Just the Right Time

For more than 20 years, Jane Rogers said the same thing to every area director who ever led Young Life in Tyler, Texas: “If you bring Young Life back to John Tyler High School, I’ll come out of retirement.”

Rogers stepped away from direct ministry in 1993 after being a volunteer leader for 10 years, but she’s longed for Young Life to be back on that campus for decades.

Rogers said Young Life “was where I grew as a Christian. It’s a great vehicle for kids to meet Christ and grow in their faith. But it wasn’t available at John Tyler, and that just didn’t seem right.”

Johnny Russell heard Rogers’ offer when he came to serve as Tyler’s area director in July 2010. He filed her promise away, but didn’t forget. In fact, he was burdened as well, and prayed for five years that the Lord would re-open that campus to the mission.

In October of 2015, Rogers finally got the call. And the 60-year-old mother of five was true to her word: she came out of “retirement” to lead Campaigners for freshman and sophomore girls at John Tyler High School — the newest club in the oldest area of the mission.

Missing Young Life Ministry

This story isn’t too out of the ordinary for those who’ve seen God work through Young Life, unless you know a little background: Tyler has been a two-high school town for decades, but for the last 40 years, only one of those campuses has had Young Life.

Young Life began at Tyler High School in 1942, during the mission’s infancy, just one year after the mission was officially incorporated. [Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, began the mission’s first club at Gainesville (Texas) High School in 1939.] Tyler High School became John Tyler High School in 1958 when a new high school, Robert E. Lee, opened.

Funding and support from John Tyler students and parents dwindled after that, and the last John Tyler Young Life club took place in the fall of 1974. Volunteers kept club going at Lee, making Tyler the area with the longest consecutive-running club in the world, once the ministry in Gainesville ended.

John Tyler High School — known as “JT” — is 60 percent Hispanic, 37 percent African-American and 3 percent Caucasian. Russell knew moving Young Life back into JT would be a spiritual battle, so two years ago he challenged supporters at the annual fundraising banquet to “come out of the wilderness” after its 40-year absence and be part of bringing Young Life back to John Tyler. From that event, a door opened for him to speak to the school’s administration.

“They said, ‘We like what we see, but we don’t know you,’” Russell said. “They were essentially inviting me to earn the right to be heard.”

So, Russell volunteered for one year with an after-school program, hanging out at lunch, sitting in the stands at practices and just being where the kids were.

“Young Life’s incarnational model of ministry works anywhere and everywhere,” Russell said. “I got to show up as a 40-year-old, gray-headed white guy picking up trash off their table at lunch. They’d ask me, ‘Why are you here?’ And I’d tell them, ‘Because I care about you.’”

“Best Decision of My Life”

During those same years Russell was praying and showing up at the school, Nathan Ledkins was teaching and coaching at a middle school less than a mile from John Tyler. But he was more than a coach; Ledkins was building relationships with his students because he “fell in love with the kids and felt burdened for their situations.”

He left teaching but stayed connected with his young friends. And he was always looking for a better way to reach out. Last October, Ledkins got the same call about JT — a mutual friend introduced Russell and Ledkins, and Russell explained the opportunity.

“Johnny said, ‘Let’s talk,’ but I didn’t need to,” Ledkins recalled. “I was on board from the start.”

Ledkins offered to host the first meeting, and word spread that “Coach” was having a barbecue at his house. So transportation wouldn’t be an obstacle, Russell recruited volunteers to pick up kids at the football stadium after practice. That night, 25-30 JT guys and girls showed up and piled into the cars and SUVs of committee members, volunteers leaders and adults who just wanted to help.

One of these students, Daiston Keeton, a junior at JT, was blown away by his first time at club.

“I didn’t know what I was going to,” Daiston said, “but it turned out to be Young Life. Johnny was right there — loud and obnoxious, and asking how I was doing.

“I’ve always believed in God and gone to church, but I never really understood it. And I’m the only youth in my church. So being there that night with my peers and hearing them teach in a way I could understand … I never knew all that before.

“I see the progress in my life now, and I owe it to God, who led me to Young Life. Going there that night was the best decision of my life.”

In the months after that, 30-35 kids consistently came — rides provided — to Campaigners, where Ledkins’ wife, Kat, known as “Mom” to the boys, cooked every week.

Haivynne Mumphrey, a junior at JT, was invited to Campaigners by her cheer coach, Aubre Killman, who co-leads the girls with Rogers each week.

“We think of them as our other moms,” Haivynne said of Rogers and Killman. “I can go to them for anything. They’re always positive, and they bring hope for all of us girls. We look at them and think that’s what we need to be like.

“I tell everybody I know to come with me. I love Young Life. I’d drop anything to go to Young Life.”

After a solid launch at JT, the next step was camp. Russell prayed five JT students would sign up for the freshman beach trip and five for Frontier Ranch. Russell said, “People said, ‘No way, I’d be surprised if you got two.’”

Thanks to a discounted price due to generous donors, 20 JT students went to camp last summer: 12 to the beach trip and eight to Frontier. These trips were full of “firsts” for these teenagers; Russell said they “lived all week with their mouths open.”

Time to Renew

With years of prayer, history and need for this Young Life “regeneration” in Tyler, it’s hard not to ask “why” — why now? And why not sooner?

“God’s plan obviously wasn’t mine, but to see what He’s done in one year is such an affirmation of His timing,” Rogers said. “I’m so thankful to be a part of it, and I’m looking forward to more people at John Tyler knowing what Young Life is and being excited about this ‘new’ thing.”

Russell added, “This is the fruit of prayer and of all that’s happened. I don’t know why now is the time outside of saying, ‘because Jesus says it is.’ Sounds cheesy, but it’s true. So many things came into play — Jesus raised up leaders, He raised up funds and He raised up lots of opportunities to meet kids on their own turf and win the right to be heard. All of it, at just the right time.”