Fred, Ben, and Jesse’s ARISE Story
Fred’s ARISE Story
“Good morning Stacy!” Mr. Peterson said.
Stacy wouldn’t meet his eyes. She just stared at her bruised forearm, trying to rub the pain away.
“When my mom gets mad, she hits me with a jump rope… You think that’s bad…”
She pulled up her bellbottom pant leg to reveal a calf covered in long red welts.
The bell rang before Mr. Peterson could respond.
After getting class started, Mr. Peterson walked over.
“You’re not very happy, are you?”
Stacy lifted her head from her desk and made eye contact for the first time that day. “I’ve tried everything, Mr. Peterson. Alcohol, drugs, breaking the rules, following the rules… What else can I try?”
The words caught in Mr. Peterson’s throat.
The message of the gospel—of Jesus’s love—was screaming in his head, but he couldn’t say it out loud. Not in school. Not as a teacher.
Kevin put down his pencil and looked around. He was the last one to finish his test. Friday at 3pm. Freedom.
Kevin brushed his shaggy 1970’s hair out of his eyes and waved to get Mr. Peterson’s attention.
“Tonight is gonna be awesome, Mr. Peterson! I’m going to a kegger!” he said, half to brag, half because he couldn’t contain his excitement.
The rest of the students chuckled—typical Kevin. A knot grew in Mr. Peterson’s stomach.
As the classroom emptied, Mr. Peterson caught Kevin’s arm. “Don’t go to the party, Kevin. Call me, we can go bowling or to a movie. Anything you want.”
“Don’t worry about me, Mr. Peterson, I’ll be fine.” Keven replied with a smile and walked out the door.
Kevin was not fine.
On Monday morning, as Fred Peterson made his way to class, he noticed the school principal standing outside his classroom.
“Mr. Peterson, I have a favor to ask you.”
“Sure, what do you need?”
“I need you to represent the school at Kevin’s funeral.”
From the look on Fred’s face, the principal could tell that he hadn’t heard. “Kevin was at a party on Friday night. He was drunk and stumbled into the street. He got ran over by three cars. He didn’t make it.”
That was the last straw.
Fred Peterson had watched student after student look for life in places occupied only by death. He saw them self-destruct as they searched for the peace that only comes from Christ.
Kevin’s death was the wakeup call he needed. After a conversation with his wife, he wrote his letter of resignation and walked away from his 13-year teaching career and an almost completed doctoral degree.
In the beginning stages, he didn’t really know what he was doing. All he knew was that he could listen to a teen’s pain, love them and teach them about Jesus.
As his vision clarified, he intentionally focused on the suburbs of Minneapolis. He saw a population that was invisible to many people: hurting suburban teens. Teens outside of the church’s influence and outside of the struggling inner city.
Fred left his teaching job in 1979 and in 1984 he officially began TreeHouse, a Christian outreach to at-risk teens.
Now an outsider to the school system, he needed to figure out how to gain access to teens who were in need. He set a meeting with a local principal.
“What can I do for you today, Fred?”
Fred slid a blank piece of notebook paper across the desk.
“I’d like you to write down the names of ten kids you wish weren’t at school today.”
The principal’s brow furrowed, then a smirk began to show on his face. He knew exactly what kids Fred was talking about.
Those ten names were Fred’s first core group of teens.
Ben and Jesse’s ARISE Story
“Is there anything you can do?”
30 years later and a state away, Ben and Jesse sat across a desk from their friend, a high school principal in Watertown, South Dakota. The youth pastor duo had been strategically building relationships in their community for years. Now the school was coming to them for help.
As they engaged their community outside the walls of their church, they had begun to see the same group of teens that Fred had seen 30 years earlier.
Different city, different generation, same pain, same hopelessness.
Their principal friend could see the teens too, but like Fred, couldn’t do anything about it.
The pastors were becoming aware that there were hundreds of hurting, unreached teens living in their small community.
They couldn’t live with that reality anymore. They couldn’t just tell the school to send the kids over to youth group. They couldn’t just hope that the teens found their way through the doors of the church. They needed to go find the teens and meet them where they’re at.
In 2014 they adopted the TreeHouse model of ministry that Fred and created and refined. They began to run a support group ministry during the lunch hour at the local high school, then they added an intensive one-to-one mentoring program.
They listened, empathized and supported. They loved on the bullies and the bullied. They heard stories of cutting and suicide attempts. These were the kids they were looking for—that Jesus was looking for.
After only a few months of meeting, one teen from a broken home remarked, “This is my family.”
That’s when they knew they were doing it right—they were creating a family for the teens whose families were nonexistent. A home for the homeless. Hope for the hopeless.
They didn’t stop there. The gospel was burning inside them. They were meeting the relational and emotional needs of the teens, but they needed to share the living hope of Jesus for lasting life transformation.
So they started to invite the teens to their youth group. As their relationships deepened, more and more teens began to show up. Teens that never dreamed they would walk through the doors of a church, ran through the doors of a church to hug and high-five their mentors that they met at school.
The support group ministry run by these two youth pastors has been so valued by the school, that they were given a “Friend of Education” award by the South Dakota Education Association.
Two youth pastors, thinking outside the box—and outside of the church—are meeting a felt need in their community while drawing hurting teens to Christ.
Ash SanFilippo has done youth ministry from the streets of Chicago, to a small church on a secluded island, to the suburbs of Minneapolis. He currently works for TreeHouse, leading a team that creates online training content aimed at helping people minister to at-risk teens. Ash lives in Minneapolis with his wife and 1-year-old son. Check out TreeHouse at: treehouseyouth.org.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.