by Bob Lupton
My phone rang the other evening as I was turning chicken on my patio grill. I recognized the voice immediately. Though I hadn’t heard it for years, Larry Cooper’s voice was still recognizable. Larry was the first kid referred to me from the juvenile court forty-six years ago.
He was then thirteen, full of energy, mischievous, with a great sense of humor. We immediately connected. Larry became my junior leader, well-liked by the other boys in our group. He helped me plan weekly activities, organize high adventure trips, and generally ride herd on an unruly bunch of adolescents. We became fast friends.
Larry was one of my stars, my best example of the effectiveness of our Youth Guidance program. He stayed in school, behaved well enough to be released from probation, and had - what appeared to me to be - a genuine faith in God. That was until he reached his later teen years.
Then things began to change. He found a job that offered a paycheck but no real way out of poverty. Other young men his age and older were making much better money dealing in drugs and stolen goods. Easy opportunities were presented to him daily in the projects, and he eventually gave in to the temptation. In time, he was involved once again with the law. Then he did some prison time.
From time to time, Larry and I re-connected. He made several serious attempts at new starts – landed a couple of decent jobs, volunteered in our Youth Guidance program – but then the powerful undertow of the streets would pull him under and he would disappear again.
He called me when his first child was born. He called me again when his son was shot and killed. Sometime later I ran into him in a parking lot, and he said he was working part time on a construction job. But that was years ago.
Then, the other evening out of the blue, he called me again.
I braced myself for some bad news. But this time, it was different. He was on his way to church, he said. The pastor had asked him to “tell his story” to the congregation, and tonight was the night he would be speaking.
He had been sober for nearly a year, had joined a good church, was working full time, and was back together with his wife. Ever since his pastor asked him to consider telling his story, he had been reflecting on his journey. He wanted me to know I had a major influence on his life and that even though he had experienced many ups and downs, it was the seeds I had planted decades ago that he repeatedly returned to.
“Sometimes it takes a long time for them seeds to grow,” Larry said to me.
I agreed. Forty-six years!
“How old are you now?” I was trying to do the math.
“Fifty-nine,” he said. “Well, I just called to say ‘thank you’ for all you did for me,” he continued. “It made a big difference in my life. And I wanted your permission to tell my church about you and how much God used you in my life.”
When we hung up, I sat in silence. Memories flooded back: warm memories of a tender relationship with a fatherless boy, hopeful memories filled with high expectations for his future, memories of helplessness as destructive forces wrapped their tentacles around his life, memories of sadness and deep disappointment as I lost my friend to the streets.
I remembered how confident I was back in those early days of youth work, quite sure my friendship and a convincing presentation of the Gospel would transform the lives of my teenage referrals. How touching it was to watch them cling to the attention of a caring adult male in their lives, what joy in seeing them take their first tentative steps of faith in God!
Too late I would learn my Youth Guidance program was woefully inadequate to steer troubled young men out of the entanglements of ghetto life into healthy adulthood. It was a youth program. It worked fine for adolescents. But it was not designed for young adults.
I had naively assumed my graduates would somehow flourish on their own if they could be successfully guided through their troubled adolescent years. I was wrong. One by one, I watched them disappear, some into prison, some into the underworld of the drug trade, some killed. Rarely did one make it successfully to stable adulthood.
For a decade I watched. The pattern repeated itself again and again with the steady stream of referrals that came from the courts. Finally, I had seen enough. I had to either get these young people (and their families) out of the environment that was destroying them, or I had to change that environment. And that meant entering into that world in order to effect change from within. I chose the latter.
That’s when FCS became a community transformation ministry. Its mission: to create healthy places in the city where families flourish and the Shalom of God is present. So that’s what we have been doing for the past 35+ years – changing urban neighborhoods. We’re now focused on our sixth community. And the results have been gratifying.
Unfortunately, this change in strategy came too late for Larry Cooper. But in the providence of God, at least one story of redemption has emerged from the distant past out of seeds planted by a sincere, but naïve, young youth worker. Perhaps there are more seeds yet to germinate. I hope so.
Photo credit: VI Photography