World Challenge’s partners in Texas are reaching out to at-risk youth to help them find their heavenly Father. Father’s Love ministers to children from low-income, often single parent households and offers them schoolwork support and a safe environment where they can play sports and have fun. Today, they share their heart for the work and how God is redeeming the next generation.
Gary Wilkerson: Hey guys, welcome to the Gary Wilkerson Podcast. I'm here today with some family and good friends of ours from Father's Love Ministry down in Jacksonville, Texas, not Jacksonville, Florida. I just returned from Jacksonville, Florida last night and not to be confused with Jacksonville, Texas, but Brett and Melissa Wagner, right? The Wagner's from there and a longstanding World Challenge leader and aficionado in making all things run well and also happened to be my brother-in-law, Roger Jonker. We're glad to have you guys here with us today. Thanks for joining us you, appreciate you guys coming.
Tell me a little bit about the program of Father's Love. What are the activities, the events, the mentoring, the discipleship? What takes place at Father's Love?
Roger Jonker: A regular schedule would be like Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, we have meetings after school. We break it down by gender. We break it down by ages. We'll have a group on Tuesday that's 10, 11 and 12-year-old boys. Wednesdays will be teenage girls. Thursdays will be the younger girls and Friday would be the teenage guys. The typical meeting, we'll have like an organized game. We don't let the kids just do their own thing, but we try to have an organized sport, an organized activity. Devotions, a chapel service, always will be a part of it.
They're always going to hear about Christ. We feed them. A lot of the kids nearly rely on the school breakfast, school lunch, and they don't have any supper. So, we provide them with a dinner. Usually it's pizza, sometimes we have a church that supplies a meal. Then on Saturdays it's the one time the kids are not in school. We got time to spend with them one on one, and that's a key thing for our staff. Our staff will go out there and they'll take one or two kids with them and get them involved in some type of activity. Whether it's going shopping or whether it's doing yard work or playing in the gym and develop that relationship with them.
Gary Wilkerson: Wow. That must be so meaningful to have an adult care for them like that.
Brett Wagner: We get kids calling us all the time like, "Hey, when are we hanging out next?" Are we hanging out Thursday?"
Gary Wilkerson: That makes for a pretty full schedule though, I imagine. You mentioned something earlier about discipleship. You guys have a pretty strong emphasis on discipleship, is that correct?
Brett Wagner: Yes, we have our D program. It is just a simple way for kids to learn scripture. So, we're doing it a little bit differently right now, but it's really just we're trying to get them to memorize scripture and understand it. Then we give them some incentive to do it because the way we're doing it now is we give them a passage and then we pick one verse out of that passage for them to memorize. We teach them the whole passage, but then the one verse is memorized. If they can come back the next week, then they get a little reward for it. Then we do that four consecutive weeks.
We're basically breaking down the gospel for them. Each week is a different part of the gospel so that at the end of the month God, sin, Jesus, faith, like they get it. That's the full picture. Obviously, the goal is we want kids to know Jesus, we want them to believe the gospel. So that's kind of been a part of Father's Love for a long, long time.
Roger Jonker: Almost from the beginning.
Brett Wagner: Just getting them to memorize scripture and understand it, so that's something that we do.
Gary Wilkerson: So, the elements that I hear you're talking about are the relational, you're building relationship with them, caring for them one-on-one, group activities, basketball, other events, fun games, discipleship, learning the word of God, salvation. Do you feel like it's working, or do you ever feel like just like this is doing nothing?
Roger Jonker: Probably both ways. You get mixed feelings. You see so many kids make their own choices. Even if with all the teaching, with all the relational developing, they still make the wrong choice. That's heartbreaking. When you see that take place, you see the results of their decisions. But I've got a young boy, Gary, that I met him when he was eight years of age. We had Father's Love in Virginia at the time. His father was murdered. He was in a drugs business and got killed, lived in a project with his grandmother, mother and three siblings from different fathers. We just got to know him very well and spent a lot of time with him. Took him to Romania. Never been out of Texas, never been on a plane before and--
Gary Wilkerson: Took him to did you say Romania?
