Memphis United

They still have a dream.

The city of Memphis boasts mouth-watering barbecue and world-class blues music. It‘s where the “king” Elvis Presley called home, and many families nationwide have found hope at the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

The city is also home to the infamous Lorraine Motel, the site of one of the most horrific acts in the history of American race relations.

“I was leading the Young Life club at Central High School when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated,” Memphis Metro Director Brad Baker said. “The racial division that happened in our city then was overwhelming.”

The city is still marred by racial tensions, but there’s hope inside the I-240 Beltway.

The Young Life leaders in Memphis are doing their part to combat that division. Over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the city’s various, racially diverse Young Life groups came together for a special camp trip to Windy Gap, Young Life’s camp in North Carolina.

“It was such an exciting weekend,” lifelong Memphis resident Nancy Holcomb said. “We think God is tearing down walls of prejudice, and it’s in Christ and Christ alone.”

A new chapter

In 1943, the First Evangelical Church in Memphis brought in Jim Rayburn to speak at a camp in Shelby Forest. That sparked the beginning of Young Life in the city.

Nancy Holcomb’s family has been involved with Memphis Young Life from day one.

“Nancy’s mother, when she was in high school, heard about Jim Rayburn,” said Hamp Holcomb, Nancy’s husband. “She and two other ladies from Central High School had Jim Rayburn come to Memphis. Nancy‘s family has been involved with Young Life for [nearly] 70 years now.”

Over the years, both traditional and urban models of Young Life have flourished in Memphis. However, the ministries have flourished somewhat independently. Until recently.

Last year, Memphis Young Life leaders made the agonizing decision to permanently cancel the annual ski trip to Colorado, a beloved tradition for nearly 40 years. Longtime leaders like Baker watched scores of kids give their lives to Christ on those ski trips.

In addition to the difficult but necessary decision, the leaders also decided to replace the ski trip with a camping trip. That opened the door for a city-wide trip over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

“We decided to bring their worlds together,” said Jonathan Torres, co-area director of Memphis Multicultural/Urban Young Life. “We weren’t intentionally divided. It just happened that way. We wanted to be intentional about bringing them together. We wanted to figure out a way to get kids from all different parts of the city to come together for one camping trip. We got together and made it a reality.”

Walls come tumbling down

Just because something hasn’t been done in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The Memphis Young Life leaders had no promises that the weekend would be a success, but it was a risk they were willing to take.

The biggest concern heading into the weekend was designing a program and presentation of the Gospel that would connect with a diverse teenage audience. The forethought that went into making the camp a success was evident throughout the weekend.

Whether it was the musical variety provided by Jon Jackson and Drew and Ellie Holcomb, or the carefully selected teams during the field games, the weekend was designed to bring kids together.

“Every kid there laughed at the humor and listened to the Gospel,” Baker said. “I think they hit a homerun in making it fit for every kid.”

Kids usually arrive at Young Life camp with their walls up. The weekend at Windy Gap, with around 200 white teens and 200 black teens, was no different. The kids were standoffish at first. It wasn’t long, however, before kids had their arms around the person beside them singing the old Jackson Five classic, “I’ll Be There.”

Jake Craft, a volunteer leader at suburban St. George’s High School, watched the walls come tumbling down.

“It doesn’t take long for them to take down their walls or their tough guy or pretty girl mask,” Craft said. “They could just be real and have fun and do stupid stuff up front and be shameless about it all. Everything from the music to the games was a really good mix of styles between suburban and urban Young Life camp.”

For Jazmine, a senior at Kingsbury High School, the camp trip to Windy Gap exceeded her wildest expectations.

“It was the best weekend of my life,” Jazmine said. “Everybody was getting along really well. We got to see different people come from different areas that we wouldn’t see come together. Usually the urban people are always with each other, and the suburban people are always together. It was great to have everyone there together.”

Something in common

As the weekend progressed, kids from urban schools such as Kingsbury and suburban schools like Germantown realized that they weren’t all that different. The teens all shared similar musical tastes. And they can all relate to living in a fallen world.

“It’s just cool to see that no matter what school or race, whether you’re out in the country or if you’re in the middle of the downtown inner city, that high school kids have the same problems,” Craft said. “The details differ, but overall they still suffer with the same stuff.”

The Gospel and its verbal proclamation have always been essential parts of Young Life camp, just as the lives of the leaders, work crew and summer staff have always served as a living proclamation of the Gospel being shared by the speaker.

For one weekend, kids in Memphis experienced another aspect of God’s kingdom.

“A lot of walls were torn down for these kids,” Torres said. “We realize in Revelation — every tribe, tongue and nation — there won’t be any people missing. For them to get that small glimpse of heaven, it’s worth the whole weekend for us.”

Race relations still have a long way to go in Memphis, but a new day is on the horizon.

“It’s taken us a long time to get past that division,” Baker said, “but Memphis, unlike any city I know, has so many ministries working hard to bridge those gaps.”