by Becky Hobbs
Photos by Eduardo V. Gyles
George Sanker still remembers the day in 1984 when the landlord evicted his family from their inner city home in Washington, D.C. He was sixteen that summer afternoon when he rounded the corner and saw everything they owned sitting in the front yard. He still recalls the pain of losing cherished childhood possessions forever. While the family tried to salvage some things, they had no place to store most of it. He still relives the fear of having no money, the confusion of staying in a different house each night for months, the embarrassment of having no clothes.
Best Men is an outgrowth of the highly effective sexual abstinence program Best Friends for adolescent girls, begun some thirteen years ago by Elayne Bennett, wife of former Secretary of Education William Bennett. Today the program is in twenty-six cities and ninety locations.
Those who know him at RTS believe George will have a dynamic ministry. "George is a dear brother in the Lord and an anchor for the Washington/Baltimore program," says Dan Claire, Director of Admissions and Dean of Students at RTS/Washington. "His ministry experience in the school and the university has given him an extraordinary ability to integrate his beliefs into daily life. It is a pleasure to have him with us as a seminarian."
To oversee Best Men, George will have to relinquish his duties as the only Protestant chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown University in Washington, where he is seeing much success. Living in the freshman dorm, he ministers to the twenty-five per cent Protestant students attending the school.
"My time at Georgetown has really stretched me and taught me how to articulate my faith," he relates. "In a C.S. Lewis reading group that meets every Monday night, I have an opportunity to dig into some deep biblical issues with Catholics, Protestants, and agnostics. I also hold a regular Bible study for two or three students a couple of times a week. I've also had a number of opportunities to minister to various students at random times."
GROWING UP IN TWO WORLDS
How does an inner city kid end up at Georgetown? Although he grew up in poverty, George's childhood was far from the norm for most inner city kids; in fact, sometimes it seemed that he spent his days being white and his evenings being black. Born to his parents twenty-one years into their marriage, he was an only child. He never remembers his father working; George was simply glad to have a father in residence, something most of his neighbors knew nothing about. His mom worked as a maid in an affluent Maryland suburb, and from the age of three she took him with her to work. For years, he grew up playing with her employers' children during the day and returning to the inner city each night on the train. His mother's employers considered them so much a part of the family that they even allowed her to use their address when it came time to put George in school. And so it was that George Sanker became the only black boy in an all-white elementary school each day, only to come home each evening to an all-black ghetto.
"I lived in two worlds at one time," confesses George, "and I felt like I never really fit in either one. I liked to pretend that the home in the suburbs was mine. When the parents went away for the weekend and Mom babysat, I could invite some friends from school to spend the night there, just like it was mine. But being exposed to this posed a lot of questions for me, like 'Why do these people live so well when we're so poor?'"
Oddly enough, the white children at school accepted George easily. He was good at sports and friendly. Yet, his real inner city home posed problems for him. Kids there didn't like him because he thought and talked differently. More and more he retreated to his room with his beloved books and games to play by himself. Except for an occasional game of basketball or football, he had very little to do with his inner city neighbors.
But life changed drastically for him in the seventh grade when his mother's employers moved away from Washington. With her job gone, the family was in desperate straits. Determined to help, George got a job delivering 300 papers at four every morning. Even worse, he was forced to enter an inner city public junior high school near his home. Most days he spent wondering if he would live to see the next.
"Those were the two most challenging and frightening years of my life," recalls George. "I went from an all-white, safe and secure cocoon to an all-black environment where kids beat up people in the bathrooms every day. I didn't learn very much during that time since the teachers had to spend so much time disciplining students."
However, in God's providence, between the eighth and ninth grades, George was involved in a Higher Achievement Program for bright students and was offered a scholarship at Gonzaga, a private Jesuit high school. He very quickly entered sports and ended up as captain of the football team his senior year. By the time he graduated, he had received a number of awards related to character and integrity and was always there when kids needed to talk.
The big schools were all recruiting him for football scholarships, but after an injury his senior year, most of the scouts disappeared. However, Colgate University and West Point both offered him scholarships, and he chose Colgate, where he had "a tremendous academic experience."
In addition to playing football for four seasons, George became president of his fraternity his senior year. But his spiritual life was stagnant. "I thought I was a Christian," he confesses. "I went to church and was a good kid whom everyone admired, but it wasn't real to me. I even taught a high school Sunday School class after college, but I wasn't a Christian."
A hard life had already taught George that he could overcome most challenges by sheer determination; who needed God? Success lay ahead of him for the taking (or so he thought), and his belief was confirmed when he was accepted early for a plum job with the Central Intelligence Agency as an analyst on Southeast Asia. But dark clouds appeared on the horizon when he began dating a young woman on whom he had had a crush since the tenth grade. After some problems in the relationship, he found out that she had become pregnant by another man. Convinced that most of the previous men in her life had had a negative impact and that he should stand by her, he eventually married her at twenty-three and began helping her raise her little daughter, Kia. He knew he could change her -- had determination ever failed him?
