Pastor Cornelius Roberson (left, in light blue), also known as “Pastor Corn,” referees a volleyball game.

What Happened to My Son?


Droves of high school-aged young men, mostly African American, tumble out of cars and vans and dash toward the dining hall on the campus of the Athletes in Action® headquarters in Xenia, Ohio. It’s a beautiful morning in late June, with the sun shining on the green lawns and stately red brick buildings of the campus. The 42 young men have come for a five-day sports camp that could sharpen their athletic abilities — and change their lives forever.

Thus begins 2019’s JAM Camp, a collaboration between AIA — Cru®’s sports ministry — and Cru Inner City. Patterned after AIA’s Ultimate Training Camp for professional and college athletes, JAM — short for Jesus, Athletics, and Manhood — focuses on inner-city high school athletes. John Oliver, retired Air Force officer and camp director, and Terry Robinson, director of Cru Inner City Detroit, added the manhood component to the camp’s mission, believing that most campers from the inner city need more than sports skills training.

For JAM Camp 2019, campers and adult mentors come from Detroit, Michigan; Houston, Texas; Dayton and Columbus, Ohio; and Louisville, Kentucky. Cru Inner City staff members have raised funds to help with the $350 cost. Campers are charged $75 but most paid just $50 for the week.

Over the past five years, since JAM Camp was created, God has been at work reshaping the lives and futures of more than 250 inner-city high school young men just like these. Thanks to the faithfulness and diligence of mentors and leaders, the camp offers these young men tangible examples of healthy manhood; character development through teamwork, sportsmanship and perseverance; and the chance to develop a deep, lasting relationship with Christ.

When Cornelius Roberson, also known as “Pastor Corn,” first heard about the idea for JAM Camp five years ago, he loved the concept. The former two-time all-state Michigan basketball player and all-state football player understood the power of sports, as he says, “to get kids off the street, expose them to the gospel, and possibly stabilize and redefine their household environment.” Pastor Corn grew up in Detroit and has served as the pastor of Heart and Soul Community Church for five years.

Pastor Corn (center), with grandson Josiah Williams (left) and son, C.J., has repeatedly returned to JAM Camp. C.J. serves as a mentor this year.

C.J. Roberson reflects on his years at JAM Camp as both a camper and a mentor.

When his son C.J. was a teenager, Pastor Corn had a conversation with him, causing him to realize a drastic need in the community. As he explained to C.J. the importance of giving him rules, Pastor Corn asked, “So, what do your friends’ fathers think?” C.J. got quiet, and then said, “Dad, none of my friends have fathers in the house.”

Pastor Corn knew he needed to act. He brought five kids from his church to the first JAM Camp in 2014, including C.J. After seeing the transformation in these young men’s lives, he has brought teens every year since, including 11 for this year’s camp. His grandson, middle-schooler Josiah Williams, went to camp in the past and begged and pleaded to go again this year. This June, Josiah rejoins his grandfather and uncle for the celebration and challenge that JAM Camp provides.

A different mindset

Several campers, including C.J., have participated before and are eagerly returning as student leaders and mentors for younger campers.

“I had a different mind-set on and off the field, doing my best not for me, not for the crowd, not for recruiters, but for the One that did it all for me and everyone else.”

C.J. Roberson

Before his first camp experience, C.J. only expected coaching and basketball drills to help him improve, but the camp changed his perspective about sports. “I had a different mindset on and off the field, doing my best not for me, not for the crowd, not for recruiters, but for the One that did it all for me and everyone else,” says C.J.

After C.J. and Pastor Corn returned from camp that first year, Pastor Corn wondered, What happened to my son? C.J. demonstrated more responsibility and initiative. Pastor Corn didn’t have to remind him to get up in the morning or take out the trash. As a high school junior, C.J. started having spiritual conversations and became interested in small groups, leadership and developing others. C.J. now serves as the dorm director at his college and plays football. His team won their division’s national championship his freshman year.

The transformative work of JAM Camp begins with the first three days. The students sit together for meals in table teams alongside mentors, such as Pastor Corn and C.J., listening to talks and having group discussions. Every talk focuses on a different faith principle integrated into sports and a specific aspect of biblical manhood.

Camp director John Oliver teaches on the manhood principle of responsibility.

Campers get to know each other in their newly formed table teams.

The first afternoon, John Oliver discusses “An Audience of One” using the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal from 1 Kings 18:20-40. John challenges the participants to consider what “false idols” they’re living for instead of the Bible’s one true God. After discussing the talk, the campers march out, carrying their table’s flag, to nearby green-grass fields for their first “lab experience,” where the teams compete against each other in games that help them apply what they’ve just learned.

