Dominic plodded along a ruddy track, each step of his pristine sneakers made more miserable by the heft of his campmate — a half-foot taller — straddled across his back. His T-shirt, drooping from sweat-dampened folds, bore the words, "I Prove U wrong," an impromptu message in markers. Boasting white hipster glasses, Dominic paused frequently along the 400-meter course while adult mentors beckoned. It was a weighty load, but the 17-year-old faced crushing burdens most of his life.
"We'd encourage him and tell him to keep going and he would keep going," said Anthony Purpero, who mentored Dominic as part of the weeklong JAM Camp™, a joint venture between Athletes in Action® and Cru® Inner City. "The reason we push them so hard is so that they can understand that, on their own, they would have quit. They wouldn't have succeeded.
"It represents to me something that he wasn't able to do alone. It turned into something that he can do, together with other people."
The concepts of perseverance and teamwork are only part of the agenda at JAM, which stands for Jesus, Athletics and Manhood. The summer camp for teen boys is held annually at the Xenia, Ohio headquarters of AIA®, which is a ministry of Cru. Since the start of COVID-19, camps have also been offered at several Inner City locations.
The purpose of JAM Camp is to use athletic competitions, mental acuity challenges, team-building exercises and leadership development activities to point kids to Christ. Last year, 30 teens attended, with five of them making professions of faith.
"The camp reaches people that don't get reached," Anthony said, adding many of the inner-city youth come from homes without father figures. "This camp is run by a lot of men that love the Lord that also have come from the inner city or drugs or addiction and they get to see the light on the other side of the tunnel."
JAM Camp's focus on sports preparation, coupled with the experiences of its staff, provides an important avenue for the team to model Christ's love.
"The gospel is communicated really well, but it's also communicated through discipline, through hard work, through effort, through a lot of different workshops, a lot of different examples, a lot of different activities," Anthony said. "These people really care about these kids, and have a heart for these kids."
|‘Any leader can act like they care for three days. But are you willing to stay in somebody's life and continue to pursue somebody long term?’||The work and the heart does not end when camp concludes, as the camp staff is committed to mentoring the teens when they return to their communities. It's that extended relationship that turns a sprint into a marathon.|
Throughout the camp and in the months since, Anthony has invested time mentoring Dominic through Bible studies, regular teen events and one-on-one outings, all with the intention of conveying God's love.
"He's become so accustomed to lies from the enemy that he thinks he's ugly," Anthony said. "He thinks he's worthless. He thinks he's not worth love. He's hopeless. He really trusts me and really loves me. God's given me a lot of favor with Dominic. A lot of people have given up on him. I don't think I have and I think he knows that."
Although Dominic struggled with his human load during the track drill, he reveled in the adult attention, especially from Anthony, who tapped into the teen's past to reshape his future. Dominic's dad, an abusive, heroin addict, left the family while his son was still young.
"He hasn't seen his dad in five years, doesn't know where his dad is. He deals with that by himself," Anthony said.
In the void, his mom works long hours. The turmoil drained his joy, leaving Dominic angry.
"Boys that don't have fathers want to act tough and be the man they need to be in the house," Anthony said. "(They) end up just covering up how they feel and what they're going through. We're trying to help these kids understand it's OK to talk about how you feel. It's OK to express what's going on.
"He's opened up a lot with me about his dad and about other things. There are things that he hasn't told anybody else, so I feel honored that he trusts me, but the trust was earned through time spent."
The investment started on that dirt track as Dominic pushed through the obstacle of carrying his teammate. By his side the entire time, Anthony urged him not to quit.
"You got to dig deep and be better," he coached. "He keeps going. He finds the strength, and he gets back up. It's at the end of the day when they realize, 'Wow, I'm way more capable than I thought.' They are able to look back and see how much they really accomplished instead of just bailing when it got hard."
Like many of the young men who go through JAM Camp, there is layer upon complicated layer of hurt and rejection to wrestle and wade through. There are successes and setbacks.
"He's really angry and he doesn't really know how to deal with it," he said.
Anthony said Dominic didn't know Jesus at all before camp and although he's made great strides over the year of mentoring, Anthony's still waiting to see consistent fruit from his young charge.
|‘There are weeks of persistent engagement followed by times of withdrawal. But Anthony refuses to give up, even when Dominic shows signs he might.’||"He knows about God and knows that he needs to run to Him and knows that life with God is better but it's not just about knowing that it's better," his coach said. "There is an act of surrender and submission that needs to take place."|
"It takes time," he said. "You know what I mean? It takes effort. It takes consistency. Most people aren't going to remember the things we say. They're gonna remember whether or not we were there.
"Dominic needs to be loved and cared for way beyond JAM Camp. Anybody can step in for three days and be somebody. It's like you can be whoever you want to be online. Any kid can pretend that their walk with God is stronger than it is for three days. Any leader can act like they care for three days. But are you willing to stay in somebody's life and continue to pursue somebody long term? That's the harder part."
Lori Arnold serves as senior writer for Cru's inner-city ministry.
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