A sound louder than a shotgun blast echoed through the Chattanooga, Tenn., neighborhood. After 2 a.m., police received a phone call from frantic girls, claiming a bomb had exploded in their yard.
Later that day, the local news was asking questions about terrorist attacks and vandalism. In the middle of it all was Hung Thach, who directs Student Venture, Cru’s ministry to middle- and high-school students, in Chattanooga. The explosion took place on ministry property.
A group of students had designed a chemical bomb with common household items and thrown it in their friends’ yard as a prank. One of the students was a volunteer with SV; Hung drove him to the police station to confess and apologize.
Hung knows that trusting college volunteers is risky. “College kids are more difficult to work with because they come with their own set of issues,” Hung says. “They all want attention and they’re struggling to find their own definition of independence.”
Although at times immature and unpredictable, these college leaders are helping SV thrive in Chattanooga with roughly 500 high schoolers involved citywide. Each week, volunteers are organizing outreaches, facilitating Bible studies and meeting with high schoolers.
“The reason Student Venture is successful here is because college students are taking younger kids under their wings,” explains Joy Buchanan, a special education assistant at Soddy Daisy High School. “The college students aren’t a lot older, but the high schoolers listen to and look up to them.”
Monday afternoon at the SV headquarters, Hung and one of his key leaders, Tyler Simmons, meet to polish up a unity talk Tyler will be delivering to a soccer team. Reviewing discussion questions, 20-year-old Tyler scuffs his Air Walks on the tile floor and fidgets with a highlighting pen. Hung taps his keyboard while brainstorming with Tyler. Looking at his watch, he says, “Time to go. We can pray in the car on the way to the field.”
Tyler is one of 20 volunteers who spend between 10 and 15 hours per week volunteering with SV. He withdrew from seminary for a semester to refocus and will be attending a local college this fall. When he’s not planning an outreach or putting finishing touches on an evangelism talk, he’s skateboarding with teens or charging through a ropes course with the ROTC Raiders at his alma mater, Soddy Daisy.
Donovan Barnett, a senior at Soddy Daisy, got involved with SV because of Tyler.
Two years ago, Tyler was approached by Donovan, who exclaimed, “This sounds crazy, but I was in class and the teacher told us to take a nap because she had nothing for us to do. I had a dream about non-Christian skateboarders at Soddy Daisy. I could see their faces and needed to find a way to tell them about God,” Donovan continued. “I want to start a skateboarding ministry to reach these guys.”
With Tyler’s help, Donovan pioneered the ministry Skating 4 Freedom, which meets every Wednesday in a church parking lot. Donovan leads a short Bible study with 15 guys before they go back to jumping ramps and doing tricks.
“I used to hate Christians. They seemed fake to me. I thought it was arrogant to believe in only one way and one truth,” Donovan says. “It was Tyler who first helped me understand why my relationship with God is meaningful.”
Tyler learns from Hung. They meet weekly to study the Bible and talk about life. “Hung has taught me to clearly communicate the message of salvation,” Tyler says. “I’m excited to tell students how Christ can change their lives.”
Hung works with people who’ve transitioned from high-school students to college volunteers.
“Sometimes,” he says, “volunteers love the environment more than the mission. We have to help them prioritize their time. Sometimes we have to let volunteers go. It happens.” But as is more often the case, Hung is seeing students graduate and return to volunteer.
Because every volunteer is at a different place in their walk with Christ, Hung meets with them to help prepare them for leadership roles.
Recently, Hung met with college students Kevin, Allan and Corey to ask tough life questions, talk about the meaning of grace and pray for them. All of these young men want to become leaders with SV.
As the guys sit down, asking each other how things are going, Kevin lifts the leg of his jeans to reveal a newly acquired ankle monitor. “It’s going OK,” he says. “My probation officer calls me if the beeper goes off. I got permission to come out today.”
Kevin, Allan and Corey have all been in jail within the past two years. Drug use, gun possession and accusations of robbery are just a few issues haunting their consciences.
Last year, while Kevin awaited his probation sentence but still lived at home, his mother told him about an SV meeting. On a whim, Kevin decided to attend.
After the meeting, Hung approached Kevin and asked him questions while explaining God’s love and forgiveness. Sitting on the bleachers in the basketball gym, Kevin realized he couldn’t do life on his own. That night, Kevin gave his life to Christ.
Six months later, as the guys sit on those very same bleachers, Kevin says, “This is a low point. Being on house arrest is embarrassing, but I’m glad everything has happened. It’s brought me to a humbling place in my walk with God.”
Corey and Allan were invited to SV by Kevin, who introduced them to Hung. Within the past year, both Corey and Allan have turned their lives around and invited Christ into their lives.
“Having Hung share his family time with me and trust me; man, that helps get me through,” Kevin says.
Most families wouldn’t invite a delinquent into their home to spend time with them, but Hung knows it’s worth the risk. He remembers what it’s like to grow up without Christ in an unloving environment. “These guys haven’t seen what a godly husband and wife look like. They don’t have a godly family experience,” Hung explains.
Hung sees value in spending time with students, but he’s established healthy boundaries. “Students will come knock on our door at all hours if I let them. I have to guard my family time,” says the 13-year husband of Angela and father of two elementary-aged children, Caleb, 9, and Brooke, 7. “They come first.”
Hung spends hundreds of hours each semester meeting with volunteers. Corey and Allan are volunteering because they’ve seen God change lives. Like Tyler, they too will be leading outreaches, giving sports-team talks, meeting with high-school guys and helping facilitate meetings. All of the leaders remain under the careful leadership and supervision of Hung.
It’s 7:45 p.m. at the SV weekly meeting at a church youth room on Middle Valley Road. Lights dim and a mass of 117 students moves to the front, near the stage. Lights fade to vibrant pinks, greens and blues as the band plays and voices sing, “There is no one like our God.” It’s difficult to distinguish high-school students from college volunteers.
High-school junior and emcee, Derek Waters, introduces Allan, who is going to tell the story of how Christ changed him. This is one of Allan’s first steps to becoming a leader with SV.
At the back of the room, Hung, wearing a polo shirt and “dirty wash” jeans, comfortably rests his hand on the back of a college student’s chair. Clutching his Bible under his left arm, he listens to Allan’s story. Tonight there are no explosions, but Hung’s risk is paying off.
Something big is happening.