Ready, Willing and Able

The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest crisis to provide the mission with an opportunity to adapt, innovate and grow. Whether the challenge has been manmade or natural, Young Life has always sought to operate out of a mentality of dependence upon the Lord’s provision and protection.

A mere 52 days after Young Life was incorporated — October 16, 1941 — came the “date which will live in infamy.” The attack on Pearl Harbor caught the U.S. unaware and thrust the nation into World War II. The mission, still in its infancy, looked for ways to connect with young people, both at home and abroad. One of those kids was Bob Mitchell, who would one day become Young Life’s third president. Bob, being too young to enlist, remembered how the war impacted the Dallas club he attended.

A World at War

“You could see the influence of the Second World War on a lot of the songs we sang. We sang songs like, ‘What though wars may come / with marching feet and beat of the drum / for I have Christ in my heart’—songs inspired by the war. All these songs had a national as well as a Christian overtone to them—that was the atmosphere. It was a very different time and a lot of the kids in that club were drafted and didn't make it. They didn't come back.”

Back home, the Young Life work faced other unique challenges. Churches were suspicious of this upstart group who came into town and without much fanfare began working with the high school crowd. In West Texas, Wally Howard bore the brunt of this interrogation. “Where I was, there was a lot of suspicion about Young Life. Who are you? On what authority are you here? Who sent you?​ They thought we were Nazis!” Howard experienced the first taste of what the rest of the mission would soon discover: it was imperative staff build relationships with the church in order to educate, define, and explain Young Life’s calling and place in the kingdom.

As the Great Depression hung over the early days in Gainesville, World War II cast its own shadow through the first four years of the mission’s work. Many of the men who would have served as staff were fighting across the world. As the allies helped bring about V-E Day in May and then V-J Day in August, countries around the world celebrated the return of their finest men and women. Meanwhile, the mission welcomed many veterans like Van Nall (a former club kid) and Bill Starr (who one day would become the mission’s second president) on to Young Life staff.
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story,  page 10)

The surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor were echoed some six decades later with the 9/11 attacks. Here again, the mission was reminded of the importance of being ready …

Just Being There

Every American remembers where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. The terrorist atrocities carried out in New York, Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania brought unspeakable horror and pain to a speechless nation and changed the course of history.

Like any traumatic event, the tragedy caused a stunned world to ask, “Why?” As hard as it was for adults to try and make sense of the senseless, it was even more challenging for kids. They asked the age old questions so many were wondering: “Why would God allow this? Where is He? Why did these innocent people have to die?”

Those living near the attacks, especially those who had lost loved ones, were particularly in need of attention. Like the leaders who had responded to tragedies throughout the previous decades, Young Life staff and volunteers quickly mobilized to care for any and all the Lord would bring their way.

In the Times Square/Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, leaders began meeting with kids the day of the attacks in a space at a local church. Originally designated to be the area’s club room, the space quickly became a disaster relief area for Ground Zero workers. The next few days were filled with staff and volunteers continuing to do what they do best—being present in the lives of kids.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., leaders also reached out to kids in the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon. Sam Branham, area director for Central Fairfax, Virginia, wrote in a newsletter that fall:

“On Wednesday, September 12, 50 or so high school students piled into my family room, sat with solemn stares and just wanted to talk about what had happened the day before. I was so impressed with the maturity of these teenagers. When they boiled everything down and reached a final conclusion, it was that people need to know God. They saw Jesus as really the only solution to any of the world’s problems.

In an effort to help kids in New York City and the children of those who died in the attacks, the mission established two funds. The September 11th Camp Scholarship Fund provided camperships to those who lost parents in the attacks, while the Young Life Manhattan Project helped fund new ministry sites in New York City: Times Square/Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, Union Square, Gramercy Park, and the Upper West Side.

Less than a month after the attacks, on October 7, 2001, the War in Afghanistan began. The mission rolled up its sleeves to once again care for those affected by war. Young Life staff and volunteers continued investing in relationships with former high school kids entering the conflict, while MCYM (Military Community Youth Ministries) staff reached out to kids who were military dependents. This worldwide ministry, which had come to mean so much to so many in the military community, continued to faithfully serve kids both stateside and abroad, as their parents served the nation.
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story, pp. 145-146)

The Mother of Invention

Alongside these two accounts could go numerous examples of Young Life responding in traumatic times, like Hurricane Katrina (and other similar natural disasters), the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and on and on.

The coronavirus pandemic is perhaps the most unique challenge any of us have ever lived through. Staying at home is the correct response, of course, but our hearts long to be with the kids we’re reaching.

So we’re continuing the tradition, but in a nontraditional way. Simply speaking, we’re now going to kids — “from a distance.” Whether it be virtually through modern technology like Zoom meetings, FaceTime and texts, or the good old-fashioned methods of phone calls and handwritten notes, the mission continues to “do Young Life” with every relational means at our ready.​

Kids are still searching for meaning and purpose, and we’re still offering them ways to find The Way. Virtual clubs, Campaigners gatherings and one-on-one conversations are the methods of the day, and until the world is given the “all clear” signal, we will make the best of it.

Throughout our 78-plus years of ministry we continue to believe that, whether in the normal day-to-day or in uncertain times like these, Young Life truly is “made for this.”