A Lighter Life

Any bus on its way to a Young Life camp is packed with luggage and kids of course, each toting some combination of things like iPods, cell phones, snacks and sodas.

But kids also board the bus with unseen baggage — whether things going on at home, relationship problems, school stress, or simply questions about life and what it all really means.

Briana, who was 14 when she headed to Young Life’s Timber Wolf Lake in Lake City, Mich., in 2009, brought with her an unimaginable load. Earlier that year, her mother, Tammy, had gone missing. Several days later, on April 8, she was found dead. To add to the horror, Briana’s father was later charged with the crime. Briana and her three younger brothers lost both their parents that day.

It was a load that could have devastated Briana’s hope and her belief in God, which began in childhood. But God had already prepared someone to share that burden and help carry Briana back to Himself.

That person was Marlena Fleming, a member of Briana’s extended family and also a Young Life leader.

The morning police contacted Briana’s family about her mother’s death, Fleming rushed to the home in Westchester, a western suburb of Chicago, where the family was gathering. In an effort to provide a change in scenery, Fleming took Briana, her brothers and younger cousins out of the house. Briana was composed, trying to be strong for her siblings.

“Briana had her game face on,” Fleming remembered. “She was in her caretaker role.” It was a role she’d assumed since she was about 8 years old. “Having a single mother who worked forced Briana to be the strong one,” Fleming said.

Like looking in the mirror

Fleming had seen that “game face” before — on herself. By the time she was 12, she’d lost both parents. Her father died from leukemia when she was 10, and her mother died several years later from a heart attack. “I discovered my mom about an hour after she’d died,” Fleming remembered. “And then I went to school later that day like nothing had happened.”

Briana’s stoic face that dreadful day “was like looking in the mirror,” Fleming said. “I looked the same way. It was like I didn’t want anyone to see that I had a soft spot and that I could hurt.”

Fleming grew up with so many questions about her parents’ deaths, not finding many answers or closure until adulthood. However, she made it through adolescence thanks to her cousins, who helped introduce her to Young Life. Fleming spent some of her teenage years in Madison, Wis., where her cousins had started a Young Life club. They knew Fleming’s painful story, and determined that they needed to bring her to Young Life camp.

They were right. A week at Castaway gave Fleming the opportunities she needed to unlock emotions and ask a lot of questions. She wondered how a church-going mother could make unhealthy decisions with her own life. And was the God whose presence was always celebrated in church on Sundays with her the rest of the week?

“I can still remember the exact spot at Castaway where I realized that God exists in my every day,” Fleming said. “He’s not just in church.”

So as Fleming tried to comfort Briana and her brothers in that library, she couldn’t help but think about getting Briana to camp. “I didn’t think about any of the details around getting her there. I didn’t think about the money it would cost. I just knew she had to get there.”

Campership funds helped cover Briana’s camp costs. Although she was looking forward to camp, on the day of departure, Briana sat nervously in her seat waiting for the bus to depart. Again, Fleming saw herself, and she was hopeful for what God would do with Briana at camp.

A place of peace

At Timber Wolf Lake, Briana enjoyed outdoor activities she’d never experienced before, and she loved meeting campers from other places while hanging out in the game room.

“Camp was like a place of peace,” Briana said. “The opportunity to go to camp was a life saver, I forgot about everything that had happened.”

Throughout the week Briana and Fleming also talked a lot — about God being inside of a church and everywhere else, about mothers who made mistakes and the forgiveness and grace God offers. “God does not call us to be fully transformed first,” Fleming recalled telling Briana. “We’ll never be perfect, we have flaws, but we’ll be transformed in Christ.”

For Briana, that reassurance was key. “Briana is like a lot of other kids who grow up going to church, who know church culture, they even know Scripture. But when life takes a turn, they don’t know how to handle that.”

After her mother’s death, Briana said she was angry with God. “I turned my back on God,” Briana said. “I couldn’t believe that He just took my mother from me, my brothers and family.”

However, thanks to the week of camp, her Young Life leader’s friendship, as well as the support and guidance from her guardians, Briana’s trust in God gradually grew.

Now she sees God as her own personal confidant. “When I have personal troubles, when I feel I can’t go to anyone else, God — some way or somehow — gives me an answer.”

That’s exactly the God Fleming wanted Briana to see at Young Life camp, a personal God who can carry even our most heavy burdens and whose faithfulness never ends.