Pastor Joel Swanson of Walnut Creek Highland Park has led various teen ministries for eight years, but none of those years has been quite as bittersweet as this one. His oldest of six children will be graduating from Hoover High School this spring.
Bethany Swanson, an 18-year-old with a wide smile, has grown up watching her father Joel minister to spiritually lost people her entire life. Bethany came to her senior year following in those footsteps.
Over the years, the Swansons have banded together with many Christian families and volunteers from Walnut Creek Church to outreach to Meredith Middle School and Hoover High School. Amidst youth groups and before-and-after-school programs, the most surprisingly impactful group has been the Hoover girls’ cross country team. “We never actually thought about cross country as being a mission field,” Joel said. “Bethany just liked to run.”
As a freshman on the team, Bethany saw an opportunity to build a strong band of runners that could possibly impact their peers for Christ. She began asking Christian students at Hoover and home-schooled kids from Parent-Teen Ministry to consider joining the team.
“Our team was very small, so we tried to recruit people who we knew would have good work ethics,” Bethany said. “When they joined the team, it became easier for us to get people excited about coming to youth group and church events because we’d worked together to build trusting relationships with them.”
One such recruit knew right away that the Lord had given her this opportunity. Rachel Amann, a sophomore on the cross country team, is home-schooled and taking one class at Hoover.
“I went into it with the goal of being able to reach out to people,” Rachel said. “Since there were a lot of Christians already on the team, it made sense.” Growing up in the church offered few opportunities for Rachel to invite non-Christian friends to church events.
Since joining the cross country team, the girls have made it their mission to be encouraging and inclusive to their teammates. “I’m thankful to now have a mission field,” Rachel said. “I want my church friends to stay my strongest friends.”
With roughly 30 runners on the team, the girls have seen many examples of Christ’s movement, especially in building team unity. Pushing through difficult practices and battling nerves together before races has turned the team into a family.
The girls even rally together to pray before each race. “It is a big witness for Christ,” Rachel said.
In years past, Bethany would run to her car in tears about a poor performance or often grumble about unmet goals. This year, she has made a conscious decision to take the focus off herself and rather, pursue people. Running in her big sister Bethany’s footsteps, Lydia Swanson is on the middle school cross country team. Bethany has become a big fan of her sister.
“At last year’s State cross country meet, Lydia took two minutes off her normal time! I was so proud of her,” Bethany said. “Seeing my sister break this physical barrier was an amazing victory from God.” Through discipleship of her sister and other young girls, Bethany has realized she is free to find joy in others’ difficulties and accomplishments.
“Bethany shows the right attitude that a Christian should have toward the world,” said teammate Kaitlin Math. “She makes being involved fun.”
Joel is proud of his daughters and other Christian teens who are working daily for God’s Kingdom. “This life with Christ is not about reaching goals but about providing opportunities for these kids in their journeys to see who Christ really is,” Joel said. “None of my peers said anything to me about Christ in high school."
“This life with Christ is not about reaching goals but about providing opportunities for these kids in their journeys to see who Christ really is."
Along with church events, small-group parties, and Bible studies where they’ve shared the Gospel with their friends, the girls strive for their lives to reflect that same truth on and off the track. “Kids may know ‘the Jesus story,’ but I don’t think they see a lot of people living it out,” Bethany said. “We know that they see our attitudes.”
In a society where self-centeredness and negativity are commonplace, the girls’ desire is to exemplify true Christian servanthood and love, leaving a lasting impact that Lydia and her friends can continue.
“When I joined the cross country team in 8th grade, I joined it to run,” Bethany said. “I didn’t think I would have an impact.”