At the Intersection

Aside from the high ceilings, the two homes aren’t that much alike.

One is brick, still features the same radiators from 1922 and is furnished with mid-century modern furniture. The other was built in 1909, features an enclosed front porch, a back deck and an unfinished open second floor. Geographically, the two homes are more than 735 miles apart, with one bordering a Midwestern metropolis, the other in a small rural area in the south.

But here’s what the two homes do have in common.

Both owners are Young Life leaders, crazy about Jesus and kids. And, increasingly, the groups of kids who routinely pour into the two homes are growing as diverse as their schools’ populations.

Kevin Radzinski is on Young Life staff in Oak Park, Illinois, faithfully serving for 20 years the city that serves as Chicago’s western border. Jonathan Bowman recently helped start Young Life ministry in Amelia County, less than an hour from Virginia’s capital city of Richmond.

Leading ministry in multiethnic schools, both leaders have wrestled — and continue to wrestle through — what it looks like to work with students from differing ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds.

“We’re learning,” said Radzinski about the ongoing process. “The kids are teaching us so much.”

Oak Park

Nazareth will never forget the day he first met Radzinski, mostly because his Young Life leader opted for a joyous bear hug instead of a handshake.

Ironically, defenders haven’t had such luck getting their arms around Nazareth, Oak Park and River Forest High School’s speedy tailback with cut-on-a-dime ability. Nazareth’s achievements on the gridiron have earned him several mentions in the Chicago Tribune.  Football games underneath the Friday night lights are a big deal at Oak Park, and the students come out in droves to cheer on their beloved Huskies.

But here’s what Radzinski noticed — the students all cheer, just not together.

One group — primarily, but not exclusively, white — sits on one side of the bleachers. Another group — primarily, but not exclusively, black — sits on the other side.

The division seems to be based purely on comfort, not animosity. The kids basically sit where they want to sit, and this happens to break down by ethnic demographics.

It was after a particular Young Life training that Radzinski started to give deep thought to the two student sections, and the implications for Young Life ministry at the school.

“I’ve been aware of this since the first time I went to a game back in 2001,” Radzinski said. “But I never thought about it until Young Life started talking about it.”

Radzinski’s own introduction to Young Life happened in high school. The woman he would one day marry was on the bus of his first Fall Weekend trip. He came on staff, and led ministry at a small school with little ethnic diversity in the student body.

Radzinski took that same model of ministry to the incredibly diverse community of Oak Park in 2001.

“I was content to swim in the popular stream,” said Radzinski, noting that most of the kids in his ministry “came from supportive families, had money and a trajectory to go to college. It was the kids with the school spirit; the ones always involved in whatever was going on in the school.”

As Radzinski developed deeper relationships with several of the black students — including Nazareth — he started adjusting ministry to make sure it would be accessible to all the students at Oak Park. Simple changes like the location of club and post-club meals were scrutinized to make sure they would be accessible to all kids.

Instead of heading out for gyros after club — not an affordable option for everyone who came — they ordered pizza. Club moved out of a student’s home into the Radzinskis’ basement, and eventually to a strategically located church.

Change has been difficult at times, and Radzinski’s honesty is refreshing. Trying to integrate the two groups into one Young Life club hasn’t been easy. While the ministry has grown in diversity, the changes have alienated some of the kids who were previously involved. Getting Young Life club to look different than the football student sections is no small task.

Radzinski, however, remains committed to the work of building a Young Life community where all kids feel welcome.

“I’m still driven by Young Life’s mandate to integrate black and white people together,” he said, “along with all the other races in the community.”

Amelia

Two of Jonathan Bowman’s most life-defining moments happened within hours of each other.

On the same day he walked across the stage at James Madison University to receive his college diploma, he received a call from Young Life saying he’d been hired. He would pioneer ministry at Amelia County High School.

Even as ministry began flourishing, Bowman noticed that Young Life was only actively engaging a certain segment of the school’s population: the segment that looked like him. Bowman wanted Young Life in Amelia County High School to look different.

So he started making contact work look different.

Bowman’s home is literally a stone’s throw from the Amelia County Parks and Recreation gym. It’s where you can find the daily after-school pick-up basketball games. The teens regularly running up and down the basketball courts also happened to be the kids Bowman knew he needed to befriend.

So, nervously, Bowman laced up the old basketball sneakers.

“I was intimidated,” Bowman laughed, “I’m terrible at basketball. I’m pretty athletic, but basketball isn’t a sport I grew up playing. And I hadn’t played in a long time. But I knew that’s where guys were, so I needed to go.”

At the Parks and Rec center, Bowman focused more on relationships than winning pick-up games. Knowing his limitations in basketball, he asked students to help him with his jump shot. As relationships formed — and his jump shot improved — ministry grew.

One more kid signing up for summer camp turned to two. Two more turned into a group of friends, and that group of friends turned into 20 more students. It happened so fast Bowman didn’t have time to charter a bus to camp, instead having Young Life committee members drive kids to camp in “a hodge podge of minivans.”

At Rockbridge, the phrase “Best Week of Your Life” was not hyperbole.

“When we pulled up to camp, their jaws just dropped,” Bowman said. “They wouldn’t go to bed. They stayed up as late as they could and got up as soon as it was light outside. They were in total disbelief.”

It was a ministry-defining week of camp for Amelia County’s Young Life leaders. Kids encountered Christ, relationships deepened and it reshaped the look of Campaigners in Bowman’s home.

“It was just this amazing, exciting, crazy catalyst summer,” Bowman said. “Campaigners after that was packed. The Tuesday after camp we had 25 to 30 kids. There was just an attraction to it.”

For Every Kid

Included in that Campaigners group was “Swae,” the multi-sport standout at Amelia County. Not only did Swae get involved in Young Life, he and three friends spent a portion of his summer doing work crew.

“Young Life is such a beneficial program,” Swae said. “It teaches us that we’re never by ourselves and Jesus Himself loves us for who we are, not who we were. Jonathan is the best leader I could ask for, and I’m so glad he came to Amelia.”

Up in Oak Park, Nazareth and Radzinski share a similar bond. What started as a bear hug has grown into a deep friendship.

The two seem to genuinely enjoy learning from one another. With the relationship now firmly established, the Young Life leader and the football star can now have meaningful conversations, which sometimes happen in comical fashion.

Like the time at Fall Weekend when Radzinski asked Nazareth why black kids came to Young Life.

“Because black kids like pizza,” Nazareth said, causing an eruption of laughter in the cabin.

But then Nazareth got serious.

He went on to tell Radzinski, “As black kids, we feel like wherever we are, we’re not where we’re supposed to be. But when we come to Young Life, we know the white people there love us.”

Then, quickly lightening the mood, Nazareth added, “And we love pizza.”

For Nazareth, Young Life feels like an escape. The Oak Park junior knows that every Wednesday he can count on being in an environment where all his friends are smiling, temporarily free from all other cares.

“I kept coming to Young Life because of the way I was treated,” Nazareth said. “Kevin’s positive energy, what he brings to the table, is just great. I’m thankful for a person like Kevin in my life. He just always listens. And he’s always there to help. And not just Kevin, but the other adult leaders, too. And they help me grow closer to Jesus; not just me, but all the people around me, and that’s the best feeling.”