Sam Robinowich: Restoring Innocence
Author: Courtney Hampson
On May 7, 14-year-old Grace Sulak was killed in a hit-and-run car accident as she was on her way home from a high school track meet in Columbia, South Carolina. That tragedy hit our small town hard, yet I was ever-impressed by the outpouring of love for a sweet girl who, to many, was a stranger. At her service, Sam Robinowich spoke.
I wasn’t there, but I asked someone who was what the service was like. She specifically mentioned Robinowich and said, “I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do know that it was what I—and everyone else—needed at that very moment.”
Some people surprise me. I’ve found lately that it is those whom I hardly know that have had a large and profound impact.
I first met Sam Robinowich through our CrossFit gym a couple years ago; we were both attending the same class, and I was impressed with his heart and determination. Since then, we have seen each other randomly, about town, and oddly as guest speakers at the various career days throughout Bluffton schools. Other than a few Facebook likes (Robinowich’s posts are contemplative and moving), that was the extent of our relationship.
After I heard about the impact of his words in Sulak’s honor, I reached out and sent him a quick note about the power of his message. He responded quickly, telling me, “You just blessed me big time. Thanks so much for the share! It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done—trying to bring hope to a situation that seemed so hopeless. God moves and did what only he could do.”
I thought on that for a moment and wondered why Robinowich wouldn’t take the credit. He gave the credit to God. So, I told him he could certainly take some of the credit. He thanked me again and asked how I was. And for some reason, I told him. Oh, I gave him the obligatory “busy,” which seems to be my standard these days, and then I joked about how I always say “busy.” But then, and I don’t know why, I told him how I actually was. Before I realized it, I had hit send on a download of my life—a work, dog, home, emotional, physical, spiritual dump—to an almost stranger. I followed up with a quick, “Maybe that was too much information?”
I could see him typing (Don’t you just love the power of Facebook?), and finally a reply, “I appreciate your openness. I always get annoyed that “busy” is my answer when people ask that question as well. Busy is always true, but I’ve started to answer people like you did me. (This is truly how my life is going.) I’m finding that I’m making more friends by being open with people about how I am. I’d tell you to do the same, just like you just did.”
And then again, without even thinking, I asked, “How would you feel about me writing a story about you?”
I don’t know why he moved me, especially as my instinct is to shy away from (read: run away from) religion. I don’t know what makes me uncomfortable about the idea. Not true. I know. I feel like I have been let down. And when I have reached out, I haven’t received an answer, a sign, or the miracle I was hoping for. There I said it.
And for some reason I felt like Robinowich could help me answer why.
More important, he made me want to ask why?
To understand his work, I had to go to church. I picked a Tuesday afternoon—when I felt like the chances of a lightning strike were least likely (I make jokes when I am uncomfortable)—and met Robinowich at Lowcountry Community Church (LCC) where he is the middle school student ministry director.
We settled onto the couch in his office, the walls painted a deep red (“Chipotle Red,” he told me) and covered with pictures, quotes, and memories. There was a faint hum of meditative music, and above our heads hung a framed story about his family and the Calhoun Street, Bluffton store his grandfather owned. Robinowich told me that store was dubbed, “the Jew store,” and there you could buy everything from coffins to groceries. The motto, “If I don’t have it today, I can get it for you tomorrow.”
Wait? You’re Jewish?
His eyes widened in time with his smile as he nodded yes.
Okay, now this is going to get interesting. I forged on and, indeed, Robinowich was raised Jewish, in a practicing family who went to synagogue every Sunday and still does today. I eventually had to interrupt to ask, “So how did you end up here?”
“I was invited to church at 11 years old, by my girlfriend.”
“Your girlfriend?” I asked with a smirk. “Yes,” he said. “We held pinkies and that was pretty much how we shared our mutual affection,” he said with a straight face. “But I kept going to church, and at 14 years old, I accepted Christ. I found wholeness there. Life started to make sense.”
I didn’t interrupt, but I didn’t understand.
By 15, he knew that ministry was his calling and said it started as a dream, “I could see myself standing in front of a thousand people, talking to them, but I didn’t know what I was saying. Soon (in dream time), I realized that I was connecting with people.” He woke perfectly at peace with his calling and the belief that “all things are possible with God.”
Belief is a powerful word. The acceptance that something is true or that something exists without ever witnessing it for yourself is difficult. It requires strength, conviction, and a confidence in yourself to believe and to have faith.