Roger Jonker: Romania, yeah. I wanted to take him and another--
Gary Wilkerson: Wow. That's going from zero to 60.
Roger Jonker: Incredible and the parents trust you enough. I mean, we spent so much time with the family that they trusted us. We got a passport for him.
Gary Wilkerson: How old was he when you took him to Romania?
Roger Jonker: Probably 12 or 13, just in those beginning teenage years, I guess you might say.
Gary Wilkerson: Talk about going somewhere with you. You said grocery shopping earlier. I thought, “What do you want to do today, go grocery shopping or go to Romania?” Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you.
Roger Jonker: No. That's fine. He's about 26 now, and he stays in contact with me. When he graduated from high school, he calls me up. When he had his first child, he called me up. When he got his first job, he calls me up. Finally, I asked him, I said, "Hey, I appreciate you calling me. I mean, it's a blessing. There's a lot of other kids that we work with, but you're one of the few that maybe three or four times a year…" He recognized the fact that there are certain people in his life, he said, "Father’s Love, the staff at Father's Love, they loved me. They did things with me, and this is my way of thanking you guys for the trajectory of my life. It could've gone a different way. I could've got into the drugs and things like that. But you guys loved me enough and showed me a different way." So, his way was to say thank you is just staying in contact with us.
Gary Wilkerson: I love that.
Roger Jonker: Now he's a manager of a—I forget the name of the chicken place. It's a fast food place, but his goal is to be a district manager. I can see him becoming a district manager fairly soon.
Gary Wilkerson: That's so cool.
Roger Jonker: That's a blessing. God gives you, I think, examples of the good cases, I guess, just to kind of keep you motivated because you see so much of the negative. But when you see stuff like that it kind of keeps you going for the next kid, for the next-
Gary Wilkerson: Absolutely yeah, because his history and his trajectory would've been to go the way of his own father and to see that, obviously God intervene and ministries such as yours is making a huge difference. How about you guys, do have any particular people in mind that kind of the old church day's called testimony time? Any victories that you... I don't mean to put you on the spot because where you're working, you're in the trenches. It's sort of like, "Oh yeah. Who?"
Brett Wagner: I mean it is definitely a source of encouragement for us. But we have two girls that are on staff with us right now that came to our program I think when they were 10 or 11 years old.
Roger Jonker: 9 and 12, I think is what they were saying.
Gary Wilkerson: Oh, cool.
Brett Wagner: We've known them almost our entire time in Texas. Both of their stories are different. But just every time we meet, we see them at the building, and we work with them. It's a reminder that, God's still working and we're just going to keep doing what we're doing because we know that God's going to use it. That kids are going to respond, and God can change, like you said, the trajectory of their life because-
Gary Wilkerson: What are their names?
Brett Wagner: That's Tamia is the one that came on most recently and then Channie.
Gary Wilkerson: So, you're going to have to tell them to watch this podcast because their name is mentioned.
Brett Wagner: Shout out.
Gary Wilkerson: Then they can send it to all their followers on Instagram and Twitter.
Roger Jonker: This is new for us too. We've always had staff like Brett and Melissa came from the Bible school and all of our staff come from Bible school backgrounds. This is first homegrown, fruit of the ministry and it's neat to see because they knew what it's like to be the young girl basically in the program, know what Father's Love is about, how much it ministered to them and now they want to be a part of that solution. It's kind of new. It's new for us as a staff trying to train kids that grew up in the program.
Gary Wilkerson: That's good. Roger, you were telling me earlier that Melissa, you work with some of the, you call them alumni. Is that the right? Tell us a little bit about that.
Melissa Wagner: Well, when I came to Father's Love, I worked for four years full time before I stepped down to raise my kids.
Gary Wilkerson: How many kids do you have?
Melissa Wagner: Four.
Gary Wilkerson: What are their ages?
Melissa Wagner: Seven, six, two and one.
Gary Wilkerson: Okay. So, you almost have your own Father's Mother's Love. So, you stepped down to work with the kids more, be at home.
