As I write this, I’m about to drive down to Sacramento, the nearest large city with an airport.
Not every student finishes the course at the Ranch. Not everyone makes it to our signature “Pray Out” program completion ceremony. Sometimes, a behavior threatens the safety of the Ranch. Eventually, if no interventions prompt a change, that behavior means someone needs to be dismissed. Then there’s an abrupt, heart-breaking departure, and many tears.
The more time we’ve had with each other, the harder these days are. Each student’s story is powerful, and it impels you to fight for that soul, to yearn for freedom and hope. For 50 years, Ranch staff have developed the program to help students face this fight and overcome instead of succumb. But it’s impossible to guarantee this, and it’s impossible to prevent dismissals, because no one can make choices for someone else. Only God has the power to change hearts, and only God can heal the deep parts of us.
This also means dismissal does not mark the end of the story. A famous poem describes God as the Hound of Heaven. Hounds have been known to follow their quarry until they catch them or until they run themselves to death. It is not in their nature to give up. God never, ever stops pursuing us. He doesn’t give up if we run far or if we run fast. He will never give up on our students, He’ll never give up on me, on you, or on the loved one you pray for so frequently. So keep praying.
The cause for this trip to Sacramento today is not terribly uncommon. But it isn’t to take away a student who was dismissed: I’m picking up someone I had to dismiss four years ago. I remember clearly the tears when he left, both mine and others. But today, like many others who left too soon, he’s being welcomed back to visit.
This young man would quickly tell you life has not been easy. In fact, he’s visiting because he’s seeking counsel and support. He’ll also tell you the Hound of Heaven never stopped pursuing him until he was found.
A few days ago, a pastor asked: “Why does what you do work?” Perhaps the simplest answer is: here, people encounter the Hound of Heaven.
Nate Boyd, Executive Director
In June, according to the CDC, one out of every four young people seriously considered suicide. This is a 25x increase from the monthly average just two years ago. Health fears, isolation and loneliness, disrupted lives, and loss of purpose are among the many likely causes for this recent spike. The situation surrounding the pandemic has affected everyone, and the statistics reveal young people are impacted the most.
The Ranch exists for these very young people. This includes victims of racism. And youth who’ve been trained to be racists, and youth who’ve been trafficked, and who’ve been trapped in the opioid crisis, and on and on. Each of these horrible crises spotlighted in society this year reminds me of Ranch students I’ve known, people who have lived through each of these.
In this broken world, the Ranch is terribly, awfully relevant. I dream of a world where the Ranch is not needed, where there are no stories of trauma, abuse, and evil. But I know this will not be the case until the advent of the New Heavens and the New Earth, which is surely coming, when God will make all things right.
And so, we will keep our doors wide open, and we will tell of the healing power of the love of Jesus.
I hear people say, ”We need a place like Christian Encounter in every city in America.” Yes, we do. But there are far too few safe places for struggling youth, and even fewer that teach of Jesus’ love, offer professional counseling, personalized education, and thoughtful structure. Still, in every city, there are people who love Jesus and whose hearts have in turn been filled with His love.
And so, I turn to you. Be involved! God wants to use you. Pray. Find someone to listen to and to mentor. Volunteer at a good organization near you. Give to the Ranch! As you touch your neighbor with kindness and love, hearts will change.
“He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” -Ephesians 4:16, NLT
Nate Boyd, Executive Director
Below is an edited transcription of staff member Zach Malech’s reflection on his first Agony Ride experience, shared during the Agony Ride Sunday Service.
When I started here in March I remember coming up for lunch and hearing words floating around, people talking. What I had gathered from the situation was that a student had had a meltdown and had locked herself in the bathroom. Powered down, imprisoned herself in the bathroom. One of our staff members picked up a chair and a good book and sat down right by the bathroom door. I remember watching that unfold my first week at the Ranch. It was so basic, so simple. But it was powerful to me and what I got to witness in this relentless pursuit.
I was talking with this student later as she was about to leave the Ranch. The message in her heart was clear when she locked herself in the bathroom; this was a common occurrence for her. But her previous experience was that whoever she was with at the time would just leave her there.
When she found someone sitting on a chair waiting for her, she thought, “Someone would take the time and wait there for me? I must have some value.”
As you fight with your blood, sweat, and tears for funds that make healing possible for these students, you send that message: “You’re worth it. You have value.” It was then I began to learn what the Agony Ride is about.
During the Ride, I remember when I walked up to the first station, and I saw community. I saw everybody had their place. Everybody had a purpose. Everybody had belonging. And I thought, my God, this is the community that is the antidote for this epidemic of isolation we see in the world.
