In Plain Sight: Youth Ministry Resource Lessons from Dr. Ben Carson

Dr. Ben Carson is one of my heroes.

Partly because he was the first black man to lead Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Department of Pediatric Neurosurgery.

Partly because of his groundbreaking medical achievements, including being the first doctor to successfully separate siamese twins conjoined at the head.

Partly because he is what I as an urban youth worker envision my young people becoming.

His early story feels eerily familiar, like scores of students in my youth group. He grew up a latchkey kid in a father absent home. Poor, his mom worked two to three jobs and raised him in the projects. Angry and hot tempered, he was an academic underachiever, firmly planted at the bottom of his class by fifth grade.

No Excuses Not to See

For little Ben, fifth grade was a pivotal year. Fed up with his failures in school, Ben’s mother instituted some new rules for her two sons. Now, instead of watching TV after school, they’d have to go — of all places! — to the library, and — horror of horrors! — complete book reports from library books for her every week.

She didn’t have a budget for fancy after school programs or sports leagues or extra curriculars. But a library card was free. And library books were free too.

For Ben and his brother, the library card became their passport to travel the world as deep sea divers, astronauts, athletes, or fantasy heros. Their worldview expanded beyond the block, beyond the projects, beyond the ‘hood, and suddenly opportunities they previously didn’t know existed seemed attainable.

Within months, Ben’s school performance transformed from bottom wrung to straight A’s. He finished elementary school, middle school, high school, Yale College, and the University of Michigan Medical School at the top of his class.  He went on to become one the world’s foremost medical doctors — literally, a brain surgeon — at one of the world’s great hospitals.

At Ben’s medical school graduation, his mother embraced him with tears streaming down her face. For the first time, she revealed a shameful secret: all those years he and his brother wrote book reports for her, she couldn’t read any of them.  As a third grade dropout, she was illiterate. And yet the library was her son’s ticket out of ignorance and poverty.

Free and, for most of his schoolmates and neighbors, hidden in plain sight.

What FREE, Life Changing Resources Are You Overlooking?

Dr. Carson’s lessons for youth workers are legion. Here are my top three.

1) The lack of money or expensive programs is no excuse for failure. With a little redirected energy and follow-through even our worst-performing students can realize previously untapped potential.

2) If at first you think your cupboard is bare, look again. At a minimum, every inner city neighborhood has a library. Not to mention schools, parks, churches, and people power. Leverage community assets and make them flourish again.

3) Reading is fundamental. Lead your students by example. To create good students, be a good student. Encourage reading by modeling it.  Start with a book a month. If money is an issue, use the library!

UYWI Spotlight: Free Resources

Here are two free UYWI Resources that can help train, equip, and multiply effective youth ministry in your context.

1) THE FREE UYWI LIBRARY: Over 750 MP3s and videos of workshops from past UYWI conferences and RELOAD trainings available for free at UYWI’s online digital library.

2) RELOAD 2006-2007 Workshop: “Bagged Lunch and a Drop of Oil: Multiplying Re$ource$ for Urban Ministry.” Workshop description:

Called, but underfunded. Impassioned, and hungry for more. Broke, and feeling alone. How do bi-vocational youth workers pay the bills and buy the stuff necessary to get the job done? Jesus received one recorded offering in his career. The disciples didn’t get it. The masses were confused. But a boy with a bagged lunch understood, and his tuna fish sandwich fed 5,000. A husband’s debts nearly cost a widow her son’s freedom. The prophet’s response: “What’s in your hand?” A few drops of oil and a town full of jars later, she bought their freedom. Let’s explore how to turn tuna fish and empty bottles into resources for urban ministry.

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