Forging Bonds in Baltimore

Arny Arnold doesn’t have a whistle, clipboard or even a pair of polyester shorts.

He does, however, have a game plan. And the term “coach” most certainly applies.

The area director for Young Life Baltimore Urban — whose father just happened to play for legendary UCLA hoops coach John Wooden — Arnold is teaching young men in Baltimore’s inner city how to win at the game of life.

It was actually Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, who convinced Arnold’s father to enroll in seminary after his dad came to Christ in a Bible study led by Campus Crusade for Christ Founder Bill Bright. Sure that he would never follow his father’s footsteps into the ministry, Arnold nonetheless ended up becoming a youth pastor. After a decade in Florida, he moved to serve in a ministry in the Sandtown community in Baltimore in 1997.

Arnold was an occasional Young Life club kid in high school. As a youth pastor, he had patterned his ministry after the Young Life model. Upon arriving in Baltimore, Arnold and his pastor, a former Young Life staff person, began looking for someone to start Young Life in their community.

“It was a two-year process,” said Arnold, who came on staff in 2005. “A couple of people fell through. I was wanting it more and more. Finally, the pastor said, ‘Arny, why don’t you do it?’ I didn’t really fit the profile I was looking for, but I was open to it. I already had relationships with all these kids and the vision of   what needed to happen.”

As Arnold began spending more time in the neighborhood, he realized the kids’ needs were as large as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “Kids didn’t have the support systems in their lives to do things like pass classes and get jobs; there were just so many things they needed in addition to the Gospel message,” Arnold said. “I just felt like every one of these kids needed their own Young Life leader.”

Over the next year, Arnold set out to make that thought a reality. “I said, ‘What if I ask 10 men that I know to commit to an intensive, long-term relationship with 10 kids? We’d set up a breakfast that helps that relationship start and blossom over time. That’s really how it started. We weren’t doing it more than a few weeks before I felt like, ‘Man, we‘re really on to something.’”

The breakfast club

That original 10 Arnold was hoping for has turned into 70 coach-player tandems. Once a week, the “players” all meet up with their “coaches.” Arnold connected one such player, Josh — whose story of struggle and fatherlessness was an all-too-familiar tale — with a coach, a middle-aged successful businessman named George Santos.

The gathering usually takes place in the cafeteria of Morgan State University or Coppin State University, two of Baltimore’s famous historically black colleges. Arnold implemented three core principles that he tries to accomplish in each weekly breakfast club meeting.The first is connecting. For the first 20 minutes, the coach and the player exchange high points and low points of the week over eggs and orange juice.

The second part of the weekly gathering is competition. This portion brings the Young Life-club feel to each meeting. Josh and his coach were always middle-of-the-pack in the competitions. But the contests were only partly about winning. It helped the two guys from completely different worlds forge a bond.

The final part of the meeting is contemplation. It’s the part of the meeting where the Gospel is shared through various means.

“We try to do something every week that allows the coach and the player to interact with each other deeper, beyond just fun and games,” Arnold said. “We want them to contemplate about life, about relationships, about God, and about who they are.” Those Wednesday morning meetings quickly became a highlight of Josh’s week.

“It’s cool,” the Baltimore teen said. “We get together and talk about being leaders, what’s right and what’s wrong, and we talk about Christ.” This unique approach is Young Life at its very core: contact work, fun and proclamation. The “breakfast club” is an example of Young Life remaining true to its mission while engaging kids in relevant and creative ways.

Different worlds come together

The Sandtown community in west Baltimore is often associated with former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and jazz greats Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday. Unfortunately, it’s now more associated with the problems that plague many of America’s inner cities.  During the year Arnold was starting Urban Young Life in Baltimore, the city recorded more than 10,000 violent crimes and 6,000 automobile thefts. Only Detroit recorded more murders. This was the community that Josh — 13 at the time he first met Arnold — was trying to navigate. The television drama The Wire — based on life in inner-city Baltimore — can’t begin to tell the  full story.

“To be honest, it’s really tough here,” said Josh, now 17. “It’s worse than The Wire. It’s hard growing up here. People don’t really have much, and you’ve got to work to get yours.”

At first, the relationship between Josh and Santos was a little awkward. With each passing breakfast, however, the relationship has grown closer than either guy ever thought possible.

“Our relationship is great,” Josh said. “In the beginning, it was kind of weird, ‘cause I didn’t really know him. Now, he’s like a father figure. He’s always there when I need him, like a father would be.”

Santos said getting involved with Baltimore Young Life Urban “was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made” and he’s not sure who benefits most from the relationship.

“He’s spent the night numerous times, and my kids know him,” Santos said of Josh. “Right now, he’s family. He’s really trying to do what is right. He’s been a great example to me.”

Santos heard a quote from a friend that summed up the work going on in Baltimore perfectly.

“If you change the trajectory of an ocean liner just two degrees, the landing point of that ship is radically different,” Santos recalled. “I hope that by hanging out with Josh once a week I’m able to have a big impact on his life.”