Then we went to another SAG station. And I saw a sagger serving and making breakfast and taking off the helmet of another rider. And I thought, my God, this is the servanthood that will cure this plague of pride and selfishness in our world.
Then we came to the next one. I walked upstairs and there was a rider on the ground. I thought, my God, that is sacrificial love. And that will change the world.
And then it hit me. Instead of being in the Valley, we had 21 pockets of incredible community spread out amongst other communities. In the midst of a pandemic.
Your ability to make such a drastic pivot in the final moments leading up to the event display to me that you guys are not sold out for the Ride - you are sold out for what the Agony Ride stands for.
You were relentless to fight for second chances. And you refused to let earthly circumstances get in the way of your Kingdom work. That is a body of Christ that is resilient. That is a community and church that will not be stopped when times change and get tricky. This is a community that will change the world.
When we think about the 50th Anniversary Celebration, we think of hundreds of people gathered from many states. We think of embracing those we haven’t seen in years, of worshipping our God as one giant Ranch family. We think of lingering over the meal table and lots of Ultimate Frisbee on our newly seeded athletic field.
As you can see, our vision is entirely incompatible with a pandemic.
For a while, trends were pointing in a good direction, and we were cautiously optimistic. But as case counts have climbed and restrictions have tightened again, we’ve decided now is the time to reschedule, before any more flights are booked or plans are made.
The Ranch was founded in September of 1970, so we’re postponing this celebration from the beginning of our 50th year to the end of it. The new dates are September 24-26, 2021. Please help us get the word out.
We continue to rejoice in all that God is doing in the young lives at CER and that His work is not crippled or thwarted in the slightest degree by a worldwide contagion.
There will be much to celebrate next fall. In the meantime, let’s keep running the race together.
Savannah’s family moved when she was about to enter high school, giving her a fresh start. She got involved in a myriad of extracurriculars and was grateful for teachers who were personally invested in her. Savannah attended every football game she could, almost never missed a school dance, and went all out for spirit week.
Though she dove head first into her new school, the depression she experienced as a child had lingered all these years and was only worsening with each poor decision that was made. Savannah moved through a string of relationships, resulting in more pain and confusion, which eventually led her parents to pull her out of school while they searched for a safer alternative.
When Savannah’s parents dropped her off at Christian Encounter, Savannah read their actions as rejection. “I thought I couldn’t be cared about." Savannah’s arrival coincided with Family Camp, which couldn’t have been better timing. Savannah was immediately received into a new, more extensive family unit than her own. The wealth of connection pulled her in and began to fill her heart.
A couple of months later, Savannah was on the side of a rock face, more than halfway through the 15-day backpacking trip in Tahoe National Forest. Tears streaming down her face, Savannah’s cries echoed through the trees as she beat her fists against the rock. Staff member Caryn Galeckas lowered herself down over the ledge to join Savannah. “Why is this such a big deal for you? Why do you feel like you need to come up this? What happens if you don’t?” Moments later another staff member appeared above her. They proceeded to share the gospel of grace with Savannah, awakening truth she had heard many times before. It was half an hour before Savannah would proceed up the ledge, propelled by a new reality. Once on solid ground, she fell into the embrace of her teammates.
Moving forward from that day, Savannah began to see differently. As she wrote her reflection paper on the 15-day trip, she recognized the rejection she had perceived from her family wasn’t rejection at all. She realized that love was not something to be earned or won, that her personal worth was separate from the challenges she faced in life. “I have tried to replace my family in the past, but I don’t need to do that anymore. I care for my family more than anything…”
As Savannah began learning how to walk out these truths, her desire to be baptized resurfaced and seemed like a logical next step. Surrounded by her family and friends, Savannah made a public profession of faith this past winter.
When prompted for personally significant scriptures, Savannah recites Proverbs 27:5 among a few: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” Savannah now recognizes the courage it took for family members and church members to confront her when they did. The consequences could have been irreversible had they waited much longer.
“When I came to the Ranch I made a goal to experience and understand the true meaning of God’s love before I finished my stay...The community and fellowship at the Ranch is so welcoming and accepting that I was able to experience a love that I had never comprehended: agape, an unconditional enduring love. 1 John 4:12 states, ‘No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.’ His disciples at the Ranch took me in with arms wide open and loved me even when I made it painfully obvious I was not perfect...The Ranch has become many things to me: a family, a home, an enduring sense of hope, and most of all a titanium reminder that God’s love will never fail and never end.”
This content is featured in our June newsletter.