A Man for All Seasons

Sixty-four years old. Thirty feet in the air. Ten toes touching a thin ledge, and a dozen teenage boys chanting his name from the ground below. It all added up to one death-defying moment for Myron Salisian. So, like a good attorney, he began to cross-examine the person on the stand.

What were you thinking, Myron? How did you end up on this platform in the trees? Wasn’t it enough that you came to camp with kids? Did you really have to do the ropes course too? Shouldn’t someone who has practiced law for almost 40 years obey the law of gravity and respectfully climb down?

Ultimately, Salisian’s objections were overruled by the common law of Young Life. As he leapt into thin air, leaders across the ages could hear his silent scream, “I’m winning the right to be heard!”

“I can’t remember another moment that intense,” Salisian said moments later, feet planted firmly on the ground. “It was a risk. But high school ministry is a risk.” Apparently, this wasn’t Salisian’s first death-defying act in Young Life.

In fact, two years earlier, Salisian was meeting with his local area director to encourage him in his work when Salisian found himself teetering toward another flying leap of faith. As Dave Avramovich talked persuasively about taking kids to camp, Salisian talked privately to Jesus.

“Lord, don’t let Dave ask me to go to camp,” he pleaded. “I’m just too old.”

Losing to Jesus ... again

Salisian is an excellent estate-planning attorney, but he rarely wins an argument with Jesus when he insists on protecting his own assets because of his age. The case with Avramovich was no different. Two years, two camp trips and countless hours on campus later, Salisian is still enjoying his free fall into Pasadena High.

“I’ve discovered, surprisingly, that I feel more at ease in my 60s with teenagers than when I was in my 20s,” said the man who first led Young Life in 1971 at San Marino High School in Southern California. “I’m not worried about trying to be cool or impress anybody. I’m a father. I’ve raised two children. I feel comfortable around these kids and they sense that.”

Salisian feels comfortable around kids like feet feel comfortable in well-worn shoes. It’s the kind of comfort that’s pressed into a piece of leather after years of bending and flexing with the limits of life and the sculpting forces of nature. Salisian has been shaped by the changing seasons of service across the past four decades.

In the early ’70s, he led club with the freedom of a single man in his 20s. In 1977, however, Salisian stepped aside to focus on his new ministry: his marriage. In 1990, Salisian’s own kids began to hit middle school and it was time to re-engage. He started a Baseball Card Club at Huntington Middle School and began to meet kids. Soon, the Monday lunch club morphed into a Friday afternoon WyldLife club where Salisian led for five years. Then, from 1996 through 1999, Salisian met every Saturday morning for Bible study with a young man who had met Christ through WyldLife. The two became lifelong friends.

For the next few years, Salisian made it his practice to meet with Young Life staff in the local area simply to encourage them and to listen — which eventually landed him on the ledge with Avramovich and launched him into a new season of leadership in Young Life.

You’re kidding ... right?

It’s hard to label the current season of Salisian’s ministry. Chronologically you might call it autumn, but it looks a little bit like spring. Life is always breaking out around Salisian — life and a lot of laughter.

“I show up at the school and something special happens,” Salisian said. “I have so many people praying for Pasadena High School, it’s like the Holy Spirit has preceded me when I arrive.” The man has stories. And more than some of Salisian’s stories sound like the set-up for a joke.

For instance, did you hear the one about the 64-year-old lawyer who took three high school football players to the local drive-thru for some burgers after school? Unbeknownst to the boys, this particular fast-food chain was owned by believers who had tucked a nifty Bible verse beneath the bottom of the paper cups. Myron asked the boys to look at the bottom of the cups and tell him what they saw.

“John 3:16,” one answered.

“Do you know what that verse says?” Salisian asked.

“Yeah,” said one of the boys. “I think it says, ‘Thou shalt not something.’”

The hilarious punchline is that the 64-year-old lawyer got to share the Gospel with the three football players in the fast-food drive-thru using a paper cup. That’s almost as funny as the one where the lawyer and the championship basketball coach screamed like little girls on the double swing at camp. But to laugh at that one, you’d have to know Tim Tucker.

