August 28, 2018
At 6:30 p.m. on a Monday night, Karale Williams ’10 gives a last-minute pep talk to more than 90 coaches in Moody’s Solheim Center. “WHY ARE YOU HERE?” he shouts like a drill sergeant, his arm pumping the air. The coaches (many of them Moody alumni and students) holler back: “JE-SUS!”
Then about 100 urban high school youth pour into the lobby, each one welcomed by name with loud cheers, hugs, and high fives. SLAM, a weekly night of games, team sports, and Bible teaching for urban youth, is sponsored by GRIP Outreach for Youth (gripyouth.com). The nonprofit ministry has 10 Moody alumni on staff, as well as many Moody alumni and students who volunteer as coaches (mentors) and administrative helpers.
SLAM is a weekly launching pad for what happens outside the walls of Solheim. Each coach commits to spend four to six hours every week with their assigned student, engaging in what GRIP calls “life-on-life” relationships as a foundation for Christian discipleship. GRIP stands for gospel, relationship, immersion (in the local church), and prayer/preparation.
“They need to see when we get in arguments, how we resolve conflict, how we forgive, how we love and serve others, and what church is like. They need to see that modeled,” says GRIP’s executive director, Scott Grzesiak.
SLAM was the 1999 brainchild of Larry Butterfield with help from Don Stubbs ’95, both former Moody employees, to serve high school students living in the Cabrini-Green housing projects near Moody. Scott, then a newly saved businessperson, helped launch SLAM as one of the first mentors. As gentrification took place, the families spread out, and now teens come from all over Chicago, particularly the West and South Side.
Moody has been glad to donate the use of Solheim for SLAM since it started. This also matches the wishes of Karsten and Louise Solheim, who funded a large part of Moody’s athletic outreach center in 1991 with the intention to use it for community evangelism and discipleship. As a result, many Moody students involved in SLAM develop a heart for Chicago and its urban youth.
“GRIP’s changed our lives, literally,” says Josh Burns ’10, who did his Moody internship with GRIP, then volunteered as a mentor for five years before joining GRIP’s staff as marketing communications manager in 2015. Mentoring a high school student named Steven sometimes meant attending parent-teacher meetings in place of Steven’s parent and late nights helping with homework.
“Josh was a big help,” Steven says. “He put in my mind that I got to graduate; it’s not an option. He didn’t let me fall. He helped me.”
Josh was proud to see Steven walk across the stage to receive his high school diploma. And Steven was proud to be invited to usher at Josh’s wedding. “I didn’t just go to it; I was part of it,” he says.
Josh grins. “We’re giving him access to parts of our lives that mean a lot to us,” he says. “To have Steven as a part of it, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Nya, 17, is thankful for her SLAM coach, Brooke Roskam ’11, who’s on staff with GRIP The School, an initiative that recruits volunteers from local churches to serve in Chicago’s under-resourced public schools. “She gives me good advice,” says Nya, who lives on Chicago’s South Side. “My mama likes her and calls her my godmama, but I claim her as a sister.”
The two first met six years ago at By The Hand Club For Kids, a Christian after-school program for inner-city children, where Brooke worked while a student at Moody. Nya has spent time at Brooke’s house in East Garfield Park, has done homework with her at coffee shops, and has gone to Christian camps and slumber parties. “She was the one who actually took me to church and told me about God,” Nya says. “I love Brooke. She got a good heart.” College is also on the horizon for Nya, who plans to study cosmetology so she can own her own hair salon.
Karale, who has an elementary education degree from Moody and is married with a young son, walks life-on-life with high school senior Marcelis Townsel. During SLAM’s discipleship time, Marcelis said of Karale: “He’s just a great person to be around, a great father figure for us kids. I got a kid also, and Karale taught me about being a man, being a father, and being a gentleman.
“A lot of coaches got crazy stories, and just seeing how they deal with life and how God helps them develop and stay strong, it makes me want to do the same thing, because I got to be strong too,” Marcelis says.
GRIP coaches will tell you that mentoring isn’t an overnight process. Life-on-life relationships require time (years), patience, and prayer. To support the men and women who coach, GRIP provides male and female head coaches and mentorship coordinators.
Karale is the male mentorship coordinator, meeting with 45 to 50 male mentors once a month. “It’s like pastoral soul care,” says Karale, who did church planting in Africa and pastoring in Texas before joining GRIP. He helps new mentors get over the common hurdle of their student not wanting to hang out with them. “Because a lot of our students have been damaged by people, it’s not easy for them to open up and trust,” he says. “So a lot of it is perseverance.”
In a quick-fix culture, GRIP promotes mentoring for the long haul. “Some students come from highly toxic situations—deaths in families by gunshot or overdose or kids failing several grades—and coaches can get overwhelmed by those things,” Karale says.
Many of the problems that plague urban cities like Chicago can be traced to fatherlessness. Most urban youth grow up without their birth father (72 percent of African Americans and 53 percent of Latinos). Fatherless children are four times more likely to live in poverty and two times more likely to end up in jail, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, 71 percent of high school dropouts and 90 percent of teens in gangs come from fatherless homes.
Karale himself grew up in a single-parent household in Houston’s inner city, but his aunt would drive a half hour out of her way to pick him up for church. “That really spoke volumes to me that she would do that and take time to talk with me,” recalls Karale, who trusted Christ at age 16. When his youth pastor suggested Moody Bible Institute, Karale agreed because he needed to get away from partying friends and wanted to learn to defend his faith. “I knew I could move far away, get a good Bible education, and graduate debt free,” he says.
