About the cover
As the challenging year of 2020 draws to a close, this Ecuadorian teen reminds us once again why we do what we do. Kids like her are longing to experience the abundant life which can only be found in Jesus. Throughout this issue, you’ll read how kids all over the globe are responding to His glorious invitation. For more on our ministry in Ecuador, please see the Young Life Spoken here article.
Since 1946 Young Life has invited kids to experience the best in camping in a place made just for them. However, the summer of 2020 bore little resemblance to the 74 camping summers preceding it. Some camps were shut down entirely, others opened for only a few weeks. All camping was modified to be in accordance with bans on large group gatherings and travel restrictions. Around the globe, some areas were able to attend Young Life-owned camps. Some visited other properties and many others shone in creativity in their own “backyards.”
While it’s not the summer anyone could have imagined, much less desired, can-do attitudes and the ability to flex helped us proclaim the gospel and see God change lives.
One friend on our trip was named Garrett.* Garrett's dad had been in prison most of his life. Three years ago his dad was released and Garrett was excited for the potential of a re-established relationship. Instead, his dad relapsed and died of an overdose a few months after getting out. Garrett has been hungry for male leadership all his life. His leader, Brian,* has been walking with him and invited him to go on this trip.
Garrett opened up every night at cabin time. He shared about his heart becoming hardened over the years. On night four, Garrett said he was giving his life to Jesus: "This trip has changed me. I learned to not be in an emotionless shell and to share what is on my mind. This trip has also allowed me to make more friends."
Praise God for a place like Wild Ridge (a Young Life camp in West Virginia) ... to take our friends on an adventure to encounter the One who brings forever peace and refuge to the broken heart.
Once in-person ministry was allowed, I had a new girl, Sara,* begin attending our summer Campaigners. She had never once come to club so I was surprised to have her show up randomly. I could tell she was on the more reserved, shy side. She told me she had never had an adult beyond her parents who seemed so interested in what she had to say, and that at WyldLife, she was beginning to feel like she actually was special. Despite her shyness, she decided to come to Crooked Creek Ranch (a Young Life camp in Colorado). The whole ride to camp she was so quiet as the girls around her chatted the whole way. The program team asked us for the name of a kid who would benefit from being celebrated. I gave them Sara's name. As she was called up to the “Hype Box,” something happened — she allowed her “most full self” to be seen as everyone went crazy for her. This year, I truly didn't believe camp would happen. I am so grateful for the experience we had and am reminded that even in 12 hours, Jesus can change a kid's life.
This summer, Lehigh Valley Young Life had the opportunity to go to Lake Champion (a Young Life camp in New York) as part of our summer service project (our camp alternative). Each day leaders and kids would spend four to five hours working on different service projects. That time serving was followed up with a meal, then a talk about how we are created to serve and finally a “cabin time” discussion about the day and the talk. We spent two days serving churches in our area and then finished off the experience by serving at camp. Camp was stunning as usual, but they needed help getting the cabins weeded and mulched, so we spent all day helping them make camp look awesome, and in turn we got to spend time on the lake and in the pool. For myself as well as our kids this day was good for the soul!
I took a kid named Charley to camp at Adventures Wild Ridge. This was his first Young Life camp experience and I can't overstate how impactful it was for him. Not only did he absolutely fall in love with the intentionality and adventure of Young Life, but he was able to process hard and traumatic life experiences, overlooking some of the most beautiful scenery in the Eastern U.S. The first night, during cabin time, he was blown away at the view and how we were able to process the club talks in a way that made him understand the gospel in a new light. Charley saw the beauty of creation in light of his Creator and was able to process it with people he trusted. The slowed-down and intentional camp experience made this trip perfect for a kid like Charley. He didn't need bells and whistles, just adventure and intentional conversations in a breathtaking place.
In the early 1960s, Young Life’s founder, Jim Rayburn, envisioned that Trail West would be a place to host adults and provide them with a “window into Young Life.” Since that time, the adult camp located in Buena Vista, Colorado, has played a pivotal role in families’ lives and helped them engage with the mission.
During the month of July, over three separate weekends, we were able to host overnight high school campers at Trail West Lodge. As far as anyone can remember and based on the research we have done, this is the first time Trail West has hosted summer high school-aged campers.
This historic first illustrates the contrasts that COVID-19 has brought out in Young Life and how the mission endures and adapts to fit into new realities.
