Deion traipsed inside the doors of Chicago’s Agape Center, a safe haven from neighboring, but not always neighborly, streets. Though most of the facility’s staff has changed, the commitment to ministry within the four walls is much the same as when Deion’s mom enrolled during her teens.
The after-school program is one of more than 45 S.A.Y. Yes! Centers for Youth Development® nationwide, serving children in primary and middle school. The centers are facilitated by Cru® Inner City, with most operated by partner churches. Services include tutoring and homework help, discipleship and character development, Bible lessons, games, activities, healthy snacks and other resources. Each center is staffed with volunteers who receive in-depth training from Inner City, which also provides curriculum and supplies.
The Agape Center — opened in 1979 and operated by the local Inner City staff — also provides shoes and PowerPack® backpacks to the city’s Roseland community. In response to the neighborhood’s needs, the center rolled out new offerings this school year, including ballet, drawing, chess and academic enhancements such as writing, plus reading and phonics, and seasonal sports.
This particular day, Deion was scheduled to meet with his mentor, Wade Norman, who was interviewing the eighth-grader for a newsletter item about his experiences.
"What’s your favorite Bible verse?" Wade asked.
The question barely cleared the leader’s mouth when Deion blurted, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made!"
The reason it’s his favorite?
"Because it shows how precious we are to God," Deion declared. The promise made a deep impression on him since he was often the target of badgering by middle-school fashion police. For many of his peers, being wonderfully made only counts if you are sporting Nike, Converse, Vans or other cool brands.
The Scripture, from Psalm 139:14, is one of several passages the students wrote out on chalk paper for an unrelated project several years earlier. This verse took root in Deion’s soul.
"It's a verse that's really helped him deal with a lot of issues at school," Wade said. "It's like remembering who God created him to be. He’s fearfully and wonderfully made. So it doesn't really matter what people say about him, because what matters is what God says about him."
|“He’s fearfully and wonderfully made so it doesn't really matter what people say about him, because what matters is what God says about him.”||To reinforce the lessons from the years-ago chalk paper exercise, one of the Scripture sheets was proudly displayed in each school room. Time and gravity have taken their toll. Only the Psalm 139 verse remains where it was originally posted, on a wall near the center’s entrance — the same entrance once used by Deion’s mom and his older brother.|
That generational connectedness has special meaning for Wade, who was also enrolled in Agape Center programs as a teenager. The center provided an outlet for personal and spiritual discovery, prompting him to later live out his faith by joining the Chicago team as a full-time staff member.
"It was unconditional love," Wade told Cru Storylines. "It was the leaders there that were willing to invest with me, to spend time with me and my friends, and hear about my life. They just wanted to know me, and I just felt like that was so powerful at that time where I'm wrestling with this question of identity."
Armed with the first blush of experience, the student-turned-leader fully appreciates the life-transforming options born from these community centers.
"As a young man that's grown into adulthood … what legacy am I shaping (for) the kids that are watching me?"
That’s why the gray, nondescript building, located on West 111th Street, where it intersects with the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, means so much to so many.
"I've really been grateful to God about the building being here so long that we now get to see the second generation of families making that decision of bringing their kids here because they were here when they were a kid," Wade said.
Wade (right), who has worked with Deion for five years, describes his young charge as super bright, joyous, eager to serve, talkative and more drawn to adults than his peers.
"I didn't really see him connecting with other kids that much," Wade said, revealing Deion was more prone to playing Pokémon cards by himself or watching anime than sports. "He's definitely comfortable talking with adults.
"He definitely has an old soul. Oftentimes, when I'm with him, he reminds me of my own attitude that I had at his age. He thinks way beyond his years, not that he doesn't enjoy stuff that his age does, but an old-soul kind of mentality. He just connects really well with people that are older."
Over time, as Deion’s confidence has grown, he’s become more comfortable with his peers, and Wade is witnessing significant growth.
"Spiritually, I would say the biggest shift is a focus that's not just on himself anymore," Wade said. As a result, Deion has set a personal goal of growing "his social skills. He's talking with (young) people more, something he wouldn't normally do. He’s really wanting to go deep and ask deeper questions with a lot of kids that he goes to school with."
