Because I've Been There
How one man's powerful story challenges NYC teens to rise above.
A bottle sailed through the air, presumably intended for Dwayne Walton's head.
Returning to a neighborhood from his youth, he stood before a rowdy and loud mob of New York City teenagers gathered for yet another school assembly. Undaunted by the cacophony of laughter, shouting and occasional cussing, he stepped forward to the microphone.
Instead of frustration or judgment, Dwayne's words dripped with compassion and hope. In moments, the room calmed as the young men and women heard words that resonated with their experiences.
Over a decade before, similar words found Dwayne in the midst of chaos and confusion. They began his own journey, one that now led him right back to where he started.
Difficult Background Gave Credibility
Receiving the invitation to speak at this Brooklyn high school from Kevin Young, a New York City staff member with Student Venture, the high school ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, Dwayne readily accepted.
"Dwayne knows the unique challenges and cultural nuances of the kids living in that part of town," says Kevin. "He spoke right to them with very little need to try to be relevant. His background spoke for itself." Kevin also knew of Dwayne's history with Student Venture.
A native of the small South American country of Guyana, Dwayne moved to the busy streets of Brooklyn at just 6 years old. The bright promises of American life quickly faded for him and the other 10 members of his family all living in a small basement apartment. His father left and was later murdered. Tragically, 2 uncles suffered the same fate, one dying before Dwayne's eyes.
Moving to Queens as a teenager, Dwayne attended Andrew Jackson High School, one of the roughest schools in the city. Tempting but dangerous paths unfolded before him even though he excelled as a student.
Life easily could have taken a turn for the worse. But everything changed unexpectedly on a typical afternoon at the basketball court.
Strangers' Intentionality Makes Strong Impression
Like many young men in his neighborhood, Dwayne had NBA aspirations and a cocky attitude. So when a handful of white men showed up at the teen's school to challenge them to a game of hoops, he volunteered to put the strangers in their place.
"I took offense to it because I didn't think they could possibly come into the hood and play these young black men and even score," Dwayne says. "I was right. We demolished them."
Savoring the victory quickly gave way to surprise. The men, representatives of Student Venture, began talking to the kids about God.
"It was the first time in my life where Jesus had left the church and came to where I was," says Dwayne. "It was significant to see these men leave their comfort zones to tell us about Christ. I told them I wanted to know more."
Dwayne then met Willie Branch, a veteran staff member with a reputation for always being at the schools. An instant bond formed, motivating Dwayne to meet regularly with Willie and to participate in an academic mentoring program Willie started at his school.
Investment of Time, Wisdom Reaps Benefits
Willie mentored Dwayne and other students performing well academically, talking to them about God and challenging them to grow. Those same students would help struggling students with their class work. For Dwayne, the act of tutoring others mirrored what Willie did spiritually in his life.
Dwayne's eyes opened to what it meant to have a relationship with God, and soon, he made the decision to receive Christ for himself. "I realized it wasn't about religion, but about relationship," Dwayne says. "I could experience Jesus daily in His Word, at home, on my way to school or in class. Willie made Christianity real and honest."
Dwayne began reading his Bible and praying. Still the events of his past followed him like a drifting fog. "I had a lot of bitterness and anger," Dwayne says. "Although I was happy to know the Lord, there was still a darkness in my soul that stayed with me for a long time. Most people didn't see those struggles."
Watching Willie live out the words he spoke, Dwayne applied those same principles to his own struggles. "I learned early through Willie's example to walk by faith, trusting that God is in control," Dwayne says. "It was hard to give those struggles over to God, to forgive."
Legacy Lived On in Next Generation
As graduation approached, Willie helped Dwayne enroll in Philadelphia Biblical University where he stayed involved with Student Venture as a volunteer. A growing passion for connecting teenagers to Christ fueled Dwayne's education and directed his career path.
Now a director of a community youth center outside of Philadelphia, Dwayne represents Christ through his lifestyle, just as Willie did. Offering popular activities like basketball and skateboarding attracts 80, sometimes even 100, local kids looking for a place to hang out and be themselves.
His constant presence in the lives of the youth creates a similar sense of trust he had with his own mentor, occasionally resulting in a 2 a.m. knock on the door of his residence by a kid in need.
Dwayne applies the vision and many of the materials of Student Venture to the youth center. Everyone who enters the building hears the message of God's love. "We want to win kids to Christ, build them up in their faith and send them back into their schools," he says, the very thing he learned from Student Venture.
Common Hope Led Dwayne Back to Beginning
Dwayne's journey exemplifies the shared hope to see the light of the gospel not only change students' lives but motivate them to become leaders in their environments. It's why Student Venture exists, and it's what brought Dwayne back to a New York City high school, 11 years later.
After the assembly, about 30 teens responded to Student Venture's invitation for pizza. Several students spoke openly about serious issues, prompting Dwayne to talk about Christ's power in his own life. "The problem is difficult, but it's nothing compared to the light of the gospel," he says.
His message made a lasting impression on both the students and the ministry. Kevin, as a staff member, saw the results firsthand. "God used the event to surface interested students and bring about 15 to Himself," says Kevin. "Some students are now coming out to a Bible club, run entirely by students."
With great satisfaction, Dwayne has seen his experiences with Student Venture come full circle. And who knows? Maybe one of those teenagers will follow his same path.