This week one girl in particular shared she had been struggling with depression and coping through alcohol. As she cried I was able to tell that it took immense strength — she was an underclassman at a table surrounded by older girls who had been through similar experiences. She was nervous of judgment and ridicule coming from them after she shared, but the exact opposite happened; the girls surrounded her, reminded her they were on her team and she was worthy of so much more. At the end of the week this girl said, “Thanks for reminding me that I am worthy of God’s love and my life has been created for so much more than I have been living into.” She attended “Daystarters” [a morning Bible study] with us the next week as well as Campaigners — both were times where we prayed, spent time in the Word and shared victory in still being sober since camp. Praise God!
In 1968, a car created by a former General Motors auto designer and a Raytheon rocket scientist rolled off the line. This adrenaline-fueled car and its successive models have become the bestselling cars of all time, with more than six billion produced over a 52-year history. One is sold every 16 seconds, and the average kid in the U.S. owns 50 of them.
Hot Wheels. You know them. You’ve bought them. You’ve howled in pain stepping on them. And in Mandeville, Louisiana, at the Methodist Children’s Home of Greater New Orleans, Hot Wheels have become a mentoring and ministry tool of longtime Young Life leader Jeff Boren and his team of 24 men who serve as life coaches for the boys who live there.
The Methodist Children’s Home provides residential psychiatric care for 18 boys, 14 years old and younger who cannot live with their families, in foster care or in more typical group homes, because of their emotional and behavioral needs. They live in the home for six to nine months. Before March, Jeff and his team regularly entered the boys’ home and their pain to walk alongside them, and to encourage and lead them in biblical truths and Christlike love.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, the home closed its doors to non-essential visitors because an outbreak there could have a devastating effect on the kids’ health and continuing treatment. As a result, they have been isolated in quarantine since March. So, too, weekly Young Life meetings and one-on-one visits with life coaches have been suspended. The meetings and visits may have stopped, but ministry has not.
Every week since the shutdown, each coach has written a letter to his kid. Jeff said, “These weekly letters have become big events in their routines. The coaches have encouraged them, promised prayers and spoken of faith in crisis.”
But the letters didn’t seem enough to keep the kids engaged. “I got word that the home needed recreational equipment and games to replace what had become worn or broken.” Jeff continued, “While I was walking the aisles shopping for those items, I came across the Hot Wheels aisle. And there, God gave me the idea for the Hot Wheels Bible Storybook Challenge.”
At weekly Young Life meetings in the pre-COVID past, Jeff used The Rhyming Bible Storybook to share his message. Many of the boys in the home can’t read and many have parents or guardians who are also unable to read. “The first story I read to them was about Jonah. It’s written in a Dr. Seuss-like rhythm, and when I looked up from the page, I discovered they were all captivated — even the 14-year-olds.”
He laughed and said, “I was working too hard on my messages all this time.” Typically, each boy receives his own Bible storybook to take home upon discharge. But during quarantine, Jeff and his team decided to give each kid his own book right away. To encourage their reading (by themselves or with a caregiver), each week the boys can receive a Hot Wheels car for reading five stories.
To date, every boy has earned a car every week.
Jeff and his fellow life coaches long for the day when they can be with their boys, face-to-face, to see their growing collection of cars, and celebrate with them in muscle-car races on a six-lane, Hot Wheels track. Until that time, they have the comfort of knowing that each of the kids has a weekly treat to stuff in his pocket for the treasure of God’s Word stored safely, and forever, in his heart.
In these difficult and uncertain times with the COVID-19 pandemic, weakened global economy, loss of jobs, racial injustice, political polarization, school cancellations, inability to be with family and friends, isolation, abuse and abandonment, it can be difficult to see the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
Many of us find ourselves exhausted, soul-weary, confused and legitimately wondering if there is a purpose in these layered challenges before us. When will this crisis end? What will the “new normal” look like? Can any good come out of these heavy and troublesome circumstances?
In times like these, Christians around the world take comfort in the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8:28, remembering that “all things work together for good.” While this statement can be reassuring, it can also sound hollow in the midst of disruption, dislocation and discouragement. In fact, if we don’t anchor this promise in the surrounding context of Paul’s letter, then it is not only hollow, it is untrue.