At Moody, Karale’s life transformed not from a particular class, he says, but from a professor. “Peter Worrall in the education department helped my worldview become biblical,” he says. “I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. I went to public school all my life, so my perspective on life was very narcissistic, very agnostic—humanistic in a sense—because God has been removed from education.”
Karale says this biblical framework helps him work with mentors and teens to think about their life choices and set goals. If a teen doesn’t want to go to college, for example, Karale says it’s important to determine the family dynamic and help the teen think critically. “Why do I think this way and is this good thinking? Is this beneficial thinking, and is this biblical thinking?”
One biblical resource is Streetlights (streetlightsbible.com), developed in Chicago by Moody graduates. Esteban Shedd ’05 first conceived the idea for an audio Bible designed specifically for urban teens for his senior project at Moody. “My focus was how to use the media arts to communicate the gospel but really minister to the needs in various contexts,” he says. A Bible study he led at his church with teenagers who couldn’t read inspired Esteban. He used Moody’s studios to experiment with recording various Bible passages, setting them to hip-hop beats.
Meanwhile, Esteban and two Moody classmates, Aaron Lopez ’06 and Loren La Luz ’06, were involved in a successful hip-hop group. Loren says that just as they were gaining major-label interest, “it was very clear that God had other plans, and what birthed out of that was Streetlights.” GRIP hired the trio to create an urban multimedia Bible that also has a mobile app. “It’s God’s Word, and it’s truth,” says Loren. “That, more than anything, is the power behind this project.”
Proof of that power? During SLAM, Marcelis says, “I never picked up a Bible until I came here. Now I got a [Streetlights] Bible on my phone. You can put headphones in and have the Bible read to you. It’s a big thing.”
Anna (Lanier ’17) Heyward first started coaching students in SLAM as her Practical Christian Ministry assignment at Moody. That led to two and a half years in Moody’s Urban Cohort program, living in East Garfield Park. Last summer Anna interned with GRIP’s Legacy Conference, an urban disciple-making event that attracted speakers, Christian hip-hop recording artists, and about 2,000 attendees to Moody’s Chicago campus.
After graduating last December with her Communications degree, Anna got her dream job working with Legacy Conference, which recently expanded to Los Angeles and Houston, Texas. “We feel like the gospel was spread and people were equipped to make disciples, so that’s the vision behind everything,” she says.
Anna and her husband, Tim Heyward ’18, live down the street from Al Raby High School, where they both “walk life” with a few students for GRIP The School. “But that’s just volunteer work, because we love it,” she says with a laugh.
Shawn Procter ’07, inspired by D. L. Moody’s heart for orphans, began working as program director for GRIP The School a few years after graduating from Moody. “Moody was God’s tool of connecting my heart to the city of Chicago. When I walked into the D. L. Moody museum during my first month on campus, tears came to my eyes as I saw the heart he had for the ‘least of these’ in Chicago . . . the at-risk youth on the streets. Today I have the privilege to serve our city’s youth, just like Moody’s founder.”
Shawn recruits volunteers to tutor students and lead after-school programs. “Our goal is simply to pray for and serve schools while walking life with the students,” he says.
At times, Shawn and his wife, Pamela, have even invited volunteers to live in their home. Sara Nimori, a Communications major who has worked with GRIP The School, lived with the Procters and their seven-year-old daughter for two months. “They showed me through their actions what it is to do ministry incarnationally just in how they live their lives.”
Sara, who is serving as 2018–19 student body president, remembers when Shawn and Pamela invited Melody (La Luz ’02) Fabien, GRIP’s female mentorship coordinator, and her husband, Claudaniel (CD), to visit. The interaction between those two families was consistent with how they were at GRIP and at church. “I’ve seen through the people who work at GRIP that it’s just the heartbeat of how they live—when they’re off duty, on the weekends, when they’re with their kids, when they’re under financial hardship. You listen to Shawn, and it’s never this high-level, inaccessible Christianese. It’s always, ‘Do you still love Jesus? As you’re studying theology, do you still love Jesus?’ That’s what he’s asked me and other Moody students who work with him. That’s a very important question that I try to keep in mind.”
Brooke, who now serves as program coordinator at Al Raby High School, says she’s never had a teacher refuse their help. “Especially when the volunteers are coming in and saying, ‘The only motive for me being here is to serve and to meet students,’ the teacher is like, ‘Great!’ ” That servant attitude gives volunteers wide-open access to several public schools. “The church has said the school is off-limits, when in reality it’s not off-limits if you come in as a servant,” Brooke says. “Come in as Christ who came to serve, not to be served. Then there’s no longer a barrier there.”
In a GRIP video, Dr. Femi Skanes, principal of Al Raby High School, confirms Brooke’s words: “I’ve served at three Chicago public high schools, and of all of the schools I’ve been in and all of the partnerships I’ve seen, GRIP is the most phenomenal. When they say life-on-life, they truly mean that they are dedicated to improving lives.”
When trying to reach urban youth, Karale says it is most important to consider the ministry of Jesus, who always ministered to the “least of these.” “The ability to love people the way Jesus loves people and meet them and their needs and bring dead men to life is a beautiful picture. I think that’s what God has called us to do.”
Linda Pienbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni News.