Southern Strides

They wandered in one day before practice because they heard there would be pizza. Their coach found them there and watched a bit of the S.V. Marshall High Young Life club and now, with the coach’s blessing, the entire basketball team comes to club every week.

Young Life at Marshall, a K-12 school in Tchula, Miss., in the heart of the Delta, has come into a new season, said Area Director Quiana Head. When Head, a Tchula native, came back to the area in 2001 with a passion for the kids there, she knew the Lord had called her to carry the ministry on her shoulders in its early stages. Just three years later, dozens of kids like those basketball players have put their own imprint on Young Life.

“The first year of doing Young Life, the kids would go to see Young Life and kind of peek in,” said Head, who attended the same school. “The second year, it was like the kids really got it, but they were still just passing through. But this year, it is their Young Life, and I’m obligated to them. It’s their Young Life and I need to be there.”

The Mississippi Delta, an area known for high unemployment and rampant poverty, has been prominent on the Young Life radar screen since 1996, when Young Life President Denny Rydberg introduced the area as one of the mission’s targets for beginning ministry there. Soon money was being donated from all over the country to help build a foundation in the Delta, and those benefactors, many of whom had never set foot in Mississippi, made a way for Head to return home like a prodigal, armed with the Gospel.

Plans to grow
In addition to Head’s area, Young Life is established in West Helena, Ark., Greenville, Miss., and Clarksdale, Miss., all towns in the Delta region. And the next area that is likely to get started is Greenwood, Miss., which is the city where Head actually lives. It’s also the largest city near Tchula.

“I’m thrilled with the progress, I’m thrilled with our growth,” said John Evans, the regional director for the Mississippi Valley Region. “It’s still hard to fund. We’re still trying to figure out how to fund it by people who care about it from all over the nation. But God has provided for it.”

Not only do they face a funding challenge, but those ministering to kids in the Delta are also trying to combat some skepticism among the kids. Frank Brown, the area director in Clarksdale for two years, said that the kids in his area had encountered some youth ministers in the past — but they came and went in a short time. So when Brown and his wife, Kristina, arrived, their first crucial task was to build trust.

“The girls would ask my wife, ‘How long are you going to be here?’” Brown said.

Now about 50 kids come to Young Life each week — a number that is even more significant because only 110 are in the high school’s student body. The area’s first WyldLife club drew 70 middle school kids partly because, Brown said, it was something to do.

“There’s nothing else, not even a movie theater,” he said. “So we’re it. We’re the thing.”

Brown also oversees the ministry in Greenville, which is an hour and a half away, and has just hired Whitney Dinkins as its first staff person in several years. The eventual goal for both Clarksdale and Greenville is to start the type of ministry Head is having so much success with in Tchula.

In Tchula, Head has started WyldLife, which is Young Life for middle school kids. They alternate WyldLife and Young Life clubs each week in the school library. And she also leads a morning Campaigner group that is often almost as large as club, but its purpose is for kids who are looking to explore how faith applies to their lives and their struggles, she said. One of her greatest needs is for volunteers to partner with her in those efforts, and one such leader came from an unlikely place.

Gary Ryals Jr. is a youth pastor from Lake Village, Ark., who had little knowledge of Young Life until he met Perry and Joyce Brooks, who chair Head’s committee. Ryals was drawn to the ministry and saw that Head was trying to carry it by herself, so he became her only volunteer leader.

Now Ryals drives more than an hour every Wednesday afternoon to play guitar, lead skits, speak and love the kids from Tchula. The distance prevents him from reaching out to the kids much during the week, he said, but he has been able to dig deep enough to see kids take significant steps toward their Heavenly Father.

“They really love the music,” Ryals said. “Actually, they love the whole thing. One of the best things about club is just seeing how excited they are that someone is willing to hang out with them.”

Ryals grasped the true heartbeat of the mission last summer, when he led a cabin of Tchula guys on a trip to SharpTop Cove, a Young Life camp in Georgia, that included 15 kids from the area. It was a privilege, he said, to take these kids from a small town in an impoverished area to a place where they could experience the Lord anew.

“Their concept of God, it kind of blew me away,” he said. “None of them had really grown up in church. It was just amazing to sit back and hear them talk about who God was.”

Loyal support
If it seems amazing that a volunteer leader would travel 140 miles round trip to lead a club, consider this: The majority of Head’s committee makes the same drive. When Perry and Joyce Brooks retired to the Arkansas area several years ago, they brought with them an understanding of Young Life from their son, Albus, who’s an area director in Denver.

They learned about Head’s efforts through a 2001 Relationships article and contacted her. They soon discovered, as Ryals did later, that she was running Young Life with very little help, so they agreed to join her committee and before long they found themselves in charge.

“We were struck not only by Quiana’s vision, but by her passion when she presents the vision,” said Perry Brooks, who hopes to help birth a Young Life ministry in Lake Village, Ark., sometime as well. “When people hear her talk about kids and what she tries to do for kids, they walk away wanting to know more about Young Life and how they can get involved. We recruited a few people from our area, and we make the drive every month.”

Perhaps the most ambitious project undertaken by the Brookses and their fellow committee members so far was the Delta Young Life area’s first-ever fund-raising banquet. Held last October in the city of Greenwood near Tchula, the committee recruited 15 people to host tables of dinner guests. The end result was 115 guests in attendance, $23,000 raised toward the ministry and an enduring image of racial harmony in an area that is still gripped by black-white issues, Head said.

“It was amazing,” she said. “People enjoyed it. They’re still talking about it. The diversity was great. Everybody sat and laughed and talked with each other. It was a beautiful picture.”

Personal triumphs
In her personal life, Head has also made inroads into some decades-old racial barriers. She bought a house in a predominantly white neighborhood and joined a church in Greenwood where she and her daughter, Qua’Niya, are the only black members.

Through relationships in that church she met the family who founded Pillow Academy, a private school in Greenwood, and now Qua’Niya is a sixth-grader there and the first black student ever to attend the school.

“Quiana is breaking ground that is just amazing,” John Evans said.

To supplement her Young Life income, Head also took a part-time job at the Alluvian Spa, a five-star facility in Greenwood, and she spreads the word about Young Life to customers every chance she gets. When Bill Cosby planned a visit to Greenwood in November 2005, Head was asked to speak as part of the program. When Cosby had to leave before his speech because of a family illness, Head still gave her talk about her life and the hope and renewed purpose she discovered through Jesus Christ.

“[Cosby] wanted a couple of people in this community who could relate to his message of hope and not giving up,” Head said.

Head still hopes to attract new leaders who will find themselves as captivated by the kids in the Delta and their needs as she is. She loves to hear the Tchula kids talk about the importance of Young Life, how it gives them something positive to do in a town where dead-end roads tend to be the norm.

“Several kids have said to me that it’s amazing to them that they can hang out with their classmates and friends in big groups and have no fights, just have fun and sing songs,” she said. “Another kid told me that Young Life has given him something else to do, because there’s nothing to do. Another kid said that it’s great to have someone share the Bible with him in a totally different way.”

Kids in the Delta have many reasons for coming to Young Life, but the local staff, dedicated committee and growing teams of leaders have one reason for making sure Young Life happens: to bring kids face to face with their Heavenly Father, the One who can make an eternal imprint on their hearts.