HERMITAGE, TN – Clayton Gangji would have been 16 years old on June 6.
Yet, more than two years ago, Clayton was killed by gunfire at the age of 14 after being involved in a robbery involving stolen cars.
But as always, God can use evil for His good.
When Clayton was a young boy he lived in the same neighborhood as Vicki Hulsey, childhood specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
Hulsey, a member of Hermitage Hills Baptist Church in Hermitage, Tenn., began conducting a Backyard Kids Club about 11 years ago in her neighborhood to reach children who might not attend church.
Clayton began attending the backyard club at Hulsey's house and soon developed a close friendship with her. He returned year after year and eventually made a profession of faith.
That profession of faith is what Hulsey and Clayton's grandfather, Rick Short, find hope in, two years after Clayton's tragic and untimely death.
It's also the reason Hulsey is such a strong advocate for Backyard Kids Clubs, which take the Gospel outside the church doors into the neighborhoods.
Statistics reveal that the majority of people who accept Christ do so before age 18, Hulsey noted, citing Barna Research that indicates adults age 19 and over have just a 6 percent probability of becoming Christians. She added that a survey from the International Bible Society indicates that 83 percent of all Christians make commitments to Jesus Christ between the ages of 4 and 14.
Clayton is a prime example "of why it is so important to reach children with the Gospel," she noted. "What if he had not been reached?"
Clayton was the product of a broken home and though he moved in with his grandparents -- Rick and Jo Ann Short -- at the age of 5, he was scarred by what he was forced to witness. Though he lived with his grandparents, he maintained contact with his mother and father and did not always encounter positive influences.
When he entered middle school, Clayton was around older kids who also negatively impacted his life, Rick Short said. As a result, Clayton was arrested and spent time in juvenile detention shortly before he was killed.
"He was influenced by the wrong people and we weren't successful in turning him around," his grandfather said.
As one would expect, Short wonders what might have been.
"My wife and I think about what we could have done differently," he acknowledged.
Short said he finds hope in knowing that Clayton was involved in church and Backyard Kids Club and that he had professed faith in Christ. He said Clayton played a role in helping him turn his life around.
Short noted he had drifted from God and that he drank too much.
"In 2010, Clayton told me, 'Pop, you aren't the same when you drink.' That changed me," Short said. He immediately stopped. "I told Clayton he was the reason I quit drinking."
By all accounts, Clayton was a good kid with a passionate heart who always looked out for younger kids and those who might not have been the most athletic.
Hulsey was one of the speakers at Clayton's funeral two years ago.
"I'll never forget that day in 2015 when Clayton spotted me after church. He gave me his usual bear hug and then excitedly told me that he had accepted Jesus as His Savior. He wanted to follow Jesus and to be like Him," she recalled.
At the funeral Hulsey acknowledged that "Clayton wasn't perfect and I have no doubt that he made some bad choices. I also know that I'm not perfect and neither is any person in this room. But I do believe this. Just like He did with Clayton, Jesus sees who you really are. He knows your heart. He knows your worth, and He loves you no matter what."
She reminded his friends that though Clayton died, "God can bring about His purposes not only through Clayton's life, but also through his death."
And, in the two years since Clayton's death, Hulsey has found that to be true.
"I have had the opportunity many times to share his story across the state as I share about the importance of reaching outside the walls of the church," she said.
She once shared the story at a Weekday Early Education Conference sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
"One of the preschool teachers in attendance accepted Christ. She and her husband have since been baptized," Hulsey said.
She has had numerous people tell her that Clayton's story has inspired them to reach the children in their community.
"His story has motivated people to share the Gospel all across Tennessee," Hulsey said.
"His story captivates people," she noted. "God is still fulfilling His purpose for Clayton through his death."
Clayton's tragic death definitely has inspired his grandfather to continue to be involved in church and especially Backyard Kids Club.
"I'm committed to doing everything I can to make a difference in my other grandchildren's lives and other children in the community so they don't go down the path that Clayton went," Short said.
He urges "all parents and grandparents to action to watch for warning signs" and to take an active role in young lives to draw them to God and set the example to try to prevent other tragedies of young lives lost.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist and Reflector (baptistandreflector.org), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.