The Great Exchange

One of the hallmarks of Young Life is going where kids are, anywhere in the world. But what if one day you discover the world has come to you?

That’s exactly what happened to Brent Simpson, a volunteer leader since 1985; for the last 15 of those years he’s overseen one of the most unique ministries in all of Young Life.

Drop in on the club he leads in Phoenix, Arizona, and you’ll find a room packed with energetic, laughing, inquisitive kids from countries like Brazil, China, France, Italy, Norway, Thailand and Vietnam, just to name a few.

This ministry, designed solely for foreign exchange students visiting the U.S., reaches up to 200 kids during their year in Arizona. Each school year begins with the Young Life Kickoff Party, with exchange students coming out from 12 of the local high schools. As the team prepared for last year’s party they eagerly anticipated the potential of 60 new kids showing up; 140 came through the doors that night.

“Hardly any of the kids know what Young Life is,” said Brent. “They’re leaving their country, coming to the U.S. for a year and looking for adventure. They don’t want to miss out on anything life has to offer, so Young Life is a great thing for these kids.”

I Never Knew ...

“When I think of ‘every kid, everywhere,’ my first thought is of Brent, the most faithful volunteer leader I know,” said Joseph Parisi, who now serves on Young Life staff in Oregon. “Brent has a heart for reaching the ‘furthest out kid who lives in your home.’ Not only has Brent volunteered countless hours, he’s also provided all the financial means of making it possible. My time volunteering with him was a huge part of my decision to join Young Life staff.”

For his part, Brent is very matter-of-fact about starting a ministry to these kids.

“In 2004 I was volunteering at one of the high schools here in Phoenix when I read about another Young Life area hosting an exchange student dinner. We tried it and had about 20 to 25 people show up. We decided to do this every year and try to plug these kids into their various high schools’ Young Life clubs if possible.”

The students showed such excitement for these annual dinners and bonded so well with each other that Brent wondered if he could start Young Life just for them. Convinced this idea could work, he decided to exchange the traditional model of ministering on a team at one high school for this unique opportunity. Brent left the team he was on and recruited a volunteer team to help him care for exchange students.

“There are so many stories from these kids about wanting to know more about Jesus,” Brent said. “Many have not grown up in the church and heard the message; they’ll often come up and say, ‘I never knew there was a God who cared for me.’”

Brent admits the students can be a little challenging to win over at first. “They’re skeptical; they come to this ‘Young Life thing’ and say, ‘We know there’s pizza and there’s fun, but we also know you guys are religious, so what is this?’

“You can even see the surprise on their faces during the first talk when I ask, ‘So why do we talk about God at a fun event like this? How does He fit in?’

“It’s then I explain why we believe God is necessary for a full life. They’re open and want to hear more. We offer them Bibles in their own languages and lots of kids take them.”

Advocates

It’s not just the students Brent and his team have had to win over. The best way to reach exchange students, he explained, is to contact the various exchange organizations through town.

“We would let them know, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this event and we don’t want your students to miss out. We’d love to have them attend.’

“At first some of the organizations were leery, but as soon as their students started coming, they heard rave reviews from the kids. Now the organizations ask us, ‘When are you doing this again?’”

They also turn to Brent and the team when they see their students struggling.

“I actually have exchange student organizations contact me and say, ‘We want you to call these three kids, they’re having a tough time. If you could get them involved in Young Life we’d appreciate it.’ One lady I’ve known for the full 15 years. She’s an atheist and I would assume not excited about the Christian message at this point, but she cares deeply about the students and is one of our biggest advocates. She had me to her house last year and said, ‘I want you to do an event here; I’ve seen the difference Young Life has made.’”

One day this same lady called Brent and asked him to contact Kan, a 15-year-old from Thailand. Attending the Young Life Kickoff Party was a game changer for the young man, Brent said.

“Kan shared with me later that he was about to leave and go back to Thailand because his school was big and impersonal and he felt on the outs. He came to the Young Life party and said, ‘You know, I’m going to stick with it.’ He came from an affluent family and at first he wasn’t interested in the things of God, but later that year he said, ‘Now I know that money is definitely not the key to happiness. I’ve seen God help me; if I hadn’t gone through this hardship I wouldn’t be who I am.”

