By Tim Bennett
The unassuming and long-time director of the newly named New York Adult & Teen Challenge in Syracuse, David Pilch, looked out over the packed room in the Carnegie Conference Center at Driver’s Village in Cicero, and said in quiet amazement, “This is the biggest banquet we’ve ever had.” Coming from Pilch, this is quite a statement due to the fact he’s probably attended more banquets than anyone else during his tenure as Syracuse’s director for almost 40 years. Close to five hundred people filled the room to support an organization that has been in Syracuse since 1974 and, of course, to hear from one of baseball’s greats, Darryl Strawberry, who played for both the New York Mets and the New York Yankees.
A nice touch to each place setting was a box of the “Original” Cracker Jacks right from the popular song, Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Participants also had the unique opportunity to participate in a silent auction on a wide variety of framed photos of celebrity figures including: Aaron Judge, The Big Three (Bird, Parish, and McHale from the Boston Celtics), Joe Namath, Joe DiMaggio, Derek Jeter, Tom Brady, James Dean (the actor), and even the famous racehorse, Secretariat. Don’t tell Judge that the starting bid for his photo was only $40 while Secretariat’s was $275.
Willie Ramos, the New York State Executive Director for the organization, was the master of ceremonies for the evening as the president, Jimmy Jack, was called hastily to the White House to confer with President Donald Trump concerning the current drug epidemic now facing our nation. After a brief introduction by Ramos and prayer by Tim Anderson, the founder of TC Ecuador, Ramos directed the large audience to the large screen on the opposite wall on which appeared videos of Jimmy Jack welcoming everyone, recent news reports of drug busts in Syracuse, and a brief message by President Donald Trump about America’s drug crisis. “There are more deaths every year now from drug-related causes than there are caused by automobiles and guns,” Trump said. After the sound bites, Ramos broke down the statistics. “There are 175 people a day who die from drug-related causes in our country, which means seven people die every hour… And we have the solution—Jesus Christ.”
Ramos also explained that all of the teen challenge centers in NY—Brooklyn, Long Island, Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo—are now under one umbrella called the New York Adult and Teen Challenge. Together, he said, they have 350 beds to take in people who want treatment. When asked why TC, which now has centers in 125 countries, has over a 70% success rate in helping addicts when traditional rehabilitation programs have so much less, Ramos said, “We have Jesus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” He also shared briefly how God had changed his life through Teen Challenge in a powerful way.
The Adult and Teen Challenge men’s choir then sang a heart-felt rendition of How Great is Our God with a single guitar accompaniment with a few short testimonies afterwards. Following the choir, Director of the Syracuse TC branch, David Pilch, presented the Alumni of the Year Award plaque to Barry Pendergrass. “Barry is the kind of guy who, like in the song, never gives a discouraging word.” Pilch went on to say that Barry continued to volunteer with TC to help with the re-entry program (getting TC graduates jobs and back into society) even after his spouse died of cancer five years ago and was a great support for the men at TC. Following the plaque presentation, Reverend Ernie Morrow and his wife, Dr. Cheryl Morrow, shared about the effectiveness of the Teen Challenge program and the importance of giving generously. Dr. Morrow shared about how a secular government study, done by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which set out to challenge the TC success rate, actually confirmed it as being true.
After another song by the Adult and Teen Challenge choir, Darryl Strawberry came to the podium. He prayed simply for the evening and then said with a smile: “I wasn’t always like this.” Several people laughed. He continued more soberly: “I was a liar, a cheater, a womanizer, an alcoholic, and a drug addict but I’ve been saved by grace.” Later he said of the old Strawberry: “That womanizer and drug addict is dead. It is no longer I who lives but God who lives in me.” He said candidly: “I’m from an alcoholic family so I was broken before I put a uniform on. My pain led me to my greatness but then my greatness would eventually lead me to my destructive fate…You see, when I put on a uniform I became a baseball player, but when I met Jesus, I became a man.”
Strawberry spoke of his praying mom and how his family had found her journal under her bed after she died at 55. “She had written, ‘Lord, save my children,’ he said. “Today, we’re all saved.” Strawberry credited his wife for leading him to the cross. He said: “I will be forever grateful for what she did, for God using her. You see God uses people to bring people to Himself to be restored and back to holiness.” He connected this point to the Adult and Teen Challenge of New York and how they put people in touch with God and disciple them as to “God’s Word and God’s ways”—knowledge he said he lacked even after coming to Christ.
In reference to baseball, he said, “I don’t even like baseball…I don’t even watch baseball…I don’t think God cared about all my homeruns, my trophies, or my tournaments. He’s concerned about how well is my soul and how well is your soul. What matters is God’s kingdom. The important question for all of us is: What am I doing to impact the lost around me?”
When asked what she thought of the evening, Claire Harshberger, an assistant art dealer in Cazenovia, said: “I am extremely glad I came with my dad who has been a mentor for the Teen Challenge men for the last seven years and seeing people so convinced they can help people in desperate situations. I see what they are offering is something that is life-changing, not just a Band-Aid.”