Melissa Wagner: Yes. The girls that were 10 and 12 in the years that I was working with them, those girls, because of the relationship we have with them over the years, they just kind of became part of our family. It didn't look and feel like ministry anymore. I wasn't going to the building and like teaching a lesson, but I'd pick them up and they'd drive along in the minivan with me while we get groceries and help me hold kids and take kids in and out of car seats. I realized one day I felt like the Lord kind of encouraged me and showed me that some of these young girls, one specifically, came from such a background of abuse that she barely spoke at all or any eye contact or anything.
God really stuck her in my heart. I kept going by to pick her up and she just lived down the street. So, it was convenient to pick her up to do errands and things. So, over the years our relationship has grown and she's a young woman now and she now will babysit for our kids. She knows them well. They know her well. She sees our messy house. She just kind of does life with us. I think that God really has made me realize and encouraged me that that's what ministry is. It's about love and relationships. I'm kind of disorganized. I'm not coordinated enough in my life and I don't really have the time, the space to have like a parenting class.
But I have a young girl in my life who didn't have a mother in her life growing up. She didn't have a dad. She was raised by a great aunt. Then a couple of other young girls who are raised in a home by a grandmother and they grew up in a pretty dysfunctional home. So even though I wouldn't call myself a model parent, it is much healthier. There's a lot more love and affection and there's Christ in our home. It gives her an opportunity to naturally see us in our natural habitat.
She sees me cook meals for the kids or love on them or she sees me yell at my kid and then have to go back and apologize to them. Just God and his love for both she and I, has built a beautiful relationship. Initially you think like, "What can I do to be a blessing to these kids and I'm going to help them?" Then you realize like, it's like kind of a practical joke in a good way. But God is like, "That kid is going to turn out to be such an incredible blessing and bring such wealth to your life." Our relationship now, I would see her more as like a little sister. My life is so much more blessed because I would continue to reach out.
But you really have to break down those walls and build trust and that doesn't happen overnight, especially with a young person who's coming from an abusive background. So, I treasure now the trust and relationship we have, but it's taken years. So, I would say in ministry or working with young people, just to be faithful, to continue to reach out to them and to continue to try to love unconditionally.
Gary Wilkerson: Faithfulness. That's a good word to have, whether it be a ministry like yours or a parent or a church, just being faithful to these kids because they're so used to people coming in and out of their life. I love that you guys have done this long-term now that you're starting to see the kids that came at 10 are now staff members. Really--
Melissa Wagner: There's definitely been some setbacks and some really discouraging times along the way. But I think probably being at it now, we're finally starting to see what looks like fruit. You get little encouragement along the way, but I think when you do kind of stick to something over time.
Gary Wilkerson: So, a parent that's listening today, that's feeling a little bit hopeless about their teenage kid. Again, one more time, kind of go back to that, I kind of touched on it a little bit earlier, but just like you're sitting down in almost like a counseling session with a mom or dad who's just brokenhearted, weeping over the condition of their child. What do you say to them?
Brett Wagner: I would say that there is hope. I mean, there is always hope.
Gary Wilkerson: You've got the evidence for it too.
Brett Wagner: Right. I mean, faces come to mind and knowing that God is always working, whether we know it or not. There's times where a kid's going to make really bad decisions, have bad friends; just all kinds of bad things are going to happen. Yet that doesn't mean that God is not looking, not watching; he's not ignoring the problem and that he loves their son or daughter more than they do, which is hard to believe.
Gary Wilkerson: Good word. I like that.
Brett Wagner: But he does, and he's always, always, always longing for them to come to him, and he's always going after them, and he won't ever stop going after them despite their bad decisions. It can be really heartbreaking. I mean, I think of several families, of some things that have happened, even death based on bad decisions; and just the pain can seem so unbearable, and yet there is always hope. There is always Jesus who has been through pain and been through suffering and wants to comfort them. So, holding on to that is really hard to do, but the only thing they need to do, to be honest, is to hang on to that hope.
