The Mission in Metropolis

New York City is a place of grand sentiments: "The Big Apple." "The city that never sleeps." "Gotham." "The melting pot."
For Young Life leaders, the city's young people evoke large sentiments too. For more than half a century, caring adults have worked with teenagers here. Today, the opportunity to reach the more than 5.3 million kids in and around the city has never been greater and the mission is looking to add to an already rich tradition.

Humble beginnings

The 1960s marked a new chapter in the mission of Young Life. Over the previous two decades, the work centered primarily on reaching kids in suburban high schools. As the mission grew, however, many in Young Life felt​ their hearts stirred toward pursuing teenagers in the cities, who were also desperate to hear the Good News about a loving Savior.

Young Life's presence began in New York City in 1960, when three concerned men, Harv Oostdyk, Vinnie Pasquale and Bill Milliken, answered God's call to care for hurting teenagers. The trio began hanging out with kids in Harlem and the Lower East Side, slowly and faithfully building relationships of trust.

One teen to benefit from their patient endurance was Bo Nixon (see page 11 ). Nixon and his wife, Mary, have worked with leaders and kids on the Lower East Side for decades. Their faithfulness has since led to work in other parts of the city too.

Along with Harlem and Brooklyn, there is currently ministry in Manhattan, historically a hotbed for Young Life and a beachhead into the city, said Paul Coty, associate regional director for the New York Metropolitan Region.

The city is calling

In New York Harbor, Lady Liberty invites the world to "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Many yearning for that freedom are kids, whose needs cannot be ignored by the men and women God continues to call to care for them.

Paul Coty is one such man. He left the teaching profession convinced the kids he was teaching needed more from him. "I was offered the opportunity to pursue an administrative degree," he said. "I turned it down believing God was leading me into full-time ministry." On staff since 1999, Coty's vision has not waivered.

During the spring of 2006, Coty and the Young Life team prayed from the roof of a local church. "The rooftop allowed us a full view of the entire city. As committee, staff and volunteers prayed, the Lord gave me a vision of the city's kids coming to the feet of Jesus and then transforming the communities where they live. My prayer was, 'Lord give me the kids and don't move me until you allow me to see both the transformed and those transforming.'"

Coty, who also continually asks the Lord to raise up more laborers in New York's "fields," was thrilled to see a kindred spirit, John Wagner, move to the city in August 2011.

Wagner may be new to New York, but not city ministry. On Young Life staff for 29 years, he has been intimately acquainted with the work in Washington, D.C., since 1982. The past year has been a year of calling for Wagner and his wife, Gae.

At a Senior Leadership Team meeting last fall, Wagner listened as the speaker shared from Acts 2, where visitors "from every nation under heaven" gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. Peter shared the Gospel with the people there and thousands were saved.

"All I could think about was New York and the opportunity there to proclaim the Gospel to literally the whole world," Wagner said. "I sat there, unable to move, tears streaming down my face, crowded by those around me and yet having a sense of being completely and utterly alone. God had spoken to me this clearly maybe four or five other times in my life. It was both exciting and frightening at the same time.

"It was as if God had gripped me by the shirt collar. I was being called. I couldn't wait. My world was exploding. I was so excited. I was scared to death."

In June, Wagner entered a brand new role for the mission: senior vice president for the Greater New York Division, which encompasses Metropolitan New York, Long Island, Westchester County, N.Y., Northern New Jersey and Connecticut.

Big town, big challenges

Wagner and Coty know reaching 5.3 million kids is a Herculean task. "The educational, financial and social needs are immense," Wagner said, "Families, schools and neighborhoods are in chaos, so how we engage in ministry in this kind of setting, and what we may need to do differently or what new 'wineskins' may be needed are all things we need to figure out."

The challenges to the work are threefold: people, name recognition and finances.

Like the rest of the mission, this city can never have too many quality leaders. Wagner said, "The diversity of New York is one of its great strengths and also one of its great challenges. One size doesn't fit all here. We'll be challenged to find leaders in different communities who can understand and speak the language of a particular culture and have the DNA of Young Life."

