Swimming in the Deep End

It’s hard to imagine a Young Life camp without water. In pools, lakes, an ocean inlet and even white-water rapids, a week at a Young Life camp means water activities. That’s a lot of fun unless you’re an African American kid who can’t swim. A recent USA Swimming Foundation study found that 64% of African American kids cannot swim. That’s more than six in 10 African American kids who likely have, or should have, a fear of water, especially deep water.

That percentage, as high as it is today, was a lot higher in the 1970s when BeBe Hobson, Young Life’s senior vice president of Focus Ministries and Diversity, went to Southwind for the first time. He was only 12, and far too young for a high school camp, but he seemed more mature. BeBe’s uncle who was on part-time staff vouched for him, and given that BeBe’s dad had died of a brain aneurysm just two years earlier, camp leadership allowed him to stay. That’s when BeBe met Jim Dyson, and how a few years later he learned to swim.

Jim was an area director in BeBe’s Largo (Tampa Bay), Florida, area. He and his wife, Amy, were concerned about the number of drownings that occurred every summer, so they made a priority of teaching kids like BeBe how to swim. At that time, BeBe didn’t know many kids who could swim. It wasn’t the norm for African Americans. That made the learning experience all the more frightening. BeBe said Jim taught him “something far outside the box of what I knew or was comfortable with. I had to trust him and the body of water I was swimming in. Jim said he knew I had the ability to learn to swim, and I had to trust that, too.”

That was decades ago, and since then, BeBe and Jim’s relationship has only strengthened. “Jim’s led me into deep water time and time again. He’s been a father figure who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”

Led to Lead

Jim remembers meeting a young BeBe who was a leader, even as a little kid. “His mother believed (and I agreed) that he would always be a leader, one way or another — for good or bad.” BeBe grew toward the former. BeBe was heavily involved in everything Young Life had to offer from club to Campaigners. Outside of that, he was an athlete, a football stand-out in high school with a rushing yards record. When BeBe returned from college, their leader-Campaigner kid relationship became a deeper, peer-to-peer friendship.

As BeBe grew into leadership and went on Young Life staff, Jim mentored him, teaching him the importance of good credit, and how to fundraise. “At one time I raised money with car washes, chicken sandwiches and candy sales,” said BeBe. “Now I raise support sitting across the table from multi-million-dollar philanthropists. Jim taught me that. He taught me how to live and work in a largely white, Anglo ministry of the 1980s and to be who I was.

“Jim would say that the one thing he couldn’t be was black, so he put me around other black men who could give me what he couldn’t. That’s how I came to understand what inclusion really looked like. When you feel invited and valued, you can come with your whole self and bridge the gap. Jim allowed me to be me.” BeBe was mentored so well that, eventually, he succeeded his one-time leader as the area director in BeBe’s hometown.

BeBe speaks of Jim with obvious admiration and respect acknowledging he was just one of the many lucky kids Jim drew into his circle of love and care. For BeBe, Jim has been a father figure, a dear friend and his boss as well. When Jim left his area director post to become the vice president of Young Life’s urban ministries in the Southern Division, BeBe replaced him. And BeBe followed again when Jim later assumed responsibility for Young Life’s ministry in the Eastern Division.

BeBe said, “Three times I followed him in leadership. Once I was even his boss. And another time, Jim stepped in for me when I could no longer work.”

“I Thought He Was Going to Die”

Ten years ago, BeBe was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that can attack the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood or brain. In BeBe’s case the disease progressed rapidly and for six months he was on oxygen 24 hours a day. For two years he left the mission and Jim stepped in to serve in BeBe’s absence.

“I thought he was going to die,” recalled Jim. BeBe thought he might, too, but God intervened. BeBe was given a miracle drug that put him and keeps him in remission. Five years ago, when BeBe was strong enough to return to his post, Jim retired. “You know how New Orleans residents refer to life as pre- or post-Katrina? I do the same thing — pre- and post-lupus,” said BeBe. “In those deep, deep waters, Jim never left my side. We still live a mile and a half from each other, and we talk all the time.”

Jim considers himself the lucky one. Through his friendship with BeBe and his heart for urban (now multiethnic) ministry, Jim’s seen God at work. He’s had a “front-row seat to watch the progress made in multiethnic ministry — to see it all unfold.” BeBe’s progression to become Young Life’s most senior leader over diversity completes that picture, one that started with an underaged, fatherless kid who needed to learn how to swim, and a white guy who loved him, and who wanted him to succeed at far more than that.

But as BeBe knows well from his personal experience, the waters don’t always stay calm for us or the people we love. Not long ago, Jim was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a devastating diagnosis. As BeBe said, “It’s likely that yesterday will be the best day Jim is going to have. You know, I used to ask Jim how he was doing. Now I ask, ‘How can I help you?’” These days, Jim can no longer lead the Monday morning Bible study BeBe regularly attended, but the two still partner in a mentorship program for boys at a local elementary school.

And just like the mentor he was and continues to be, BeBe says Jim is showing him how to live in the shadow of a consuming disease, holding on to Jesus as his Savior and strength.

“Jim taught me how to swim in the deep end of the pool and gave me a life skill I’ll never lose. But it’s what he’s taught me about swimming in the deep end of life that’s been life-saving and life-giving for me and for lost kids like I was at 12.” BeBe says he doesn’t know how to navigate the waters that Jim and Amy and all who love him are entering now, “but like always, I know Jim will be by my side to show me how.”