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Leading young leaders

Amidst a bleak, crime- and drug-infested area, a Christian mentor steers youth to a brighter future

Crowded with nondescript business buildings, dingy low-income apartments, and well-lit liquor stores, the northeast Dallas business district hardly seems a place for children. But every day at 3:30 p.m., backpack-laden children fill the sidewalks and weave their way through condemned apartment buildings and asphalt parking lots.

Like an urban deliverer, 42-year-old Vincent Gaddis stands on a street corner welcoming them into the tree-lined courtyard of the Fellowship Bible Church of Dallas. Wearing a navy cap and matching dress slacks, he escorts them into an office decorated with red and green round tables and wooden bookshelves full of Bible videos and Dr. Seuss books. Through his Youth Believing in Change ministry, Mr. Gaddis provides tutoring, Bible studies, and free meals for some 150 inner-city kids a year.

"We use biblical principles to help these children develop leadership skills," he said, explaining that there are no neighborhoods or parks in the area-just 10,000 apartment units that often host drug gangs and prostitution rings. "These children are exposed to so much. Everything you wouldn't want your child to see is right outside in the parking lot."

Mr. Gaddis, who is black, works with Hispanic children in a predominantly white church. But God was the original Deliverer, he insists-and he first heard the tune 12 years ago while pointing a revolver to his head. Mr. Gaddis at first made the Dean's List every semester at his college in Tennessee, but then his mother unexpectedly died of a brain hemorrhage during his second year there. Grieving and angry with God, he turned to drugs as an escape. Nine years later, a long-time drug dealer, he planned his final act of rebellion-suicide. But as he cocked the trigger, a Bible verse floated through his mind: What does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul? His mother had taught him that.

"In spite of everything I had done, all of the Scriptures I learned as a child were still with me," Mr. Gaddis said, and instead of killing himself, he turned himself in to local police. After serving a five-year prison sentence, he came to Dallas as a homeless man, found a church to attend, and earned enough money to attend college and seminary. He graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary in April 2000, with a master's degree in Christian education.

Now he identifies with the children who walk the city sidewalks. "I want them to understand how the Scriptures apply practically to their life, not just memorize them. I didn't have that understanding growing up," said Mr. Gaddis. To accomplish his mission, he recruited the help of Fellowship Bible Church, which supplies free office space and weekly volunteers. With a $240,000 annual budget, the program is funded by donations from individuals and churches.

Three nights a week, volunteers donate their time tutoring children, who mostly come from single-parent families that speak little or no English. Tonight's tutoring session begins with cheese cracker snacks and peer-led singing. The children hold hands in a circle as a fourth-grade boy named Bryan stands in the middle and loudly recites several Bible verses. With his hands raised in the air, he then leads his playmates in a boisterous chorus of "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High." Afterward, the children go to their assigned tutors, including a college librarian in a starched yellow dress shirt, a bilingual businessman wearing khaki shorts and Birkenstock sandals, and a housewife in a long flowing broom skirt.

During the summers, YBC takes the place of the public school, providing free lunches for poor children and a refuge for latch-key kids stuck in crime-ridden apartments. Children who attend regularly can go to a riverside Bible camp in the Ozarks.

YBC children participate in community service projects and a youth choir that performs at local nursing homes and malls. Volunteer David Pruessner, a 45-year-old lawyer, teaches chess, where "you have to learn to develop a strategy and think ahead." During the summer, he gives group lessons to 20 students at a time using 10 game boards and handmade wall charts. But teaching about God is at the center of the program, for Mr. Gaddis states that, "The gospel is the only thing that really changes lives. When I sat in the car with a gun to my head and when I went to prison, I already had a good education. But that didn't help me. What really changed my life was the word of God. And that's what's going to save these kids."

Candi Cushman

Candi Cushman