure seemed more comfortable that the foxhole, so Al spent the night there. When he went back to the foxhole the next morning, it was a crater. A shell had hit there that night. Had he stayed there…

When he found his buddy later, and thanked him for calling out to him, his comrade had no idea what he was talking about. From that day to this, Al has attributed the voice to God, and has lived his life in gratitude to God for saving his life. Needless to say, that story made quite an impression on me that night in the Presbyterian parish house.

Some thirty years later, I returned to my home town as a Presbyterian minister, and met up with Al Bombard at a church function. I told him how much I had treasured that story through the years, and almost off-handedly asked him if he had made it up just to make an impression on us kids. Al as much as snapped at me, “That story is true! I didn’t make it up, and I certainly wouldn’t have told it if I didn’t believe God had saved me that night!” I apologized and told him I never really doubted him; I just wanted him to reaffirm it.

Al and his wife Marilyn stayed attached to our youth groups for all my whole junior-senior high years at our church. They (and others, like the Smiths, the Bryants,  and Mrs. Kerr, the minister’s wife) helped lead the weekly youth group meetings of what we then called “Westminster Fellowship.” And when I say helped lead, I mean that they didn’t run our meetings. They handed us the WF Kit (I think that’s what they called it)  and let us each pick a topic from the book and lead the worship and discussion. The only one I distinctly remember choosing and leading was on “safe driving” or “traffic safety,” something along those lines. Must have been senior high. 

I’m sorry to admit that in all the years since that old Westminster Fellowship Kit, I haven’t seen many teens take the lead in planning and leading discussions at their own youth gatherings. I once taught “Youth Ministry” at the denomination’s graduate school for Christian Education, and for all the sophistication and creativity of our youth programming, it would have been rare for kids to take the lead. We adults let kids choose topics and interests; then we lead the meetings. But back then, in the good ol’ days (!), Al and company mentored us in both Christian faith and in church leadership.

One night as my brother Kim moved up to the senior high group from his junior high fellowship, I was in charge of the meeting. Al asked me to lead the Lord’s Prayer. I guess I must have been little nervous with my younger brother there, and I just couldn’t think how the Lord’s Prayer actually started. Everyone had bowed their heads and were waiting for me to begin. I didn’t have a clue. Well, wait; I did have a clue. As the kids grew restless, and Al glared at me, I finally said, “Dear Heavenly Father…”

“Jeff, come on! Stop fooling around,” Al barked. (He never lost that military edge when he needed to take control.) I confessed that I wasn’t fooling around, not with the Lord’s Prayer. “I can’t remember how it starts,” I admitted to everyone in the room. Al led the prayer. “Our Father who art in heaven…” Oh, that’s right. When my brother got home after the meeting and Mom and Dad asked how it went, Kim said he was pretty surprised that his older brother, the one who wanted to be a minister,  had goofed up the Lord’s Prayer, but other than that…

Oh, there was another time that Al was perturbed at me. Our youth group skipped the “trick or treat” routine at Halloween and went door-to-door for UNICEF instead. Al drove some of us kids over to my old neighborhood across the river so we could expand our territory. Still in junior high, I wasn’t very experienced at fundraising, so when one old neighbor put a couple of dollars into the UNICEF box I was holding, I protested, saying, “Oh, that’s too much. You don’t have to give us bills; just some change.” Al couldn’t hide his chagrin. “Jeff, what do you think we’re doing this for?!”

Al’s dedication to the church youth was evident in the many ways he stayed involved with us through the years. He organized the sale of cut Christmas trees every year to make money for annual trips to New York City, Boston, or Washington, D.C. Those trips were the church’s way of rewarding us for church attendance. We actually got points for Sunday School, youth group, and worship services. I had already gone to New York and Washington with the group, but the Boston bus looked like it would leave without me. I had been working at the drug store on Sunday mornings, and my boss Mr. McConnon, knowing I was headed to the ministry, allowed me to leave my job each Sunday to go to church. But not Sunday School.

So, I was short the needed points for the trip. Al was serious when he said points were points, and the final number was set, and I wouldn’t have enough. But Al also let grace abound, and allowed me to go. I haven’t forgotten that. Grace. A good thing for any kid to learn and experience.

I had to lean on that grace one other time. Another fund-raiser involved selling large cans of mint candy, white marble-sized, melt-in-your-mouth mints. I think I had six tins to sell. I’m pretty sure I ate the contents of four of the cans before I could sell them. I just couldn’t bring myself to go door-to-door hoping people would buy them. I kept putting Al off, and to this day, I think I owe Al the money.

Al Bombard’s youth group saw three of us teens head toward the ministry within a two year span.  I know he wasn’t our only influence, but he always has had a special place in my heart for his dedication, his time and energy, and his love for the youth of our church.

In the morning, I’ll go visit him at his house and tell him that, while there’s still time. I thank God for him and for all those caring adults who nurture  young Christians. It is the Al Bombards of the world for whom crowns and stars were created.