A River Runs Through It

A river has always run through it. Not just the broad and brown Missouri River that sculpts the western edge of the city, but a deeper river of humanity, as old as the Wild West and as rich as the black soil that makes everything here grow green. A billboard just outside the city limits boasts of two historic bends in that second river. It reads: St. Joseph, Missouri — where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended. The first wiry rider for the Pony Express hopped on his horse to deliver mail on April 3, 1860, and Jesse James took a bullet to the head on the same day in 1882.
Another legacy begins
Less than a lifetime after Jesse’s demise, another character came to town and created a ripple in the local river of humanity that is still sculpting the world today. With a name worthy of a good western, Floyd Starr and his wife Fern waded into the waters in St. Joseph and started fishing for a kid to go to Young Life camp. The Starrs (parents of Bill Starr, who later served as president of Young Life) were active anglers when it came to catching lost and lonely kids. Soon, 1954 became a bigger bend in the river for many in St. Joseph than either 1860 or 1882. That’s the year 16-year-old Monty Burnham went by himself to Young Life camp in Colorado and changed the course of St. Joe history.
The next summer, he returned to camp with 38 friends. Shortly after, Norm Robbins, regional director for the Midwest Region, began making the 50-mile drive from Kansas City once a week to develop a committee and lead the club. In 1958, Dr. Charlie Bascom and his wife Kay turned down a lucrative medical practice in Kansas to work at the State Psychiatric Hospital in St. Joe so they could serve as volunteer Young Life leaders. Six years later, the Bascoms left to become missionaries in Ethiopia, and high school coach Gerry Smith became the first paid staff person in the area.
A spiritual legacy continues
Thousands of kids, hundreds of volunteers and a dozen paid staff later, the river that runs through St. Joseph has cut a wide path across the country and around the world. Today, Young Life alumni from the area serve on staff and in a variety of ministries in places such as Michigan, Wyoming, Kentucky, Tennessee, Germany, Asia, Afghanistan and at least six different cities in Missouri. In addition, Young Life continues to carve out a deeper ministry at home. Last year, the area held its first WyldLife club. By the third club, more than 100 middle school kids flooded the room and almost 50 kids went to WyldLife camp last summer.
This past October, St. Joseph celebrated 50 years of Young Life with a brunch and a banquet and a long list of alumni and friends. The historic event raised the entire area budget. At the banquet, a high school kid talked about meeting Christ at camp because a caring adult pursued him with the love of God. The kid could have been named Monty Burnham.
A river has always run through St. Joseph, and 50 years ago it took another historic turn. Today, St. Joseph is where the Pony Express began, Jesse James ended and a steady stream of Young Life leaders is carving the face of Christ across the world.