Because most of the campers play football, basketball or baseball, volleyball levels the playing field. Many of them don’t know the rules, so they play haphazard initial games. Afterward, an intense, physically fit coach named Taurus James calls them together. Dressed in black up to his sunglasses and baseball cap, “Coach T” encourages them to consider the importance of teamwork as well as knowing and following the rules. He reminds them that God has a purpose for every one of them, so they should play for Him. At this and succeeding lab experiences, Coach T instructs them, drill-sergeant style, on where and how to change their attitudes and perspectives to get the results they want both on and off the field.

That evening, professional basketball players Aaron Craft and Dallas Lauderdale share their experiences both playing for Ohio State University and professionally and the difference their faith makes in their lives and careers. The campers ask questions and process the day’s experiences together before heading to bed.

Love beyond performance

The second day of camp begins with a talk on “Your Inside Game: Motivation,” inspired by the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. The two brothers in the story exemplify how society determines a person’s value: performance plus others’ opinions. Their father, on the other hand, simply loves them for who they are, just as God does. This story of grace, from an athletic perspective, can be freeing.

“Where I live at, a lot of people don’t know how to be a man or a father. They have their own interpretation of it, but there’s only one real way to be a man.”

Josiah Williams

The campers later tour a nearby juvenile detention facility — a sobering, cautionary look at where many kids end up after making wrong choices. There, a facility staff member shares his journey through numerous foster homes, life on the streets, and years in and out of that very facility.

Taurus James, also known as “Coach T,” applies day two’s manhood principle: A good leader is motivated for the right purpose.

Red team member Larry Fortes listens intently to Coach T. Larry has a passion for theater and is one of a few non-athletes attending JAM Camp.

“Where I live at, a lot of people don’t know how to be a man or a father. They have their own interpretation of it, but there’s only one real way to be a man,” Josiah says. “When we went to the detention center, the dude there said, trying to have all the money, all the ladies, all the cars, all the good stuff, that’s all cool, but what are you going to do after that? After you live that whole life, what are you going to do after that?”

Learning how to work together

On the third day of camp, half the teams spend the morning on a high ropes course, and the other half complete sports performance drills on the football field, switching activities in the afternoon. Some of the young men hesitate to climb 50 feet up the first telephone pole, even with an attached harness. But with teammates shouting, “You can do this! You got this!”, several take the risk and experience the resulting exhilaration and sense of accomplishment.

A brave camper gingerly makes his way across the very top of the ropes course, one of the day’s activities.

Zach King listens as Coach T exhorts the campers on the final manhood principle of responsible leadership.

After a long day of physical and spiritual training, campers enjoy the music of Christian rapper Kris Whitlow (center, in black, with microphone).

Following the afternoon talk on dealing with suffering, based on Joseph’s example in Genesis 37-41, the campers get to experience a “draft,” or selection, similar to professional sports teams, for the upcoming “Special” — the gruelling final 14-hour competitive event of the week. Amidst cheers, music and fanfare, the emcee calls each camper to the front and assigns him to his Special team.

The Special begins after dinner with volleyball games, track and field drills, and sprint competitions on a football field. From there, the campers travel to a gym at a local church for basketball drills and then games, each team playing every other team until 1 a.m.

Volleyball competitions start off the Special.

Malaki Brooks, red team leader, cheers on his team during the volleyball games that open the Special.

Exhausted, every team is learning how to work together, but the red team is clearly struggling. AIA staff member Blake Fox noticed. “That first night, they just weren’t together,” he says. “A couple of players had ‘attitude,’ which made the leader, Malaki [Brooks], feel like a failure.” Blake and other staff members pull both Malaki and the team aside for some encouragement and exhortation on leadership and the value and importance of following well.

The power of perseverance

After a few hours of sleep, the teams’ captains awaken their teammates at 4 a.m. to continue the Special, competing against each other in volleyball, push-up relays and an obstacle course (including a 60-yard “Army crawl”), long jumps, crab walks, jumping rope and a truck push.

AIA staff member Blake Fox supervises campers doing the 60-yard Army crawl at sunrise on the Special obstacle course.

Unfortunately, at 4 a.m., only one member of the red team shows up on time. He goes to find the others, who arrive an hour and a half late, complaining about how miserable they are.

“Do you want to quit?” says Andy Rhodenbaugh, the AIA staff leader of the Special. “If so, you can go back to the dorm right now.” Two campers say yes and start walking away.

Very discouraged, Malaki, the leader, turns in his name badge and leader bracelet. He turns to go but suddenly stops. “I can’t do that to Mr. Larry,” he says, referring to their adult mentor who runs his church-based neighborhood basketball program. He grabs his two teammates and says, “We’ve got to do this for Mr. Larry.”