Gary Wilkerson: That's very encouraging. You guys have anything to add to that, or do you?
Roger Jonker: I agree with what Brett was saying about hope. If someone called or someone came by, we usually tell the kid this too. Their being at Father's Love was not by chance. It was not by coincidence. God knew that there were suffering. God knew that they needed to be loved. God knew they needed help. So, he drew them to, it could be Father's Love, could be any ministry, it could be any person. Same thing with a parent, a parent calling us, that's-- your calling us, you think you're just calling us but that was God behind that. He's calling us because he wants to minister to you. He brought you to our attention and now we can begin to minister to them. So, there's hope in Christ, otherwise we wouldn't be doing it. We just have to be patient. We try to tell them to kind of continue to pray, seek God, try to encourage a kid, like I said, to come to a ministry, whether it's a church or to our ministry. But there is hope for them.
Gary Wilkerson: Good. Anything to add to that or do you think these guys nailed it? Or anything else you'd say to?
Melissa Wagner: Well, we do have experience with teenagers as far as the youth program, but our own children are young. So, I don't know. I would just encourage them to pray, encourage them to love their child unconditionally and maybe seek counseling if they need that.
Gary Wilkerson: I think that's important because if you can't take your child any further than you are, and so if you've got again, a 30 year old, 32 year old, 35 year old, a single mom and she's trying to raise a teenage kid and she's like full of anger and unforgiveness and addictions herself. You can tell them hope or anything like that, but they've got to get it right as well first. It's like flying here from Jacksonville, the flight attendant said, "If there's a change of cabin pressure and the oxygen mask falls, put on your own mask first, then do that."
I always like to advise parents to make sure you're taking care of yourself spiritually, emotionally, relationally, that you're getting healthy and that'll tend to cause them to be healthy as well. Almost by osmosis, the healthy parent will create a healthy environment for their thing. But then you have some times where you have the healthy parent, even a two parent household, even where mom and dad are both healthy and the kids still goes-- Well, I experienced that, you know Roger in my own life with kids just kind of turning away from the Lord for season. Getting into the kind of world that you guys are talking about and they came from a good home. So, it's not sort of like a perfect parent's going to make a perfect child.
Melissa Wagner: It's not formula.
Gary Wilkerson: There's no perfect parent to start with and there's no formula. But it is a matter of like you said, the beginning of this, you share the chapel prayer, prayer works, maybe putting the TV down for a little while and getting on your knees and crying out for your children. What about, I will close with this last thing, what about like some youth ministers maybe listening today. How would you encourage them to continue on? Because obviously you guys have been doing this for, did you say 12 years?
Brett Wagner: 12 or 13.
Roger Jonker: 2006 for you guys.
Gary Wilkerson: How would you encourage them to stay? Because I think I've heard like the average youth pastor is at a church less than a year or 18 months.
Roger Jonker: That’s what I have heard, two years or less.
Gary Wilkerson: What advice would you give to anyone involved in ministry to young people?
Roger Jonker: Go ahead.
Gary Wilkerson: I caught you off guard there.
Roger Jonker: Take that one.
Melissa Wagner: Well, the reality is anytime that you are in full time ministry or ministering in general, you do open yourself up to see some heartbreak and that can take an emotional toll on you. So, I think just being careful to know what your limits are and being honest about that, we can be over spiritual and think that you need to do so much ministry or outreach and emotionally kind of, especially probably women experience this more, but really take a drain and a toll on you physically and emotionally.
So, I would say trying to be healthy in that aspect, making sure that your connection with God is good, your connection with your family is going well and then ministry. That you have your priorities in the right alignment. If you tilt too far into ministry, you get burned out and then that's how some people quit. So, you want to try to keep a healthy balance so that you can go over the long haul.
Gary Wilkerson: That’s good.
Melissa Wagner: Because our ministry should be an overflow of our love and relationship with the Lord. So, when we don't really feel the life in ministry, then something's off. So, you may need to take a step back or take a break for a week or two or a month or something and kind of repair spiritually and emotionally what's going on inside so that you're able to overflow with life. Because the worst thing you want to do is be in ministry and be a disgruntled jerk. You have kids coming in and they have attitude and you have a horrible attitude.
