Stacking Hands

When Area Director Joe Wilson talks about Protestants and Catholics working together under the banner of Young Life, he compares them to the Cajun Navy, the diverse band of boat owners from the South who quickly organize to rescue thousands from floods after a hurricane.

In an urgent situation, these fishing enthusiasts, water-skiers and recreational cruisers don’t sit around and talk about who has the bigger or better boat, Joe said.

“It’s all hands on deck! Likewise, thousands of kids are drowning down here in Texas. They don’t know the love of Christ. So when it comes to rescuing kids, you don’t sit around and talk about little differences in Christian doctrine. You get a rope, you launch your boat and you start searching!”

This vision of stacking hands on the gospel in the Rio Grande Valley wasn’t Joe’s idea. An agreement between Young Life and the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville was formed a few months before he arrived in July of 2015.

Joe admits he was an unlikely candidate to lead this collaboration since he’s white and raised Baptist, and the Valley is 90% Latino and overwhelmingly Catholic. But he has an urgency to reach “every kid,” and his alliance with Catholics is now producing fruit along this stretch of the U.S. / Mexico border. Joe has recruited and trained three Catholic Latino Young Life staffers and is building a pipeline to hire more.

Hugo De La Rosa, assistant principal at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School in McAllen, said Joe may have felt like an unlikely candidate for the region, but he’s turned out to be the perfect area director. “Joe dove right in. He tries to understand the Catholic worldview. He’s willing to listen and find a way to work together. I can’t imagine we could have gotten anyone better suited to this area.”


There are 7,000 kids at the five Harlingen, Texas, high schools. A majority are Catholic, but most are disconnected from a church, and most of the Catholic churches don’t have the resources for youth ministry. The initial vision was to gather Catholic volunteers as Young Life leaders for these high schools. The hope was to re-engage these students and activate the faith they were born into.

Joe and a committee from the diocese held informational gatherings that attracted 140 Catholic adults who ranged in age from 35 to 75. But only 40 of them attended the leader training that followed, and most couldn’t commit the time needed to lead Young Life. A few were willing but lived 45 miles from the nearest high school.

“At the end of leader training, more people knew what Young Life was, but nothing in terms of leaders,” Joe said. So he tried another approach. “A white Baptist is not the best salesman for Young Life in the valley,” he said. “We needed some inside advocacy. We needed a Catholic.”

Recruiting and training a local Catholic to become an area director would take too much time, Joe said, so he decided to recruit some Catholic student staffers. He set up booths at colleges and Catholic conferences, asking students if they wanted training on how to be a missionary. Twenty signed up, and out of that group four had “Young Life DNA.”

The next year produced 30 students, and the following year 40 more. Each trip has generated a pool of Catholic Young Life volunteers, and each year, another volunteer enters Young Life’s Developing Future Leaders (DFL) program, which creates a pipeline for staff in underserved areas.

Reyna Conde, now on mission staff, was hired in 2017 and leads Young Life at a public high school. Lizette Hernandez, hired in 2018, and Danny Acosta, hired last year, both lead WyldLife at Our Lady of Sorrows. Their salaries are being covered by the local area, the South Texas Region and the Diocese of Brownsville.

“These leaders are from the Valley. They can speak the language. It’s magical. They can do in five minutes what it would take me five years to do,” Joe said.


In addition to this Latino/Catholic leadership pipeline, the Diocese of Brownsville last year began a pilot project with WyldLife at Our Lady of Sorrows. The after-school club competes with sports and academic competitions, but six to 14 students come regularly.

“It’s a small start, and we are hoping to keep it going,” said Hugo, who loves seeing the WyldLife leaders at morning assemblies and sporting events. “WyldLife has a special charism — the willingness to get into the messiness of kids’ lives and tell them and show them they are loved. When our kids go to WyldLife, they see a different experience of what it means to follow Jesus. They go to Mass and take religion classes, and Young Life brings that to life. They need both.”

The school, the parish, the diocese and Young Life Rio Grande Valley are all hoping this WyldLife group will grow. The school would like to open the club to some nearby public schools.


“I would never have put myself in this position of leading Young Life on the border with Mexico and leading a Catholic initiative,” Joe said. “When I started with Young Life, my goal was learning how to play the guitar.”

The 15-year staff veteran was drawn to Young Life because of a loss in his own life. His father committed suicide when Joe was 10 years old. “My heart for the fatherless is what keeps me going,” he said. “So many kids are walking around, looking for validation and ready to give themselves away. That’s why we need to join our Catholic brothers and sisters in this great rescue mission.”

“We need to enter into friendship based on the commonality of our faith — Jesus came, died and rose again. And we need to figure out how to enter into mission together.”