January/February 2009 Lorie Johnson What a Difference a Huddle Makes FCA in Florida
Every Friday morning at Hardee Junior High School in Wauchula, Fla., more than 750 students can be found crammed into the auditorium for an FCA Huddle meeting. In a little more than half an hour, school will begin for the day. But for now, in the junior high auditorium amid the backpacks, textbooks and hundreds of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, praise music blares, and the message of Christ's redeeming love is preached.
Almost 200 students have given their lives to Christ during the morning meetings.
"We are seeing lives change," said Clint Hendry, current pastor of Celebration Church's Hardee County Campus. "Kids that the teachers had trouble with discipline-wise the previous year are no problem this year. The discipline referrals have gone down tremendously. Teachers can't believe the change in their students."
The slash in discipline referrals and the student fervor for the early morning FCA Huddles have led Hendry and FCA to begin hosting two Huddles before school each week, adding a Monday meeting.
"The teachers and the administration are very supportive of it," Hendry said. "They are amazed by the way the students have changed. The teachers wanted to begin having the FCA meetings on Mondays, too, because the change in the students on Fridays was so great. They want to not only end the week this way, but get it started off like this, too."
More than 650 kids are coming to the morning
FCA meetings at Hardee Junior High.
The ministry is the result of a strong partnership forged between FCA and a local church. It began when Hendry moved to Hardee County with his wife and family to start Celebration's church plant. Hendry had long been involved with FCA, first in high school and later as a baseball player at Florida State and Stetson. As a youth pastor in Jacksonville, he was the FCA chaplain for the varsity football team at Mandarin High School.
As soon as he became pastor of the Hardee church campus, he began praying about how to reach the young people in the area.
Enter Willie Gilliard.
Gilliard — Hendry's cousin — is the youth pastor at his church and also an assistant principal at Hilltop Elementary School, which shares a campus with Hardee Junior High.
Gilliard had recently become involved with the junior high's FCA to start a prayer rally for one of its students, a basketball player, who had been seriously injured in a car accident. The student's spinal cord was severed in two places in the crash, and she was told she might never walk again.
According to Hendry, about 15 to 20 students were attending the weekly FCA prayer group with Gilliard, and they were blessed to watch their prayers manifest into the student's unexpected recovery.
"They say that the kids are in good moods all day, gang fights are disappearing, and discipline referrals are going down sharply."
– FCA's Charlie Warren
Based on the enthusiasm and momentum of that prayer group, Gilliard told Hendry he believed that the little FCA Huddle was a great place for Celebration Church to begin reaching out to young people.
The Huddle, as they now know it, was born.
Gillliard asked the administration at the junior high and FCA Area Director Charlie Warren if they could team up and host the FCA Huddles on school grounds before school. The event would be held in the school auditorium, where early-arriving students were already gathered. It would be completely optional, and the FCA staff would oversee it, relieving teachers of early-morning duties.
Gilliard, an administrator, would be there, and Celebration Church would provide the band for the praise and worship music and sometimes the message.
Warren and the junior high administration quickly agreed.
"We started it just a few weeks before the end of the school year last year," Warren said. "The first week 250 kids came. The next time they met, 400 came. The next time, 425 were there. By the last week of school, 450 kids were there. When they started up this year, 450 came to the first Huddle. And now, 650 to 750 kids come every Friday."
The school has a student population of about 1,075. The Huddle is open to all students, but the leadership team is composed of athletes. Most of the students choose to attend each week. And in Hardee County, which has a high gang population, the students have plenty of dangerous alternatives with which to fill their time.
"A lot of kids were getting in trouble in school," Hendry said. "A lot of the kids who have come to Christ haven't been athletes; they've been gang members. The first time we did this last year, the very first four people who gave their lives to Christ were four of the most well-known eighth grade gang members in the school.
Hendry (back, far right) and Gilliard (back, third from right) with the group that "makes FCA happen" each week.
"Last year, the school had many gang fights. This year, there have been almost none. The difference has been huge."
According to Warren, teachers and school administrators have been amazed by the impact the Huddle is having.
"They say that the kids are in good moods all day, gang fights are disappearing and discipline referrals are going down sharply," he said. "They are so impressed they are getting involved and helping out."
Hendry now hopes to add small-group break-out sessions to the successful whole-group Huddle meetings.
"We want to take it deeper and do some discipleship," he said. "Possibly every other Monday or on Wednesdays, we want to do breakout groups and go to classrooms. Kids can ask questions about what is happening, and leaders can talk to them about different things."
Warren said he's never seen anything like the explosion of the Hardee Junior High FCA Huddle.
"We've had something like this happen once or twice a year, but never before school, where it is an option to go," he said. "This is definitely new territory for us. And it's not tailing off; it's staying maxed out."
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of Clint Hendry.