The book of Romans, Paul’s magnum opus, opens with humankind’s complete failure to honor God and obey Him. He asserts no one keeps God’s commands, and His laws show us our inability to live up to His right and holy standards. Therefore, no one is exempt from God’s judgment. Painting a bleak but accurate picture of our predicament, Paul then tells of God’s amazing love for His creation as beautifully demonstrated in the sending of His Son to die for the sins of a rebellious people. Through Jesus, we have peace with our Holy Creator and are freed from the penalty of the law.
In chapter 8 Paul opens with, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For most readers of Romans, chapter 8 is the crescendo of the entire letter as Paul describes our new life in Jesus Christ powered by the Holy Spirit, allowing us to join God’s family as heirs with Jesus, assuring us of future glory and of God’s everlasting love for His daughters and sons.
With that context in mind, let’s take a closer look at Romans 8:28-29 (ESV):
"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
It doesn’t take a particularly careful reading to see there are at least two conditions placed upon “all things work together for good.” First, this promise is “for those who love God,” and second “for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Let’s examine “for those who love God.” The Apostle John, in 1 John 4, says this about God’s love for us and our love for Him:
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he has loved us … We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:9, 10a, 19, ESV).
Paul teaches us something similar in Romans 5:8:
“… but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Here is my take on condition #1: We love God by receiving His unconditional love for us as demonstrated by Jesus’ death on the cross for our salvation. God’s love changes our hearts, causing us to not only love Him in return, but to also love others whom He has placed in our lives, and to have a deep desire to obey Him in all things.
Let’s look at condition #2: “For those who are called according to his purpose.” The key to understanding what Paul means is found in verse 29:
“For those whom he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
God knew us before we were even born, and He has secured our destiny as His sons and daughters with His overarching purpose for our lives to “be conformed to the image of his Son” — God’s purpose is to make us more like Jesus!
So, as people struggle with the uncertainty and burdens of our times, before we can reassure them (and ourselves) “all things work together for good,” we must first point them to God’s unfailing love for us in Jesus. By trusting completely in Him for our salvation, we receive God’s love and allow Him to change us from the inside-out by the power of the Holy Spirit, and to make us more and more like His beloved and perfectly obedient Son.
We know God can work “all things together for good” when we look at the cross of Christ. The only person to ever walk this earth without sin was Jesus, and He died an unjust death on a Roman torture stake for rebels like us. This horrible symbol of death has become the ultimate symbol of God’s eternal love for all in Christ.
Friends, if we are in Christ, we have nothing to fear in this life or the next. Listen to Paul’s rapturous conclusion to Romans 8:
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (31-32).
“ … in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (37-39).
May God enable His blessed servants in Young Life to share His amazing love with more and more young people around the world!
Who can calculate the ultimate, long-term toll of September 11, 2001? Most of those who lost loved ones, of course, felt the devastation immediately. For Susan Bell and her sons, Aidan and Connor, however, it was an agonizing eight years before the tragedy fully manifested itself.
Back on that Tuesday morning in September, Susan Bell’s husband, Brent, was on the phone with a friend who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. As Brent spoke with his friend, the phone went dead.
“He lost his friend that day and it changed our lives forever,” Susan said. “Brent couldn’t go to sleep without drinking. He became an alcoholic. Every day my boys would come home from school and ask, ‘Is Daddy drunk today?’”
As Brent went through four stints at rehab, Susan tried to make life as normal as possible for Aidan and Connor; but after eight years of watching the disease gradually take over her husband’s life, Susan took drastic measures. On a Sunday in July of 2009 she and the boys moved north to the small town of Batesville, Indiana, to be near their grandparents. On Friday she drove back to Louisville, closed on their house and said goodbye to Brent.
“I kissed him, hugged him and told him I loved him, but he needed to get better. When he was sober for six months we’d come back.”
Three days later the phone rang. Brent had passed away.
“I fought through a lot of guilt,” Susan said. “I had two 12-year-old boys here in a new town, going through all the hormone changes 12-year-old boys go through; they were starting a new school and didn’t know anybody.”
No surprise, then, that the middle school years were rough on everyone.
For the first three years in Batesville, the boys’ grief revealed itself through anger, and the pain led to distancing themselves from God.
“I don’t know if I was mad at God, or if I was mad at my dad, or my mom for making us move,” Connor said.
Connor felt confused over his dad’s death. “I thought the whole point of moving away was for him to be better.” As a result, Connor directed his rage at his family. “I think I might have done an OK job at school at faking it. At home I didn’t — I was mean.
