About 66 teenagers crowd into the front room of the The Second Mile, the local youth recreation center and coffee shop on the corner of Fifth and Pecan. They're loud and excited, making the most of the opportunity to hang out and play pool, ping pong, foos ball or air hockey on a Monday night in Blanco. A handful of adults are in the back room preparing for Club, the nickname of Young Life group meetings, and a curtain separates the two rooms.
Occasionally, Young Life Area Director Steve Mackey sticks his head, just his head, through the curtain to say, "not yet," then disappears again behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz. Soon he reappears, leading the crowd in a chant and dance, then into the other room, where he leads them in several games and songs---not hymns or worship songs, but rock, pop, even surfer music---with the words projected overhead. They're riveted, singing every word, screaming, and Mackey has their undivided attention. And that's just the way he planned it.
"Everything we do is very strategic, has a very specific purpose," he said. "We keep them in the other room so excitement builds, then we do fun stuff and games. They're seeing everything on the stage is fun, positive, so when it's time to give the talk (about God), they'll have no reason to think everything on stage then won't be positive and fun. We're earning the right to be heard."
Earning the right to be heard. It's a catch phrase you'll hear repeated from the other leaders, meaning they take seriously the necessity of earning the respect and trust of the teens before they'll listen to any message about God. Steve Tamez, one of the founders, said he has seen transformations as teens are drawn in by Mackey's over the top methods and personality.
"There was one girl who would just sit and play on her phone when she first started coming to Young Life," Tamez said. "Then after a few weeks, she's listening, watching, singing, praying, open. A lot of these kids know who God is but they don't have the desire or interest to read and learn more about him. Young Life enhances or creates an interest." He plans to remain their leader for a long, long time.
Chris Shipman brought the idea of Young Life to Blanco and to Larry Franklin and his family, who decided to refurbish the old warehouse, adding a paved parking lot, covered, lighted and fenced basketball court and landscaping outside. The inside was decorated with games: billiards, ping pong, air hockey, and foos ball and an in-demand coffee bar. There are hints everywhere of the past as well as the future. Dr. Pautz said it's all about the future.
"I think this is the most significant ministry I've ever been involved in," Pautz said. "I see this is something that's going to impact Blanco High School students for the rest of their lives."
Young Life is a non-denominational evangelistic outreach to teenagers. It isn't church and isn't intended to replace church, but it is to enhance a teen's experience with God and even reach teens who have never been in church. Shipman, along with Steve and Cheryl Tamez and Dr. Douglas Pautz made the idea a reality. They started Club in Blanco in January 2008 then took a summer break, except for camp. Since they kicked off Club for the school year, attendance has climbed from 45 to Monday's 66 teens, with incremental increases each week. They must be doing something right.
"Young Life has been fun," Elaine Tamez said. "It's a place where you can act stupid and dorky and nobody cares. It's the best place in the world…"
"…you don't need a golden ticket to get into," Rachel York chimes in, referring to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.
Mackey said he knows first-hand what it's like to be mentored and discipled by a godly person. Tim Traister was the man who loved him, poured into him, fed him, and grew him up spiritually. In fact, Mackey decided he wanted to be a Young Life leader when he was 16 as he saw young people come to the Lord at a Young Life event in Italy. Then he explored his options after high school while at Texas A & M University. He considered coaching football, being a tough-guy Drug Enforcement Agent or something else until the Lord spoke to him while he was camping alone.
"I was camping near the Grand Canyon at Christmas, alone," Mackey said. "Just me and the stars and it was just as clear, the Lord spoke to me. He said, 'It doesn't matter how much money you make, how many games you win. The only thing that matters is that you love me and that you love my people, and when you cross the pearly gates, that will be the thing I ask you, did you love me and did you love my people.' That's when I knew the only way I could do that would be Young Life."
He planned to do that in the city, and he tried and tried and tried. When he made the decision to be a Young Life leader, everyone including him thought Austin would be the perfect spot for him. He talked to multiple Young Life leaders, all of whom agreed that this was the place for Mackey. Then he spoke to one who told him it just didn't feel right. Nobody knew why, but Mackey would soon find out.
"Pete Johnson came up and told me there was a place I could hunt, fish and love kids," he said. "So I said alright, where is it? He said Blanco, Blanco??? Where is that I asked. Then I google'd it and it was tiny dot. Then I was driving over here, had no phone service, and I'm like, I am in the BOON docks. Then I came over the hill on 165 and saw everything, and I was like OH MY GOD, this is it! It immediately became clear why it didn't work out in Austin."
Mackey began meeting with leaders in the high school, who quickly invited him into the teachers' and coaches' circles, making it possibly for him to meet the teenagers and get to know them. He got involved as much as possible, especially once he graduated from Texas A & M University in the summer.
"I am an evangelist. The core of my mission is evangelistic. My job is to love the kids and earn the right to be heard. I hang out with them," and he means it. He's involved in school sports activities, including serving as emcee at pep rallies, providing a pep talk before games for football players, and helping with Ultra Quest, a summer fitness program for youth.
"All summer all I did was lift weights, play halo (video game), and eat, day in and day out, with the kids," he said. "And that was the catalyst for Young Life, I earned the right to be heard. That time laid the foundation for everything else."
Over the course of the year, he will talk to them about their sin, the cross and it's meaning, the resurrection of Christ, and how all of that relates to their personal lives. He firmly believes in getting very involved and has a 3/12/5000 plan. One leader needs to be personally connected to three teens, then getting to know about 12 of their friends, then the 5000 represents the community or entire high school. It is biblically based, but reinforces the need for more workers.
"If I have to leave in four years, I want people to say I loved the kids more than anyone loved the kids, that I led them to Jesus in a real and practical way and made them think Jesus is the bomb. I want Young Life to continue on with community support and involvement and people saying 'I can bake the kids some cookies,' and 'I can hang out with the kids' and 'I can take some kids hunting on my lease, who wants to go?"
Mackey is currently seeking leaders from Texas State University, who will commute for a time to connect and hang out with the kids. Chris Shipman, who is in charge of The Second Mile, is also seeking community involvement. The Second Mile is open Monday and Wednesday after school until 6. Kids can hang out, play games inside or out, and coffee drinks are available for sale and made to order. She's seeking adults and older , responsible teens to help with supervision on those days, especially Monday.
Shipman has trained barristas, or gourmet coffee-making experts, who keep the blender buzzing during open hours, but not during Club. Shipman also coordinates Wyldlife, a spin-off of Young Life for kids in middle school. Those monthly meetings will be on Wednesday from 5 to 6 p.m., during the regular hours of Second Mile. The first meeting will be held December 2, and dates for next year will be announced.
"We tried Saturday night and that wasn't working, so now we'll try Wednesday afternoon," she said. Young Life members serve as leaders for Wyldlife, like mentors sharing what they've learned. Shipman and Mackey and the other leaders are open to and seeking others to do the same. They're seeking additional adults leaders during events, as well as people who are willing to pray, write a check, bake cookies, anything to help because they're certain they aren't the only ones called to love God's people.
Campaigners is another ministry of Young Life. It's a Bible study held on Thursday mornings at 7 a.m. Anyone interested in attending or helping in Young Life, the Second Mile, Wyldlife or Campaigners can contact Chris Shipman at 830-221-5006 or Steve Mackey at 979-777-3022.
A picture of days gone by hangs on the wall in the front room of The Second Mile In the picture, men are managing a room full of sheep Old Mohair Warehouse. Things haven't changed all that much. The men and women have different faces and the sheep are teenagers. Jesus told Peter to show his love by feeding his sheep, and Mackey and the other leaders are doing just that.