Huck Finn's Heaven

“She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it.” 
— Huck Finn, referring to heaven, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Try drawing a freshman boy to Christ with the promise of endless harp and choral music. It didn’t work for Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, anyway. Try instead with the promise of adventure. Say, a raft trip on the vast Ohio River. Now you’re talking.

This summer eight freshmen from Henderson, Ky., accepted Area Director Chris Dillbeck’s challenge to build and then navigate a 16-by-24-foot raft down the Ohio River. For six days, in a raft they built themselves, Dillbeck, volunteer leader John Raleigh and eight guys floated 108 miles on Kentucky’s Green River and then 22 on the Ohio. Departing on Sunday, June 29, they arrived home in Henderson to a waiting crowd of 60 supporters on the Fourth of July.

“Are they there for us?” asked one astonished boy. When 40 of the onlookers waded out into the water to unload gear, another said, “I feel like a hero.”

“They felt like winners,” Dillbeck said. “Some of them for the first time in their lives.”
‘Now What?’
The adventure began when Dillbeck started a Campaigner meeting that he billed as “Campaigners for Skeptics.” He invited all comers and their “stump the leader” questions. “Is God really a woman?” “If God is good, why did my dog die?”

That first meeting only one guy showed. After Dillbeck explained the Gospel to Nick, he decided he wanted what Christ offered. So they prayed together. Nick then looked his area director in the eye and asked, “Now what?”

And so began a journey that led them to gather other guys for a weekly Bible study, then to a three-day hike and, ultimately, to the adventure of their lifetime.

According to Dillbeck, “With 283 churches in the county, everyone’s a Christian. The question is, ‘Do you want to become a follower of Christ?’ And that is all about adventure.”
‘You’ll Die Out There’
Beginning in May, 10 guys worked every day for two months designing and building a river-worthy raft, despite the mocking of teammates, classmates and friends — “Are you crazy? … You’ll never do it … You’ll die out there.”

Meanwhile, Dillbeck met with the Department of Natural Resources, with lock and dam masters and with barge owners. He gathered navigational maps and a lot of advice. The Ohio River is home to 20 dams, 49 power plants and barges that transport more than 230 million tons of cargo each year. (You really could die out there.)

Wisely, Dillbeck rerouted the trip so the longest leg of the journey was on the Green River. With that itinerary change, more parents became comfortable with the trip.* On days two, four and five, parents met them with pizza, fried chicken and even a motorboat to take everyone tubing.
‘You Boys Look Like Huckleberry Finn’
A week before the trip, river authorities opened dams above the Ohio to slow the rain-swelled river. In one day river levels dropped 13 feet. The Green River now flowed at a half mile per hour, instead of the expected four.

The crew had to rely on a small, 15-horsepower motor to stay on schedule. This meant they needed gas. At one stop, senior citizens watched them pull up to the riverbank. One said, “You boys look like Huckleberry Finn.” This same man piled the boys into his pickup truck to take them to the only eatery in town. The next morning he returned to see them off.

“The trip captured the imagination of older folks,” Dillbeck said. “They were impressed these kids would do what they themselves always wanted to. It was amazing to watch their response. We became known as the ‘Huck Finns’ up and down the river.”
‘More Than the Obvious’
Captivated by life on the river, the young men experienced an alternative to the distractions and temptations that bombard teenage boys today, such as pornography.

“Boys are bombarded with it, and most of them think it’s normal,” Dillbeck said. “The issue for each of them is how do you see yourself? How do you see women? The media portray guys as animals. Being a follower of Christ is about being a man. This trip was about more than the obvious.” 

This trip was about more than building a raft and navigating down a river — it was about learning to become a man.
‘Thanks for Pushing Me In’
One boy withstood the taunting of football teammates to take the journey. Another, who was fearful of the water, finally jumped off the raft. Into the river and up its bank, T.J. joined the guys who were already laughing and carrying on, smearing themselves in mud from head to toe. Later he whispered to Dillbeck, “Thanks for pushing me in.”

By day six, though, they were bug-bitten, hungry and tired. They’d caught one fish. (On the last day.) They were low on gas and low on drinks. Finally, Nick, the boy who started it all, became enraged at Dillbeck when he refused to let the raft be towed to the finish.

All the guys were angry. Then they rounded the last bend. From a half-mile away, they could barely make out what seemed to be a crowd on the riverfront. “Are they there for us?” Two hundred yards out, the cheering from the riverfront began. The “Huck Finns” were heroes.
An Adventure Worth Having
Young Life recognizes this: If all we can offer a teenage boy is a safe God of singing and harps, we’ll lose him. But if we expect a boy to become a man, encourage him to set off on a homemade raft and jump into the water leaving fear behind and allow him to discover a vast God on a big river, then we’ve introduced him to an adventure worth having: becoming a follower of Jesus Christ.