Jeff Hunt zigzagged through a pick-up game on the basketball court with 15 pizza boxes in his arms. The Douglass Community Center on Champaign’s northwest side usually closes at 7 p.m., but on a Friday night this spring, Hunt and several volunteers served pizza and Gatorade to more than 60 young people until almost midnight.
Hunt is a Christian and a youth mentor. He runs Mission 180, a faith-based non-profit that works with “at-risk” young people ages ten to seventeen. The Friday night basketball games offer a fun, safe environment for the young people. None of the Mission 180 volunteers talked about Christianity with the young people on the night I visited, but Christianity drives Hunt’s work.
“I don’t have a formula. It’s my Christian faith,” Hunt said. “It’s an example of the way Jesus lived his life.”
Rap and hip-hop music boomed from the stereo system in the Douglass Center’s gym. The four rows of bleachers along one side of the gym were filled with players waiting their turn and with the players’ girlfriends and friends who had come to watch the action.
Hunt circled the gym, greeting the young people individually and applauding good plays. Chaos swirled around him. Whistles blew. Sneakers screeched. The electronic scoreboard blared its game-ending signal. Hunt, 32, is tall and muscular, with a shaved head and trimmed brown beard. He wore sneakers, jeans and a brown T-shirt with a yellow school bus on the front, bearing the words “Old School”.
“He’s real cool,” Teven White, 17, tells me. “He’s real straight forward and he’s got lots of patience.”
At midcourt, Hunt playfully shadow-boxed with one teenager for several minutes.
“We have two rules,” Hunt explained. “You can’t say the f-word or the n-word, and you have to respect everybody.”
The teenagers remained respectful all night but used both banned words in Hunt’s absence. In Hunt’s presence, one boy used the “n-word” and quickly corrected himself.
Hunt, like four of the five volunteers working with him that particular night, is white. Nearly every young person in the gym was black.
“The kids ask, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you this way? You’re white, I’m black.’” Hunt said. “’I say, Ok, you can see. Let’s get beyond that.’”
Even when he stopped briefly to talk to me, Hunt stayed close to the action. He sat in the front row of bleachers underneath the basket. As he talked, players crashed into him and wrestled for a loose ball that bobbled in the air in front of his face. Hunt ducked his head to the side and kept talking.
“I don’t know if people would disagree with this or not,” Hunt told me, “but I let them know, ‘I know you guys are smoking the weed and doing all those other things. But what I’m most concerned about is you having a relationship with God. Because once that happens and you’re serious about it, all that other stuff is going to go away. I promise.’”
Hunt had a very different experience growing up. He was raised in tiny Lawrenceville, Ill. where his father was a minister. Hunt attended Lincoln Christian College in central Illinois where he met his wife.
After working as a youth pastor for several years, Hunt and his family moved to Champaign in 2002. He took a job with the East Central Illinois Youth for Christ. Hunt said he began to notice what he called a gap in Champaign County’s services for at-risk youth. Through Youth for Christ, he began spending time at the county’s Juvenile Detention Facility (JDC) once a week. To Hunt, that amount of time felt insufficient. “I just felt like we needed to do more,” he said.
Hunt designed Mission 180 to provide more intensive, individual mentoring. He has no office and works from home. Hunt spends most of his days shuttling between appointments at various social service centers. Since founding Mission 180 in 2005, Hunt has developed partnerships with the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office, the juvenile probation office, the Mental Health Center of Champaign County, the Champaign public schools and the Champaign Park District.
Mission 180 has little philosophical structure other than the emphasis on relationships and faith. The young people at the Friday night basketball program told me that Hunt rarely discussed Christianity, but they knew he was religious.
“We let it come up in questions,” Hunt said. “We don’t want to force anything on the kids. We let it be a lifestyle example.”
Hunt runs an activity period at the county’s Juvenile Detention Facility in Urbana. I went with him one afternoon this spring but was not permitted to take notes. Hunt walked casually through the facility, “buzzing” the appropriate buttons to enter secured areas and making small talk with the staff. He carried store-bought frosted cookies in a plastic bag.
In the facility’s small gym, a group of ten young men and two young women lined up against a wall, waiting for Hunt. They wore navy blue jumpsuits and slip-on shoes. Hunt walked down the line exchanging handshakes and greetings with each young person. They played several rounds of basketball and volleyball with Hunt.
After the games he led them through a group exercise about second chances. The young people stood in a single file line and Hunt asked them a series of questions. They stepped to the left or the right depending on their answers.
First, Hunt asked the group whether they felt they deserved second chances. Each of them responded yes. But half of the group said no when Hunt asked whether they would deserve second chances if they continued to make mistakes. One young man suggested that his family would eventually stop trusting him. Then the discussion shifted to the consequences of repeated mistakes.
Hunt finished the session by reading from pledge cards the group had filled out the previous week. The young people had written down a part of their behavior they promised to improve during the week. Hunt asked each of them if they had succeeded. Then he awarded a certificate to the young man who the group had voted the best behaved during the previous week’s discussion.
“I tell you this every week,” Hunt said as he passed out new pledge cards, “but I love you and God loves you.”
People often question Hunt’s work, especially his emphasis on juvenile offenders. “Not everybody understands why they spend time with them,” he says. “We still get people who say, ‘Well, they don’t deserve the kinds of things you’re doing with them. Why are you doing this? They’re criminals.’”
Hunt answers such questions by citing the example of Jesus Christ from scripture.
“I’m like, ‘Well, the guy that I’m modeling my life after, that’s who he hung out with,’” Hunt said.
Skepticism about Mission 180 comes more often from Christians than the secular community, he continued. “People that we work with or have partnerships with, the majority of them are not Christians, or are very nominal,” Hunt said. “They welcome what we’re doing with open arms.”
According to Mission 180’s agreement with the Champaign Park District, Hunt and the volunteers must drive home the participants after the Friday night basketball program. Hunt and five teenage boys walked out of the Douglass Center a few minutes before midnight.
As the group walked toward Hunt’s minivan, one young man boasted of his ability to sneak into clubs restricted to people over 21 years old.
“You couldn’t pass for 13,” Hunt laughs. The young man responded with a crass remark. “That’s real mature,” Hunt adds, rolling his eyes.
Rap music blasted from the stereo in Hunt’s van. The drive toward the teenagers’ homes in east Urbana was loud and laughter-filled. Hunt told one of the young men how to pop a pimple before his trip to the movies the next night. He was nearly finished with another long night in his mission to build relationships.
“The things we do may seem isolated,” Hunt said, “but to me they’re not.”