Known and Wanted

The oldest of eight children, T’Anthony (a.k.a. “T”) grew up in a rough neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, before moving to Lexington, Virginia, when he was 8.

“My mama had me when she was 15,” T said. “My biological father walked out before I was born and I spent so much of my life trying to find a father figure.”

As a high school freshman, T attended his first Young Life club, where he immediately met Steve Rawls, the area director in Rockbridge County, and the man who would figure prominently in his life going forward.

“Steve met me right when I walked in,” T said. “I had never felt more known and wanted. At the time I didn’t feel like I fit in with ‘the Young Life crowd,’ but I wanted to go back because of the way that one man introduced himself to me.”

Over the next two years, T came faithfully to Young Life; a time in which he struggled with issues of identity. Attending a predominantly white high school, he wasn’t sure how to navigate in a world where he encountered racism on the one hand and temptations to prove himself as a young black man on the other.

“I was trying to find approval anywhere I could. I had people telling me I gotta drink and hook up with girls, ‘because that’s what being black is all about.’”

“During sophomore year I walked into a Dollar General store with some friends. One pulled out a gun and tried to rob the store. I took off running because I was scared. One friend got arrested. I realized shortly after that, ‘Man this is not what I’m built for. I’m not trying to live this lifestyle. This is not who I am.’

“After that my friends called me a coward because I ran. So then I just let Young Life pour into me, ’cause there was nothing else. I had lost everything that had given me identity.”

In the midst of this, Steve and another leader, Matt Hypes, just kept showing up. They patiently continued to love on T despite his doubts about God.

“He'd never picked up a Bible in his life,” Steve explained. “When he thought of God, he either rejected His existence (because of the brokenness of his life), or was just angry at a God who would let this happen to him.”

Old Me, New Me

T’s perspective on God took a 180-degree turn at Saranac Village (a Young Life camp in New York) in the summer of 2013.

“I remember talking to Hypes, sitting by the lake,” T said. “He told me God loved me so much and was proud of me. I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been searching for my entire life.’ I had been desperately hoping for someone to tell me those things; now it was coming from the Creator of the universe! I remember looking at the lake, mountains and stars and thinking, ‘This isn’t an accident.’

“I knew this was what I was meant for; I gave my life to Christ, came back home and hit the ground running. The ‘old me’ died at camp. I came home new. Things were still hard, but it was a night-and-day difference. The way I loved my family was different, despite all the brokenness in my home.”

Coming home, T began to “walk the walk”… literally. “After he met Jesus,” Steve said, “T would walk a mile to our house every Monday morning to be at Campaigners by 7.”

The walking soon became hiking. The next summer the 17-year-old joined eight other kids as Steve took them on a week of adventure camping at Young Life’s Beyond Malibu. Definitely out of his element, T struggled the first few days.

“The physical aspect was hard,” Steve said. “In T’s defense, we were climbing a 7,500-foot mountain with 60 pounds of gear on our backs. He began to share with the guys on the trip about an incredibly difficult childhood and his nervousness to come on this trip because he didn't feel like he fit in. I then had the incredible privilege of watching the other boys, who he felt distant from, wrap their arms around him, tell him how much they loved him and how much he inspired them.

“It was grueling,” T admitted, “but there was something about being with those guys that kept pushing me forward. It was one of the first times I really opened up and let people in.”

The trip prepared him for what he couldn’t see coming: T’s mom was moving all the kids back to Louisville because of a dangerous family situation.

“I came home right before my mama left and I would have fallen apart had I not gone to Beyond Malibu.”

Wanting to finish his senior year in Virginia, T stayed put, bouncing around between grandparents, an aunt and friends. Despite an unsettling senior year away from his immediate family, he graduated and set about determining next steps. Steve and his wife, Theresa, walked through the college process with him. Attending school in Lexington or Louisville didn’t seem to offer T the best opportunities to thrive.

Family Pictures

That same summer, Steve and Theresa moved to Chesapeake, Virginia, where he would be the new Young Life area director. Theresa suggested T should come along, live with them and attend college there. T gratefully accepted the offer and lived in a finished room above their garage for a year and a half.

“We took on a lot of support roles in his life,” Steve said, “teaching him how to study at college, how to navigate things. He was even in our family pictures that Christmas!”

“Steve is the closest thing to a father figure I’ve ever had,” T said. “He and Theresa are incredible people; they’ve loved me through anything that could happen to a person. I love them a lot.”

Seeing the change the ministry made in his own life, T became a Young Life volunteer leader in Chesapeake. Since 2016, this young man has led at a school with a heavy multiethnic population and now lives in a house with other leaders in a low-income neighborhood.

“I get to chase after kids who look like me,” T said, “to help kids who struggle with what it’s like to be black, poor, whatever. I share with them the truth that changed my life: Someone loves them and that Someone is the One who created them.”

T’s dream is to one day teach history at a high school in the inner city. “I want to go into the neighborhoods where most people don’t dare to go and remind people there’s hope. They don’t have to be a product of their environment.”

“He’s had a lot of ups and downs in the eight years we’ve known him and his family life has continued to be complicated,” Steve said. “We’ve all learned about the persistence of showing up for the long term; what happens when someone steps into somebody’s life and offers them a vision they didn’t have for themselves.”

But he’s no longer burdened by history — the world’s or his own.

“This faith, this journey is mine now. I’m excited to live in this and chase Christ every day and experience all the things He says about me!”

“I just wanted to say thank you. My son’s name is T'Anthony, he’s 22 and had a rough life but doesn't point fingers or wallow in self-pity, thanks to your program. He began attending Young Life in Lexington, Virginia, as a freshman. He now is a leader in a poorer Young Life area and wouldn’t have it any other way. Young Life saved my baby’s life. I truly believe this to be fact. Thank you isn't enough to express my gratitude.” — Lawren​