A Great Exchange

Every summer, Young Life camp is the place where thousands of teenagers arrive broken and leave healed with hearts that beat for Christ. But for three weeks in June 2008, the kids who converged at Lost Canyon near Flagstaff, Ariz., left with not only a new heart, but a new pair of eyes as well.

For the first time in its camping history, Young Life assembled an assignment team (a collection of Young Life staff working at a camp property for a month in the summer) that represented the true reach of its ministry. A program director from the Congo. A work crew boss from Paraguay. Songs were sung in Swahili. Prayers were prayed in Portuguese.

Young Life staff from 11 countries around the world were a part of the up-front and intimate workings of Lost Canyon during the first camping session of 2008. Hundreds of kids began a relationship with Jesus, but they also received a firsthand look into the lives of people beyond our borders who serve the God who made us all.

Diverse cultures, common purpose

Marty Caldwell, senior vice president for Young Life in the Southern Hemisphere, was the camp director at Lost Canyon. In years past, he said, Young Life camps have had one or two internationals serve on camp teams in behind-the-scenes roles during the summer. But their involvement at this camp was unique, with a twofold purpose and benefits for all.

“The idea is that the staff go home better able to pass on the values and mission of Young Life to their countries, cities and neighborhoods so the ministry can expand and grow around the world,” Caldwell said. “And, the kids who come through have a more worldwide experience.”

Steve Larmey, camp speaker and vice president of Young Life International for Africa, acknowledges it was a risk to bring in so many different cultures without knowing how the kids would respond.

“We didn’t know if a funny guy from Kenya and music from the Congo would connect with kids, but it was very powerful,” he said. “This camp helped kids get a big picture of the world and see that God is working everywhere, not just in their Young Life clubs.”

Caldwell agreed: “The blessing of having Latin American and African staff people together is that it gave everyone a bigger set of eyes to see the world. The uniqueness of their life experience opened lots of extra doors for kids.”

Opposites attract

Alexis Kwamy grew up in the Congo, but has been on Young Life staff in Tanzania for five years. During the civil war in the Congo in 2002, while Kwamy was away at college, his village was burned to the ground and 80 percent of his tribe was wiped out. His family had to flee in the night to Uganda. For years he didn’t know if they were dead or alive. He shared his story one night during club at Lost Canyon.

Clyde Stearns, the area director responsible for Young Life’s multicultural ministry in Dallas, said Kwamy’s story really resonated with his kids.

“Our kids are from tough communities and deal with drive-by shootings where one or two people are hurt or killed,” Stearns said. “But the Africans talked about wars wiping out entire villages where people had to run for their lives to an entirely different country. We have a lot of kids going through stuff with their families. When Alexis talked about being separated from his family for years, our kids realized they’re grateful their family is around, that they can see them. It put the ease of their lives in perspective.”

Kwamy said he was nervous about connecting with kids at first because of his accent, but found it was actually his uniqueness that drew kids to him.

“I wanted God to use me to bless kids here,” Kwamy said. “I wanted to bring awareness to kids that this is not just an American thing. The same Jesus who loves them loves kids in Africa, India, everywhere. Maybe meeting us put a heart in them for kids all over the world and even planted missionary seeds in them.”

Martin Wamalwa grew up on a farm in Kenya as one of 38 children. He was part of the program team and said the language of humor transcended their differences.

“With humor, facial expressions and body language are universal,” he said. “Right from the beginning they were able to get what we were passing on. Jesus is for all of us, wherever you are, whatever you do. God is using Young Life everywhere, all of the time.”

Lourens de Jager was raised in South Africa but lives in London, England. His parents are on Young Life staff in Zimbabwe. De Jager was a ropes course wrangler while at Lost Canyon and also said kids were attracted to his “different-ness.” “The fact that I had a different accent caused the kids to ask questions and open up after only mentioning my name,” he said. “We also found that the kids trusted me if I told them they were safe on the ropes course. They would take bigger risks and in less time.”

De Jager and others saw the fruit of their faithfulness over and over during the Say-So night at club, where kids stood up to publicly speak of what God had done in their lives that week.

