Boys to Men: Youth Empowerment Leader Wishes He Could Help More Kids
By Mark Butzow
The year 1994 was an alarming one for young Black men in Indianapolis. A high number of Black males had been killed, and a new mayor was facing pressure to do something. In what would become a model for his administration, Stephen Goldsmith collaborated with community-based organizations, neighborhood associations, businesses, philanthropists, and faith-based entities to get input.
“He gathered up a committee of shakers and movers in the Black community to get some ideas on what they felt could be the solutions,” said Malachi Walker, who was a young firefighter then and now is pastor of Great Commission Church of God. That committee’s report, a small booklet, changed Walker’s life—and, over the next twenty-nine years, he has helped hundreds of boys and young men in Indy find a safer and more responsible path.
“The Lord put it in my heart to start a program where I can get males off the street and into an environment where I can pray into them,” he said recently. Walker had grown up in public housing and could have ended up much like these youths, “dropping out of school, not working jobs, and finding other ways to get money, like selling drugs, carjackings, and robbing.”
His pastor at the time gave the go-ahead to use church facilities, and Walker rounded up a handful of other men to help, allowing him to create an empowerment camp to help young boys. That first summer, twenty-five boys from across the city were enrolled in what came to be known as Young Men, Inc.
“I put together some basic rules and goals and objectives. What are some things I would do if I had them for eight weeks (two days a week)?” Walker asked. He implemented a military-style program, a bit like a boot camp, he says, and used a points system for good behavior, attendance, and slip-ups. Campers can earn awards for their good citizenship. Those who stay through the full eight-week camp are feted at an Awards and Recognition banquet.
Each meeting started with breakfast and questions about the Bible, then moved into the main event—speakers who came in to talk about the recommendations the mayor’s committee had put together. That might include experts to teach how to fill out job applications and conduct interviews, or police officers sharing the human consequences of a life that slides into crime.
“Workshops are offered in conflict resolution, developing healthy lifestyles, creating positive interactions with law enforcement, college life, career exploration, and how to give back to community,” the group’s website says. “They also gain access to school year mentorship and activities.”
Young Men, Inc. serves youths eight to sixteen years old. Youths are able to attend the camp several years in a row if they want, and Rev. Walker thinks that is a key reason for the success of Young Men, Inc. The organization can boast many graduates who finished high school, started or finished college, or went into public service roles with the fire and police departments. At least one is currently in seminary. Many of the speakers Walker brings in to talk to campers in recent years are graduates from years past.
“No doubt, it helps reduce the number of homicides among males. Each year (in Indianapolis), there are about 250 homicides, and 80 percent are males.”
Sadly, some have gone astray, ended up losing their lives or ending up in prison. He hears from some of those inmates, who write to say, “I wish I had listened” and imploring Walker to tell the current bunch of kids to listen.
Walker has been able to expand the summer camp to accommodate 100 “men” each summer, but based on available space at his church, he can’t grow much more than that.
“It’s a blessing to hear success stories of young boys who’ve gone through the program. It also hurts so much to hear a mother crying on the phone when her son is getting lost to the streets because Young Men Inc. couldn’t take them in.”
However, Rev. Walker has a plan in the works to build a new church building and multipurpose space on vacant land he has purchased in recent years. “God spoke that this is your time to take Young Men, Inc. to another level,” he said. Plans have been drawn up for a building with a gymnasium and a sanctuary for 250–300 seats, and he now is in the stage of spreading community awareness of the project. The projected cost three years ago was $2.5 million.
“The city will benefit because it’s a prevention program,” Walker said. “It prevents the growth in youth deaths and youth perpetrators.”
Anyone wishing to contribute to the building fund Walker described is encouraged to contact Great Commission Church of God, Attn: Young Men, Inc. Youth Ministry, 3302 N. Arsenal Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46218, or visit the website to use Cash App address $YMI3302.
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.
Mark Butzow operates Mark My Words Ink, a freelance writing and editing service, and is a former journalism instructor, broadcast journalist, newspaper reporter, and copy editor. He lives in Madison County, Indiana.
Feature (top) photo: Older campers address and encourage younger campers in formal ceremony.