Many nights as a boy, Ian Danley woke up to find a stranger in his room, sometimes in his own bed. His parents, Kit and Wayne, had moved into a primarily Latino, poverty-ridden neighborhood between 19th and Van Buren on the west-central side of downtown Phoenix. They opened their home to kids who were in trouble or had no place to go.
Such surprises were an essential part of his mother's work directing Neighborhood Ministries (NM), a Christian outreach to urban residents, mostly Latinos. The "Barrio Mom" (who topped a CT article titled "100 Things the Church Is Doing Right!") founded NM in 1981.
"That's just how we lived," says Danley, 31, now NM'S youth programs director. "There were young people with us all the time—on the couch, on the floor, in my room, wherever."
Danley is following a path similar to his mother's (still NM'S president), sharing her passion for ministering to Latinos, who compose 41 percent of Phoenix's population. But with a master's degree in public policy, Danley has translated his parents' hands-on ministry into advocacy. A vocal proponent of immigration reform, he ensures that youth at NM learn leadership skills and get the support to graduate from high school and enroll in college. Last summer, teens from NM convinced 500 locals to register to vote; Danley expects similar results this summer.
"I'm a community development youth pastor," says Danley, who works with about 200 teens weekly. "We do traditional youth group stuff—Chubby Bunny, going to camp—but we also organize young people for civic engagement, addressing the challenges of our community. Encouraging their leadership potential is one of the most exciting parts of my job."
Warren H. Stewart, senior pastor of First Institutional Baptist Church, calls Danley "a diamond in the desert for the kingdom of God. He is committed to Jesus Christ and justice, and he and NM exemplify that in their mission and ministry, especially to immigrants."
It's not a role Danley sought. What was a fun childhood adventure turned into a nightmare in junior high, where he was the only Anglo.
"I got beat up pretty much every day," he says. "For this one gang, it was like I was their little mark, a target they could work out their issues on." One day, some of Danley's NM friends saw him being bullied and launched into action, rescuing him from the fray. They said, "Don't mess with him ever again." The bullies never did.
"It was often painful, literally, to be that person on the boundary of change," says Danley. "But it was radical and beautiful too. I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Still, when Danley went to the University of Southern California, he "wanted to be normal, so I tried my best just to be a 'regular white kid.' I was trying to find my identity. NM wasn't exciting to me at that time; I hadn't embraced it yet." But he didn't fit in with many of his Anglo college peers: "I didn't have the same values. I didn't want to move to Newport Beach and work in finance. That doesn't sound transformative. Nothing wrong with that; it's just not who I am."
Danley and wife Shiloh recently bought a house down the street from NM, and they're both deeply involved in the ministry.Today, he is expanding that ministry by running for a seat on the Phoenix Union High School District Governing Board, which oversees 16 high schools and 26,000 students—75 percent of them Latino. For the November election, Danley is running on a "students-first, community rooted" platform. "I want to bring parents and students to the table, empowering them to be involved in the life of our community and our schools.
"Many of our students live in the shadows, and the only place they can step out is in school. So the school becomes ground zero in a lot of this work. Running for the school board is just taking our big-picture approach to problem solving to the next level.
"These are our schools and our neighborhoods, and God has given these to us to protect. I want to help make sure the board is accountable to people they don't usually hear from—and to make sure they deliver on their promises."