Coty agreed, "We need to create a pipeline of leadership that doesn't exist yet. The greatest Young Life work is yet to be done. In a city this size, we need to find more than a few good men and women."

An international organization with a presence in more than 70 countries, Young Life's name recognition still remains a work in progress in New York City. "Most people here have never heard of Young Life," Wagner said, "so in most communities, with most leaders, administrators, potential volunteers or donors, we are starting from scratch."

Finally, greater outreach requires greater resources. "To grow the work we'll need to raise a substantial amount of new money in a place where the Christian community is small and so is the pool of money attached to it," Coty said. "We'll need a financial plan that rallies funding from all over the country."

A marriage of strengths and vision

Young Life does not come to this battle unarmed, however. God has equipped the mission with unique strengths and vision vital to the call.

"We are excellent communicators in Young Life, which will help us in a large city where we aren't well known," Wagner explained. "We know what it means to 'earn the right to be heard' which will be huge here. We have a strong track record in cities, in raising money, we train well, we are hugely relational, and we love all kinds of kids."

These strengths flourish when married to the vision for the city. Young Life has developed a "District Development Plan" to strategically begin reaching kids throughout the city. Among New York's five boroughs, the city has created 59 community districts. The vision is twofold: first to place a caring adult staff person within each community-district, who will create/produce a model ministry in a specified neighborhood. A model ministry includes people praying, volunteers doing contact work in its various forms, a committee of adults to help support the work, and a group of kids engaged in club, Campaigners or going to camp. Secondly, the district development approach creates an inroad to additional neighborhoods within that community-district.

Such inroads are critical for the mission's growth. "It's been said Manhattan is 'the island where the world came to live,'" said Wagner. "I have also heard that within a 25-mile radius of the Empire State building, there are 21 million people. Twenty-one million! That's a big club. The density in and around this city is amazing, which means in a relatively small geography, we have the potential to reach literally thousands of kids.

"I realize it will take all of us. It will take churches getting on board, an absolute army of volunteers, huge amounts of money and funding, and people from 'every nation, tribe, people, and language,' if we are really going to stand a chance of pulling this off; but what a testimony to the body of Christ if we do."

Bo Nixon

By Aimée Kessick
Bo Nixon has been on the front lines of Young Life's inner-city work for decades. In fact, it's where Young Life first found him.

In 1959, Bo was the president of one of the largest gangs in Manhattan. Young Life was just beginning its reach to the inner city. Work had been under way in Jersey City where Harv Oostdyk and Bill Milliken had reached a young man named Vinnie Pasquale, whose life of drugs and crime was transformed when he was introduced to Jesus.

Oostdyk, Milliken, Pasquale, and Dean Borgman, under the guidance of George Sheffer, set their sights on New York City, and headed into Bo's neighborhood. Slowly, after spending much time on the basketball court and hanging out in the neighborhood, learning names, Milliken got to know Bo and his friends.

A year after first stepping into their world, he invited them to camp at Star Ranch. Hesitant and still leery of Milliken, Bo declined. But when his friends came back from camp, Bo was impressed that Milliken had delivered on every promise he'd made about the trip. Bo vowed he'd go next year.

And he did. Up in the mountains of Colorado, Bo was awed by speaker George Sheffer's Gospel message and the penetrating questions he asked campers. On the night campers were told about Jesus' crucifixion, Bo recalled, he talked to God for the first time: "Lord, if you can do anything with this life, you can use it."

Back home in the city, Milliken continued to be a faithful friend and spiritual guide to Bo who began his journey with Young Life, and has been doing ministry in the city ever since.

In 1973, as a response to the extensive needs they saw in the lives of at-risk kids, Bo and his wife, Mary, established New Life of New York City. Thousands of kids have been served by Young Life-trained staff and volunteers, who are building relationships with kids through a range of programs at New Life's three outreach centers in Manhattan's Lower East Side, Brooklyn and Queens (Springfield Gardens), and as they do contact work in the surrounding neighborhoods.

