Fostering a Community of Change

“If it wasn’t for Young Life, I wouldn’t be here.”
– Bill Milliken


“Here” is the place where Bill Milliken can look back on a life well-lived, while continuing to move forward in his efforts to care for kids. Not many people can say they’ve gone from sharing a room with rats to spending nights in the Lincoln Bedroom, but Milliken’s résumé is hardly the norm. His story spans the humble origins of a confused teenager to a 20-year-old who helped pioneer Young Life’s urban work to a self-proclaimed “Forrest Gump” wondering how he now frequently finds himself in the company of presidents, millionaires and celebrities.


Growing up in Pittsburgh, Milliken struggled through school because of undiagnosed learning disabilities. With his self-esteem plummeting in the classroom, and his home life providing more turmoil than refuge, he sought acceptance in the one place he knew he was welcome — the local pool hall. One providential day, the hurting teenager met someone new there, someone genuinely interested in him. The man’s name was Bob and he was a Young Life leader. That summer of 1956 Milliken was on a bus to Frontier Ranch and a road to change.

PURSUED AND PURSUING

Upon arrival, Milliken felt he had been duped by the Pittsburgh leaders because of how much “God talk” there was at the Colorado camp. His time there, however, rocked him. “By the end of the week, I said, ‘God, if you’re there, I want you in my life.’”

Milliken explained that in those days, to help kids make the transition in their newfound faith, campers often stayed after their trip and served on work crew. One morning as Milliken and others were digging trenches, he was confronted about his work ethic. “The work crew boss said, ‘Milliken, you’re lazy!’ So, I got angry and threw a shovel of dirt in his face.” While the staff conferred on what to do, Milliken started walking out of camp, presumably back to Pittsburgh. “I forgot how far that was! But I wasn’t going to let them throw me out. Fortunately for me, Goldbrick [Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney, the camp cook] saw me walking down the hill. He came after me and had me bunk down with him. He talked Jim Rayburn [Young Life’s founder] into giving me another chance.”

Four years later, Milliken didn’t walk away from a challenging circumstance, but right into one. The 20- year-old drove to Newark, N.J., to hear more about the vision of his friends Harv Oostdyk and Vinnie De Pasquale. Throughout the night the three men talked about their passion for kids in New York City. The next morning, June 18, 1960, Milliken and De Pasquale could be seen dribbling a basketball across the George Washington Bridge, in the hopes of meeting kids, first in Harlem, then on the Lower East Side.

From these humble beginnings, Young Life’s work in New York City was born.

“People asked me, ‘What education did you come to the streets with?’ Milliken said. “I’d answer, ‘I knew how to hang out.’ I still can’t find a university that’ll give a degree in it (!), but it’s one of the greatest skills you can have. I knew how to hang out at the country club and I knew how to hang out on the streets. But that was exactly what was missing in the lives of those young people,” he explained. “Nobody was out on the streets with them, walking with them, talking with them … being there was what it was all about.”

FROM GANG LEADER TO CROSS CARRIER

One of those young people was Bo Nixon. From the age of 13, Nixon had been drawn to the local gangs. “My goal was to become president of the Centurions,” he said, “and one way to become president of the gang was to fight. I never backed down and my friends started respecting me. Because of what was going on in society, I was very angry. The Black Panther party was happening at the time and Malcolm X was up on 125th Street, preaching. What he said sounded good to me as an angry young man.”

During this time, Nixon and his friends grew leery of the white man hanging out in their neighborhood. “We’d always go to the park to play basketball after school. White guys didn’t hang out at our park, so we assumed he was a narcotics cop. Bill just kept hanging out, watching and getting to know the names of kids.”

By 1962, Nixon’s heart was changing. Six years after Milliken’s own encounter with Christ at Frontier Ranch, an 18-year-old Nixon sat in the same club room, hearing about a Savior who loved him. After the cross talk, the city kid sat outside looking up at the stars. “I had never talked to God before,” Nixon said, “but they said you could talk to Him and He would listen. I said, ‘Lord, if you can do anything with this life, you can have it.’”

When he told Milliken about his decision to follow Christ, Nixon said, “Bill acted like it was his birthday! He was so excited. I was scared to death to go back home after I realized what I had done, but the one comfort I had was that Bill was going back with us. Bill told us we could change our community if we stuck together.”

Sticking together was a concept Milliken had been working on. He witnessed many gang kids embrace the Gospel, only to be choked out by the temptations of everyday city life. So he laid out an idea with the guys closest to him: to follow Jesus for the long run would require they walk in their faith as a team. They would live under the banner of Luke 9:23, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” They named themselves the Cross Carriers, wrote up a constitution to live out and met regularly to support each other.

BRINGING COMMUNITY TO SCHOOLS

Community became a major theme in Milliken’s life. “We all want to be connected. If you’re not, you’re going to create community that’s either going to be really bad or really good.” But community, he said, must be a give-and-take venture. “The greatest gift you can give a young person is to allow them to give something to you. It’s all grace. If you don’t think that person has something to give to you, that means you think you’re smart and they aren’t. You have to create environments where everyone has the chance to give as well as receive. When Bo would confront me, that was a gift — if I could accept it.”

