SAN DIEGO, Calif. Glenn McKinney spent his Friday the same way he had the entire academic year, sharing with his middle school Bible club students about the promise of eternal life found only through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
“I was talking to the kids. I was just telling them how important it is to be thankful for life, that the death angel has no respect of age,” McKinney, youth pastor at St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ in San Diego, Calif., said. “Not to scare them, but to give them the reality that life is not promised to us. At the funeral home or the graveyard there are caskets that are small and medium sized.”
That weekend, the Millennial Tech Middle School students learned a hard reality about the fickleness of this life when one of their classmates, Richard “Richy” Carrillo, was shot and killed as the 14-year-old sat with friends on the tailgate of a truck.
Several weeks earlier, Nate Landis, founder of Urban Youth Collaborative, a para-church ministry that matches churches with middle and high school campuses to offer on-site Bible clubs, was attending a memorial service for another young teen. This one for Ulysses Daniel Castrejón Beltrána, a 13-year-old San Ysidro Middle School student who was gunned down in Tijuana while visiting relatives.
Landis watched helplessly, though not hopelessly, as Ulysses’s adolescent classmates bore witness to their friend’s casket making its way down the church aisle. In the weeks since, he’s been using the heartbreaking incident as a teaching moment for Bible club students across San Diego County.
“No matter what they are facing, Christ has seen worse,” Landis said. “I was able to tell the kids at Millennial Tech, a couple of weeks ago, that Jesus had a loved one that was killed by violence, and that was his cousin John the Baptist. Jesus had to flee to Egypt because he lived in a violent neighborhood and people were trying to kill him. They were able to resonate with that.”
Because of his ongoing work with the students, Landis said school officials invited him to come to both of the campuses to help the students process their grief.
“We’ve built a resume of trust with the schools over the years,” he said. “They know they can turn to us in a time of need. In a desperate situation such as a school shooting they are going to reach out to anybody they trust.”
Landis’ crisis visit to San Ysidro Middle School came a week after participating in an assembly at the South Bay campus.
“Literally a week later I was back in the same room, same school, same day of the week, same kidsminus onefor drastically different reasons,” he said. “It was an indication to me of how quickly life can change and how important it is to make the most of every opportunity.”
The 90 percent
Landis launched the nonprofit collaborative five years ago as a way to engage churches in reaching out to youth.
“God just began breaking my heart for the 90 percent-plus of kids that are never connected to a local church,” he said.
Each week, a teacher adviser and a team of about four or five people from a local church bring food to the Bible clubs, which are student-led and held during non-instructional time. The students are also able to invite guest speakers to address matters of the Christian faith. In addition to providing physical and spiritual food, the clubs offer leadership development.
“We train kids to be change agents in their own communities,” Landis said.
Today, there are about 60 schools being served countywide, about one-fourth of the middle and high school campuses. Six more clubs are under development. About 2,000 are exposed to the gospel each week, Landis said.
Although originally launched at inner city schools where there are often large pockets of at-risk kids, Landis said the ministry’s goal is to have all 280 teen campuses matched with churches by 2020.
“There are urban issues everywhere,” he said, adding that security guards escort students to and from school in some San Diego neighborhoods. “That’s where our heartbeat is. That’s where we started and where we are working now. There are kids who walk to school everyday who are not sure if they are going to come home or not. It’s literally a life and death situation for some students and neighborhoods where we work.”
Filling a void
McKinney, whose father Bishop George D. McKinney has been a prominent minister in San Diego’s more urban neighborhoods for decades, said he is grateful for Urban Youth Collaborative and its mission of linking churches to teens. In addition to adopting Millennial Tech, St. Stephen’s is also involved with the San Diego Job Corps.
“That’s where the church plays a major role in communities and what we are trying to do as church,” he said. “What we’ve been trying to do for years is to be that link where people can go and learn how to let their burdens go to the Lord instead of trying to do it themselves.”
“When you are lost and you are trying to find your way, you don’t know where to go. Wou don’t even know that there is a God out there.”
McKinney said that with the break-up of the traditional family, many children are growing up not understanding the concept of a loving father.
“This is an outlet for the kids to really see God in a way that they haven’t seen Him before,” McKinney said. “It’s a chance where they can ask those questions about God. We have an intimate setting where we can answer those questions. We can lead the kids to Christ. We can tell them the plan of salvation unashamedly and with confidence.”
Expanding the reach
Because of those successes and the heartwrenching pain of lost young lives, Landis and McKinney said they are both praying that more churches see the urgency of ministering at the schools.
“We’re praying that more churches will hear the call to respond to the need of kids at public schools,” Landis said. “That’s where the largest and biggest mission field is, our public school system, and a lot of Christians are understandably concerned about the schools. The Darwin curriculum, the sex-ed curriculum makes a lot of parents afraid of sending their kids there, but then our question is what are we going to do with the other 90 percent of kids that have no connection to a Christian relationship or a church? We want to see something available for them.
“Whoever is going to be nearest the kids is going to win, and right now the church is not there as much as we could be if we found ways of connecting.”
For more information about the ministry, visit www.uycollaborative.org.