When Learning Meets Life

It’s not every day that a diverse group of high school students have the opportunity to spend time with peers in a concentrated program of discipleship and leadership development. But that’s exactly what happened for 36 high school kids this summer, thanks to a cooperative program between Young Life and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. As participants in Student Leadership Project (SLP), these high schoolers — most of whom were already student leaders within Young Life — came to southern California for 11 days of study and service.

“We learned about trusting God and loving people,” said Lauren, an SLP participant and Young Life junior leader from Overland Park, Kan. “It seems basic, but we learned how to do that and what that looks like.”

For Marquese Averett, a student from Dallas, Texas, the experience was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

“This event has changed me a great deal and has made me look at life in a whole different perspective,” he said. “I was so glad to see other young people who are so excited for God and who have a passion and a desire to serve Him. This was out of the ordinary for me, but it was so awesome.”

Richness in diversity
SLP, now in its fourth summer, has a dual emphasis on discipleship and leadership development. Part of the richness of the program is the diversity of its participants: This year’s group comprised 36 high school students from 15 states; and approximately half were kids of color. In addition, the kids represented a variety of economic backgrounds and came from urban, rural and suburban areas, even from some of the most remote parts of Alaska.

“The diversity — racially and economically — was a vital part of the experience because they all learned about how each other lives,” said Clyde Stearns, an area director in Dallas, Texas, who served as an SLP mentor this year, helping to facilitate the activities during the program. Stearns also brought two students from his area with him to participate in SLP.

In order to be accepted into the program, students must demonstrate a commitment to walking with Christ and the potential for leadership among their peers, in addition to receiving the recommendation of their Young Life area director. Cliff Anderson, special training projects coordinator for Young Life, summed up the group of top-notch kids.

“We took 36 of our finest Campaigner [kids] from around the United States and helped teach them how to live as followers of Jesus in their everyday world,” Anderson said. “The equal mix of males, females, white kids and kids of color helped to create a community of believers more fully representing the kingdom of God. Those factors, plus excellent leadership from Young Life staff and Fuller Seminary, provided an excellent environment for learning and growing for the kids.”

Vern Hill, an associate regional director who also served as an SLP mentor, described how the program helped kids grow in their faith: “Students grew because they were confronted with faith decisions and ethical dilemmas daily in their experiences and classes. Students grew in their view of God’s kingdom because each day they experienced God’s love for everyone — even people different than themselves — as they worked, prayed, learned and played with [other students] of different race, economic background, denomination and life experience.”

Hill also said that the combination of classroom learning, real-life experiences, fellowship and opportunities for reflection was powerful. “Kids could immediately live and practice what God was teaching them.”

Real-life impact
For example, one day students were tasked with exploring ministry in two very different parts of Los Angeles — McArthur Park, a diverse middle- to low-income neighborhood, and Rodeo Drive, a luxury shopping area. In each neighborhood, students were each given $5 and challenged to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Afterward, kids and mentors de-briefed about their experiences. The exercise helped students understand the impact of context (in this case, economic) on ministry.

In MacAurthur Park, students gave out things like “Happy Meals,” water and candy to people in the park. Marquese said he was emotionally moved by the experience. “There were homeless people, hungry people, people with no shoes and no clothes, people who could not speak English. When we ministered to them my heart just felt their pain and I was deeply saddened.”

Stearns and the other mentors encouraged students to focus on the people they were trying to help. “It wasn’t just about handing out something and looking past the person,” he said. “The students learned to listen to people as they talked about their lives. That was the most powerful part of the experience.”

On Rodeo Drive, the task seemed tricky in light of the economic contrast compared with MacArthur Park. But students learned that in that setting, people may be suffering from a poverty of a different kind.

“I just thought, ‘These people don’t need $5,’” Lauren said. Still, Lauren’s group chose a recipient, and they wrote “God is what you’re looking for” on the bill before giving it to her. Hannah added, “There’s always someone you can help, no matter if they are rich or poor. They have a need, and we can help to fill that need.”

That’s one of the main lessons instructors and mentors hoped the students learned from the activity.

“This experience opened their eyes to the fact that you can make a difference and it doesn’t have to affect the entire world, but you can impact your community,” Stearns said. “And as you do that, God can give you more and more territory to impact.”

Thinking things through
After ministry experiences like these, the students had the opportunity to debrief and gain input through learning sessions with Young Life leaders and Chap Clark, professor of youth, family and culture at Fuller Seminary.

“We learned that God doesn’t put bad things in our lives — That’s just life,” Lauren said.  “It’s like we’re on a roller coaster, and God wants us to trust Him through the ups and downs.”

The learning sessions kept students like Hannah thinking.

“At SLP I was writing notes like crazy,” she said.  “The classes helped me gain confidence in leadership. I want to take on more of a spiritual leadership position with my friends now.”

A wider world 
For some SLP participants, just traveling to Pasadena was part of their eyes being opened to the  world around them.

“For my guys, it was their first time on a plane,” Stearns said of the kids he brought with him to SLP. Now that they’ve been home, Stearns said the SLP experience has broadened their perspectives of themselves, their capabilities and the communities and world in which they live.

“They’re talking differently, acting differently, looking forward to when school starts, wanting to help plan out Campaigners and planning other ways to have a wide and deep impact in their school.”

In response to what they have learned and experienced, many SLP students plan to do some things differently in the future.

“SLP influenced me to get into volunteer work,” said James, a student from Washington.  “After seeing MacArthur Park and then the drastic change to Rodeo Drive, I realized that all these people need to experience someone serving them and showing them love. Christ calls us to love people with the same love He showed us.”

And that love is meant for all, Tucker added. “This has been an educational tool to teach us about different cultures. No matter what you’re doing, the common ground is love — love for someone homeless and addicted to drugs in MacArthur Park, and love for someone driving a Maserati.”

Blessed to be a witness
During their final evening together, the students gathered for a powerful closing time of worship, prayer and blessing. Some youth leaned over a table with art supplies in the back of the room, fashioning collages that expressed to God what was on their hearts. As others came one by one to a counselor for a blessing, both faces were backlit by a candle that symbolized the light of Christ’s presence. Students came forward to wash one another’s hands at a third station; as they waited in line, some hugged each other and cried. Music played in the background with the lyrics, “I am blessed, I am blessed to be a witness … ”

And as the evening culminated with the sharing of Communion, the SLP participants seemed to go out with a sense that they had indeed been blessed by the experiences of the last 11 days in powerful ways — and that, by God’s grace, they were also now better equipped to share that blessing in the diverse contexts to which they were returning.