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The History of Youth Hostel Ministry

"Lee Howard was deeply disturbed. He had just completed the summer of 1970 in Spain as part of the thirteenth Summer Missions Project from Wheaton."

As the son of Wheaton graduates Clayton and Helen Prestidge Howard of HCJB in Ecuador, Lee spoke Spanish and enjoyed working with missionaries, so the time in Spain under a mission society had been enjoyable. Following his time in Spain, he and several other Wheaton students decided to travel around Europe together before returning to the the United States.

In Geneva, Switzerland, they stayed in a youth hostel, where he met a young Englishman named Brian. They spend the next twenty-four hours together in friendly conversation. However, as Lee bade good-bye to Brian, and the train pulled out of Geneva, he was suddenly overwhelmed with a disturbing thought. He had been with Brian for twenty-four hours and had never once mentioned the name of Jesus Christ! Having just completed the time as a summer ‘missionary’, watching and helping career missionaries, he now realized that this had been his golden opportunity to be a true missionary himself, and he had failed. He found himself asking whether his Christian faith was something he lived only in certain contexts. Was Jesus Christ ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ only when Lee was ‘doing’ missions? This dichotomy was troublesome.

During the next few days he reflected deeply on what had happened. Hours of conversation with a young man who was open to discuss the deep issues of life—a characteristic common among youth on the hostel circuit—had not evoked a response from Lee to share his faith in Christ as the true answer to these issues. Lee determined not to let this happen again.

Thus the idea of a Youth Hostel Ministry (YHM) began to germinate in his mind. He would return to Europe another summer to travel among the youth hostels with the specific purpose of giving the good news of Jesus Christ to the ‘world travelers’ who stayed in the hostels while backpacking through Europe and other areas.

Lee returned in the fall of 1970 to Wheaton's campus with its many disillusioned, cynical students for whom missions and missionary were dirty words, as described in the preceding chapter. Nevertheless, Lee's burden was increasing. Having grown up on the mission field with men and women whom he loved and respected, he felt missionaries were some of the sharpest people he had ever met. He was a leader of the Student Missions Fellowship, but this was now a pitifully small handful of students—only about half a dozen—who met weekly (and some might mock them by saying 'weakly') for prayer, a far cry from the heyday of Jim Elliot when 500 or more students attended the SMF. Lee sensed that new methods of influence were desperately needed.

At this point Pat Milligan, director of the Christian Service Council (later known as the Office of Christian Outreach), came into Lee's life. One day she encouraged him to go to IVCF's Overseas Training Camp in Central America. However, he responded that what he really wanted to do was to return to Europe to witness for Christ in the youth hostels. Pat was intrigued with this idea and began seriously to encourage him along this line. During the coming months Lee and Pat dreamed and prayed together about this idea.

Before long a few other students began to respond to Lee's vision and would meet with him in the early morning for prayer in the Stupe. One morning Professor James Lower saw them and asked what they were doing. When they explained that they were praying about going to Europe the next summer to share Christ in the hostels, he responded, ‘Wow! That's a neat idea!’ Removing a bill from his wallet, he slapped it down on the table, saying, ‘Here's ten bucks!’

Twenty-five years later Lee reminisced about this moment, saying, ‘Ten bucks isn't a lot of money but ...when you're a kid and you get a real brainstorm idea and somebody with a doctorate comes by and says, 'That's a good idea,' it was really encouraging to us.’ This gave great stimulus to the germinating idea. In spite of skepticism and even opposition from some parts of campus, Lee and his friends continued to pursue the thought. Some professors, including the chaplain, told him it was a waste of time.

One key factor was the problem of mixed teams, with guys and girls traveling through Europe together. However, if they were to minister in hostels, where men and women were billeted in separate quarters, they felt that they needed both men and women on the team.

At the end of the spring semester, Lee's plans were still incomplete. Only one other student was ready to travel with him. Undeterred in his vision, he planned to spend one month in Europe as an experiment. It was the continued encouragement of Pat Milligan, who believed Lee and supported his vision, that helped launch the first efforts. She recruited two more students and found the needed financial support.

Thus in the summer of 1971, Lee Howard, Mike Spencer, Ruth Springer, and Linda Shoemaker joined one million other college-age youth to travel around Europe. Lee commented, ‘A lot of kids saw [traveling through Europe] as a real adventure, something really exciting to do, but once they hit Europe and the initial excitement wore off, there were a lot of lost, frustrated, confused kids...just traveling around, not knowing where they were going to go. A lot of them were just escaping bad situations in the States. And we found them incredibly open to hearing the gospel.’

Every day they found new and exciting challenges in meeting other youth, interacting with them about the important issues of life, and explaining how Jesus Christ could meet their deepest needs. Lee commented that he had spent the previous summer in Spain observing missionaries, but now he was the missionary. He saw himself and his colleagues as the ideal missionaries to their own disillusioned generation.

On returning to campus Lee and his team members imparted the vision and the great potential of college students being summer missionaries to their peers in Europe. Thus in June of 1972, Lee and fourteen other Wheaton students left for ten weeks of ministry in the youth hostels of Europe.

The goals were threefold: the clear presentation of the Gospel to non-Christians, the encouragement of Christians in Europe, and the individual personal growth of the tem members. Thus began what has been an ongoing and fruitful ministry by and to Wheaton students. Over the decades well over 600 students have participated in the YHM projects.

Taken from the book From Wheaton to the Nations: The story of cross-cultural missionary outreach from Wheaton College, by David. M. Howard. You can purchase this book at the Wheaton College Bookstore.