The teen’s approach to home life has also matured under the guidance of his leaders.
"I find myself being more reasonable when it comes to chores at home," he told Wade. "I don't always like to do them, but I try to have a good attitude by the end of completing them."
As part of the Agape Center staff’s commitment to reaching whole families, Wade’s wife, Bethany, has approached Deion’s mom, inviting her for a pedicure.
"There's something when you're on their turf that really changes the dynamic of the relationship," Wade said. "Having a building is cool. It's awesome, but really amazing conversations have happened because I'm connecting at his house with his mom, with his brother, with him. It creates a very different dynamic in the relationship when you're able to be in a place where they're comfortable, they're the expert there and you have to learn and listen and ask questions.
"(The pedicure) seemed like a trivial thing to do but it really wasn't. It just spoke volumes to his mom and it adds this other layer of our investment and our commitment. It’s not to fill our building with kids, but it's really to see transformation and relationships develop and connections made. In their situation, she gets to see the same things that were done for her when she was a teenager, done for her own children."
|“It’s not to fill our building with kids, but it's really to see transformation and relationships develop and connections made.”||Wade is hopeful the cycle continues as Deion eventually enters adulthood and starts a family of his own. In the meantime, he is considering becoming an Agape Center youth leader when he ages out of S.A.Y. Yes!® later this year. In the meantime, the staff is monitoring his progress.|
"There's definitely some fruit you see, based on how he engages with Bible lessons," Wade said.
If Deion is able to transition to a youth leader, the teenager will be able to tap into years of mentoring, those moments which, he said, are among his favorite memories.
"The conversations I have with leaders, how y'all share life lessons with me and how much y'all care about kids and the lengths y'all are willing to go to show love," he shared with Wade.
For younger peers now entering the program, Deion has several recommendations, based on his own experiences.
"Be yourself, reveal your interests," he said. "Share your expectations, ask what's expected, and don't be afraid to ask for help. If you have issues don't be afraid to talk to your leaders."
When it comes to personal legacy, the teen said he hopes staff will remember, "I always tried and I never gave up. No matter what, I had space to share how I felt. I was never a bad sport. I tried to be super helpful."
As the path from adolescence gives way to the wider highway of adulthood, Wade is cognizant of the many challenges Deion and his peers face with both options and choices, impacting their destinies. The journey is often on a tenuous road with a thin line between success and tragedy.
He recalls his own experiences as a teen, where brokenness reigned.
"When everything around you is broken, it's hard to even know what would it look like if it wasn't," Wade said.
Heading into high school in the fall, Deion will endure many of the same challenges, with some even bigger obstacles than those faced by Wade.
|“When everything around you is broken, it's hard to even know what would it look like if it wasn't.”||"There are pivotal crossroads that happen, and he's at an age where a significant one can happen right now," Wade said. "Once he gets to high school it could be several more significant crossroads that will determine what's the path he’ll take. He does have a good head on his shoulders, and his connections with leaders has definitely protected him in a lot of new situations, but he's definitely at a place where one thing could change the direction that he heads."|
The reality is, life is a struggle for these young people who face a cloud of violence in their immediate vicinity. Deion is no exception. Over the course of just a few months, one of his classmates was shot and killed in an off-campus incident, while another shooting death happened within feet of the Agape Center itself.
"This stuff can feel normal but it's not," Wade said. "It's not a normal thing. It's not normal for this type of violence to happen. My desire is that we don't get so accustomed to it that we just become numb and that's just the expectation. It's like, I want to be shocked and outraged and sad and grieving.
"It is a reality. Our kids are dealing with it, our schools are dealing with it. Being able to help them process these things, healthily, is very critical right now."
Lori Arnold serves as senior writer for Cru's inner-city ministry.
Since 1979, Cru Inner City staff has been transforming the Roseland community by loving one child at a time. Share Deion’s story on Facebook or other social media platforms by using this link:
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