InterVarsity alumni - John Mein

White water rafters
Gordon Govier
April 16, 2008

Many people come to Washington D.C. in hopes of changing the world. Many see the world of politics as offering the best opportunities and that’s where they invest their time. John Mein stays as far away from politics as he can. He likes to work one-on-one with troubled young men, whom he calls “the least of these,” in an environment he’s found most conducive to the work of the Holy Spirit, the great outdoors.

Many people come to Washington D.C. in hopes of changing the world. Many see the world of politics as offering the best opportunities and that’s where they invest their time. John Mein stays as far away from politics as he can. He likes to work one-on-one with troubled young men, whom he calls “the least of these,” in an environment he’s found most conducive to the work of the Holy Spirit, the great outdoors.

After the Washington Post Sunday magazine ran a cover story last fall on one of John’s trips to the Arizona wilderness with residents of the Oak Hill juvenile detention facility, John was invited to address a prayer breakfast attended by some of the top judges in Washington D.C. He accepted the honor, especially since he was the youngest speaker they’d ever had. But his greatest desire is to introduce young men who’ve gotten into trouble in the city, to God’s creation in its most pristine and untamed state.

“When you’re in an environment like that, and your façade can fall off, I think that’s where God gets in and starts doing a lot of work,” he said.

John connected with InterVarsity as a freshman at North Carolina State University (NCSU). He was headed to the dining hall and noticed the chapter was promoting a service auction. John volunteered some kayaking lessons – he was a member of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team in 1998 and 2000 – and met some students who eventually became lifelong friends.

“He loves adventure, he loves to get things going” said Amy Philips, InterVarsity’s NCSU staff member, who worked closely with John and others in the chapter leadership team. John bought an old luggage van from the local airport, bolted in some seats, and began offering weekend kayaking trips and sightseeing trips to international students.

During his junior and senior years, John lived in NCSU’s Alexander dorm, among international students. He led a weekly GIG, InterVarsity’s investigative Bible study. “He was always serving other people and sharing the gospel with other people,” Amy said. That same Bible study continued for several years after John graduated, led by students he had mentored.

It was at an InterVarsity retreat at Windy Gap camp deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains that John found God moving his life in a new direction. He was looking forward to a dream internship with the National Park Service in Montana the coming summer. “I felt God telling me that I wasn’t supposed to go out to Montana,” he recalled. “It was real strong and real clear.”

Instead, he called Calvary Baptist Church in Washington D.C. and discovered the church was short on male staff for the summer. So he went to Washington D.C. and worked as a camp counselor.

“It was during that summer that I really fell in love with inner city kids and God’s heart for the city,” he said. He returned for another summer, and then when he graduated from NCSU in 2002 he was invited to become Calvary’s fulltime youth director. He spent four years as youth director and was ordained into the ministry.

But then he decided he could reach more kids with a different job, as a Washington D.C. police officer. “It’s a rough experience to go from being in full-time ministry to being in the police academy,” he said. “It hardens your heart as they train you how to take abuse.”

He lasted for a year in uniform on the streets of the capital city. He wasn’t able to connect with troubled young people quite like he had hoped. The opportunity to work as recreation director for the Oak Hill juvenile detention facility seemed to offer a better opportunity.

He wasn’t at Oak Hill long before he won approval for the summer excursions to Arizona that were featured in the Washington Post story. He took four trips in all, involving about half of Oak Hill’s 85 residents. It was culture shock for each participant, who had never experienced anything like it before. The return trip to the extremely regimented life of Oak Hill was almost equally shocking, “like going from Mars back to Oak Hill,” one staffer put it.

“I’d really hoped to see big changes in these kids while they were gone,” John said. Instead the changes were much more subtle. “Creating a 180-degree turn around in kids is something the Holy Spirit has to do. It’s not tough relying on the Holy Spirit but it was tough relying on the Holy Spirit and working for the government.” John is now working on a new recreational adventure for Oak Hill residents this summer, involving a boat trip down the Potomac River.

Ultimately, John expects he’ll end up as the pastor of a church. But he’s in no hurry to leave his current position because he enjoys working with Oak Hill’s residents and staff. “I’m able to reach kids that I would never meet if I was working at a church,” he said. He’s seeing lives change. And changed lives changes the world.