“Growing up and going to a private Christian school, I could have told you anything there was to know about Christianity, what Jesus did and who He was, but the relational aspect was never there and I didn’t understand how that would work. I didn’t want to understand. I didn’t care.”
Aidan, on the other hand, internalized his resentment. “I had this hidden anger that drove me to being numb and away from things that would ultimately help me. My relationship with Christ hinged on the fact I needed to be happy. With dad passing away, that happiness was gone, so my urge to spend time with Christ was gone as well.
In the meantime, Susan advocated for her sons behind the scenes.
“I prayed and prayed,” she said. “My biggest prayer every day was for godly men to come into their lives who could show them a male perspective on what it looks like to follow Jesus. I think I’m a pretty good mom, but I’m a terrible dad.”
The Lord answered Susan’s prayer in stages. The initial answer arrived Connor’s freshman year on the night he attended his first Young Life club.
“It was in a loud, cramped basement, but everybody was comfortable," Connor recalled. “It was a change of pace and I liked it a lot.”
After club the group went to McDonald’s where Scott Henderson, a volunteer leader, approached the freshman. The two quickly learned they shared a passion for University of Kentucky basketball.
“It was strange for an adult to come and talk to me,” Connor said. “I didn’t think much of it at the time; from then on Scott would show up at basketball games, see me and come talk to me, or I’d see him at Young Life again, or at lunch. He remembered my name.
“When I started coming to Young Life more, that was how all the leaders were. I wasn’t used to seeing a bunch of grown men treat each other (and me) that way; it was weird in a good way. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, but it’s because they were following Christ. They were radiating Jesus.”
Two years later Susan’s prayers were again answered. As he entered his junior year, Aidan met a leader named Mark Limardo. Aidan and Mark quickly struck up a friendship. “Anytime something was wrong with the boys’ cars,” Susan said, “Aidan and Connor would go over to Mark’s and he would teach them how to fix it. Mark wouldn’t fix it for them; he would tell them what to get and show them how to fix it and just spend time with them. That kind of stuff was huge in teaching them who Jesus is, what it looks like to follow Him, how to be servant-hearted and lead their friends to Christ.”
“He was the dad I didn’t have,” Aidan said. “He empowered me, taught me the things I needed to know to be a man in high school, and to this day still gives me wisdom I need to get through life. Young Life gave me a community of people that loved me for me. They helped me find my passion, and be more confident in who I am and in my relationship with Christ. It was a place where I felt truly accepted.”
Connor agreed. “Since the summer after my freshman year I’ve been on a journey of following the Lord and trying to become more like Him. I’ve been healed of a lot of this anger and bitterness I used to hold on to. I feel more joyful and see life in a different way. Young Life was the tool God chose. It was as simple as an adult coming up and trying to get to know me.”
After Aidan and Connor graduated high school in 2016, Susan sensed a calling upon her life.
“I wanted to make an impact the way my kids were impacted, so I started leading. It’s made a huge impact in my life. It’s brought tears and joy.”
Helping high school girls overcome their own fears, Susan quickly learned how much pain they silently carried with them. “Batesville, Indiana, is a small town, but there’s alcoholism in a lot of the girls’ lives, there’s drugs — both them and their parents. There’s abuse. I didn’t know what cutting was, but many of my girls were cutting.”
Now it was Susan who became angry and asked herself, “Why are these kids hurting so much that they need to cut themselves to feel something?”
“I go to camp with a knee brace and say this is why old people don’t lead Young Life! But it’s important for kids to have leaders like me because many don’t have a mom figure in their life — someone who walks with them, loves them and speaks truth into them like I can do, something they may not get at home.”
Aidan and Connor both went on to lead Young Life in college, and today live in South Bend, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio, respectively. Susan continues to volunteer with the mission God used to turn their family’s ashes into beauty. She makes it clear God is not only the Author, but the Center, of their journey.
“We’re not the center of the story,” Susan said. “God will use our part of His story for His glory — and the good of someone else He loves just as much as He loves us. Yes, it was hard, but look how good my God is. He had His hand on my boys and me the whole time. When I look at everything and everyone He put in our path, it’s overwhelming. I think it’s true of all of us, we just have to pay attention to see it.”
In January of 2008, Jason Blackwell attended the Young Life All Staff Conference in Orlando, Florida. At the time, he’d been serving for three years as the area director in Columbia, South Carolina. Jason recalls a particular night at the conference when he couldn’t sleep and spent the night wrestling with the Lord.
“Father, what do you want me to do? Where do you want me to go?”
