His mother was a crack addict. His story had echoing parallels to the architects of the Columbine shooting. His life tragically ended just before his 21st birthday. But Denny was a part of the catalyst of what is now changing so many lives through Breakaway’s summer adventure camps for at-risk youth and children.
Denny was a youth who lived in our neighborhood. We met him when he was twelve-years-old and I initiated a mentoring relationship with him at that time. His mother was a crack addict who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in connection with an earlier robbery at her workplace.
Living in a dysfunctional home without any rules or boundaries caused Denny to live out of deep-rooted insecurities. Every opportunity we had, we took Denny and his neighborhood friend, Troy, on special outings. They went with us to church, youth group, and even to some of our juvenile center services. Their favorite outing was when we took them for ice cream, and not just for the sugar rush; they genuinely seemed to savor the meaningful conversations we shared about God, faith, and life—all over a rich double dip cone of chocolate with sprinkles on top.
In 1999, Breakaway Outreach provided scholarships for Denny and Troy to attend summer camp in Panama City with a local youth group. The group consisted of about forty teens from the West Palm Beach area, but once we arrived in Panama City we would be joining a much larger youth group of about two hundred students from a church in central Florida. They had mailed us a copy of the rules and guidelines of what to bring, and not to bring, prior to leaving South Florida. We made sure Denny and Troy were familiar with the rules and contraband items—this being the very first Christian summer camp they ever attended.
Youth Group Gone Wild
When we arrived in Panama City, we were blown away with the mischievousness we saw in the group from central Florida. They began unpacking their travel bags, unveiling all kinds of paraphernalia that was on the “Things NOT to Bring to Camp” list we received before leaving home. They pulled out panzerchecks, Tiger tanks, bazookas, and smoke grenades—well not exactly, but they did have an overabundance of water balloons and other illegal imports for pranks, which had been strictly forbidden. I could see it all over Denny’s face: “So this is what Christian camp is all about!”
I could smell trouble brewing… and conniving prank strategies formulating.
During the worship service of the opening night, I was appalled. As the worship leader attempted to sing songs but this group from central Florida, numbering around two hundred students, simply carried on obliviously in social conversations as if the guy on stage didn’t even exist. Worship was the farthest thing from their agenda. It was one of the most blatantly disrespectful atmospheres I have ever witnessed in any youth ministry environment. This complete spiritual disdain, or social circus if you will, was finally abruptly interrupted when the worship leader himself, utterly annoyed, yelled into the microphone, “Would you all please SHUT UP?!”
I sensed the worship leader had never faced this kind of savage environment before. He was agitated and they had gotten under his skin. I wanted to invite him to a juvenile center where it seemed he would get more respect. I couldn’t blame him for losing his cool. It was sheer chaos. I feared mostly for Denny and Troy, that they wouldn’t be able to truly capture a meaningful spiritual experience in this parade of insolence. But God has his ways of changing the game… quickly!
After that evening worship service, the youths went back to their cabins. It didn’t take long for me to get a call about Denny and Troy. I was summoned to the “principal’s office” to deal with “my” kids. Apparently, their had been some words exchanged between Denny and another camper, and Denny had shoved the boy. Knowing that Denny had been sent to camp on scholarship and that he was on juvenile justice probation already, the mother of the boy demanded that Denny leave camp. Denny took full responsibility for his behavior, but was ostracized more because of his label as a delinquent than for his squabble with the other camper.
There was no grace. No reconciliatory ministry. No love. No mercy. They wanted Denny and Troy off the premises, without any conversation about the situation.
Breakaway’s First Summer Camp: Two Kids in a Florida Hotel
It was Monday night, and we didn’t have a vehicle to drive home in because we rode with the church bus to camp. But the central Florida youth pastor was forcing us to take our kids out of camp so we had no other options but to rent a hotel room at our own expense, stay there until the end of the week, and hitch a ride back home on the church bus with the south Florida group on Friday.
My wife and I were determined to not see this as a failed mission, but an opportunity to demonstrate the love of Christ.
We rented a hotel room and spent the rest of the week with our boys as if this were their camping experience. We swam in the pool, had Bible studies, played games, and engaged in life-changing discussions with Denny and Troy. We turned that Panama City hotel into a makeshift summer camp facility and as a result, two souls experienced the incarnate gospel of Christ. At the end of the week, both Denny and Troy made a decision to begin a new faith journey with Jesus. We knew this was a Romans 8:28 moment; God had brought everything together for His good.