Because of the appreciation they feel for Larry Taylor, they all recommit, and the attitude problems disappear. They pull together as a team, and they distinguish themselves during the rest of the Special.

Campers race against each other in the wind-sprints during the Special.

At the gym, every team of campers will play every other team in basketball by the end of the Special.

Exhausted campers rest during push-up drills during the Special.

At the tug-of-war, Jabori Griffin of the red team watches another team compete and says, “Look at them; they’re so big! We’re going to lose!”

C.J. tells him, “No, man. Come on, let’s just do this. You all can do it!” The red team finds themselves in a tug-of-war against that very team of big guys, and they win, despite their initial fears.

“Most of these guys have had one negative home experience after another, getting dumped on all the time, constantly being smacked down until they lose hope and don’t even want to try anymore,” mentor Larry Taylor says. “For them, this [perseverance] was a big deal.”

The purple team carries their required tire and two-by-four from one event to another during the Special.

AIA staff member Chuck Schwaneger (right) referees Josiah Williams’ blue team during the Special.

Finally, after an exhausting day of ultimate football, a CrossFit challenge, kickball, volleyball and relays, the campers gather for the final event: Golgotha. They read an account of the crucifixion based on Matthew 27 and Luke 23 as a group.

“Are you born again? Going to church doesn’t make you saved. Singing in the choir; giving money; leading a clean, sober life doesn’t make you saved. Unless you’re born again, you’re in trouble!”

Pastor Cornelius Roberson

In groups of five, they silently walk or jog down and back up a half-mile-long hill carrying a two-by-four across their shoulders, reflecting on what Jesus did out of love for them.

Zach King (left) and JAM Camp mentor Roger Thomas, known as “Uncle DYT” (in red), encourage Josiah Williams as he finishes Golgotha, a physical illustration for the campers of Jesus’s road to Calvary.

Changing teens, changing culture

The next morning, at the conclusion of camp, Pastor Corn gives a stirring message from John 3 about Nicodemus. “Are you born again? Going to church doesn’t make you saved. Singing in the choir; giving money; leading a clean, sober life doesn’t make you saved. Unless you’re born again, you’re in trouble!”

He leads them in a prayer and invites campers to ask Jesus to be their Savior and then sends them to their mentors, who write down campers’ contact information to stay in touch. The staff members point out what they observed God do in the campers’ lives, and campers share their experiences and how the week has changed them.

Gavin Myers listens to staff members and campers share camp highlights during the closing of JAM Camp.

Red team member Nu’Mari Walker describes what God did in his life through JAM Camp that week.

Uncle DYT says a poignant goodbye to red team member Shadeed Myers.

As Pastor Corn considers the powerful influence of JAM Camp, he recalls the first five teenagers he brought. All five of those young men either ended up attending college or joining the military. “If we can get them young enough to know and engage with the Scripture, like we do at JAM Camp, we can prevent them from going to jail, teenage pregnancy, prisons, murder, violence or abuse, or even depression and anxiety,” he says.

JAM Camp mentor Roger Thomas, known as “Uncle DYT,” describes why he’s committed to the young men he mentors beyond their time at camp.

JAM Camp has not only changed the lives of young men from his church, but it has also influenced and grown the church’s youth program. When former campers get involved at the church, the “youth population goes up 65%,” says Pastor Corn. Because the church now has a six-week discipleship program for every returning camper, many young men become influential youth leaders.

“If we want to change this culture, we change the teenagers, and eventually the culture will change.”

Pastor Cornelius Roberson

The vision of JAM Camp extends far beyond the Midwest. Leaders dream of franchising the program to every major city in the country, teaming up with local inner-city churches and ministries to change the lives of young men and set them on a path toward biblical manhood and a personal relationship with Christ.

“If we want to change this culture, we change the teenagers, and eventually the culture will change,” says Pastor Corn. “Parents, it’s the best investment you can make in helping your child grow with Jesus, athletics and manhood. Pastors, it’s a great outreach opportunity to get young men involved in your church.”

Learn more about opportunities with AIA and share information with someone you know.

Pastor Corn leads the campers and staff members in prayer, and invites campers to place their faith in Jesus at the end of his closing message.

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Michael Chapman
Words by

Michael Chapman

Born in Colorado, Mike majored in acting/radio, TV and film at Kansas University. Since 1983, he’s served with the campus, Hollywood and military ministries of Cru® and now works at Cru’s World Headquarters at Lake Hart in Orlando, Florida. He and his wife, Michelle, have two children, Angel and Eric.

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Tom Mills
Photos by

Tom Mills

Tom is a photographer with Cru®. He loves seeing beautiful sights out of airplane windows and enjoys meeting new friends all over the world. His wife, Karen, travels with him whenever possible, which makes every trip even better. Tom has been photographing for more than 40 years.

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