Jason felt like he heard a pretty clear answer from God, “You know where I would go. Go there.”
“Wow, I do know,” Jason responded in prayer.
The capital city of South Carolina has a racial makeup of close to 50% white and 50% black, but at the time, Columbia Young Life didn’t look a lot like their city. When Jason returned to his hometown to become the area director in 2005, Young Life was in six predominantly white schools and had 30 white leaders and two black leaders.
As a white area director, Jason explains, “During my first three years, I was definitely in over my head and pretty much in survival mode. The prospect of reaching more kids of color seemed so far out of reach. In my head, success was defined by not breaking anything we currently had going on. But during that week in Florida, I realized our area was already broken in a significant way. I looked around at kids, leaders and staff, and everything looked white. I realized that there were thousands of kids in our city who desperately needed a Young Life leader and didn’t have one. We had to act on their behalf.”
Jason returned home from the staff conference with a vision to reach kids Columbia Young Life had never reached before. The next year, at their 40th-anniversary celebration, Jason stood up before his community and confessed that Young Life had been overlooking half of the teenagers in their city. Jason lamented, “We have taken the path of least resistance. We’ve driven past primarily black schools to start Young Life elsewhere.” He then asked everyone at the banquet, “How many more anniversaries are we going to celebrate before we deal with that?”
A few folks responded by thanking Jason for his honesty and vision and told him they wanted to help provide funding to take the next steps. Raising the money was a massive boost of confidence for a young area director, but now came the hard work of finding the right person to lead the way.
A humbled Jason realized how few relationships he had in the black community in Columbia. He urged his staff team to start calling African American churches in town to begin looking for wisdom and partners in ministry. They held their next lunchtime committee meeting at a predominantly black church called Spirit of Truth. During the meeting the pastor told Jason he needed to meet their volunteer youth pastor, Rick Palmer. Rick and Jason were the same age and from the same hometown, and they met for the first time the following week at a local restaurant called Lizard’s Thicket. Jason left the conversation encouraged by Rick and they both had a deep awareness the Spirit was on the move.
While God had been stirring in Jason and raising up the needed funds for this new venture, He’d also been raising up Rick.
On December 13, 1996, as a teenager in Columbia, Rick got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time and spent six years in prison for armed robbery. Behind bars, Rick met Jesus, and his life was never the same. When he walked out of that jail in 2003, he only wanted to do one thing.
“I just had this hunger to find kids who were like me. I had to go find Little Ricky’ before he went to prison.”
While working an eight-to-five job at a manufacturing plant, Rick began volunteering after hours as the youth pastor at his church, but he longed to do more. After the meeting at Lizard’s Thicket and learning about Young Life for the first time, Rick was all-in.
Rick asked Jason if he was serious. “Wait. You’re saying I could give my life away chasing ‘Little Rickys’ and telling them about Jesus, and I would get paid for doing it? No way!”
A few weeks later, Jason invited Rick and his wife, Christine, to be adult guests for a weekend camp at SharpTop Cove, a Young Life camp in Georgia. As they arrived, Rick continued to ask questions, “What is this place?
This place is here just so that kids can hear the gospel? Are you serious? No way!”
Rick and his wife smiled the entire weekend. He couldn’t believe they could have the opportunity to take the kids from their community out of their circumstances and bring them to a Young Life camp.
It wasn’t long before Jason hired Rick.
“In that first month, I was so humbled,” Rick said. “Id break out in tears at any given time. Because here was an opportunity for kids to not only hear the gospel, but we could reveal to them that there is a God in heaven who cares so much about them that He wants to give them all of this. Not just the Young Life camp, but the relationships with leaders. College students who would say, ‘I want to give my time to serve you. I want to be in your life.’ I was just blown away by that.”
Jason echoes Rick’s excitement.
“One of the biggest blessings for me was to see Young Life through Rick’s eyes. I wanted to be there every time Rick experienced something new in Young Life because it just enlivened something in me I had forgotten. It reminded me that my job is awesome! Being around him helped me to not grow jaded, cynical or numb to that.”
“I quickly understood I had value,” Rick said. “Jasons humility in the hiring process immediately let me know I was in the right place. He was communicating to me, ‘Rick, you’re going to be able to do things I flat out can’t do and reach kids I can’t reach. I could hear it in his language and see it in his eyes. He was telling me, ‘Rick, you are a partner in this. You have just as much value as everybody else around the table.’ And I didn’t always know that. Jason would tell me that, but I had to come to terms with it. His words and his actions were consistent. He was always asking me, ‘Rick, what do you think?’”