But this whole incident could’ve turned for bad… really bad. Denny and Troy could’ve left camp feeling like outcasts, pushed further away from Jesus due to the nature of what happened that first night at camp, if we hadn’t intervened and demonstrated God’s restorative love to them. I can’t imagine what might’ve happened if they had left camp rejected by God’s people and had no one to shepherd their nomadic souls.
A Columbine Coincidence
Coincidentally, all of this happened just a couple of months after the Columbine High School massacre, where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve students and one teacher while injuring twenty-one other students. Denny and Troy’s story had many parallels to Eric and Dylan’s story from a social standpoint, and the Columbine culprits had also been to a Christian youth event in which they were barred just a few weeks before the shooting.
We will never understand all the correlations involved in cases when kids turn violent, but one thing is certain: labeling troubled youth and shoving them aside will NOT solve our societal problems or serve Jesus well in our generation. We must advocate for unlovable kids even when they don’t deserve it.
If we don’t break into their lives with the love of Christ, they will without doubt break into our lives through aberrant rampages like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
In Judges 11, Israel cast out Jephthah because he was a son of a prostitute, but later begged him to come and lead them because he was also a mighty warrior. Be careful who your church discards as an outcast. You may one day desperately need their leadership potential!
In the end, society always loses when the church ousts troubled kids.
Shortly after returning home from camp, I wrote that central Florida youth pastor an “Apostle Paul” letter; you know, the ones where you get to tell someone off by speaking the truth in love. I referred to the Columbine incident and the parallels with Denny and Troy’s backgrounds, and then made the point that I was glad that Denny and Troy lived in our neighborhood and not his.
Was I a little too harsh in my rebuke? I wondered.
I admit that I struggled with that tension for several years until I received a phone call in February 2006 to come and preside over Denny’s funeral.
Denny had been killed in a robbery at his own residence just before his 21st birthday, due to a ripple effect connected with his mother’s drug habits. There was an indescribable peace in my heart at Denny’s funeral. I felt assured that he was in heaven by the presence of the Holy Spirit. But the real settlement in my soul was this: when eternity is hanging in the balance, we don’t have time to not speak the truth in love. We don’t have time to not advocate for the outcast. We don’t have time to not incarnate the gospel.
What if we hadn’t defended Denny’s self-worth that week in Panama City despite his initial behavior? What if we hadn’t taken money out of our own pockets to give Denny and Troy that redemptive camping experience at the hotel? What if we just expelled them from our programs like the youth pastor from central Florida did?
There were so many “What ifs?” The story could’ve ended much worse. He could’ve been the architect of a violent rampage like the one in Columbine. Denny’s soul could’ve been lost forever. We will never fully know all of the what ifs.
Even though his life on earth was tragically snuffed out early, we knew that Denny had responded to God’s grace and taken the next steps in faith because some had stuck their necks out for him, even when his actions didn’t merit it. There is a way to love the offender while not condoning the behavior. We did that with Denny.
There were over four hundred young people who attended Denny’s funeral. They looked up to Denny as a leader. After I shared his testimony and presented a clear narrative of the Gospel, over fifty teenagers responded to my invitation to follow Christ. I sensed Jesus smiling and Denny dancing in the portals of heaven.
Life is too short and eternity is too long for you and I to presume that we get to choose who is worthy of grace. The truth is, none of us are worthy.
It’s only because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we find acceptance with God; nothing more, and nothing less (Ephesians 2:8-9). We should view every person in the light of His grace, not picking and choosing who should be allowed into our religious circles based on our tolerance criterion. I have chosen over the years to err on the side of grace. It seems to be the only thing that truly wins over all human messiness in this lifetime and the one to come.
Denny Was Part of the Catalyst for our Kidz Camps
In 2007, we launched our own summer camp experience for prisoners’ children, inner city kids, and other at-risk youth. Every year we see kids’ lives changed through this camping adventure. Many of these children wouldn’t be accepted at some mainstream church camps, but that’s exactly why we started this camp — so kids can come and have a chance to hear and respond to the gospel story without being branded by their past or present social labels. Every year, I love to go to the top of the mountain overlooking the campgrounds. Every year, I thank God for the amazing things He is doing in the lives of each and every one of these unique and valuable kids…
… and every year, I think of Denny.