Coming Home

Not quite 1,000 people live in Bandera, Texas. In fact, some say there are more horses than humans in this small Hill Country town. It’s a good 30 miles from Utopia and a little south of Comfort, but this dot on the map never left the heart of Linda Berg, who spent her teenage years here. Today, 42-year-old Berg and her family — after several years living on the East Coast — reside just up the road from the town she grew up in and her high school alma mater. And now this school, which she prayed for for 20 years, is the center of a ministry that, less than a year ago, no one had ever heard of.

Some small town natives who venture outside the city limits never return, but Berg’s connection to Bandera is unique and strong. And just as Jesus fed thousands with a little boy’s lunch, He’s now multiplied the passion of this one woman who, with the help of community leaders and concerned adults, is reaching lost teenagers for Christ through Young Life.

A heart for home

While she was a student at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Berg considered herself a Christian “because I was an American.” During her junior year, she broke up with her boyfriend. The friends who were her support during that tough time were Young Life leaders.

One of them encouraged her to read the book of John. “And that’s how God explained what He did for me. By the time I got to chapter three, everything clicked for me. I could totally relate to Nicodemus’ questions about being born again. John 3:16 was brand new for me. It was like I’d never heard it before.”

That moment, she accepted Christ. And it was a significant event for many reasons.

“At first, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that God would receive me,” she said. “And then I started thinking, ‘Why wasn’t Young Life at my high school?’ Right then, I felt like I heard God saying to me, ‘Because you’re going to do that.’ I thought I must be going crazy. I’d known God for two minutes and I hear Him speaking to me? For years I thought I’d made it up. But it never left me.”

So, Berg decided to get in touch with Young Life to let them know about her small town and its need. The Service Center explained to her what had to happen in order to start a new club — committee, community commitment, finances — and she filed it all away. But she didn’t stop calling. In fact, Berg called Young Life every other year for 15 years to tell them about the teenagers in Bandera.

Throughout the next decade, Berg would join Young Life staff, meet her husband, Tim, at Windy Gap, start four new clubs along the East Coast and have four children. Berg left staff to focus on her growing family in 1992. In 1996, the Bergs moved to Kerrville, Texas, another small town just 30 miles from Bandera.

“All those years, I wished my old high school could have Young Life,” Berg said. “I often thought of the kids there who were without the knowledge that there is a God who loves them and can fill their souls and direct their lives.”

Then one evening, her husband brought everything full circle. “Last year, over Christmas break, my husband told me he’d been praying. He said, ‘You know how you’ve always wished Young Life would come to Bandera? Well, I think you’re supposed to do it.’” So she called Pete Johnson, the regional director, and set up a meeting. Instead, Johnson told her Bandera was a target area and they’d been praying for five years for someone to start Young Life there. So they made a plan.

Those “no way” moments

Berg spent January and February of 2007 talking to everyone she knew in town, but the conversations seemed to lead to dead ends.

“I told God if I don’t find someone to respond to the idea of bringing Young Life here in the next week, I’m giving up.” The next day, she met Glenn Muennink.

Muennink has been the probation officer for Bandera County since 1991. Instead of sitting behind a desk on the phone, the 56-year-old spends time with his charges rock climbing, mountain biking and white-water rafting.

Berg found out about Muennink’s work with kids and the two went to lunch. Berg explained Young Life to him and prepared for another rejection. But Muennink said, “I’m not allowed as a probation officer to tell these kids about the one thing that can change their lives. But I can on my own time, if I volunteer with you. I’ll do anything to help you get this started.”

In a month’s time, word of Young Life spread like wildfire. Two interest meetings resulted in 65 adults hearing about the mission, and Berg knew it was time for the next step. In mid-April, she began calling Young Life camps, looking for available summer camping spots. She found space at Crooked Creek and snatched them up. One generous family, who knew the cost would be prohibitive for most, offered to underwrite the trip and charge everyone just $100.