Milliken and Oostdyk quickly learned, however, that city kids like Nixon would need more than just a “new gang” to help them survive their present surroundings. They would also need a hope for the future — that hope was education. “Bill was not only interested in us following Jesus,” Nixon said, “but in asking ‘what are you going to do with your life?’ He helped us go back to school. Bill and Harv started street academies and school suddenly became a beacon; when we were coming up, hardly anyone graduated from high school or went to college. That all began to change.”
The success that came through the street academies and the emphasis

on community eventually led Bill to follow a different call. In the early 1970s Milliken, his wife, Jean, and their children moved to Atlanta, and in 1977 he helped start Cities In Schools (CIS, whose name was later changed to Communities In Schools) with Neil Shorthouse and his family, who at the time was with Urban Young Life in Philadelphia. CIS was formed to reach the many children who face challenges both inside and outside the classroom and provide needed resources so students can focus on learning.

“CIS is reaching 1,250,000 kids a year with more than 90 percent of them staying in school,” said Milliken, who has given the last 36 years of his life to the organization. “But I learned all this from Bo. His turnaround was transformational because he was the key to cracking the neighborhood. Early on, Bo didn’t want me in the neighborhood, but later he saved my life. If Bo didn’t have the courage to turn around and walk down the street with me, I wouldn’t have made it.”

GIVING KIDS NEW LIFE

After Milliken left for Atlanta, Nixon stayed on Young Life staff and eventually started the ministry “New Life of New York City, Inc.,” a separate ministry connected with Young Life, which 40 years later continues the model of reaching city kids he learned from Milliken. “Bill gave 10 years of his life to us to make sure we’d become leaders. He said, ‘The reason all these neighborhoods are poor is because all the leaders have left. He challenged us to stay and raise our families here and that’s what I did to be a witness to kids and a model for the next generation.”

Milliken laughed, “I tell Bo, ‘God has a great sense of humor — you’re paying the price for beating up these guys all those years ago, because now you’re working with their great grandchildren!’ Bo is somebody who stayed year in, year out, constantly listening to God. He and Mary (Bo’s wife) have been faithful to this all their lives.”

A MODEL FOR HOPE

While Milliken often praises men like Goldbrick and Nixon for the critical role they’ve played in his life, they’ve been quick to return the compliment. With Goldbrick, Milliken’s journey with Christ came full circle. “Serendipitously, I went over to see Goldbrick the year before he died. I thanked him and told him, ‘All the things I’ve been able to do in my lifetime are because you saw me go down that road, took me in and became a surrogate father to me.’ Goldbrick started crying and said, ‘If it wasn’t for you guys — you guys brought the first people who looked like me to camp.’”

Nixon also reflected on the influence of his friend of more than five decades. “I think the biggest gift Bill has given me is to develop my own style of leadership. To create something like I saw him create, something out of nothing — that means a lot to me. When I get into muddy waters and can’t see anything I call him. He’s always going to be a mentor.”

Milliken credits Young Life with providing him a framework to not only know God, but make Him known to others. “I had no concept of a Christ who moved in, not next door, but in the home of my own heart — that he’s here and alive, in us and with us. Young Life’s relational theology is applicable in all kinds of environments and situations. When you take love and relationships and make them the centerpiece, the Spirit is there. A lot of people haven’t learned to identify it with Jesus yet, but you’ve created an environment where people are open, because they’ve seen and experienced it. I think Young Life has been incredibly prophetic in that.”
It seems only right to let Milliken have the last word on his journey thus far.

“It’s relationships that change people, not programs. That’s what I want on my tombstone. A good program simply creates the environment where healthy relationships are happening between adults and children. It’s a model for hope.”

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Putting it All into Words

If you’ve ever uttered the words “tough love,” then you’ve used a phrase invented by Bill Milliken! He came up with the term to explain how discipline can be used to truly care for someone. “I found out loving is tough – it costs,” Milliken wrote in his first book, “and the love itself has to be tough too, tough enough to hurt if the hurt can heal.” He explained, “For us it was about accountability. Tough love means ‘hardnosed agape.’”

Principles like tough love were forged in the fire of fellowship Milliken experienced during his decade with Young Life. This period also helped him formulate the “Five Basics” for Communities in Schools:

Every person needs and deserves:

  1. A one-on-one relationship with a caring adult
  2. A safe place to learn and grow
  3. A healthy start and a healthy future
  4. A marketable skill to use upon graduation
  5. A chance to give back to peers and community

These basics helped ignite the CIS organization, bringing it to national prominence. As a result, Milliken has served as an advisor to U. S. presidents of both political parties and shared his passion for hurting kids with the world. Bill Milliken has penned four books; his latest, From the Rearview Mirror, (Hayhouse, 2012), which describes his lifelong spiritual journey including his early days with Young Life and the development of the urban youth ministry programs, is available from Amazon and Hayhouse.com.