Since 2011, Jason and Rick have logged many hours together in relational ministry.
Rick says, “I’ve always felt like I’m a valuable piece of this puzzle. That’s why I’m still here.”
In 2016, Jason felt the Lord leading him to play a new role as an area developer, raising funds and helping start new ministries in Columbia and the surrounding towns. At the time, Steve Pink stepped into the metro director role. At the beginning of 2020, Steve asked Rick if he would serve as a co-metro director. Now Rick is Jason’s supervisor.
Jason says, “I always knew I’d work for Rick someday!”
Through the humble leadership of people like Steve, Rick and Jason, Columbia Young Life has experienced exciting growth and diversity. By 2017 the area had grown to 130 leaders, 30 of whom were leaders of color. That’s the same number of white leaders they had when Jason arrived.
How did the growth happen?
Jason says, “When Rick came on board we were able to reach potential leaders we had never met.”
Leaders like Tiara Moore, Nick Gamble and Jeffrey Franklin, who said “yes” to serving. “They were the first three black college students to lead in our downtown schools,” Rick said. “Thankfully they all said yes during my first few months on staff. Their commitment made Young Life relevant among other black students who oftentimes viewed Young Life as an exclusively white organization. Not only did they reach kids with the gospel but they helped me recruit other black leaders to join the mission.”
Jason further explains the growth, “It’s so easy as an area director to operate with closed fists and think, ‘I need to protect my resources, and I need to make sure my thing is going OK.’ Matthew 25 was a pivotal passage for me where it makes clear that God gives His resources to us, but there are expectations that come along with how we’re going to use those. If we hoard those and bury them in the sand, He doesn’t bless that with growth. There was, and still is, a point where we have to step out there and put what He has given us to work in places where He would want it to be used. I didn’t do that with all this gusto at first. I was pretty scared by it. But He did what He said He was going to do.”
C.S. Lewis writes in The Joyful Christian, “Aim at heaven, and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth, and you will get neither.”
Rick and Jason have a dream that someday Young Life in Columbia will look as diverse as their city, and a vision for their city to someday look a lot more like heaven.
Since 2017, Senior Area Developer Mark Statema and the regional leadership team have adopted a powerful new vision: Better. Everywhere.
“This describes the desire in LA to be better everywhere we are and to go everywhere we’ve never been,” Mark explained. “Los Angeles is growing really fast right now, and things are happening here in a really exciting way. This is classic Young Life ministry development combined with Holy Spirit momentum. We’re not just ‘trying hard’ — God is working.”
And the numbers bear that out. In just three years, the region added eight new areas. And in this densely populated part of the country, the “real life” impact is significant. These areas have added 10 new clubs, 42 new leaders and 60 new committee members. They now know 1,069 new kids by name and are seeing 126 new kids show up for club and 52 new kids in Campaigners.
Back in February, the development team had their sights set on growth area number nine — Walnut Valley, an area Mark described as “a middle and upper-middle class part of Greater Los Angeles defined by rolling hills, high-performing schools, suburban housing and a high Asian-American population.”
Thanks to written communication with supporters of the ministry, Mark preserved their pre-COVID-19 efforts to impact Walnut Valley. Nine months of work and prayer culminated in 27 jumpstart meetings in late February/early March. In just three days, Mark connected with 98 people including the city council, former mayor and high school principal. Twenty-one of those people agreed to pray about involvement in leadership.
“We praise God for the incredible open doors,” Mark wrote at the time. “We celebrate all the wonderful people we met. We pray for the next steps of developing the board, hiring a staff person and starting ministry. There will certainly be challenges and disappointments. It likely will be harder and take longer than any of us would like.”
Mark said, “The virus hit right after that. And we had to get creative.”
One key individual who was on board prior to the shutdown was Joseph Hwa, a youth leader in a Chinese-American church who was looking for a way to reach more teenagers in his community. A series of “divine connections” — including a chance encounter at Starbucks with a Young Life staff member from another area — eventually led Joseph and his pastor to meet Mark one year ago.
Joseph enthusiastically started volunteering in schools last fall where he had already established connections from his youth ministry. And he was instrumental in setting up almost half of the 27 jumpstart meetings that took place in late February.