Look at Me Now!

Kan’s story is not unusual, Brent explained. “I can’t tell you how many kids have told me, ‘I came to America expecting the best year of my life, but I was homesick, my school wasn’t what I thought, I felt like I didn’t fit in with my host family, it was difficult and so disappointing. When I got involved with Young Life, and made these new friends with leaders and kids, it completely turned my year around.’”

Every month Brent and the team hold a major event with kids. Dinners at someone’s house, riding go-carts, going to a movie, road trips and other options provide exchange students with an opportunity to invite other exchange students they know.

They’ve also begun a monthly Saturday breakfast, where 35 to 40 kids come out. “It’s a combination between club and Campaigners where we’ll sit in a circle, go around and have everyone share. Then we’ll play a game or two, and go deeper through the talk. Kids really engage with what we share about the faith.”

Some of those kids go even deeper. Take two friends, Duc (pronounced Duke) and Kent, from Vietnam and China, respectively. Both were drawn to the faith they saw in leaders like Brent and Joseph.

“When I came to Young Life,” Duc said, “I realized how good Brent, Joseph and the other people there are, so I started hanging out with them. They took Kent and me to church and shared the gospel with us. I really appreciate what Joseph and Brent did for me. They represented God to me.
“Before I came to Arizona I didn’t believe in God; I thought He was just ‘a god.’ I didn’t know what He had done for me. Look at me now, I believe in Him!”

Kent echoes his friend’s sentiments. “Before Young Life I didn’t know anything about God; I just respected Christianity as a religion. Since being in Young Life I have seen God reaching out to me, showing His attributes and power. Now, in Young Life, we are like a family.”

Students One and All

Another “student” blessed by this grand adventure is Brent himself, who is receiving a degree in showing himself grace when he can’t go deep with every student. “I’ve learned to relax over the kid we didn’t have a conversation with or the kid we didn’t get to go deep with because he didn’t come out to a lot of things.”

Brent’s discovered that for some kids, the ultimate commitment to Christ doesn’t happen within their exchange year. Take Alex for example. He heard the message, but returned to China without much of a change.

Brent was surprised to see a Facebook message from Alex that summer.

“Alex wrote, ‘Hey, Brent, I’m coming back to LA for my senior year of high school! Is there any Young Life there?’ Later he texted me, ‘I decided I’m going to a Christian school.’ A few months later, ‘I’m liking this school and I’m going on this missions trip with them.’ A little later, ‘Hey, Brent, guess what, I‘ve committed my life to the Lord and I’m following Him now!’

“I felt like I didn’t have any influence on Alex; but now his life has completely changed. I’ve learned I don’t have to worry; God’s in control. I love kids and I’ll tell them the truth when I have the opportunity, but God’s got the rest of it.”

This is evident as well in the experience of Brenda and Adrielly, two students from Brazil who attended club five years ago. They both signed up to attend the fall weekend at Lost Canyon, Young Life’s camp in Williams, Arizona.

“They were the only two girls from our club to go on the weekend and our leaders couldn’t go, so they went with another group,” Brent said. “I was praying, ‘Lord, these two girls barely speak English; they don’t know anybody. Please have Your hand on them.’

“They returned having the weekend of their lives, made great friends with the girls in the cabin and with their broken English they understood enough to meet the Lord! They came back from Brazil to work on summer staff last year and had a great experience!”

During their year here, Brent said, a lot of kids like Brenda and Adrielly go to camp, meet Christ, go back home and get involved in ministry there. Ultimately, this club has become a global receiving-and-sending ministry, and stands as a model of international influence.

“I’ve seen kids all over the world greatly impacted by this volunteer-run area,” Joseph said. “Many of whom returned to their home countries excited to share the gospel with anyone who would listen.”

Brent knows he’s had a front-row seat to what teenagers around the world are enduring. “I’ve been struck by how these kids are dealing with the same brokenness, family issues and temptations that American kids face. It’s a strong reminder that kids all over need the healing touch of Jesus; He’s the One who fixes broken things — and invites us all to follow Him.”