It was a big mistake. Tension filled the air from day one, and after a few years, all sorts of problems arose. Finding she was pregnant again, she wanted an abortion, but George would not hear of it. By the time their son, Kendrick, was one, she wanted out of the relationship and went so far as to have George thrown in jail overnight on a trumped-up charge of abuse. The case was immediately thrown out of court, but the damage to his job at the CIA had been done. He was fired and almost lost his house when he couldn't afford the mortgage. The ensuing depression took off thirty pounds as he surveyed the wreckage of his life.
Casting about for something to do, George began helping a friend who worked with Washington inner city teens in the areas of self-esteem and self-improvement. Despite being broke, he loved training the kids in school, and God began building the groundwork for his present position with Best Men. His friend had just become a Christian and spent the next year building George in the faith and helping him get rid of old beliefs.
In August, 1995, another friend just happened to ask why George didn't apply for a teaching position at Gonzaga. Never thinking that a school would be hiring in August, he called anyway and a teacher had just quit! George taught algebra and trigonometry the next year and found that he loved it.
A little later another friend introduced him to The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul and gave George a huge list of recommended reading. Eager to know more, George went to a warehouse in Maryland shortly thereafter and spent $150 -nearly his whole paycheck -- on Christian reading. Soon he met a pastor who introduced him to the writings of J.I. Packer and the Reformed faith. Eventually the Lord led him to Kevin Smith, a black pastor who was starting a church in the Washington area.
"Kevin became my mentor, teaching me the book of Romans," says George. "I was really hungry to grow, reading everything I could get my hands on and trying to understand the Christian faith. Later I assisted Kevin in the leadership of Mount Zion Covenant Church."
George finally ended up at Fourth Presbyterian in Bethesda, Maryland, pastored by RTS Ministerial Advisor Dr. Robert Norris. With encouragement from church members, he took a C.S. Lewis class at RTS/Washington and was intrigued. Frank Young, Executive Director of the Washington campus, inspired George to begin seminary in the spring of 1997. Since then he has taken as many classes as possible each semester while continuing to teach at another school, Washington Christian Academy. The position grew into a comprehensive Bible and theology teaching experience that whetted George's appetite for youth work.
"Even though I taught theology at WCA, I spent thirty per cent of my time counseling students spiritually and emotionally," reveals George. "I saw a real need for a pastoral position dedicated to the spiritual development of the student body at a high school level. Statistics claim that we are losing about fifty per cent of our Christian teens when they go to college because they stop going to church. Much of the reason is that no one is willing to dig into their lives, to be mentors. I love to challenge kids about their faith, about the condition of their souls; I tell them I thought I was a Christian all my life until I realized how much I did not have."
George plans to continue his work toward a Master of Divinity degree and then an advanced degree. He would like to see more African American Christians writing commentaries and systematic theologies.
"Many black preachers deal with racial reconciliation," observes George. "While there is nothing wrong with that, I would like to see more black Reformed scholars adding zest to our faith."
George also plans to fit in a wedding this summer to Jeannette Scheiter from East Germany, whom he met at Washington Christian Academy. And, happily, his son, Kendrick, who lives with George, is excited about the wedding.
BE A BEST MAN
As Executive Director of Best Men, George will work with school principals, tracking young boys from elementary school, through middle school, and finally to high school. The program is even working toward college scholarships. The school must allow Best Men trainers to teach the boys for ninety minutes every three weeks. The class covers many aspects of character development -- friendship, dating, and the entertainment industry. Other aspects include a weekly physical fitness program featuring karate and other competitive sports. The boys will also participate in quarterly cultural activities and carry out various community service projects.
George is excited about the Best Men curriculum because it is so unique. "Most character development programs are inner-directed, focusing on teaching self-esteem or self-respect, but that's not the answer. The key is in teaching kids how to be other-centered; instead of a child seeking to regain self-respect, he focuses on becoming a person who is worthy of being respected. There's a world of difference. Our motto is 'Challenging boys to become men worthy of respect.'
"Most of the decisions these kids make are based on getting the respect of someone -- a girlfriend or the gang. We teach them to identify the qualities of a 'best man'; someone who challenges them to be better and who has the characteristics of one worthy of respect. Naturally, we point them to Christ as the supreme example of a 'best man.'"
Who knows? George may end up sitting in another young boy's front yard amidst his family's possessions, drying the lad's tears as he helps him sort through what to take. But this time, the healing hand of Christ will be there, and George will minister the hope for new life that it took him so long to learn.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 2