(NEW YORK) — Once a year, hundreds of thousands of college students descend on the beaches of the Southern coast for spring break, but on a debauchery-fueled, booze-filled battleground in South Padre Island, one small group is going to parties to spread the word of God.
For the past 34 years, Buddy Young has led a Christian ministry called “Beach Reach” to the Texas island and notorious spring break hotspot to talk about Jesus.
“I’m not on the sin team anymore, I’m not on the party team, but I want to come back and help my party people get to the team they all want to be at,” Young said.
And he’s not alone. His ministry consists of college-age spring breakers with a much different purpose — to pray for the partiers. Nate, 23, and his friends drove down to South Padre Island from Michigan, a roughly 30-hour ride.
“I’ve been pretty hammered,” he said, surveying the crowds. “I usually don’t get this drunk, but it’s spring break… this place is out of control.”
Between flights, hotels, car rentals and other expenses, college students spend an estimated $1 billion to go on spring break — a rite of passage, where there are no rules, only expectations to get drunk, naked and hook up. But sometimes they end up in more trouble than they bargained for.
Fueled by large amounts of alcohol, and sometimes drugs, these vacations quickly can become dangerous. Almost 2,000 college-age kids die every year from alcohol-related injuries.
Young said his ministry’s biggest goal is to make sure the students have a safe spring break.
“We realize students come to spring break and they just want to blow off some steam and have fun,” he said. “But in the midst of that, there are tons of safety issues.”
When the sun goes down and the parties get even wilder, Young and his volunteers go to party hot spots and clubs, offering free rides to partiers with their fleet of vans. Young will even go to the South Padre Island police station to help minors who were ticketed for alcohol possession.
“The object is, of course, to get them from one place to another, get them there safely, but also to have a conversation, ‘what’s going on in your life? How can we help you?'” Young said. “We’re here to pick up the pieces.”
His group has a well-thought out operation and makes an effort to talk to anyone who will listen, no matter how much they have had to drink.
“As soon as they come out of the bar we direct them this way,” Young said. “We feed them to try and get them sobered up a little bit… because we know that these people, if we’re not here, who are they going to talk to, who are they going to go to in their crisis?”
While it may seem to some that Young and his group are just trying to convert people, he denied that’s the case.
“We’re not here to convert people. We’re here to share an opportunity with them to get their life together mentally, physically, spiritually, then that conversation is over,” he said.
But not everyone sees their mission as one of love. Some spring breakers said what Young and his ministry were doing made them feel guilty about enjoying their break, and that the beach on South Padre Island was not the right place or time to talk about God. But Young argued that they help spring breakers face the harsh realities of their drunken debauchery.
“It’s what happens when you wake up after spring break. That’s why we’re here,” he said. “They wake up the next morning… now all of a sudden reality comes in, ‘Did anyone film me or take a picture of what I did? I’m so embarrassed’… we’re here to say, ‘we understand… we’re here to talk you through that anguish you have and that emotional shame you might be experiencing.'”
But Young has another motivation too. As a father, he said he thinks about what would happen if his daughter got into trouble on spring break.
“I would want a man like me that could be there and say it’s going to be OK,” he said. “So that’s why we come to spring break.”
On the last day Young’s ministry was on South Padre Island, he gathered the converted for a baptism on the beach and told his flock to come together and scream.
“We are going to make the loudest yell we can,” Young instructed. “People on the beach are going to think something is going down, fighting or stripping down, and they just come by the droves… all 800 of us plus all the little pied piper ones we bring in are going to walk into the water and then we are going to be able to baptize them and it will be awesome.”
All at once, the group let out a massive yell, and the wild partying gave way to collective prayer. Then the crew moved into the chilly waves to begin the baptisms.
“This is our last day here and it kind of culminates with this gracious, joyous celebration of what God has used us to do this week,” Young said. “This is the moment we say, ‘God we are blessed to be able to do this, we thank you for letting us do this.'”
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