"I've had the privilege of learning from Bob Mitchell, the Sheffers and Tom Raley," Bo said. "We knew that God was calling us for the long haul. Our leaders had told us that if our community was going to change, we needed to be in this for the long haul."

For that steadfast commitment and years of service to the mission, Bo was honored recently by Young Life's Board of Trustees. John Wagner, Young Life's field senior vice president in New York City, said Bo's legacy will be his faithfulness and willingness to sacrifice. "He gave of himself in a very tough place, year after year, to literally thousands of hurting kids so that they would know Jesus. His faith, endurance and his work is unmatched in the mission."

Wagner added that the Nixons' impact has been due to their incredible partnership as a couple. "It is 'Bo,' but, it is almost always 'Bo and Mary' and they have always been a team. You can't think of one without thinking of the other, and they have been terrific together."

Wagner also credits Bo for being a "beacon of hope" to other urban staff. Paul Coty, an associate regional director in New York, would agree. "He's really been a father to me," Coty said. "His wisdom and longevity speak for itself."

Colleen Holby

By Aimée Kessick
When Colleen (Koppert) Holby learned about Young Life as a Wheaton College student in the early 1950s, she didn't know where it would lead. She just knew she had to be a part of it.

"I wanted to reach kids, but I had no idea how," Holby said. "When I heard about Young Life, I thought 'Wow, this is something else.'"

As the original hub of college volunteer leaders, Wheaton offered fertile training ground for Young Life ministry. George Sheffer, a pioneer in Young Life who would help inspire the mission's early reach to the inner city, trained the students.

Holby was placed on a team with Sheffer, Barb (Jantzen) Meredith and Johnny O'Neil — and remembers feeling humbled by the spiritual elders who surrounded her. "[Sheffer] was very disciplined. I learned from the best."

After graduating from Wheaton, she ministered on Young Life staff in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Boston. Though Holby spent most of her time ministering to kids in suburban neighborhoods, she's had a heart for kids from the inner city too. During her time in upper-middle class Darien, Conn., she had a close look at Young Life's progressive inner-city work developing in nearby New York City. In fact, she'd often take her kids to club in the Lower East Side. "The kids from our club loved it," she said.

Holby met her husband, Duncan, in Boston, left Young Life staff in 1970 and later earned her master's in counseling. In 1978, she became the assistant chaplain at Children's Village (CV) in New York, which provides extensive residential and community services to at-risk kids. She was soon ordained by the United Church of Christ, and Father Benedict Groeschel, a nationally recognized Catholic priest, recommended her for director of Pastoral Care, the position she holds today.

But Young Life is still in her system. Since the 1980s, she's been taking kids from CV to weekend and summer camps at Lake Champion, Young Life's camp in lower New York State. "There isn't a kid from CV who doesn't want to go back to camp," Holby said.

Young Life staff and leaders are welcomed at CV. Young Life staffers Bill Paige and Paul Coty have had a major impact there. Holby said, "I know the kids are getting, from Bill and Paul's limited time, the best spiritual leadership I know about."

Coty said, "Rev," as she is affectionately called, "has the energy and passion of a 20-year-old. She is incredibly committed to watching the lives of the boys of Children's Village be transformed by the power of Christ. Her vision for those young men combined with her passion for Young Life creates the platform those young men need to experience life in a way that is truly transformative."

For what she's offered kids through her life of ministry, Holby recently received Wheaton College's 2011 Distinguished Service to Society Award, which in the past has been given to people like Billy Graham and Todd Beamer.

These days Holby is also passionate about introducing local African-American clergy to Young Life, and bringing the ministry into hurting communities. She has her sights set on Mt. Vernon and Yonkers, N.Y., where violent crime is high and the need for incarnational ministry is great. "There are so many places that don't know about Young Life. I think our staff have so much to offer kids."