Unity in Diversity

In the fall of 2014 Young Life’s urban ministry in Dayton, Ohio, was off and running. In June, a full-time staff person was hired, 12 kids and nine leaders had spent a week at Young Life camp, and by August kids were regularly coming to club and Campaigners — school hadn’t even started.

But it was a long road — nearly 10 years in the making — to get there. It took steadfast prayers and faithful relationship-building from residents of a Dayton suburb, who, although they lived just miles from the inner city, might as well have lived worlds away. But God brought a diverse group of people from the suburbs and the city together who care about urban teens and built a vision to reach them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Propelled by Prayer

One of those residents, Kris Horlacher, lived in the Oakwood area of Dayton, and prayed with a group of neighborhood moms after their kids went off to school each morning. These impromptu times evolved into a monthly prayer group, so when Horlacher heard about Young Life, and wanted it in her community, they brought that request to the group. In 2005, after faithfully praying for two years for Young Life to begin, a busload of kids from Oakwood went to Young Life camp.

As Young Life grew in Oakwood, Horlacher’s home became a hub of Young Life activity. Living within walking distance of the University of Dayton (UD), she opened up her home to Young Life leaders, hosting Bible studies and continuing the prayer group (which now also included Young Life leaders and other college students).

As a trauma nurse in the inner city, Horlacher’s heart was burdened for the residents she served. One morning, she decided to ask God for Young Life to start there. That same day, Erik Hofmann, area director at the time, who knew Horlacher’s passion for prayer, asked her, “Will you pray about urban Young Life starting in Dayton?”

“I had no idea how to start Young Life in the city, but I knew I could pray,” Horlacher said. So that faithful group of neighbors, leaders, kids and friends of Young Life prayed to see how God would lead.

Meeting Needs, Building Bridges

Through a friend, Horlacher learned of a struggling tutoring program in a subsidized housing community in need of tutors. Horlacher knew she could call on an army of college students in her Young Life community to be those faithful mentors.

Over the next three years, the tutoring program grew, from serving kids once a week to seven days a week. Horlacher noticed many kids needed some practical items like socks and shoes. This idea led to the creation of a non-profit organization called Shoes for the Shoeless (S4tS).

S4tS sends teams of trained volunteers directly into schools with high poverty rates, to work one on one with referred students, measuring their feet using a device they designed, and putting new shoes and socks on these students on site. S4tS has served more than 27,000 disadvantaged students in five years. Countless Young Life-involved high school kids and their leaders have learned to serve the poor through this mission. Along the way, Horlacher formed relationships with an array of people from the urban community.

Working Toward Understanding

By 2011, Horlacher was meeting monthly with city youth pastors and directors of social service agencies. “We wanted to hear from these youth workers about their mission field,” Erik Hofmann said. “We wanted to understand the resources in place and the obstacles preventing outreach to students.” Hofmann found that although the social service agencies were interconnected, the churches were not. “Many were also weary of programs from the suburbs that would not last. There were also racial issues between Caucasian and African-American Christians, misconceptions on the part of both groups,” he said.

By 2012, these meetings included school principals, city pastors, as well as Young Life families from the suburbs. “Rather than gathering information, we were building a team, a board to pave the way to a ministry launch,” Hofmann said. The Young Life Dayton Urban Initiative formed, with Horlacher serving as chairwoman. Board members took Young Life “field trips” to other cities to see ministry in action. The next year a gift of $20,000 was pledged, and by the end of the year, $60,000 more was committed.

Homegrown Leadership

Horlacher and others continued to pray, even bringing the monthly prayer meeting into the city. One night, after the group finished praying in a parking lot of a church, they met Bishop Mark McGuire, pastor of The Potter’s House-Dayton International Ministries, who’d heard of Young Life years earlier. McGuire didn’t know Young Life was active in Dayton, so when he learned of its 30-year history in the suburbs, that realization was somewhat painful. “I just thought about all the kids we missed,” he said.

He joined the board and, in early 2014, was hired as the urban director. His strategy to get ministry going was two-fold. “We needed to take ‘ambassadors’ to Young Life camp — those from the inner city who we know already but who look like other kids from the city, think like them and have been through similar experiences. Then we need to put Young Life leaders in place to be with kids no matter where they go to school.” In suburban areas, Young Life clubs are often built around one school; but in inner-city Dayton, kids attend a variety of schools in close proximity.

McGuire and six other leaders brought 12 kids to camp last summer. “They had the time of their life. They were amazed,” he said. There were 25 kids at the first club in August, and as the semester continued, that number grew to more than 75. Kids are drawn not only to the positive, party-like atmosphere and a Gospel message, but also a home-cooked meal. In addition, up to 65 kids have been at Campaigners, a weekly Bible study.

‘Hope In These Ashes’

McGuire’s approach to reaching kids is holistic. “We’re trying to enhance the total person,” the bishop said. “We’re dealing with behavior issues, test scores, meeting with parents, tutoring, probation issues, but also their overall well-being, their hope, health and their dreams. Is it a lot? Yes, but it’s what’s needed for transformation. They have to believe there is hope in these ashes.”

And hope can be hard to come by. One high school student, who recently began a relationship with Jesus Christ at a Young Life weekend camp this fall, was involved in a gang. A week before camp, he was with a group of gang members, when another young man was shot by a rival gang.

Currently the student and his sister (who gave birth to her firstborn days after receiving Christ at the same fall camp) are fully engaged in Young Life. “Now he’s facing a lot of opposition to his desire to live a new life. He’s being followed and fears for his life,” McGuire said. Thankfully, there’s a Young Life leader on his side. His leader told the student, “I am never more than five minutes away. Call me any time for any reason. I will come to your side immediately. I am part of your Young Life family.” 

Working innovatively and uniquely, without losing or compromising the fundamentals and foundation of the Young Life philosophy and mission, Urban Dayton Young Life is trying to create a new culture, McGuire said. “We are building a city-wide family.”