Soul Food

The best way to a kid’s heart is through his stomach. It’s a tweak on the old adage, but Young Life in Shoreline, Washington, is hoping it proves true.

Every Monday at noon, Young Life volunteers gather at the One Cup Coffee Company to serve pizza to more than 200 teenagers from Shorewood High School.  Since February, kids from all walks of life have made the two-block trek from their campus for what’s become known as “Pizza Lunch.” The line goes out the door and around the building, as 40 pies are devoured in an hour’s time.

Kids are craving cheese with extra pepperoni, but the leaders know the real hunger is in their souls. And they are eager to introduce them to the One who can satisfy their every need.

Setting the Table

Soon after Lily Jensen became the area director in Shoreline almost two years ago, she got a phone call. It was Scott Sund, a former Young Life staffer and current lead pastor at Bethany Community Church North, offering to collaborate for the sake of kids.

“Scott said, ‘We’re doing this together. We’ll do anything it takes to support you,’” Jensen recalled.

Sund knew that support would be vital. Shorewood High School is located one block from Aurora Avenue, a highway that divides the city of Shoreline, and is home to casinos, low-income housing, prostitution and a methadone clinic.

For years, believers in the area prayed God would shut down the strip club that seemed to anchor the darkness there, and use the space for His glory. Just before Christmas, their prayers were answered. Bethany North took over the building’s lease, and as walls became windows, redemption began.

Now the One Cup Coffee Company resides where the strip club once was, shining a bright light in a dark place. Not only Pizza Lunch, but club and Campaigners meet here each week as well.

“We wanted to transform this building for a number of reasons,” Sund said, “but a dream of mine was knowing its proximity to the high school — that we would be able to serve these kids and continue to tell the huge love story of Jesus Christ in their lives.”

Pizza Lunch was born out of a shared desire to “love kids and see disciples made in Jesus’ name,” Sund said.

“This is a transformation story that only could be available because of the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit,” he added. “We are humbled to participate with Young Life in such an audacious project.”

Jensen said Pizza Lunch has grown just by “word of mouth and a few social media posts.” And it’s reaching kids they’ve never been able to connect with before.

“The first week we had about 30 kids. Then 60. The next week it was 100, then 125. For the last two weeks there’ve been over 200 kids,” Jensen said. “This has been one of the most effective ways of reaching a diverse population of kids, ethnically and socio-economically. It’s a very welcoming platform to start relationships with the intention of sharing the Gospel for the long haul.”

The pizza is donated each week by a local Dominos — owned by a former Young Life area director — and by Bethany North. And by people like Ernie, a businessman driving by one day who, when he saw teenagers and pizza, stopped to ask what was going on. When he heard what Young Life was doing, he gave all the money in his wallet to the cause. He came back the next week with a check for $1,000 for the pizza fund.

“Not only are we reaching 200 kids every week with pizza,” Jensen said, “but the community-at-large gets to see how God is attentive to teenagers through the abundance of pizza, pop and relationships with adults who care about them.”

Remodeled and Redeemed

Gretchen Gwaltney is the volunteer team leader for Shorecrest High School and lead volunteer for Pizza Lunch. Shorecrest is about seven minutes from the coffee shop; kids carpool from there every Monday to be a part of Pizza Lunch.

She said the renovation of the building has been a picture of what Jesus, through the ministry of Young Life, wants to do in the lives of the teenagers.

“There are lots of windows here — it’s bright and open,” she explained. “When it was a strip club, there were no windows. It was very dark inside. We tell the kids all the time that this used to be a strip club, and it’s been redeemed. It was something that was used for awful things — slavery and oppression — and now, it’s been reopened and given new life. Now, light is coming in.

“The kids think that’s cool, that now it’s something good. It’s something they can go to, a safe place.”

As the lunch crowd grew, serving that many pizzas to that many teenagers became overwhelming for the Young Life volunteers. So Gwaltney went to Bethany for help.

“Now we use volunteers from the church to serve pizza so the leaders can initiate conversations with the kids,” Gwaltney said. “We’re able to easily invite them back for club that night and continue to build relationships.

“We don’t ask anything of them. We don’t ask them to write their name down or give us their email. We want this to be, let us love you and give to you. Some kids say, ‘Who’s paying for this? What exactly is this?’ We say, ‘God has done this, and we want you to know.’”

Bruce Hosford, who has served on the Young Life Board of Trustees since 1995, attends Bethany. Hosford heard about the Pizza Lunch from Jensen this spring. He jumped at the chance to help support what Young Life was doing there.

“It’s so great to see work on the ground in contrast to 30,000 feet as a board member. I get to live vicariously,” Hosford said. “It’s the body of Christ, and I’m just the hands. This is a real easy opportunity to enable the staff to do what they do best, and that’s good for everybody.”

Young Life 101 is “Go where kids are.” But in this case, the kids are coming to Young Life. So what draws them in? And what keeps them coming back?

“Kids love coming because they get a free lunch, but also, kids love to go where they are loved and seen as God would see them,” Sund said.

“We hope this is the beginning of more fruitful relationships with students where they see that the church and Young Life exist to love and encourage them and teach them about the radical love of Jesus Christ.”

Gwaltney agrees food is key, but knows they have to offer more. She believes the recipe for life transformation is faithfulness, consistency and loving kids just as they are.

“Feeding them lunch definitely meets some of their physical needs that might otherwise go unmet,” she said. “And that is how we earn the right to be heard, and when we can speak truth into their lives. Because ultimately, we want them to meet Jesus.

“It’s been a life-giving opportunity to be able to love these kids. They can come and be who they are, and receive love and respect in return. That’s what keeps them coming back. And they’re telling their friends, ‘Let’s go.’ It’s been amazing.”