Meals and Mutual Personal Storytelling Are Beginning to Transform America’s Toughest High School

by David Sanford

Most of us have been trained to tell our testimony—our story of how Jesus Christ has changed our lives. That is so important. These days, however, we may need some additional training. We may need to learn how to listen first to other people’s stories.

Here is what Hung Thach told me recently. He serves as a team leader with Cru High School ( trying to reach the students in America’s toughest high school. Listen to what he says…

When our Cru High School team first started serving in Long Beach, California, the Holy Spirit led us to posture ourselves as learners and to prayer walk around the city. Our first day, we end up prayer walking around Long Beach Polytechnic High School. This is the school from which Snoop Dog, Cameron Diaz, and many other entertainers have graduated over the years. Poly also has produced more than 60 NFL draft picks and dozens of other successful athletes in twelve sports. As we are prayer walking, the Lord leads us to a skate park by Poly. We meet with sixteen young men. As we talk, we discover that each one does not have a dad in their life. All of their fathers have abandoned them, been incarcerated, or died. One of the students we meet with that day is Jose. We ask him if he would like to grab a meal with us. He said he felt uncomfortable going alone. If he could bring his brother Scotty and his friend Jacob, however, he would go with us. That’s great, so I ask them where they would like to go, and they all choose Taco Bell. As we sit down and say a meal together, I begin to say my testimony. As I say my story, Jose begins to rock back and forth. He looks like he is nervous, so I ask him if he is bored or wants to go home. Jose replied, “No, I’m not bored. I was wondering: When can I tell you my story?”

So I stop and ask Jose, “What’s your story?”

Jose begins by asking, “Do you know what Special Ed is?” When I reply yes, he says, “I hate that label—that’s what they call me.”

He goes on to ask, “Do you know what bullying is?” Again, I say I know what it is. Jose then says that in elementary, middle, and high school he has been spit on, called names, beat up, and tormented by bullies. He says, “I hate those people that bully me!”

Jose’s face gets even more downcast. He says, “Do you know what suicide is?” He goes on to say, “Earlier this year I wanted to try to kill myself at home but I didn’t want my mom to see it so I took a rope and put it into my backpack. I went to my high school and went into the bathroom. I jumped on the sink and began to tie the rope around something above me. Right before I was about to jump, with the rope already around my neck, a janitor walked in and he saved my life! I spent four days in the Cerritos Hospital recovering from mental and emotional anguish.”

When Jose is done telling his story, I ask his brother, “Scotty, what’s your story?”

He says, “My father was a drug dealer.” With no emotion, like he’s quoting some statistic, he goes on to say, “But he’s dead.”

When Scotty is done, I turn and ask Jacob, “What’s your story?”

He says, “When I was nine my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I prayed to God for four years that He would heal her, but she died when I was thirteen.” Jacob begins to weep. Then he says, “This sent me into a life of drugs, alcohol, violence, and gangs. I did all that to cope with the pain of losing my mom.”

After sharing part of my story, and listening to each of their stories, I had the privilege of sharing with them the greatest story, about Jesus.

After all, it’s when our story intersects with His story that redemption and restoration can happen.

That day Jose and his brother Scotty began a personal relationship with God. After our meal I asked if they would be willing to meet with me for the next five weeks to study the Bible over a meal. They all agreed. So the next week they bring their friend Junior. We share Jesus Christ with him over a meal and personal storytelling, and Junior puts his faith in Jesus.

I believe one of the best pictures of Jesus Christ to teenagers here in Long Beach is a family. Weekly you will find our team sitting with students over a family meal where we listen to their stories, where their pain is no longer anonymous. After hearing their stories, many times we will transition to sharing our story and the Gospel story.

God gets all the glory. We didn’t figure this out on our own. We didn’t figure it out because we’re smart. In the first 32 months, we’ve seen more than 400 students give their life to Jesus around a meal and mutual storytelling.

David Sanford is the author of the brand-new book, Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It’s Not What You Think (available on our Resources page here).

When Can I Tell You My Story?