“I’ve been impacted by people who were really big on love and relationships,” Joseph said. “The idea of loving the person in front of you — that really drew me. It’s so important to invest in relationships with kids, and that’s what Young Life is all about.”
Eric Ching is former mayor and currently mayor pro tem of Walnut Valley. He is also the first committee chair of Walnut Valley Young Life.
“I was a part of a pastor’s network that met every month to talk about ways we could work together,” Eric explained. “Mark made a presentation at one of our meetings over a year ago. I didn’t know about Young Life before, but I saw how he worked, and that caught my attention. I saw how lives were transformed.”
After Eric’s wife died in a tragic accident in 2017, Eric entered a season of suffering and seeking. It was from this dark time that he gained a passion for serving others, specifically the youth in his community.
“I spent time searching to see if God was real,” he said, and from that time, “I believe the Lord has given me a mission. I want to dedicate my life to serving God in whatever way possible, including Young Life. As I serve this community, I want to introduce more people to this ministry.”
Mark said Joseph and Eric are just two of many reasons Young Life is still alive and active in Walnut Valley, in spite of the obstacles.
“It’s the people God has called who are being consistent and faithful,” Mark said. “At the end of the day, why it’s working is number one, the Holy Spirit. Number two, adults taking ownership in their communities and number three, God’s favor and protection so far in giving us the ability to go forward. We’ve hired three people around the region during the pandemic, which is amazing.”
But Young Life ministry is built on relationships, and as of this writing, in-person contact is almost impossible, particularly in California where many restrictions are still in place.
“To have had relationships built and try to figure out how to do contact work is one thing,” Mark said. “But to not ever have had that in the community — that’s what keeps me up at night. That is our biggest challenge and where we need the most prayer.”
There are more than 17,000 middle and high school kids in the area. Joseph said trying to reach them in this pandemic has been “a little discouraging,” but he knows God can do the impossible.
“I was in a school district Zoom prayer meeting this week. There were teachers in it; even the high school principal,” Joseph said. “I asked, do the kids even want to be a part of this? And the teachers said this is a golden opportunity. They told me the kids are longing for it.
“I believe God can touch all these kids. We can make an impact over time.”
Mark thinks this season of collective suffering has softened hearts perhaps even more than they would have been.
“People’s hearts have been broken by the plight of teenagers now,” he said. “Seeing them miss things, seeing the stress they’re going through keeps adults motivated to stay at the table and keep pressing in. It keeps us dependent on the Holy Spirit and keeps us creative.”
Unique ideas for connecting with kids have recently emerged from Zoom brainstorming sessions, including a gaming club ministry, offering tutoring online, and even just hanging out in outside open spaces and meeting the kids who come their way.
“We want to make a place where kids can come and start connecting again, whether on Zoom or in person, according to regulations,” Joseph said. “Our committee members have kids in high school or who recently graduated from high school who have caught the vision and want to get involved. We’re trying to do whatever we can to empower them and help them reach out to make friends with people who would not connect normally. This is a unique opportunity because of their social needs. They are more willing to meet new people than ever before.”
For his part, Eric plans to continue to use his role as a public figure to get the ministry in front of others and engage financial and community support. He believes Young Life is uniquely suited for such a time as this.
“Since Young Life is not a part of a specific church — but all churches — that’s why we can go everywhere and everybody can work together,” he said. “We’ve not been able to do what we wanted to do, but we’re unified and organized. That’s amazing to me.”
Mark said the past months have prompted him and others to ask — and seek the answer to the question — when you take all the reliable resources away, what happens to a ministry like Young Life?
“It’s been very challenging but good for our DNA,” Mark said. “This time has forced us to go back to basics, to build relationships one kid at a time, build community and think through discipleship. If all these tools didn’t exist — camp, Campaigners, club — is the big idea of adults hanging out with kids, no strings attached, still effective? Yes, I think it is.
“I don’t know what will happen next, but the right people are in the equation and we’re ready to see where God takes us. The miracle is that we are still moving forward in spite of COVID-19. We haven’t had people dropping like flies. The people who felt called six months ago are still called, and in some cases, are even more passionate. In the midst of COVID-19, the work here has not stopped.”
We’ve created the COVID-19 Relief Fund to support ministry in places where the public health and/or economic impact of this outbreak has been severe. Gifts to this fund help sustain the mission’s presence in those communities.
Regional and country leadership identify areas most in need of support, and a Stewardship Allocation Committee will allocate funds where the need is greatest.