“The Say-So gave us the chance to see the work God did through us,” de Jager said. “It was wonderful but very humbling and made me want to cry every time I saw those teenagers stand up and make a public proclamation of what Jesus had done for them. I think Jesus phrased it well when He said, ‘My food is to do the will of my Father.’ I had the opportunity to be a part of God’s will for three weeks and seeing the kids change will be food for me for the rest of this year. I know that I will not be satisfied with just doing a regular job or going on a regular holiday again.”

Life-changing perspective

Tre’bor Hooker graduated in May from Dallas’ South Oak Cliff High School and plans to volunteer with Young Life next year at the University of Texas in Austin. He said his eyes were opened by his time at Lost Canyon.

“It was a reality check for me,” Tre’bor said. “Their situations were real intense, but they kept a positive attitude. Even when things are not going well, they’re always happy. It just makes me think about being thankful all the time for what we have here.”

Caldwell knew the deep joy of this assigned team would strike a chord with the kids. “These are people who will probably never own a car or buy a home,” he said. “I think American kids don’t think it’s possible to have joy in abject poverty. They saw this month not only is it possible, it’s a reality. These are people with great joy who give their explanation for it as the hope they hold in Christ. They gave our kids a different lens to see the world.”

Witnessing the bigness of God

There were many questions about whether the effectiveness of Young Life would be lost in translation between the kids and leaders at Lost Canyon this summer. But with more than 300 decisions made for Christ, the results speak for themselves. Now it’s time to wait and watch what God continues to do globally through Young Life.

“I think everyone is going home with the right stuff,” Caldwell said. “I bet out of this we get Young Life started in the Sudan and South Africa. And there will be a deepening of the ministry in Argentina, Paraguay and Costa Rica. It was a fruitful time. It’s realized hope.”

Stateside, Chris Eaton, area director in Phoenix, Ariz., was inspired to consider taking a group of his kids to Tanzania for a week next summer. There, they would visit Young Life clubs and orphanages where the ministry has a strong presence and meet with the leaders.

“I think this would expand our kids’ minds in terms of Young Life’s reach and God’s reach and where He’s working,” Eaton said. “I hope they’d see there are bigger things happening there than what they see day to day in their own lives.”

Michael Washington, area director of Dallas Young Life in Fair Park, said he was as much in awe as his kids were of the international team who traveled far to serve them.

Washington took his group to the Grand Canyon on their way to camp. One glimpse into the great crater in the ground gave everyone a vision that something much bigger was going on, both for them and for the ministry that exists to bring them to the edge of new life in Christ.

“I told them if you think this is big, wait until you get a load of the God who created it. It’s the same with Young Life: if you think Young Life is big, wait ’til you see it from an international perspective,” he said.

“My kids now know someone who lives in Africa, and they know them intimately. They talked, laughed and shared with them. Now their eyes are opened to just how big the Gospel really is.”

The Now & the Not Yet

By Marty Caldwell
Sr. Vice President, International South Division

In some ways it was a wild experiment — gathering a team from 11 nations to run three full weeks of outreach camping; in other ways, we were simply standing on the shoulders of 67 years of excellence in Young Life camping history.

Each week we had leaders needing training and encouragement, work crew straining through the hardest work they’d ever done, summer staff learning how to lead with strength and gentleness, and kids sitting in the back of club, arms folded, daring anyone to love them or believe in them or try to break through their hard veneer of anger. In the midst of all this, the 20 minutes of silence was still my favorite time each week. After hearing about Jesus’ death on the cross for us, kids streamed out into the night in total silence. The silence is a symphony of all we cannot hear because of the thousands of voices out to destroy kids’ lives. The ONE voice speaks magnificently in this silence.

The hidden treasure of this assignment will be the potential of “secondary fruit” for years to come. The seeds planted here will go far beyond what we can even imagine — helping us to further the work in east Africa, Latin America, Europe and the United States. Lost Canyon was a consistent demonstration of what we hope is multiplied around the world.

This International team was a wild experiment for Young Life, but not for God. He’s been doing this from Genesis 1 on and though we (humankind) tried to wreck things in Genesis 3, we have not been able to stop His unfailing, relentless love from pursuing broken people like us (and lots of kids).