One Kid, One Nation, One Friendship at a Time

Norman Rockwell captured the heart of America with his paintings. Who could pick up a copy of the Saturday Evening Post without lingering over the cover, longing for the characters to come to life? Rockwell’s paintings called out to us to step into the story and complete it. He whetted our appetite with a hint of plot and touch of conflict, then left our imaginations to run wild. Kind of like Jesus when He told parables. He always left His audience with a clear, colorful picture and a lot of questions to explore.
 
Maybe that’s why Marv Reif learned to paint like Norman Rockwell. Reif loved Jesus, and when he mixed the characters of his life with the colors on his palette, he came up with a parable on canvas that hinted of stories untold.
 
One of those paintings graces the cover of this issue of Relationships. At first glance, the painting looks like two kids from the 1970s doing homework with a tired dog on the floor. A closer look corrects the first glance.
 
One kid, a basketball player, is reading a comic book while the other kid studies hard for finals. It must be finals. The calendar says, “June.” Gregg Armstrong posed as the kid who is studying, and we’ll learn more about him later. It’s not surprising that the other posed in the painting is a basketball player. As a Young Life leader, Reif met a lot of kids when he hung around basketball practice at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, Calif.
 
But anyone who knows the artist sees another picture still. There are not two kids in the painting, but two nations, waiting to be transformed.
 
“We see a kid, but God sees his wife, his kids, his kids’ kids,” Reif explained recently in an interview for Relationships. “Just like with Isaac and Rebekah. They saw two kids in Rebekah’s womb, but God saw two nations.”
 
Maybe that’s why this artist isn’t satisfied to simply capture kids on canvas. Maybe that’s why, after three decades of contact work, Reif still hangs out at Las Lomas High School for 20 to 30 hours each week. He’s hoping to capture more kids with the love of Jesus Christ.
 
Friends to the rescue
“During basketball season, I go into the gym and just stand there by the bleachers. I watch the guys practice and wait for one or two kids to come and talk with me. I still remember DJ,” Reif said, recalling a kid, Dave Johnson, from years before. “DJ was a big guy, about 6’7”, and I remember distinctly one day he walked off the court and stuck out his hand. He said, ‘I’m DJ. You’re Marv Reif. I want to be your friend.’”
 
Reif’s friendship with Johnson became a lifeline that God used to rescue another young man who was drowning in despair. It was a dark day in December when Johnson showed up, urgently looking for Reif.
 
“Kids called me, ‘The Preacher Who Lived in Other People’s Houses,’” said Reif, who was a starving artist at the time, living with various families and volunteering with Young Life. “I was working on a painting when DJ found me. He said, ‘You’ve got to come with me, man. We’ve got to go see Greg Thys. He’s feeling really bad. His girlfriend broke up with him.” So Reif pulled on his sweats and went with Johnson.
 
“I tell kids, ‘For the rest of your life, if you need to talk with me, you can call me up at any time,’” Reif said. “‘I’m always available. You can call me up at three in the morning, and I won’t care. If you come over and I’m working on a painting, and it’s not a good time, I’ll tell you and we’ll set a time to meet.”
 
But that dreary day in December, Reif knew he needed to go. So he pushed aside his painting and headed to Greg’s house.
 
“We got Greg and took him to the school to shoot some hoops,” Reif said. “We played about a three-minute game, and then we stopped. It was rainy, gray, depressing, and I could tell Greg’s heart and mind were somewhere else. So we went and sat on the stairs outside the gym.”
 
Greg’s head was hanging down, so Reif said, “Greg, see those dark clouds up there?” Greg looked up and nodded.
 
“Behind those clouds, the sun is shining,” Reif continued. “And as sure as it is raining, that sun is going to break through.”
 
As if on cue, the clouds parted at that moment just enough to let a shaft of light blind the three basketball players on the stairs. Years later, Reif learned just how dark the day had been for Greg before that moment.
 
A favor returned
Reif was much older and experiencing his own personal heartbreak and depression, when Greg started showing up in his life again as an adult. Greg had met the Lord shortly after that afternoon on the stairs, graduated from high school, played professional baseball for a stint with the San Diego Padres and had since settled down with a wife. When he heard the news that Reif was having a hard time, Greg began visiting his old friend. One afternoon, Reif was compelled to ask, “Greg, why do you bother? Why do you take this interest in me?”
 
Greg seemed surprised by the question. “Marv!” he exclaimed. “You saved my life!” That rainy day in December years before, Greg had been considering suicide when DJ brought Reif to the front door. Today, instead of a tragic memory, Greg is a husband, a father and a leader in his church. God saved a nation when he saved Greg.
 
A few more kids
Five years ago, Reif moved out of state and worked to create an art gallery for his paintings. When the venture failed, he returned to Walnut Creek two years ago with one simple request.
 
“I came home broke and broken,” Reif said. “I told the Lord, ‘All I really want is to see a few more kids meet you.’” So Reif started making the familiar trek over the footbridge to Las Lomas High School once again.
 
“My prayer was simple. ‘Lord, I don’t know who to meet here. I don’t know anything. But the footsteps of a righteous man are ordered by the Lord. You bring kids into my life who will come.’
 
“Kids just started showing up,” he said. “That first week back, every kid I saw and said, ‘I want that kid to go to camp,’ that kid was on our trip to Malibu one year later.”
 
 In a prophetic collision of club kids and canvas, three of the kids on the Malibu trip last summer were captured in Reif’s painting 30 years before. That is, if you examine the piece of art with an eternal eye.
 
Take another look at the painting on page 24. A much longer look at Gregg Armstrong, Reif’s club kid who posed for the painting, reveals a future husband and a father. Today, Armstrong is the father of triplets — Laura, Jono and Brendon — pictured with Reif at Malibu last summer. Triplets or three nations, depending on your eye.