Originally created 11/27/98

Youth group sheds light



Under strobe lights and a disco ball, floor-thumping music and crowds of teen-agers, an amplified voice shouts, "Someone's going to die tonight."

The teens, garbed in baggy jeans, oversized sweatshirts and high-top tennis shoes, jump to their feet, stomping and bouncing and singing.

Unorthodox, but effective.

The youths in this group are getting a message loud and clear -- and it's all about faith, God and reality.

"We have a system of beliefs in which we have a God who's alive," said Josh Keck, a 19-year-old youth minister at Maranatha Christian Center who heads the Fresh Fire Youth group. "We believe he needs to be alive."

This youth group holds Real World Augusta skits, modeled after MTV's Real World, where a group of strangers agree to live together and are videotaped.

In Real World Augusta, the group recently held its annual Who's the Dead Guy? skit, in which one of the characters is killed, but the teens don't know who and don't know how.

As the plot unfolded, each character was revealed with a different personality, and in the end, one of them puts a pistol in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

The idea is to open up a discussion about death and suicide to get teens talking about it, rather than fearing it.

"It's a very extreme night," Mr. Keck said.

While not criticizing traditional Bible study groups, structured church ceremonies or religious music, Mr. Keck says teen-agers need something more to grab their attention and dissuade them from turning to drugs and alcohol, and persuade them to make positive decisions.

And that is the driving force behind Fresh Fire Youth, where teens are encouraged to be open-minded, realistic and Christian.

The group also uses upbeat music, expressive dancing, skits and down-to-earth counseling to keep youths on the right path.

About 100 local teen-agers participate in Fresh Fire Youth, and the group now is in its fourth year.

"The No. 1 thing a teen is looking for is acceptance," Mr. Keck said, so group counselors focus on providing teens with a sense of community, character and leadership.

Three months in jail two years ago began a transition for 17-year-old Jonathan Aceves from a juvenile delinquent into a virtuous leader. Expelled from school twice -- once for being abusive to other students and the second time for growing marijuana at his home -- Mr. Aceves is close to graduating.

"My life was so screwed up," he said. He said he was running with the wrong crowd, friends who were committing crimes worse than his own. His mother often tried to get him to go to church, but he wasn't interested.

Finally, after shaking his drug habit in jail and realizing he had no place to go but up, he decided he'd give Christianity a try.

Although there are volunteer counselors to help group members with social problems such as alcoholism, Mr. Keck said the group focuses mostly on preventive measures to keep teens from having to walk the path Mr. Aceves did.

Although nonchalant today about the changes he's made in his life, Mr. Aceves says it was hard to do.

"People don't like it when we say it, but sometimes we'll just say `Get your head out of your butt,"' Mr. Keck said, never soft-pedaling the message.

The teens don't gather to commiserate about how unfair they think their parents are being. "Your parents are always right," Mr. Keck said.

Fresh Fire Youth has received criticism from conservative churchgoers, Mr. Keck said, adding that the group has been described as a cult.

"But that comes from people who don't understand us," he said. "We do offer to a nonchurch audience, but never in any way compromising the message."

And the message is a simple one.

"We teach acceptance, and we try to teach hope," said Michael Harrelson, 21, also a group leader. He was involved with a Fresh Fire Youth group in Toledo, Ohio, before coming to Augusta and interning at Maranatha. "Without accepting people for who they are, you can't make the right changes in your life."

Meghan Gourley can be reached at (706) 823-3227 or newsroom@augusta chronicle.com.

Skits, dancing, counseling are all part of Fresh Fire's approach to preaching Christian messages