Reaching Kids in Jesus' Hometown

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In the courtyard, girls with backpacks like turtle shells giggle around a smartphone while boys zigzag a soccer ball through the crowd. A short distance away, another boy leans against a rail, doing his best to look cool. A teacher passes two shy girls who immediately get quiet … another morning in the city where Jesus was a teenager. 

The city of Nazareth, the size of Gary, Ind., sits in the middle of the thin strip of land known as Israel, a country where history is measured in millennia. Nazareth proper is Arab, 70 percent Muslim, 30 percent Christian (Christians make up less than 4 percent of the total population in Israel). Counter to what you might expect, however, it’s peaceful between the groups. Busy streets mind you, but Nazareth has the feel of a place where you could learn a trade, make an honest living and raise a family. 

It’s not hard to imagine similar thoughts going through the minds of Jesus’ parents when they moved here two thousand years ago. The craggy hills, the breathtaking view over the plains of Armageddon, it’s easy to picture Jesus as a teenager leaning against a rock and gazing up at the stars His forefathers once gazed at, the same ones He had made …

Jesus was here.

2,000 years later, so is Young Life. 

“Who is telling them?”
As a high school freshman, Hunter Lambeth could hardly wait to go to Young Life. The youngest of three children, he went to the first club and never looked back. “I was a Young Life junkie,” recalled Lambeth. Club, Campaigners, camp, work crew, summer staff, he did it all.  

In 1993, Lambeth, having graduated from college, accompanied his mother on a Holy Land tour. “Of course, you come and see all these famous places, but what drew me was seeing all the young people who didn’t know Jesus.” One day, the tour group crossed from Bethlehem (in the West Bank) to Jerusalem. “Back then, there wasn’t a wall but a fence. I remember at the checkpoint on the right side were all these Palestinian kids, and on the other side were Israeli soldiers, teenagers, too. They were throwing stones and shooting rubber bullets at each other. And in my youth ministry mind I was asking, ‘Who is telling them there is a better way? Who is telling them about the Prince of Peace?’” 

Your God has healed you
Yousef was one of those stone-throwing Palestinians. In his words, “I was a lost teenager crying out for someone to show me the truth.” To that point all his experience had shown him were tanks, machine guns, hatred, oppression and fear. By the time Yousef reached his teens, he’d been detained by Israeli soldiers, kidnapped at gunpoint by extremists, and paralyzed from the legs down by a strange, undiagnosed autoimmune disease.  

For one year, Yousef was bedridden. Medicine, therapy, nothing worked; until one day, in a scene that could have been taken directly from the pages of Scripture, a priest and pastor came together to the hospital and prayed for him. The next day, Yousef walked! 

“Your God has healed you” were the words the doctor wrote on his discharge papers. The community marveled. “Even as I was unfaithful to Him, God has always been faithful to me,” said Yousef. 

He considered going into the priesthood. For a time, he trained as a monk. Eventually, he was steered toward Bethlehem Bible College. He found a job at a home for special needs children called House of Hope. Most had been abandoned by their parents, but not by God. Yousef made sure of that.

Young Life was made for him
In 2006, Pete Hardesty, area director in Harrisonburg, Va., traveled to Israel during his sabbatical. “About the second day, I thought, ‘I have to figure out a way to get my leaders over here.’ It was like everything I had read in the Bible went Technicolor.” 

A year later, twenty-five students from James Madison University boarded a plane. They stayed at Bethlehem Bible College and served special needs children at, of all places, the House of Hope. 

“That’s where I met Yousef,” said Hardesty. “We became friends almost immediately. As we walked around Bethlehem, Yousef knew everyone. I’m not sure if he was made for Young Life; I think Young Life was made for him!”
For twelve years, Lambeth had been serving as the director of Young Life Expeditions, a ministry that fields and facilitates short-term service trips to Young Life areas around the world. Through his travels, he had connected with a group from the Middle East called the Sounds of Hope. “They were wonderful people from every tradition — Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Evangelical — but no one was doing youth ministry.” To Lambeth’s surprise, many believed a relational approach was the perfect strategy to reach this part of the world. With this encouragement, Lambeth returned to the States and gathered a team of Young Life staff to conduct relational ministry seminars. Pete Hardesty was among them.  

When Yousef learned Young Life was coming to Bethlehem Bible College, he made sure to get a front-row seat. “Yousef’s story is so incredible,” said Lambeth. “This guy, who endured so many things, now is a bridge builder with a vision of reaching every type of person. When you think of being made for this, Yousef was made for this.”  

Lambeth and Hardesty made arrangements to bring Yousef to the United States for training. He went to camp with Hardesty’s area, and in the fall of 2009, Yousef returned to his hometown and started Young Life in the West Bank. 

Meanwhile, Lambeth wondered if God was calling him to move to Israel. He talked it over with his wife and daughter. After much prayer, they were all in. “Lauri and Haley have been true champs in this whole deal,” Lambeth said. In August 2012, they arrived.

A crowning moment 
At the 2012 Young Life Celebration in Orlando, Fla., Lambeth and Yousef were standing in a hallway outside the main ballroom amidst a swarm of flags, 83 in all, the number of countries where Young Life had ministry. They were holding two: Israel’s and Palestine’s. 

When the doors opened, they walked in holding hands. It was a powerful picture of how Jesus transcends politics, ethnicity and culture, of how Young Life is about every kid. 

But the most powerful moment happened afterward, when, in a small room where the flags had been placed, a group of friends and staff came together to pray. They prayed for the Middle East; they prayed for Palestinians, while Yousef quietly drifted over to a white flag with a blue Star of David in the center. He knelt on the ground and wept. Others came around him as Yousef prayed in Arabic for this country that represented such suffering to him and his people. He prayed they would know Jesus. 

Leaning in to the Gospel
The Lambeths look at what is happening in the Middle East with a great deal of optimism. Last summer, 225 kids plus their leaders attended Young Life camps. Five staff are currently serving through Young Life’s Developing Global Leaders initiative (a program which offers educational funds, life-skills mentoring and Young Life ministry training for the leaders of tomorrow). Even more encouraging, two local women have come on staff with Yousef. Leadership has bloomed to 28 Israeli and Palestinians. “Several of our leaders are kids who came to our first camp four years ago,” said Lambeth. “That is one of my favorite things about our leadership, that we are already seeing the circle completing itself, the multiplication and fruit of discipleship.”    
Lambeth continued, “Everything we plan and pray for is about raising up people from that part of the world. We consider the kids we are working with now as the leaders God will use in the future.”

Back in the West Bank, a teenager juggles balloons in a jam-packed unfinished basement. Later, he and his friends listen to Yousef tell the story about Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well (it happened just a few miles from here). After club, Yousef travels to Bethlehem to do contact work with Capernaum kids at the House of Hope. 

In the courtyard at Nazareth School, Hunter and Lauri stand in the middle of a throng of students, who are laughing at the couple’s Arabic and asking when club starts. 

The bell rings, and the students follow the Lambeths upstairs to an assembly hall where Hunter puts a picture on the screen. “What do you see?” he asks. There are whispers. Finger points. Then, ahs. More ahs as ninth- and tenth-graders notice not one face, but two — one young, one old. “So often we can look at the same picture but see entirely different things,” says Lambeth, putting another picture on the screen. A cross. “We see this picture and depending on our eyes, we can also see very different things. But Yasua [Jesus in Arabic] came so we could see things the way they really are.” The students lean forward. They want to hear the rest of the story. 
A story that began in this very place, a story that continues to be written.

To learn more about Young Life Middle East, Developing Global Leaders or how you can get involved, contact Hunter Lambeth at