Walking Life Together

When someone trains to be a Young Life leader, they’re inevitably going to learn this Bible verse: 1 Thessalonians 2:8, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (NIV).

Phil and Kelly Hassman live in the middle of Indianapolis, and while training to be Young Life leaders back in 2008, they indeed learned 1 Thessalonians 2:8. More importantly, Phil and Kelly didn’t just learn it, they lived it.

But what happened in the process taught them an even bigger lesson: while sharing their lives with others, theirs were being changed as well.


Big Mike grew up on the eastside of Indianapolis, a place the locals call “Naptown.” His dad was in jail; his mom struggled with addiction; he and his two siblings were constantly moving from one place to another.

“My whole life, I never had a safe place to go,” said Big Mike, who has been going by the moniker since middle school where things were just as tough. “I got picked on a lot because I was different. I know now that it is perfectly OK to be different, but back then it was really hard to stick out. The only way I knew how to handle people hating on me was fighting back. Literally fighting. So I bounced around schools just trying to get by and fit in.”

Music was the one place where he could find peace. He could lose himself in the beats and the words. Writing down rhymes about his everyday struggles became an outlet.

“Through middle school to freshman year, I stopped trusting God. I learned I had to do things on my own. Like it or not, I already was. But all that changed one day on the bus. A friend told me about Young Life. He said there would be snacks. Aw man, I can’t pass up snacks.”

Moving Into the Neighborhood

Phil and Kelly were on the same Young Life team. “Kelly was on student staff; I didn’t make the cut,” Phil laughed. Eventually, the two became more than teammates and got married. They bought a house a block away from Herron High School where they served. “We figured, why not? After all, that was where the kids were that we loved.”

They met Big Mike in 2013. He made an immediate impression on Phil. “I was always looking for the guy who could bring others in. You could tell the moment you saw him that Mike was an inviter. He brings a purity and realness to who he is. That is what struck me at first.”

“Phil was literally the happiest guy I ever met,” Big Mike said. “His energy matched how I wanted to live my life. And Phil thought I was cool. Not weird, awkward and different, but actually cool. He kept showing up in my life — when I missed the last bus for the night and needed a ride home at like 10 p.m., when I was performing my rhymes at school. Even though Phil and I come from totally different backgrounds, he understood my nerdy side and seemed to genuinely care about me.”

Home life continued to be pretty raw. Mike’s siblings were in and out of foster care; his mom was in and out of rehab. “My coping mechanism was smoking weed. I started hanging out with people who weren’t really my friends, but Phil kept showing up.”

After Young Life, Phil often was the one to drive him home. It was almost always to a different place. It became a joke between them, a sad one. But, “some of the best conversations I ever had happened with Mike in the car,” reflected Phil.

That summer Big Mike went to Timber Wolf Lake (in Michigan) with Phil. “At camp, I heard about Jesus again, but for the first time I actually heard it,” said Mike. “I learned you don’t have to do life alone.”

Who's Teaching Whom?

“Mike was sort of the ‘president’ of Young Life his junior and senior years. We gave him responsibility, but he was never the guy with a plan. I would find myself getting frustrated by that. But then I realized that instead of focusing on the program, Mike’s focus was on the people, on just being there.

“It’s something I now try to bring into the work I do.” (Phil currently leads a team of scientists that does pharmaceutical analysis.)

“Whenever I tried to fix his problems, it never worked. But when I came instead with openness and humility, things got better,” said Phil. “Over time, I learned I didn’t need to question him. What Mike needed most was to know I believed in him and was with him.”

Kelly adds: “What Phil does best is give Mike the tools, then love him into making his own decisions.”

Kelly and Mike became close last summer while she was on assignment and he was on summer staff. During camp, Big Mike shared his story during a program called “Real Life.”

“There is nothing more powerful than sharing your story,” said Big Mike. “It was eye-opening that God could use my story to help others relate. Through that, I was able to let campers know there is hope.”

The experience affected Kelly deeply. “I didn’t truly know how difficult Mike’s home life was until we worked on his ‘Real Life’ story together. It was humbling to learn my friendship meant something to him.”

A New Home

After camp, when Big Mike again needed a place to stay, Phil and Kelly didn’t hesitate.

“It’s been a blessing,” said Mike, “but it’s nothing new. We have been walking life together a long time now. I see them as my big brother and sister.”

“It is fun to see how the relationship has evolved from going to basketball games, making music videos and winning the right to be heard, to a relationship that is firm and established,” said Kelly.

“In high school, Mike needed a male role model,” said Phil. “Now, I’m teaching him things like how to budget and interview and drive. It is no longer a leader to a kid relationship. He’s a friend I will have for life.”

“That’s what we have learned,” said Kelly. “As much as we want to see their lives change, God wants to use them to change our lives as well.”

Phil adds: “That’s what I hope people can understand. At the end of the day it is not how good our events are, but how good our relationships become that really matters. Young Life gave Mike and me a chance to become friends. And that will last forever.”