We urge those faithful friends who currently support their local areas or individual staff to continue or, if possible, even increase your support. If you’re able, please consider making an additional contribution to the COVID-19 Relief Fund by going to ylgoeson.younglife.org/covid.
Thank you for your support in a time when many kids need the friendship of their Young Life leader and the hope of the gospel more than ever.
By Estela "Telay" Hernandez,
Young Life Metro Director Bacolod, Philippines
Felix "Kuya F" Canono Jr. was the former area director of Young Life Cebu-Central, and former staff member of Young Life Cebu-North. He was part of the Young Life staff since 1990, and has been a Young Lifer since 1986.
One thing I will miss about Felix is his big warm hugs. He left us too soon, with no proper goodbye.
He will be remembered fondly by everyone who knew him. He was the funny guy at clubs and camps. He was that guy who can charmingly dance and sway to the music during club time and doing program. He was everyone's Kuya F.
You are finally home in the arms of Jesus. No more worries and pain — only joy and peace, as He has promised.
Let us pray for his wife, Delia, and his two sons, Ian Kirby and Ivan Kirk, that they may rest in the comfort that their husband and father is with Him who created us and takes us home.
By Jeff Chesemore
Aman who gave 40 years of his life to this mission, Jay Lindell was synonymous with the phrase “servant leader.” After a 19-month battle with cancer, this humble encourager is now in the presence of the Savior he loved and served so well.
The mission has lost a wise, steady and selfless leader in Jay. Alongside his loving wife of 37 years, Jeanne, he faithfully shepherded the men and women under his care, first as area director in South Bend, Indiana, and then the Greater Holland, Michigan, area. Moreover, he directed the Regional Church Partnership program.
It’s an understatement to say that Greater Holland Young Life thrived under Jay’s leadership. The work there grew to 20 ministries and 150 volunteer leaders — one of the largest in the U.S.
Earlier this year, many colleagues shared their love for their friend in a tribute to Jay’s four-decade-long service to Young Life. Here are a couple of their comments:
“I remember Jay as a young area director in South Bend, admitting to feeling overwhelmed and wondering whether he could do the job. It took remarkable courage and humility to do that. However, the hard lessons of the first decade are what made the last two and a half success-filled decades possible. God has a way of shaping, molding and forming us for ministry that none of us would sign up for. We glibly say, ‘You are the potter, I am the clay,’ without thinking for a moment what it feels like to be a lump of clay. Jay can tell you it doesn’t always feel good. But if we want to be something and do something of value for the Kingdom, we have to submit to being a lump of clay in the Master’s hands. Jay did that, and the result is untold thousands of young people who have been introduced to Jesus Christ and grown in their faith.” — Jeff Munroe, longtime Young Life staff and former Holland area director
It’s fitting that we close with the insights of one Young Life camper.
“Recently, on a fall weekend at Timber Wolf Lake, a group of girls from a Capernaum club was asked by their leader to imagine what Jesus looked like. To get the conversation rolling, their leader, Jeanne Page, suggested that maybe Jesus had long hair, but she was soon interrupted: ‘Oh, no,’ one girl spoke up. ‘Jesus doesn’t have any hair. He’s bald. He looks just like Jay Lindell.’”
Jay is survived by Jeanne, and their children, Zack, Katie and Jacob.
Sitting on the equator, nestled between Colombia and Peru, lies the beautiful country of Ecuador. Its diversity is reflected through its geography from the Andes Mountains to the Amazon rainforest to the Galápagos Islands. But one is mainly struck by the diversity of the people, with 24 languages represented.
When 21-year-old Ivan Penafiel was serving in his local church, he felt a burden for the teenagers in his community. He started doing contact work, held weekly meetings and through what can only be God, called the group, “Vida Joven,” never knowing that Vida Joven was an international organization stemming from Young Life! So, on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, in the small town of Shell, Young Life Ecuador began. In 2012, Ivan officially came on staff as the national director. On that significant day, he asked then Senior Vice President Dan Jessup what he was supposed to do. Dan said, “Dream for all your country, that every kid can know Christ."
Ivan began dreaming that day and hasn't stopped. He now dreams alongside the other leaders about the next city, town, school and kid.
“I want to thank my Young Life leaders, who are now part of my family. Thank you for opening the doors of your heart in order to teach me more about God.” — 18-year-old boy from Cuenca
Young Life is a mission devoted to introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith.
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