A Story of Community

by Bethany Wagner

As soccer practice draws to a close at Mack Avenue Community Church (MACC) Development in Detroit, Michigan, a boy runs across the field, laughing with friends and celebrating their team’s victory. Just months ago, that same boy came to his first soccer practice, quiet and withdrawn after losing his parents. But as he continued attending these MACC practices, games, and Bible studies, he slowly transformed into a joyful, vibrant boy.

Stories like this drive the work of Charles Johns ’95, director of youth and education at MACC Development. “I want the people of Detroit to know someone cares, and most important, that Jesus cares.”

Johns relates to the loneliness harbored by many of the youth he encounters in his ministry work. As a child, bullying caused him to turn inward, withdrawing from his peers. He eventually enrolled at APU, drawn to Christian community yet unsure of his place within it. “I thought Christianity required perfection, and I knew I couldn’t live up to that,” he said. But two mentors transformed his understanding of faith: his track coach, Terry Franson, Ph.D., now senior vice president for student life/dean of students, and his then-walkabout leader, President Jon R. Wallace, DBA. “I felt like I had to get my life together first to accept Jesus, but these mentors showed me He already loved me,” said Johns.

During a meeting with Franson, Johns prayed to accept Christ and moved forward with renewed purpose. He mentored younger students as a resident advisor and earned a degree in psychology, finally sensing a calling for his future: counseling, specifically working with children facing the same challenges of identity and self-worth he had overcome.

After graduating, Johns served as a live-in counselor at Advent Ministries, a nonprofit in San Jose, California, focusing on addiction recovery. There he cared for six teenage boys with drug and alcohol addictions, filling the role of a single parent. In the midst of fights, lying, and yelling matches, Johns found his purpose affirmed when one of his charges asked him, “Why are you still here? You’re not an addict. You don’t have to put up with us.” Johns responded, “I’m here because I want to help you, and God called me here.” The boy sat in shock. “For the first time, he realized someone actually cared about him,” said Johns.

In 2014, he and his wife, Tamara, a fellow Advent worker, felt called to move their family halfway across the nation to a city known for economic turmoil and strife. Detroit has spiraled economically in the last few years, filing for bankruptcy as unemployment, homelessness, and crime rates rose. But as Johns said, “This city has a story that is not being told: the story of community.” Johns plays a role in this story by directing the youth programs staff and operations at MACC Development, an organization meeting the physical, social, and spiritual needs of an underprivileged east Detroit neighborhood through community development projects, housing options, legal services, writing and reading classes, tutoring sessions, and sports programs. Staff members work, live, and raise their families in the area, meeting residents in their homes and building a thriving community by forming relationships. “The people we serve are also our neighbors and closest friends,” said Johns. “We have become a family.”

Last year, more than 90 children participated in MACC sports. As they scored soccer goals and dribbled basketballs down the court in weekly practices and scrimmages, they also experienced encouragement and character growth through Gospel-centered Bible studies and mentorships with staff. “I can connect with the lonely kid who lacks friends, the kid from a minority background, and the kid who doesn’t know Christ, because I have been in their shoes,” said Johns. “I benefitted from incredible mentors at APU; now I can give back by building up these kids in ways that spark their curiosity in Jesus.”

To learn more about Johns/MACC Development, visit maccdevelopment.com

Bethany Wagner ’14 is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. bethanykwagner@gmail.com

Originally published in the Spring '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.