“These kids have 14-foot walls they have to climb before they get to the starting line,” says Mitch Redondo, youth pastor of Neighborhood Church, a Mennonite Brethren church plant in Fresno, Calif. In a partnership with Youth for Christ (YFC) and Roosevelt High School, Neighborhood Church is giving students in the high school’s lower-income neighborhood some handholds on those walls to success as adults.
More than 40 Roosevelt students gather at lunch each Thursday for SAS (Set Apart Squad) Club. For those 30 minutes in Mr. Altschuler’s trigonometry classroom it’s not about the equations on the board. It’s all about a place to belong and be loved.
“You’ll meet a lot of great people here”
“We’re going to talk about issues from a Christian perspective,” club president Amelia Konda tells the students. “But even if you don’t believe, you’re welcome to stay because you’ll meet a lot of great people here.”
Vetted through YFC’s system for on-campus volunteers, Redondo and his Neighborhood Church co-worker Grace Spencer walk freely on campus. SAS is considered a school club, giving the leaders access to campus facilities, including the gym for larger gatherings.
“They need to know that Christ is with them—a living guide to look to when they feel lost.”
The partnership between the church, the school and YFC works because of a shared goal, says Redondo.
“We all have the same hope: that these kids would thrive and learn to serve their community,” he says.
Making Scripture relevant is biggest challenge
SAS club members are not your traditional church youth, says Redondo. “A lot of these kids have no stable family unit. Maybe their parents have substance abuse issues or are incarcerated. They might be in foster care or raised by a grandparent or aunt.” If they come to SAS it’s because they want to be there, not because some authority told them to.
“You have to cross over into their world,” he says. “If they don’t like you, they’ll tell you.”
Making Scripture relevant to this mostly unchurched audience is one of the biggest challenges for Redondo.
Students clearly tell him, “If it doesn’t connect with where I stand, what I think about, I want nothing to do with it.”
When Redondo began in his role nearly two years ago, he and 15 students surveyed the entire student body to find out exactly where they could connect. Survey results have led to studies on feeling judged, dealing with conflict and struggles in relationships.
At each club meeting students get a card handout, professionally designed with teaching and discussion questions on the topic of the day. Redondo encourages them to take the card to talk about with their friends.
Local high school is key connecting point
The conversations continue on Facebook, through text messages and in personal contact between Redondo and students throughout the week. His goal is to see the interactions and relationships “transform the culture from the inside out.”
Neighborhood Church chose the Roosevelt area for their church plant precisely because of the challenges faced by families in poverty. The high school has become a key point of connection with the community. The church has already baptized several students, including one former gang member, who have become believers through SAS.
One key to transforming the students’ culture is to let them know that they are not alone, says Redondo.
“Their parents are not there for them; they feel like they’ve been dropped in a jungle to fend for themselves,” he says. “They need to know that Christ is with them—a living guide to look to when they feel lost.”
The ripple effect of transformation
The transformation of students who find Christ has a ripple effect on those around them—sometimes even those parents who are unable to provide a safe home for their children.
Redondo tells of receiving this Facebook message from one single mom who has left her son in the care of his grandparents: “I know we don’t talk, but I really admire and appreciate you for being there for Danny because he doesn’t have a male role model.”
In spite of her own substance abuse issues, Redondo says, the mom really does care about her kids.
The ministry partnership between church, school and YFC is filling in the gaps for these students with healthy role models and a place where they feel safe and accepted.
Kathy Heinrichs Wiest is a freelance writer who loves the smell of whole wheat bread in the oven, the feel of an orange being plucked from the tree and the view from her front porch in Kingsburg, California. On Sunday mornings you’ll find her in the fourth pew from the front on the left at Kingsburg MB Church, moved by the hymns and praise songs and inspired by the stories of God at work locally and around the world. She and her husband, Steve, own Dovetail Remodeling. They have two grown daughters, one son-in-law and a precious granddaughter.