Heaven Sent

Thirty-seven years ago, Reid Carpenter, then regional director in the Pittsburgh area, gathered six of his newly-trained local staff in a room. At the front of the room was a map of Ohio. Carpenter pointed to the map and said, “Chilcoat, you’ve got Columbus. Rosemeyer, Canton. Weaver, you’re going to Cleveland.”

With that Patton-esque deployment of young men, Young Life launched its ministry in Ohio. The line that arched between ministry in Pittsburgh to Cleveland in 1970, today extends from Cleveland to places like Michigan, Florida, Colorado, the Philippines, England, Singapore and Kazakhstan (a very long way from Pittsburgh).

Since 1970, almost 50 Young Life “kids” from the Cleveland West Shore area have grown up and into full-time ministry. Nearly a dozen are, or have been, Young Life staffers. About 36 now pastor churches, minister through organizations like Campus Crusade or Navigators or serve as missionaries in far-flung places.

What explains the fruitfulness of this ministry? By all accounts it’s a mix of strategy and holy serendipity, ecumenism and music, discipleship, caring adults and teenage kids who were allowed to hold a ministry — and then witness the mystery of God at work.

Ecumenical at its roots
Pete Weaver was sent to Cleveland because Young Life was invited and God paved the way. As the nation entered the psychedelic ’70s, the five mainline churches in Bay Village, Ohio, on Cleveland’s west side, were concerned that they weren’t reaching the community’s kids. So the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Catholic churches invited Young Life to town to explore ministry partnership.

It was agreed that if those churches could get some kids to come to a meeting, then Weaver would lead one club — just to see if this thing would fly. In the fall of 1970, Weaver and another young Pittsburgh staff member, Tom Hammon, set out with an address, a map, a box of songbooks and a couple vans full of Campaigner kids from Pittsburgh. Expecting to meet a group of 15, well-mannered youth group kids in a classic suburban home, Weaver remembers driving up to an imposing house overlooking Lake Erie.

“We could hear music coming from the house,” Weaver recalled. “And we walked in to find this enormous room packed with 150 kids and a frumpy, ninth-grader with red hair and acne leading the kids in the song, ‘Wild Thing.’”

Turns out that kid was the son of a future committee member, and “Wild Thing” was the only song he could play. “It was a classic opening of Young Life ministry in a new area,” Weaver said.

Then, the five churches that invited Young Life to town each provided a couple to serve on committee, and the funding to support the ministry for one year. Before long, 300 kids were attending club every week. At one point, according to Weaver, a third of Bay High School attended a spring weekend camp in Laurelville, Pa.

Leaders to kids: meeting kids where they are
One of those kids at a Laurelville weekend was Tom “Hendy” Henderson Jr., who was the son of a committee couple. Although he was raised in the church and his folks had fostered in him a strong social conscience, he hadn’t recognized the call of God on his heart until he heard the story of the prodigal son retold during the talk of the inaugural Bay Village club meeting.

As a young man he would slide into church sitting in the balcony or the back of the sanctuary, avoiding the people around him, people who seemed to have it all together. Now, as the senior pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Berea, Ohio, he knows better. No one has it all together, and he’s sensitive to the welcome people receive at St. Paul’s. “That is a Young Life influence — the idea that you could walk into club not knowing anything about God and still feel welcome. It didn’t matter who you were.”

Music’s appeal
And teenage kids often don’t know who they are or how God fits into their lives. True in the ’70s and true today. That’s why music is so central to Young Life and what it does so well. Music, in the words of Don Mook, area director from 1980 to 1988, is a “lock-pick” on a kid’s heart.

Joel LaRiccia, a volunteer leader and musician in the Cleveland clubs from 1972 to 1993, believes American teens discover music at the same time they are discovering themselves. “It’s no wonder that music wrings nostalgic responses from us involuntarily,” he said. “Music is another effective tool in relating to teens. If you ‘connect’ with a teen at this level, the chances they will allow you to share the Gospel with them increase exponentially.”

Discipleship: adults investing in kids
LaRiccia’s investment in kids didn’t stop with his gifts of music. Area directors and kids over the past three decades will say that whether it was hanging out at Friday night games or playing “Space Invaders” at video arcades (remember those?), LaRiccia poured himself into Cleveland’s young men. Most of them remember meeting at 6:30 on Saturday mornings for discipleship. There they learned the Gospel wasn’t meant to be held, but to be shared.

Mook, who has been a church pastor and is now the regional director for Young Life in the Caribbean, sees that as distinctive in Young Life. Where many church youth programs often are designed for kids to lead kids, Young Life works, he said, “Because adults lead kids. They find, encourage and lead them. Only then can a kid grasp what it means to reach out when it’s uncomfortable and even unpleasant. To understand that every person is worthwhile to God, and worth finding.”

Kids to kids: owning the ministry
Tom MacMillan was one of Mook’s kids in the ’80s who took the Gospel beyond a comfortable circle of friends. Owen* used to walk the cafeteria floor as though he knew and had befriended everyone. Fact is, when he did sit down, he sat alone.

One day, MacMillan said, “a friend and I just decided to sit with him. We sat with him for a month before he’d really talk. But once he started, he wouldn’t stop.” Owen began shadowing them and before long he was coming to club.

MacMillan related how, as a junior, he began to wonder if there was ever a time he could take a break. “Young Life set a high standard for us. But leadership and outreach were never mandates. It was more mysterious than that and in the realm of the Spirit.”

As senior pastor at John Knox Presbyterian Church in North Olmsted, Ohio, MacMillan said, “Young Life built into us that outreach is a part of our lives as Christians. It’s never an option, but, instead, what defines us.”

The taste that creates a thirst
Young Life provides a potent ministry tool to show kids how they can have an impact for Christ, according to Tom Hammon, a Young Life veteran of 34 years who succeeded Weaver as area director in 1973. Kids relating to their friends, inviting them to neutral territory to experience laughter, great music and a truthful message is a success strategy.

“Young Life gives kids more ministry in their teen years than most adults have the rest of their lives,” Hammon said. “Adults yearn for it and don’t know how to get it.”

That sentiment was echoed wistfully by Hammon’s predecessor and mentor, Pete Weaver, now the chief learning officer of a multi-national human resources consulting agency, when he said, “I laughed more and witnessed to more people in one week with Young Life than I have in my 28-year business career. There is a sense of cause in Young Life that’s unlike anything in business.”

Heaven sent
From a map room in Pittsburgh to a raucous living room on the shore of Lake Erie, dozens of Young Life kids from Cleveland, Ohio, have understood the mission, and brought it with them into church pulpits, high school hallways, college campuses, the Chicago Bears’ locker room and even Kazakhstan. You get the sense of a first-century “map room,” the one in the upper room where Jesus deployed the 11 fledgling faithful. Pleading on their behalf before God, Jesus prayed not only for them but He said, “for those who would come to believe in me through their message.” And He has been faithful to answer that prayer ever since.

*an alias