Published February 9th, 2017 at 10:00 AM
Pastor Adrion Roberson likes to say that youth sports founded his church in Kansas City, Kansas.
He has spent 25 years coaching youth football in Wyandotte County and founded the KC United! Youth Sports Initiative – a league that has grown to 65 teams in several Kansas City-area communities. He launched it so working parents with little access to transportation didn’t have to join suburban leagues 45 minutes away in order to have their children get involved in sports. It’s become a lifeline for many kids.
But practices sometimes morph into another kind of session. The beloved coach is a natural counselor. He would stay as long as a child or their parents needed him.
“You’d end up after practice one hour, two hours, three hours later,” says Roberson, a Kansas Leadership Center alumnus and a member of its faculty.
The children would confide in him. Sometimes it meant reaching out to parents and helping them find jobs. It wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, but he wondered: If he wasn’t ready to step up and do something, who else would? “They come from some pretty dark places.
“Some of these kids we’re finding are going through things most adults would commit suicide over. That’s their home life,” he says. “If school is a safe place or if coming with us is a safe place, then so be it.”
In 2013, Roberson founded Destiny! Bible Fellowship Community Church, a small nondenominational church. He had already been moved by his faith to guide young African-American men for decades.
“Our vision is to be relationally evangelistic. And because of our connection to kids in sports and the arts, (that’s) been our avenue into the homes of the parents,” he says.
Roberson’s faith-based civic work is a fitting reminder of just how daunting it can be to lead on adaptive challenges in a community. The formidable social and economic challenges in northeast KCK can’t be addressed with a neighborhood cleanup or fundraiser. They require building deep relationships with people across the community and doing what one can to address underlying problems and inspire others to do the same.
But despite the scope of the challenges at hand, Roberson’s story is a reminder that anyone can lead, anytime, anywhere.
He is careful not to judge. He doesn’t hold himself up as the perfect model. It wouldn’t do anyone any good. “We don’t hide anything. They know everything about my life, my marriage,” he says.
Roberson has been clean for 10 years. “I started out smoking weed, and it ended up being worse. My wife, kids went through 20 years of hell. It was bad,” he says.
These days he uses that story to help others. “What’s crazy is to even be working in the same community where I used to buy dope out of; I used to sell dope out of,” he says.
It gives him pause almost daily. “That God would put you right back in the same place where you did your dirt to do better,” he says.
It motivates him to create more opportunities for young people. KC United! offers cheerleading, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) camp and a basketball program that begins this winter. The work has gotten the attention of several corporate sponsors and athletes, such as NFL Hall of Fame lineman Will Shields of the Kansas City Chiefs, who have donated money to pay for athletic uniforms and camp.
The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, built a football field in the urban core and named it after the coach. The honor was nice, he says, mostly because it focused attention on the need for more youth opportunities.
“Our message is hope and value,” — Pastor Adrion Roberson
Roberson says he’s been surprised how much the six-week STEAM camp has been an outlet for promoting peace. He’s using it as a way to encourage young men to value themselves, he says.
“If you value yourself, you can value another life,” he says.
On one particularly impactful day, the campers toured an evidence room at the KCK Police Department. Inside they saw a pair of Nike Air Jordans and a pair of jeans covered in blood. There was also a jersey with bullet holes and a plastic bag with $150. It was all covered in blood.
“This 17-year-old was killed over the Jordans,” Roberson says. “His life was worth no more than $450.”
They happened to be touring the police station when a police captain was shot and killed. The entire experience left an impression on them all.
It also caused Roberson to double down on his message. His church is one of five in the KC Grind. The group partnered with the police department to address crime. The police agreed to give the pastors a list of hot spots where crime had been especially troublesome.
“We make ourselves accessible and available in the community,” Roberson says. “Now our mindset is going beyond the marches. We have to be more hands-on.”
They’ve started working more in housing units where they can talk with children.
“Our message is hope and value,” he says. “We just try to be there.”
When Roberson was growing up, adults were always looking out for him. His village was ready and willing to dial his mom when he stepped out of line.
“You knew Ms. Jones could tell on you,” he says.These days Roberson is taking over Ms. Jones’ work.
Yet for all his work, Roberson admits that he doesn’t have all the answers. It can be overwhelming. A camper this summer told Roberson that his daddy sells drugs.
“How do you handle that? How do you help to address that when more than likely if dad knew that he was conveying the information to us, we don’t know what the repercussions could be. These are the kinds of situations God puts us in,” he says.
A social worker gave him advice about how to broach the situation. Yet some days Roberson wonders if he’ll ever have the right answer.
“It’s a lot of work, but it keeps you going.”
But it’s also the exact place that more faith communities will need to be – responding to momentous and disorienting social problems in thoughtful, experimental ways – to fully live out their faith and help communities respond to their most daunting challenges.
—Dawn Bormann Novascone is a freelance journalist based in Kansas City who spent 15 years covering news at The Kansas City Star.