A youth leader draws inspiration from those who helped him navigate through trouble
“Most youth have roughly four to five people they allow to influence their lives at their core, whether positively or negatively,” Rodnei Williams says. “They’ll have Mom and Dad, a pastor, a really close friend, a celebrity or sports icon they follow, and a coach or teacher.”
Rodnei Williams bases this observation on his extensive involvement in the lives of youth as the director of youth ministries at Wellspring United Methodist Church and as an assistant football, baseball, and basketball coach and cosponsor of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) at Round Rock Christian Academy. This 28-year-old of many talents (he also leads his own touring worship band, the Rodnei Williams Band) has dedicated the past eight years to positively influencing youth in the sixth through twelfth grades.
Youth, Rodnei believes, are the “game changers” of this world, but they need a good road map for learning how to become adults. And Rodnei should know. He didn’t always have that road map—until others gave him one.
Rodnei moved with his Air Force family three times before his seventh birthday. When he was eleven, he moved for the last time, landing with his mom in Austin, but leaving his dad and two brothers. Through these often lonely years, his grandmother was his refuge. She pushed Rodnei to think about others who needed support. Rodnei recalls, “She would say, ‘How about you love someone else, and not just yourself?’ And then she would say, ‘And just so you know, that’s scripture!’”
When Rodnei was twelve, however, his grandmother developed lung cancer and passed away within a few short months. Rodnei was devastated. “When she passed, I got really cold,” he says. “I didn’t have anyone walking through that [loss] with me. I just held it in.” He went to Mass with his mother, but “during the week, I was someone completely different. I was wearing a mask.”
Rodnei began drinking. And drinking led to trouble. He lied to his mom—didn’t, in fact, “have anything nice to say” to her—and partied during the week. All the while, though, he felt something missing.
“After every time, I regretted [drinking],” Rodnei says. “But I found myself back into it because that was an easy choice, and I would just deal with the guilt later. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be, but I had an inkling that I should be better than this person who was showing up in front of me.”
This feeling didn’t catalyze change in Rodnei until he had a life-threatening accident when he was eighteen. He had a few drinks at a party and while driving home he rolled his car. “I knew I needed to wake up,” he says, but he didn’t know how.
During a visit with his dad, however, he found the answer. “[My dad] didn’t know what to say [to me] because he hadn’t been around,” Rodnei says. So instead of talking, he gave Rodnei the keys to his truck and said, “Get yourself right with God.”
The shaken teen took the truck to an empty field and spent some time thinking: “What am I doing here? Why am I allowing myself to fall here? God, I don’t know what you want to do with me, but I don’t want to be here anymore.”
Six months later, Rodnei sensed God’s reply. He was attending Mass with his mom when the priest read Proverbs 4: 23–27: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. . . . Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.”
“That’s when I learned to be a better follower, not a better Christian,” Rodnei says. “I was following all the wrong things and needed to be back on the path to follow the right things.” He prayed and gave God the “path” of his life.
He began to pursue the very legacy his grandmother left him years before: thinking about others. His rekindled faith helped him overcome his grief and loneliness.
Staying the Course
Yet despite Rodnei’s conversion moment, he found himself wandering. He explains, “God is your source, but you also need people around you who will lift you up on hard days.” Finally, in 2007, he met two people who helped him stay on the path he chose.
One was Clayton Hill, the football coach at Round Rock Christian Academy, whom Rodnei met while helping a family friend coach girls’ basketball. After just one meeting, Clayton asked Rodnei, who’d played football in high school, to work with a small group of young teens by leading a middle school huddle for Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“I felt very unsure,” Rodnei says. “Clayton really took a shot on me.”
Clayton’s direction proved helpful, however, Rodnei discovered that he had a knack for inspiring youth and he enjoyed leading chapel times. He eventually became a cosponsor of FCA at Round Rock Christian Academy.
“I felt like the Lord said, ‘This is where I want you. Take the brokenness that has happened [to you and] be there for students and help them to grow,’” Rodnei recalls. “I want them to know that someone is proud of them, and beyond me, God is proud of them.”
Kris Culter, a youth minister at First United Methodist Church in Round Rock, was another positive influence. Rodnei met her when he was filling in for a bass player at a Disciple-Now event, an area-wide Methodist youth event, after which she suggested that he apply for the Director of Youth position at Wellspring United Methodist Church. He was twenty-two at the time, with no prior experience. “I felt a tug in my heart telling me to do it,” Rodnei says, “so I went for it.”
Rodnei credits these mentors with helping him find his way. They became two of the five people Rodnei allows to influence him at his core. The other three are his grandmother, his previous priest, and a sports role model, baseball player Ken Griffey, Jr.
Rodnei has been a minister of youth for five years now and in that time has touched the lives of dozens of teens. “I want them to . . . know that someone is here,” he says, “that they have someone . . . to be there for them and encourage them,” during any trouble in their lives. “It’s so important to continue to lay a foundation during these years and hope that when they leave our environment, they find their way.” And Rodnei, his own road map in hand, is there to offer them a map.