“I can’t” leaked from Jahiem’s lips for the final time in my humble opinion. My feet remained planted on the root covered rock that acted as my belay platform, while I gently sat into the rope a bit more, letting Jahiem know that I “had him.” He had battled his way up the first twenty-five feet or more of the dry, sandstone face that had likely split thousands of years ago, making a way for us to climb the fissure by jamming our fists and feet into the crack. Despite his ambition to out-climb his new friend and rival, he could only muster, “I can’t.” Michael, having just come down from the sixty-foot dihedral climb, was gentler in his coaching, “If you jam your right foot into the crack and step on it, it will hold you… you got this.”
I tugged the rope through the tubular belay device that was secured to my harness by a pear-shaped carabiner, locked, of course. Sitting back into the harness once again, the weight transferring back onto my hips, I had had enough. Up until this point I kept my mouth shut and allowed Michael to coach Jahiem through this challenging section of the climb. More than one voice from the ground can get really muddy. However, I took a risk at what I thought might be motivating, though brutally honest: “Jahiem, this is your moment. Frankly, you’re not climbing because your attitude stinks. If you don’t want to climb, that’s fine; just come down. But if you want this, then stick your foot in the crack, twist it toward you and go. You have the ability to do this climb, you just have to decide if you want to or not.”
Let me digress just a tad here. Jahiem was having a moment for sure and WE ALL HAVE THEM! But allow me to broaden the strokes on my canvas here. Jahiem graduated high school this past year, has made some incredibly bold and challenging decisions that will impact his future and signed up for a Project Forty trip! The night prior to this climb the five of us on the trip were at Miquel’s Pizza, one of the biggest climbing hubs east of the Mississippi, and we happened to be there when Tommy Caldwell and all the Patagonia sponsored climbing professionals were presenting. The crowd was definitely larger than usual, but I asked Jahiem to look around and see how many other black guys or girls were there. “Three,” he randomly responded a few minutes later. That was including himself. You want to talk about courage? Jahiem is a hero in my book, but during the few minutes that this particular story takes place, he was having a moment.
Now, where were we? Oh yeah, I was being blunt and borderline rude…I don’t use this approach too often, but shock factor can have a significant impact if the student knows that you care and you’ve built the rapport for such candid words to be shared. The question in my mind was, it’s only day three of spending some significant time with this young man from Flint and I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in that type of environment. I guess I’m about to find out, I thought as I quickly shut my mouth and put my attention back on Jahiem’s movement. To my surprise he actually jammed his right foot into the four-inch-wide crack, twisted his ankle inward and stood up, reaching for a good placement for his hand. “Yes!” I shouted as I watched Jahiem push past the ‘I cant’s’ and finish up at the top of Calypso III, a 5.5 at Fortress Wall in the Red River Gorge, KY.
The joy on his face echoed the quiet conversation that we had once he returned to the safety of solid ground. “Thank you Matt, I needed that,” he said quietly but sincerely. Taking the open door for conversation about this teachable moment I went all in. Maintaining the quiet nature of the moment I encouraged him that life is just like this—and quite often for some of us! We quit before we ever try because we don’t feel like it, or we’re just too tired, or our attitude has turned sour due to all the drama we endure and we’re sick of it. “Jahiem, you can do anything and I knew you could do this climb too. Don’t let your attitude stop you from trying.” We made it fairly brief, but powerful and this is why I do what I do. In today’s day and age, finding a teachable moment when everyone is locked into their earbuds can be quite challenging. Time and seclusion has been my philosophy of ministry since college in 2001 and it hasn’t changed one bit—less distraction and more time spent with someone is a solid way to make an impact on their lives. Make God the center of those interactions and you can’t go wrong.
Thank you for supporting our mission to reach into the heart of Flint City, MI and give everyone an opportunity to break free from their tech, adventure in the wild of God’s creation, and build relationships that they may have previously considered unviable. We are determined to watch God work as we follow His direction and are excited to see the climbing community become more diverse to represent all of us! A special thanks to Alison and family who financially supported Jahiem so that he could have this moment and be the hero-story we have the privilege to share with you. Thank you, Jahiem, for paving a way for the many more behind you… you rock my face off!