Life Lessons

Before they recognized Jesus as Lord, His followers called Him “teacher.” Scripture records Jesus teaching from the Torah in the synagogue, but most often His curriculum was taught along the way in the classroom of daily life.
In the classrooms of Hawthorne High School, a Los Angeles county public high school of 2,900 students, there are among the faculty four volunteer Young Life leaders who instruct students in math, history, Spanish, honors biology and chemistry. But it’s in the band room on Tuesday nights that these teachers share their core curriculum. At Young Life club, these teachers-by-day, Young Life leaders-by-life open kids’ eyes to the Creator who seeks a relationship with them.
Steve Wallis, the science department chairman and softball coach, and his wife, Marina, a science teacher in a community middle school, direct Hawthorne’s team of volunteer leaders. Though they love teaching, according to Steve Wallis, “the teaching alone is not enough to keep me going. Young Life gives what I do in teaching greater meaning and purpose.”
A backyard mission field
The Wallises met at a local church’s college group while they were students at the University of California at Los Angeles. Mission trips and “urban plunges” that they experienced before and during their relationship shaped their vision of work, ministry and marriage.
Today, they live in Hawthorne, Calif., just a short walk from Hawthorne High School. Under the flight paths of the Los Angeles International Airport, Hawthorne is a 6-square mile community crowded with 87,000 citizens and other undocumented residents. At Hawthorne High, two-thirds of the students are Latinos, and a full 68 percent are considered “low income” and qualify for some form of government assistance. It’s a noisy and crowded community, and a ripe mission field.
Young Life at Hawthorne High
The couple was asked first to help lead WyldLife for Lennox Middle School where Marina Wallis taught science. They declined. Steve Wallis’ desire was to work with high school kids and, from the start, they sought to work together in ministry. Three years later they were asked again. This time the area director asked them to begin Young Life so that her eighth-grade WyldLife kids could find a safe place to land in high school.
In 2001, the time was right, even if the how-tos were daunting. “We were convinced this was God’s direction,” Marina Wallis said. “But the unknowns, God-sized unknowns, were scary.” Neither one had an extensive Young Life background, nor were they sure how to draw kids to club. So, they started with camp.
The Wallises took nine kids to a weekend camp at Young Life’s Oakbridge property. Steve Wallis figured if they had fun, they’d bring others to club. “God amazed us,” his wife said. “We regularly had between 90 and 100 kids at club.”
Extreme club
With team members, J.J. Little, Jennifer Pawlak, Lauren Sobaje, Jon Conrad and Eric Ahlberg, the Wallises run an “extreme” Young Life club. Five-gallon water jugs are set around the school’s carpeted, tiered band room. Games are high energy, and preferred skits have a high gross factor. (A recent upfront game required girls to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with their feet and then to foot-feed them to guys who had simply, and unwittingly, volunteered to eat a sandwich.) The team has come to believe that if the kids aren’t sweating and repulsed occasionally, then they’re not having fun.
The kids need a serious release of energy. Lauren Sobaje, Spanish teacher and a former Young Lifer, believes the kids need a break from home lives that are often a struggle. Intact families are rare, and financial and relational stresses are the norm. “Our students just want to get out and be kids, and get some individual attention they don’t always receive at home,” Sobaje said.
Despite the decibel levels in the band room during the games, it’s the silence during Steve Wallis’ talk that’s deafening. “Whatever the madness of the skits, it is completely silent during the talks. The only way I can explain it is the hunger kids have to hear the message. They’re starving to hear how loveable and valuable they are,” his wife said.
Delivering the message
But how do you get the kid who daydreams through a biology lecture to come to club in the first place, let alone sit captivated through a message about Jesus Christ? Steve Wallis believes that the teachers’ presence at school is a critical first step. He believes the classroom is the place where relationships begin, and where these leaders earn the right to be heard.
Rick Beckwith, senior director of special projects, agrees. Beckwith and his team are developing a missionwide strategy called Insider Leadership, with a goal of recruiting and training teachers for leadership positions.
“One of the best, often untapped, resources for WyldLife and high school leaders in our areas are teachers,” Beckwith said. “I can think of no greater gift than leaders who are already experts on teenagers, spend eight hours a day with kids for a living, network with adults and parents in the community, have a long-term vision (tenure) of being in the community and are respected by the school administration.”
Administration support
Young Life has access to the school’s band room as a local organization with a permit to use a community facility. Young Life is not a school-sponsored activity. Not sponsored perhaps, but respected and supported nonetheless. One fan of Young Life on campus is Hawthorne’s district superintendent, Dr. Cheryl White. She received the request to begin Young Life with a positive reaction.
“Young Life has been a positive influence on so many students,” she said. “One of the most important predictors of student success in large, urban schools is a personal connection. Young Life is that personal touch for many of our students. It’s not easy to be a teenager these days. And our Young Life students seem to develop an understanding of what life is about and what values matter to them because of the influence of teachers like Steve and Marina.”
White’s support is more than verbal. She has cleared the way for kids to experience Young Life camp, personally underwriting camp scholarships.
White knows a week at camp can be transformational. After serving on work crew at Young Life’s Woodleaf property in northern California, one Hawthorne student returned home deeply impressed by the impact a life could have in the company of those with the same heart for Christ.
Lucas began to pray specifically that God would provide friends for him who love God with the same intensity. In a few months’ time he met Chris, Dago and Daniel. The four have been nearly inseparable ever since, according to Marina Wallis.
And as they’ve grown in friendship, they matured in faith. From experiencing a high-adventure camp with Steve Wallis this summer, and later serving together on work crew at Woodleaf, to Chris’ renewed relationship with his mom, and Dago’s acceptance that his recurring injuries may be God’s way of directing him to a future bigger than professional baseball, the hearts of these four have been knitted together.
Lucas said it best when he described the significance of the discipleship they experience in Hawthorne’s Campaigner group called “More Life.”
“If I wanted to learn chemistry, I could buy a book and read it cover to cover, and I might understand some of it,” he said. “But if I went to someone who loves chemistry and has studied it intensely, and if I spend time with him, asking him questions to learn what he knows, then I can understand the subject and love it, too.”
A living laboratory
For all the material Wallis teaches, it’s the demonstration of a life lived for Christ that challenges him the most. “When I give a club talk, I want the kids to know that we leaders aren’t up front because we’ve figured it all out,” he said. “We struggle, too. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I don’t want the kids to think more of me than they ought.”
But everyone knows you can’t fool a kid. The Hawthorne High students observe a group of teachers who lecture all day, coach school sports in the afternoon and, on any given Tuesday night, allow kids to smear whipped cream all over their faces. They’re the real deal.
These leaders may teach chemistry, Spanish, history and math, but all week long — all year long — their lives preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.