Normally, a CEO and seven mid-to-upper-level executives would never volunteer to go to prison. But Youth For Christ (YFC) President and CEO Dan Wolgemuth — along with fellow YFC executive-level employees — was voluntarily booked into a juvenile detention center for 24 hours to help him understand and relate to the incarcerated teens served by YFC’s Juvenile Justice Ministry (JJM) program.
In addition to Wolgemuth, the voluntary inmates included Chairman of Campaign for One Million Kids Rick Voit, Peoria City Life Director Jay Pearson, JJM Aftercare Ministry Leader Rob Skow, JJM Area Director Great Lakes Region C.J. Fisher, and several other director-level YFC executives. Each participant was processed like any other inmate: issued a prison uniform, assigned to a cell, and included in meals, activities and group sessions.
Wolgemuth says Jesus Himself identified prison ministry as an opportunity for Christians to practice compassion toward the incarcerated.
“Jesus said, ‘I was in prison, and you came to me.’ And immediately you realize that the loss of any kind of freedom is so suffocating,” Wolgemuth said. “When they look at you and sort of let you enter into their world, then you feel like you’ve got an opportunity to talk about what hope can look like. And you realize again, that unless you deliver the power and message of Christ, these kids don’t have a shred of hope for transformation.”
City Life Director Jay Pearson says that it was an eye-opener to some as to why YFC leaders volunteered for incarceration. Yet, the experience built a bridge of love in the dark corridors of a detention facility.
“Everybody can tell you what it’s like in here, but until you put the sweat suit on and have to walk in here and can’t get out, life hits you straight in the face,” Pearson said.
After his brief time in lockup, JJM Aftercare Ministry Leader Rob Skow identified a missing variable in many of these teens’ lives.
“For most of these kids, I think there’s something missing in the equation,” Skow said. “You know, there’s no guide.”
The 24-hour experience equipped the YFC leaders to serve as better guides to incarcerated youths and to YFC’s Juvenile Justice Ministry. Pearson says the one-day lockup confirmed for him that the gospel is the source of hope for thousands of juveniles in American detention facilities.
“Some of the guys say, ‘Y’all are crazy for coming in here,’” Pearson continued. “‘You don’t have to do this. You’re not getting paid for this.’ You know, that’s just it. We want them to know not only the gospel, but that people who love and care about them will come into the pods. Even when you think you’re in the worst place you’ve ever been, love can show up.”
Youth For Christ Juvenile Justice Ministry provides that missing part by taking the gospel to troubled teens no matter where they find themselves in the many stages of the justice rehabilitation process, from detention centers, group homes, probation, or reentry programs.
Nationally, Youth For Christ is telling inspiring stories like these through #YFCBeTheStory, an initiative to help spread the word across the ation about how YFC chapters are making a difference in their communities.
Youth For Christ has been a pillar of missional ministry since 1944, when the Rev. Billy Graham served as YFC’s first full-time staff member. Since then, Youth For Christ has continued to be both a rural and urban ministry on mission, and always about the message of Jesus. YFC reaches young people everywhere, working together with the local church and other like-minded partners to raise up lifelong followers of Jesus who lead by their godliness in lifestyle, devotion to the Word of God and prayer, passion for sharing the love of Christ, and commitment to social involvement. Youth For Christ operates in over 100 nations and has more than 160 chapters impacting communities across America.