Hail to the chief

“Knowing Tim is like knowing the president of the United States,” Salisian said. Tucker has such a long history of success coaching boys’ basketball at Pasadena High School, you can read about him on Wikipedia as a name that defines the school. But what you won’t find on Wikipedia is the name that defines Coach Tucker.

“Tim has a tremendous desire for kids to meet the Lord,” Salisian explained. Tucker met Christ through Young Life in high school, and has teamed up with Salisian to reach kids at PHS.

Pasadena High School is 50 percent Latino/Hispanic, 23 percent African-American and 21 percent Caucasian. More than two-thirds of the students come from lower socioeconomic levels, and 10 percent of those are living in foster care or group homes. Still, life is looking up for many students at PHS. Every Thursday at lunch, Salisian and Coach Tucker meet with kids and other caring adults for a mentoring group called “Bulldogs on the Rise.”

“It’s not a Young Life club, but our hope is to develop relationships with kids,” Salisian explained. Many of those kids have come with Salisian and Tucker to camp, and most of them look distinctly different from Salisian.

“My surprise as a senior citizen Armenian has been that race and age are not barriers when it comes to building friendships with kids,” Salisian said. “Kids just want to be connected with adults who care.”

Salisian is an excellent estate-planning attorney, but he keeps losing cases when it comes to protecting his own assets. He keeps risking everything he has so kids can know Jesus Christ. Still, he enjoys some rich rewards.

“I was sitting at a basketball game last winter, calling out the names of players and words of encouragement, when a parent asked me if I had a son on the team,” Salisian recalled. “I said ‘no,’ and explained that I had taken some of those kids to Young Life camp. The parent looked at me and said, ‘That’s my son. That week changed his life.’”

Did you hear the one about the 70-year-old retired attorney who won the Blob competition with kids at camp? Stick around for six more years, and you just might.

Editor’s note: This spring, club resumed at Pasadena High School for the first time in more than two decades. Salisian reported that the first club was packed with kids who heard him speak on “the verse on the bottom of the paper cup” (John 3:16). Salisian said he was so choked up afterward, he could hardly speak, seeing what God is doing at Pasadena High School.

Walking with Well-Worn Shoes

Myron Salisian has pounded the pavement for nearly 40 years, looking for lost kids, walking beside new believers, and standing behind local staff and leaders with a listening ear and God’s love. He’s a seasoned leader who walks among kids today with the comfort of well-worn shoes. Following are a few principles that have helped Salisian walk so well for so long.

  • Never walk alone. In the early years, Salisian met regularly with a mentor who encouraged him and listened without focusing on his performance as a leader. Today, Salisian has recruited his church to adopt the high school where he works. In addition, Salisian’s Young Life leader from 48 years ago still walks with him from across the country. “Monty Burnham prays for my ministry at PHS today.”

  • Keep your feet on campus. A lot has changed since Salisian first started leading Young Life in 1971, but winning the right to be heard through contact work? “You can’t beat that,” said Salisian. Salisian shows up at the high school at least twice each week.

  • Step through every open door. Coach Tim Tucker was an open door for Salisian at Pasadena High. Coach Tucker met Christ at Young Life camp as a kid. Salisian started helping the boys’ basketball coach lead a mentoring group at lunch. Together the two men have taken kids to camp for two years running.

  • Change your pace as needed. “At camp I take a nap every afternoon,” Salisian said. “I want to make it through the week!” Salisian changed his pace across the years as well, taking breaks as needed and adjusting the shape of his leadership for the changing seasons of his life.

  • Resist the urge to run away. “Kids today are dealing with such traumatic, complicated issues,” Salisian said. “I know I can’t fix anything. My hope is to help them build a relationship with the One who can help them — Jesus.”

  • Just keep walking. “I hope other adults my age will consider becoming leaders,” Salisian said. “Kids need the kind of stability in their lives that older adults can offer.”

  • Do a little dance. “Leading is such a privilege,” Salisian said. “I would have never predicted I’d be doing this at my age. I totally love it.” (Totally? Is this man really in his 60s?) When you’ve led Young Life across a few decades, don’t be surprised if you find yourself dancing in your well-worn shoes.