DULUTH, Ga. – From hitting the night club at 3 a.m. to solicit money for charity to entering a drug-filled apartment to give hope to an addict, these new faces of American Christianity are boldly redefining what the followers of Jesus Christ look like in the next generation.
"The New Faces of Philanthropy," according to Catalyst – the nation's largest gathering of young Christian leaders – look like Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water and former night club promoter, and Jamie Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA).
Harrison and Tworkowski defy the stereotypes of Christians held by non-Christians (according to the book UnChristian) – judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. Rather, the two young men and a rising generation of Christians are hip, socially conscious, and passionate about being the hands and feet of Christ in the darkest places.
"For us, we believe that we're loved by a God who cares about people, and with that, cares about people's pain," said Tworkowski at the Catalyst conference on Wednesday. "Growing up, evangelism meant telling people about Jesus. Through [Pastor] Rick [McKinley of Imago Dei Community] it seems like it meant maybe we're supposed to hold our hand or our palm against the wound of a broken world."
In only three years, Harrison's non-profit, charity: water, has raised more than $19.5 million to provide more than 1 million people with clean, safe drinking water. He said he was shocked to learn how little charity funding goes towards building wells to give people clean water when that is the very most basic human need. He decided to devote his life to the 1.1 billion people who don't have access to clean water.
But Harrison's life prior to founding the non-profit organization is what makes his story so intriguing. He grew up in the church but was tired of all the rules and decided to leave at the age of 18 to see what else life had to offer. He quickly became a successful night club promoter in New York City by the age of 23. To get in his club, you either had to buy a $350 bottle of vodka or be the best looking girl.
However, his life took a sharp turn a few years later when he was vacationing in Mexico and was surrounded by women, drugs, alcohol and servants. It was during that trip that it suddenly hit him that he felt completely empty. Harrison then set out on a journey to find meaning in life, which led him to return to God. He spent two years onboard Mercy Ships, a Christian medical charity that offers free procedures on ships, in West Africa where he took photographs of giant tumors, cleft lips, and other maladies not seen in developed countries.
His experiences meeting people with extreme needs led him to found charity: water. The non-profit has the unusual policy of giving away 100 percent of donations, which Harrison admits has placed great stress on his staff to raise additional support for administration costs.
The former Big Apple nightclub promoter has also kept in contact with his nightlife friends. Many of his club friends financially support charity: water even if they are not Christian or concerned with philanthropy. He shared with a laugh that in the early days of his charity work he would go up to DJs at clubs 3 in the morning and show them photographs of Africans with giant tumors on their face asking for donations to fund the surgery.
"I've flown like 60 times this year and 30 of them were to our projects," Harrison shared Wednesday. "It is amazing getting to go back a year later and meet the same people who were asking for help with their water fountain a year ago."
"That keeps me going. I could get excited about water for the rest of my life," he said. "I never imagine that getting old, as long as I can stay grounded and go back and see the impact."
While Harrison is working on clean water, friend Jamie Tworkowski is making an impact for Christ in the dark realm of drug addiction, suicide and depression. Tworkowski's non-profit To Write Love on Her Arms began when he met Renee, a 19-year-old who was addicted to drugs and a victim of sexual abuse. In a desperate moment, Renee reached out to a group of Christian friends that included Tworkowski, who was a stranger at that point.
The group got her to agree to go into rehab, but she asked for one more night at home. That night, she locked herself in her bathroom and carved the word "F-*-*-*-U-P* on her arm. She had cut herself some 50 times before that night.
With a bandaged, bloodied arm, Renee and the group of Christians the next day went to the rehab clinic. But the budget-tight clinic turned her down, saying Renee was "too great a risk." So for the next few days, the group of young Christians rehabilitated her themselves by showering her with compassion, acceptance, and grace. Tworkowski said their goal was to replace her own self-image carved on her arms with the word love. Renee's struggle and full recovery inspired Tworkowki to quit his comfortable job in 2006 and start the non-profit To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA).
TWLOHA has the largest online audience of any non-profit on MySpace and Facebook, and has responded to nearly 100,000 messages and donated nearly $500,000 to treatment and recovery organizations.
Tworkowski shared Wednesday that 90 percent of the non-profit's income derives from sales of t-shirts. Hot Topic, the nation's top hipster t-shirt company, carries one of TWLOHA's t-shirts that quickly became the best seller.
Inside the t-shirt was the story of Renee and how she was healed through the "body of Christ." The story, however, was later modified to remove explicit religious references after Hot Topic discovered it and raised concern about the Christian reference.
"[Even] if I won the lottery, I would still want to keep doing this," remarked Tworkowski at a Catalyst lab session.
More than 13,000 young Christian leaders from across the country are gathering in Atlanta for the Oct. 6-8 Catalyst conference. Catalyst is meant to provide creative resources, inspire, and shape the culture of the church today. This year's theme is, "The Tension is Good," which means that fear and stepping out of one's comfort zone is good for building better leaders.
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