Making a spiritual connection

Saturday, January 13, 2007
Central High School junior Dustin Welker, left, joked with seventh-graders Fletcher McGinty and Vance Toole during lunch at Central Junior High School on Friday. With the guidance of Rick Rivera, in background, high school students volunteer as leaders for WyldLife, a Young Life mission for middle-school and junior high students. (Kit Doyle)

Go where teenagers are and what do you find?

That depends on what you want them to find. Rick Rivera, area director for Young Life in Cape Girardeau since August, goes to where teenagers go to help them find a relationship with Jesus Christ.

"We are on campus, we are at ballgames, we're at the mall -- wherever kids are, that's where we go," Rivera said.

Young Life, aimed at high school-aged teens, and WyldLife, for middle school and junior high-aged children, have weekly or biweekly meetings and recreation at its headquarters at 616 Broadway. But Young Life staff and volunteers go where the teens are and reach them on their turf.

Young Life is an international organization, locally funded and supported by assorted local churches and businesses. It is governed by local adult volunteers. Adult and college student volunteers reach out to teens. They don't push, they don't preach. If they sense they're not welcome, they back off.

"We show an interest in them," Rivera said. "Some of them may never come to our group meetings. We may have 100 conversations with them before we have a significant spiritual conversation. We don't have big events and ask kids to come. We know Christ is the only thing that can change kids' lives."

The goal is to reach teens who don't have a spiritual connection, and Young Life does that by living by example. While volunteers learn who the teens are, the youths are also learning about them.

"We're going to live our lives out in front of them," Rivera said. "We talk about what God has done in our lives. We're going to have evidence of faith in the way we live. People know we're not perfect. We earn the right to have that spiritual conversation with them. If they think we're blowing smoke, it's OK. We love them anyway and maintain a relationship with them."

Cape Girardeau Young Life director Rick Rivera likens the group's Christian ministry to baseball. "Just make contact, and the rest will take care of itself," said Rivera, pictured at the group's multipurpose building in downtown Cape Girardeau. (Kit Doyle)

Rivera said being Young Life director is less a 9-to-5 job and more of a lifestyle. He spends his time getting to know young people, learning their names and affirming they are significant.

"So many kids walk through the hallways and nobody acknowledges their existence," he said. "We earn their trust and confidence. We go after kids who are not interested in the Gospel or in God and give them the opportunity to know who Jesus Christ is and respond to that."

Young Life has been in Cape Girardeau for 25 years, and began nearly 70 years ago when an assistant youth pastor in Texas, Jim Rayburn, was commissioned to reach high school students who weren't coming to church. Rayburn had no idea how he was going to do that. He went to the local high school to meet some students and learned that going where teens were and loving them was the way to earn the right to be heard.

Central High School principal Dr. Mike Cowan said he enjoys watching Rivera, who comes to have lunch with the students.

"I'm standing by the front doors, where I often am, and I see Rick come through the door and kids instantly gather around him for conversation," Cowan said. "He has a magnetic personality and a soft, gentle and loving spirit when he interacts with our kids."

Cowan says it helps that Rivera also feels at home in a high school setting. Rivera taught four years in his hometown of Garden City, Kan., where he had been involved as a volunteer and staff member with Young Life. He was also a wrestling coach and was named Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association 2006 4A Coach of the Year. He also volunteers with Central's wrestling program, giving him another avenue to reach young people for Young Life.

Rivera said he first became aware of Young Life when he was a teenager and a man named Joe Bahr began a Young Life ministry in Garden City. Rivera came to his faith his sophomore year.

Rivera left Young Life for a while to take the teaching/coaching job, but something seemed to be missing in his life. He and his wife, Jami, had been soul-searching about their future when a good friend of his died suddenly; that helped them make the decision to return to Young Life.

"I loved teaching and coaching," he said. "I thought about going back on staff and it was always something I was going to do down the road. I realized down the road is not guaranteed to us. What we are called to do, we need to do it."

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