Camp: a first for all

On July 14, 2007, 57 kids — including six with Muennink’s probation program — and 12 leaders, none of whom had never even seen a Young Life club before, boarded buses bound for the best week of their lives. A week later, 18 teenagers had accepted Christ and seven rededicated their lives to Him.

Kelli Hohn, a junior, was one of them.

“The whole week changed me,” she said. “I used to care so much about what people thought. As the week went by I listened more in club and listened more to God and one day, I asked my leader to help me ask Jesus into my heart. I felt so much weight lifted off my shoulders. I realized I could put it all on Him. Young Life helped me realize He was there all the time.”

Kim Williams, a mother of four, thought Young Life camp was a hoax when she first heard about it. She ended up going on the trip as a leader and said the experience was transforming.

“I was just so blown away,” she said. “You couldn’t help but feel loved there. The kids kept saying, ‘This is all for us?’ They’ve been so hungry for something, but didn’t know it was Jesus they were hungry for. I saw attitudes change. I saw hearts change. We went home praising God. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”

For Berg, camp was the culmination not only of months of pavement-pounding and phone calls, but years of prayer for kids she knew had a desperate need.

“When those 18 kids stood up to tell the camp they had accepted Christ, I never felt so much emotion,” she said, still tearful. “It felt like getting to hear, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

All in God’s time

God answered more than one prayer during this process. Five years ago, Kerry and Dee Dee Stewart moved from San Antonio to Bandera and sought Christian fellowship, but it was challenging. Their two teenagers didn’t have the Christian friends they hoped they’d find, so they began to pray.

“I was longing to teach my kids’ friends about the Bible,” Kerry Stewart said. “So I prayed, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to have a Bible study in my home?’ I was thinking a few friends from school or something. But when we heard about Young Life, we said, ‘That’s it!’”

The Stewarts served as trip leaders for Crooked Creek and also recruited many kids for camp. Dee Dee, a seventh-grade science teacher, and her husband are now head leaders for Bandera’s new Young Life club.

“I already had a relationship with many of these kids, but it shifted from being ‘Mrs. Stewart my seventh-grade science teacher’ to ‘my Young Life leader Dee Dee, let’s go get blobbed together!’” she said. “We are humbled and excited God is calling us to be part of this. We just couldn’t say no. It was so obvious we needed to do it — for our kids, for their friends and their friends, for my students and for my future students.”

The Stewarts also opened their home for Campaigners right after camp. As God’s economy goes, Kerry Stewart’s prayer for a handful of teenagers in a Bible study grew into 30 eager new and young believers in his living room every week.

“Right now, we are God’s vessels,” he said. “I would love to have the energy of a teenager to lead or not have to work five days a week, but this is who God has selected right now and the kids seem to respond well to it.”

The right season

Before their first club met at the end of September, South Texas Regional Director Pete Johnson helped train Bandera leaders, set up their committee and keep the enthusiasm going. Based on his 21 years on staff and eight years in the region, Johnson believes what’s happening in Bandera is the “real deal.”

“Bandera represents what I see a lot in Young Life small towns,” he explained. “You are entering into a revival, and it has less to do with Young Life and more to do with people in the community who have a burden for the town. The community is on fire for the kids, the leaders are growing in their faith and putting it into action, and the need there is great.

“This quickly spread from Linda’s vision to the community’s vision; it’s an active, vibrant work that’s fun to watch. And this was the season it was all supposed to come together.”

Berg calls Bandera Young Life a “dream come true.” Those who know the town well might use the term “miracle.” But for the lost teenagers who’ve lately found themselves face to face with Jesus, this is the salvation they’ve been looking for.

“Kids everywhere need to know Jesus,” Berg said, “But I know from experience that the kids of Bandera High School need Jesus because I was one of them. This has been so fulfilling. I’ll be forever grateful that God used me to help make it happen.”

Want to find out how to start Young Life in your community? Go to the Locator. Search for the Young Life regional office near you and contact a regional director to find out what you need to do.