So, when you start to see yourself getting funky, the best thing to do is not to be a martyr and keep plowing through for Jesus, but just realize, what Christ wants from us is a connection and a relationship with him. Our ministry should be an outpour of that love that we are feeling, his inspiration, his love for the kids.
Gary Wilkerson: Good thoughts. To summarize that, don't be a funky, disgruntled jerk.
Melissa Wagner: Jerk.
Gary Wilkerson: I'm going to make some notes here. Funky disgruntled jerk. I've never heard those words put together in the same paragraph before. But I love it, this is great. Don't be because you can't help anybody then if you're not healthy yourself.
Melissa Wagner: It's happens to us.
Brett Wagner: This happens to us. I mean, I remember early on-
Gary Wilkerson: You being a funky, disgruntled jerk yourself?
Brett Wagner: Yeah. Well, both of us.
Gary Wilkerson: Her more than you are you or you more than her?
Brett Wagner: We definitely both experienced like just a dry time and just kind of felt like it lost life or something about it. I mean, I remember early on especially as we were just getting going, the group of girls that she was ministered to, they were really tough. I remember every Wednesday night it was almost like an emotional breakdown.
Melissa Wagner: I was crying.
Brett Wagner: They were a really hard bunch and don't really know why they came to be honest. We fed them pizza maybe, I don't know. She was really good about doing crafts and things that maybe they didn't get a chance to do, but they were just a rough crowd and so it was hard.
Gary Wilkerson: Well, thank you for staying with it. Thank you for not giving up.
Melissa Wagner: That’s the grace of God, when I think about working with Father's Love, my background, I come from a small town of 2,000 people. There's no diversity. So, for me, working with the young people that are in the condition that they're in, I just had to rely on the grace of God.
Gary Wilkerson: I love your ministry though, because you're dealing with family life, helping parents, single moms, particularly, you're dealing with addictions, you're dealing with sexual crisis problems, gender issues, you're dealing with loneliness, suicide and even race, racial reconciliation. It's a fully orbed ministry. When we read our scriptures, that's what it's all about. It's that holistic spirit, soul and body.
Well thank you guys for the ministry you're doing and thanks for taking the time to speak to us today. I really believe this could be helpful for whether it's parents or somebody in ministry or even a teenager listening that they know. I think one of the big takeaways is there's hope. Thank you, guys.
Roger Jonker: So, thanks for having us, privilege.
Melissa Wagner: Appreciate.
Gary Wilkerson: God bless.
God really has made me realize and encouraged me that that's what ministry is. It's about love and relationships. – Melissa Wagner
You really have to break down those walls and build trust and that doesn't happen overnight, especially with a young person who's coming from an abusive background. Just be faithful, continue to reach out to them and continue to try to love unconditionally. – Melissa Wagner
There are times when a kid's going to make really bad decisions, have bad friends... Yet that doesn't mean that God is not looking, not watching; he's not ignoring the problem… he's always, always, always longing for them to come to him, and he's always going after them, and he won't ever stop going after them despite their bad decisions. – Brett Wagner
Father’s Love is an outreach to at-risk youth based in Jacksonville, Texas (with former outreaches in Pennsylvania and Virginia). The ministry reaches impoverished youngsters, ages 10 to 19, with the message of God’s enduring love for them. The approach at Father’s Love is simple: No matter the situation, they can know the love of their heavenly Father and be assured God has a special plan for their life.
Gary Wilkerson is the President of World Challenge, an international mission organization that was founded by his father, David Wilkerson. He is also the Founding Pastor of The Springs Church, which he launched in 2009 with a handful of people. He has traveled nationally and internationally at conferences and conducted mission ventures such as church planting, starting orphanages, clinics, feeding programs among the poorest of the poor and the most unreached people of the earth. Gary and his wife Kelly have four children and live in Colorado Springs, CO.