Breaking Ground

Quiana Head knows how hopeless life can be for a teenager in the Mississippi Delta. As a 14-year-old she got pregnant in her hometown of Tchula, Miss., and for a time it seemed her daughter would also be caught in the cycle of poverty and desperation.

But then Quiana became a follower of Jesus, and sometime later she was introduced to Young Life. The Lord used those two encounters to define the calling that had been building in her since her teen years - to introduce the kids of the Delta to Jesus Christ.

"I’m just super, super excited about what’s going on," said Quiana, who has been in Jackson, Miss., since fall training under Urban Director Vince Gordon to start Young Life in Tchula this fall. "I’ve been planting seeds down there. I’ve even been going down there and doing a lot of praying in the city, because it’s pretty dark down there."

Quiana is an answer to prayer for the believers who have long carried a burden for this area of Mississippi. To outsiders, the Delta is known for all things Southern - catfish, cotton farming and blues music. But for its residents, the Delta’s identity is marred by social and economic despair; teen pregnancy, substance abuse and unemployment perpetuate, and parents often pass a legacy of despair to their children.

Getting started
Those who know the Delta, like Mississippi Valley Regional Director John Evans, believe they have a prescription for ending that cycle - an infusion of the hope of glory into Delta communities.

"It’s the poorest of the poor in our culture," John said. "There are pockets everywhere, but there’s no other place where it is so socially ingrained into the fabric of the community."

The Young Life family had its first glimpse of the Delta at the 1996 All Staff Conference in Orlando, when Young Life President Denny Rydberg presented a plan for reaching 10 target areas throughout the country. Each of the areas, called frontiers, had no Young Life presence, and in each there are kids who face unique problems and pressures. The Mississippi Delta was one of the 10.

Donors began to apply their resources to the fulfillment of the Delta vision. And in early 2000, the first suburban club was started in Greenville, Miss., an area that is now led by James Mathis. That work is thriving, with 34 Greenville kids traveling to Windy Gap and 15 middle schoolers to Snow Wolf Lodge this summer. More than one-third of the students from a private school come to club weekly, James said, proving that kids in the Delta are hungry for something productive and consistent to do.

"The needs are different because we’re so displaced," James said. "Our economy is totally dependent on agriculture. Ours is a shrinking community, not a growing community."

With the work in Greenville thriving and volunteers now pursuing kids in nearby areas like Clarksdale, Miss., and West Helena, Ark., those who were praying for the region had one item remaining at the top of their lists - the right person to direct urban ministry.

An answered prayer
Even though most of the towns in the Delta are small - Greenville, the largest city, has just 41,000 residents - John and others recognized the need for someone trained in urban work. With sharp social divisions and distinct demographics, the Delta needed a person who could relate well to African American kids.

"There are towns in the Delta that are 98 percent black," John said. "It’s a totally different situation than downtown Chicago."

Little did Vince and John know that a summer mission trip to the Delta town of Tchula last year would lead them to an answer to their prayers for someone to lead a ministry there.

The trip - which included urban kids from Jackson, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; and Baton Rouge, La. - was intended to show kids from poor areas of larger Southern cities a more severe degree of poverty.

During their week in Tchula, the group built a full basketball court for the town’s kids and held Young Life clubs each night. Quiana had never met anyone associated with Young Life, but she had been anticipating their visit because she worked part time for the church that hosted the group. From the first day, Quiana was drawn to the Young Lifers. She joined in their activities whenever she could, and she even offered her mother’s home to some of the visitors who needed a place to shower.

John, who was part of the mission trip, saw something special in Quiana, and at the end of the week he discussed opportunities within the Young Life family. "Is it a job?" Quiana asked. She told John that she was going to move from the Delta because she couldn’t find work.

"I knew one day I would be working with teenagers," Quiana said. "It’s all God."

First steps
In a boldfaced confirmation of God’s hand in the process, a large gift came in that was enough to pay Quiana’s salary. And by October, she was busy training with Vince, preparing for a mission that was completely unexpected, yet seemed custom-made for her.

"We thought we were going down there to do one thing, but God had a whole other thing in mind," said Vince, who has seen his kids keep in touch with their friends from Tchula since the mission trip. Five kids from Tchula went to SharpTop Cove with the Urban Jackson group in June.

The first step in Quiana’s calling, after she moves back to the Delta early this fall, will be to start a club at her alma mater, S.V. Marshall High in Tchula. She can already tell that high school students are drawn to Jesus in her, she said, and she can’t wait to introduce them to the abundant life Christ promises, to open doors to a world most of these small-town teens have scarcely imagined.

"There are not a lot of ways to escape," she said. "The Delta is pretty much in a box. Unless the kids are exposed to other things, they turn out to be small thinkers."

Looking ahead
As kids from Delta cities like Greenville and Tchula learn about Christ at Young Life properties this summer, faithful people inside the mission are counting on the Lord for the financial backing that will give roots to Delta Young Life. Because of the extreme poverty in the region, this mission must be supported primarily from the outside, John said.

"I think there are some people who want to see the Delta kids experience life to the fullest, so I don’t think fund-raising for the Delta is going to be difficult," Vince said.

If they can find partners who will help pay for the work, John and Vince are firmly convinced that they will see baskets of spiritual fruit coming out of the Delta soon. With just one gift, Quiana was sent to proclaim Jesus in her hometown. Other donations will fund camp scholarships, new staff and training for the potential leaders coming out of traditionally black colleges like Mississippi Valley State College, which is located in the heart of the Delta.

"I really believe there’s as much potential to develop black leadership out of Mississippi as anywhere else in the country," John said.

The Mississippi Delta, known as fertile farming ground, is ripe for the bounty that Young Life can bring. And with workers like Quiana Head, James Mathis and the others who will join with them, God will produce a rich harvest of young lives transformed by the hope of Christ.

If you are interested in becoming a partner with Young Life in the Mississippi Delta, please call John Evans at (601) 956-4990.