This issue: Winter 2018

Agent of Change

Jael Chambers’ passion for racial reconciliation is making a difference in the lives of young people in Philadelphia

By Sean Patterson

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If there’s ever the temptation to get discouraged and give in – to let all the brokenness and heartbreak around him derail the work at hand – Jael K.D.L.V. Chambers (’11) doesn’t let on. He can’t afford to. The need is too great, the stakes too high.

As associate regional director for Young Life in Philadelphia, Chambers sees it all: the fatherless homes, the desperation of “the hood,” the palpable racial and political tension in the city. And yet, he remains unfazed. He’s witnessed too many instances of restoration and reconciliation to lose hope now.

Chambers oversees a staff of nine that carries out the national youth ministry organization’s mission – “To invite kids to follow Christ, care for them regardless of their response, and change lives in the process” – in the nation’s fifth-largest city. Remarkably, there was no Young Life club in Philadelphia when he arrived five years ago to attend graduate school at Eastern University. Today, the ministry, which encompasses after-school meetings at eight middle schools and high schools, as well as three colleges in the city, impacts the lives of between 800 and 1,200 students each month.

While most of his time is dedicated to administrative duties, Chambers still works directly with young people at Esperanza Academy Charter School, a 90-percent Hispanic school where he organizes after-school games and activities, meets with parents and does regular check-ins with students. His twofold goal: to reach kids with the gospel and create spaces for racial reconciliation and cultural education.

“What motivates me? The gospel of Jesus Christ,” says Chambers, who graduated from George Fox with a degree in Christian ministries. “The more I try to understand God’s love for us and his faithfulness to us through Christ, the more I’m driven to seize the opportunity he’s given me to help make a difference in this world.”

That plays out in ways both simple – playing basketball with the kids – and profound, particularly in the area of racial relations. The city itself is starkly divided. Upper North Philadelphia is predominantly Hispanic, with a population of more than 250,000 Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans. In the western section of the city, more than 90 percent of the population is African American. Still another part of town has a high Muslim population.

Chambers’ club meetings are designed to break down the walls that get built in such a segmented landscape. “Everything we do – the games, the icebreakers, the talks – is about breaking down the walls,” Chambers says. “We have schools that are all black or all Hispanic. My goal is to give these kids a glimpse of what heaven is going to look like, so we make a point of showing them a black person can lead up front, a white person can, a Hispanic person can.

“When they see suburban kids leading alongside urban kids, it’s an aha moment. Seeing that happen – seeing those walls being broken down – is what excites me. It’s what makes me want to get out of bed in the morning.”

Chambers’ passion for racial reconciliation was born out of his own experience. As a kid growing up in a single-parent home in Los Angeles, he had to be mindful of what colors to wear and not wear, who to look at and not look at, which streets to walk on and which to avoid. “It was a matter of survival,” he says. “The racial divide was real. I also grew up half of my life without my father around, so I was left to try figuring out what it meant to be a man.”

It wasn’t until his family moved to Portland during his high school years that Chambers found mentors – men like his David Douglas High School basketball coach Chad Reeves, and Portland Leadership Foundation leaders Ben Sand and Anthony Jordan – who were willing to invest in him. “Here’s this coach inviting me into his home, mentoring me, pursuing me,” he says of Reeves, a Caucasian. “It was radical and shook my world.”

Chambers’ life took yet another pivotal turn when he was accepted into George Fox’s first Act Six cadre and began attending the university in the fall of 2007. The Act Six leadership and scholarship initiative was created to train urban leaders to be “agents of change” in their neighborhoods. The program is conducted in partnership with Portland Leadership Foundation, an affiliate of Young Life.

Upon arriving on campus, Chambers discovered a place that further expanded his definition of what it means to live in community. “It was the first time I was around professors who encouraged me and helped me critically think about my calling,” he says. “All I knew was urban, so now I’m in a place where you really have to critically think about your faith and do the work. They created, in a good way, this beast – this person who could interact with the suburban academic world and also hang out with urban people on the block.”

Just as Jordan and Sand believed in him – “they saw something in me that I didn’t see, a leader I didn’t know I could be,” he says – now Chambers returns the favor by investing in young people. Two of them, Iran Lopez and Ezequiel Matos, were high school sophomores when Chambers arrived in Philadelphia in 2012. With his encouragement, they helped their local club reach capacity at 150 students per week. Today, they are leading Young Life clubs in the same high school they attended. “These guys found Christ and just started bringing their friends – to the point the school had to hire extra security guards, it was so big,” Chambers laughs. “Stories like this are why I do this job. These are gifted kids. They just needed support, encouragement and structure.”

Chambers also relies on his experience and education, including a master’s degree in urban studies, to run his own consulting business, Cultured Enuf, which specializes in educating corporations, nonprofits and small companies in office culture and issues related to diversity in the workplace. “People started offering me jobs,” Chambers says. “They saw my passion for racial reconciliation and recognized their own need, and Cultured Enuf was born. It wasn’t something I planned. Just one of those things that came about.”

Beyond that, it’s a reflection of what Jael Chambers is all about. “I love seeing people from different social, racial and economic backgrounds come together for a common vision. That’s one of the most beautiful pictures for me.”

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