Leading up to this trip, many asked why we chose to go to Keyser, WV. Keyser is not top of the list on many peoples’ ideal spring break list. The answer is simple. When Ruth Hueber, the Campus Ministries outreach director, prayed about where the Lord would lead Regent over spring break, she heard two things, “West Virginia” and “youth.” After a quick Google search, Youth With A Mission (YWAM) West Virginia showed up. Later Ruth found out that Jake Walker, one of the leaders at YWAM West Virginia, had recently been praying that college students would come. Regent was the first college group they have ever hosted.
From day one the Regent students and the YWAM staff connected deeply and encouraged one another. On the first night, Jason and Tracey Whitlock, the founders of this YWAM mission, shared some of their story and of the problems facing Keyser. In 2010, West Virginia became the #1 state for the highest number of drug deaths; more than 8 times the national average. Today, there is more than one drug-related death in West Virginia every day. West Virginia also has the lowest median household income, putting it on the poorest three states in America. An estimated 100,000 children live in poverty. WV is ranked 6th for highest teen birth rates, 4th for most disconnected (not in school or work) youth, and 1st for most children living in foster care. In Keyser specifically, the poverty rate is 31.4%. YWAM West Virginia seeks to influence Keyser in all seven spheres of society. They do this through weekly youth group, supporting local churches, helping on drug committees, getting people into rehab, food banks, and many other local ministries. The YWAM staff are mostly from Keyser and have a huge heart for the area, but Jason and Tracey’s vision is even larger. They have a dream to see people from West Virginia impact the nations. For them, it starts with worship and service to impact their own community and from there, the world.
Over spring break, a group of twenty-one Regent students and staff partnered with YWAM West Virginia and joined them in their week of various ministries. Monday began with powerful worship and a session on hearing from God. In the afternoon, groups went out to walk around Keyser and surround the city in prayer, while picking up trash and engaging community members in conversation. The evening was spent preparing for and hosting the weekly youth group. Regent students shared testimonies, played games, and worshipped with teens. Many saw their stories reflected in the lives of these young people. In the evening debrief, Regent students and YWAM staff shared what the Lord had taught them that day. Some of these lessons included: “Slow obedience is disobedience.” “It is God that brings redemption, not us.” “The Lord is breaking down barriers of selfishness in my own heart.”
The following two days were spent in a local city, Cumberland, MD. YWAM showed us two of their partner ministries, Garments of Praise and Union Rescue Mission. Garments of Praise is a thrift store and charity shop operated by pastors Tim and Becca Westrom. Those in need of clothes can come shop for free and the proceeds from any sales go directly to missions. At Garments of Praise, Regent students helped paint and fix up the back room and encountered locals through conversational street evangelism and prayer walks.
Union Rescue Mission is a homeless shelter run by a passionate team of believers. The director, Dave, has been at the Mission for four years. After a long career working in the prison system, Dave felt the Lord call him to run the Mission. In an act of faith, he contacted the director and told him that if he was willing to give up the mission that he believed the Lord wanted him to take it over. A week later the director called him and handed over the ministry. When Dave started working at Union Rescue Mission, they were at max capacity, but today they have seen a steady decline in their numbers due to the number of people they have successfully placed in jobs and homes. Before their average turnaround time was a year and a half, now it is only ninety days. During the time at Union Rescue Mission, there were many powerful conversations with both residents and staff there and locals who came in for lunch. One thing Dave shared is that “God calls us to do the ordinary thing and he does the extraordinary thing.” This was clear here at the Mission. God does not call us to change peoples’ hearts; that is what He does. He calls us to love people through simple gestures.
Wednesday night YWAM partnered with a local church to put on their youth group. A lot of the students who had come to YWAM’s youth night on Monday were there and the Regent students got to connect deeper with them. They played games with them and led small groups for different ages. Many shared testimonies that resonated with the Keyser students. The following night was the last and the YWAM staff and Regent students gathered for a final night of debriefing, prayer, and affirmation. It was incredible to see how bonded this team was in such a short time. All of the YWAM staffers expressed how much it impacted them to see the Regent student’s heart for the Lord. One even joked, “I had forgotten that there were other young people who loved Jesus.” Both sides felt restored in their desire to follow the Lord more radically and love others fully.
The YWAM director Jason said, “If we lose Small Town America, then we are going to lose America.” Please pray for the Regent team and the YWAM staff as they seek to impact this part of the world. Pray that the grip of drug addiction and poverty would be broken in West Virginia and that God’s love would overwhelm the city of Keyser. If you would like to find out more about YWAM West Virginia, check out their website.