Robinowich still celebrates the Jewish holidays with his family, and they celebrate the Christian holidays too, making both about family gathering, and answering questions, and creating traditions that open the door to new discoveries.
Yes, in case you are wondering, his parents definitely had questions. They were confused. They had a plan for his life, and seminary school was not a part of that plan (Rabbinical school maybe). But they worked to understand and paid for seminary school, paving the path for their son’s future. Robinowich graduated The Highlands College in 2013, but his education didn’t end there. He spoke of continually surrounding himself with people who have opposing views (like me), and working to understand other cultures and religions. “I don’t want to follow blindly,” he said.
Upon completing seminary in Birmingham, Alabama, Robinowich moved to St. Louis to work for the Christian author and speaker Joyce Meyer, until he realized, “I’m not a Midwesterner.” He returned to Birmingham for a bit, until LCC’s Pastor Rob reach out and invited him home.
That was 2014, and since that time, Robinowich’s mission has been ever clear. “I am affirming students. My job is to let a middle schooler care about what they care about. So many adults are telling kids to, ‘just grow up,’ or ‘stop acting like a child.’ Our culture is robbing kids of their innocence. My job is to restore it.”
Every Tuesday night, 150 middle school students converge upon the LCC campus for a few hours of fellowship, fun, and worship. “We create a safe place, where our leaders are saying ‘yes’ to this generation.”
Ever the cynic, I had to know, “How many of these kids are there only because their parents are making them go?” The answer is 25 percent, but retention is high, so something must be clicking.
Indeed, what is clicking is that Robinowich and his team (he has a staff of one, and a volunteer army of 20) are making themselves a part of these kids’ lives. They have a weekly (if not daily) presence in three Bluffton schools (and in case you are wondering, as long as participation is voluntary, the ol’ “separation of church and state” doesn’t apply); and Robinowich said, “If there is a middle school sporting event, I am at it.”
He believes he is in the “ministry of being there,” as middle schoolers really just want someone to show up. They crave it. Almost a third of the kids in his youth group are part of a single parent family, which typically means the only parent is working overtime to make ends meet; so Robinowich tries to fill a void. He has a bookcase full of parenting books that he thought he was buying for parents. Turns out, he’s learning a little about parenting middle schoolers himself and helping both child and parent(s) have a plan.
Recognizing that many kids (especially in middle school) aren’t going to tell their parent everything, Robinowich works with parents to think about how they can strategically place someone in their child’s life to whom they will talk. And, he arms “his kids” with conversations around faith that he hopes they will take home.
Some will always have questions, and asking questions is an important part of the journey. Robinowich tells the story of a student whose parents called and said, “Help. My son no longer believes in God. He is giving up on all things religion.” Robinowich admitted that wasn’t a moment he was trained for. As the student and his parents sat in his office, he certainly had more questions than answers. “The student didn’t leave saying ‘Yay Jesus,’ but he is still asking questions, and that is all I can ask,” Robinowich said.
The more I listened to Robinowich talk, the better I felt about my feelings of doubt. Granted, I am 30 years beyond his target audience, but he managed to connect with me, too, telling me that often he leads with a message that explains that it is okay not to believe. It is okay to have questions and to seek understanding. I find this to be an offering of comfort for those who struggle with faith, for those who can’t quite believe in something they have yet to see. “I want to meet people where they are … there is nowhere they need to be,” he said.
Robinowich doesn’t want blind faith. “You can’t blindly drive a car, so I don’t want to be followed blindly; but I do believe in child-like faith, and it is easier to raise up a child than it is an adult.”
I sighed. Because I agree. And I wondered aloud if I would ever find my faith. I turned the tables a bit and put Robinowich to work asking how people get there—how they begin to believe.
His answer made so much sense: “If you think about grace instead of religion, you can likely get there on your own. Society would suggest that religion tells us what we’re doing wrong. Grace allows us to understand that we’re not perfect; we’re going to mess up, but we’ll be forgiven.”
If you watch those who carry themselves with grace, you connect with them. Much like I connected with Robinowich. Not just his grace, but his wisdom, and the ease with which he discusses a topic that, until now, has always been uncomfortable for me.
I wove my own personal questions of faith into this interview, and I am sure he picked up on that. And just as he does with his students, he provided a subtle message of worship and prayer in a way that made sense to me.
With some weight lifted from my shoulders, I walked to my car as Robinowich’s words echoed in my head. “Don’t try to find balance Courtney. Balance suggests that you’ll always be teetering. Seek your center—your core truth.”
And with that, I got in my car. And I cried.