Coach Taurus James pauses action on the volleyball court to make a point about the importance of each word we speak.

The Power of Redeeming Words

words & photos by

Mick Haupt

A throng of Haitian teens plays volleyball across three grassy courts. The temperature is still slightly cool for a summer morning in Florida during July 2021. The teens speak a smattering of English, but also French Creole, a language of Haiti.

Unexpectedly, one voice yells, “You’re an idiot!” toward a teammate. A coach quickly runs over to a boy waving his arms furiously at the game in process, and calls all the teens to “hold up!”

The older man, affectionately known as Coach T, puts his arm around the young man as he trembles from fear of punishment from his elder. For a few moments the coach talks privately with the teen, then he turns to address the whole camp: “Words have the power to tear down or give life. Choose your words carefully.”

The loud and clear message hits home while sweat trickles down young faces across the field.

John Oliver, right, director of JAM Camps, helps mark out the volleyball courts with other Cru® staff members at the Winter Haven camp. John Oliver, right, director of JAM Camps, helps mark out the volleyball courts with other Cru® staff members at the Winter Haven camp.
El Shaddai Haitian Church hosted this JAM Camp as a way to connect with youth. “Haitian churches don’t usually have youth programs,” says Karen Akers of Cru Inner City “Their church services are in French Creole, which doesn’t connect with most youth. El Shaddai wanted to bridge that communication gap.”
Wraparound sunglasses add to Taurus’ coaching intensity. But the glasses are more of a necessity as he can only see accurately with his peripheral vision while everything centered creates too much glare for his eyes.

As Coach T speaks, his arm still around the teen’s shoulders, the young man begins to calm down. The coach’s encouraging words make all the difference. These words — born out of lifelong experiences — reflect the changes God made in the coach’s own life and is still making as he invests in the lives of others.

Taurus was labeled as a troublemaker throughout his Air Force Academy career, all stemming from one statement he made during his prep school years.

Words mark us, and words can follow us. Words can even haunt us. Coach Taurus James knows that well. But today, as a volunteer leader with Athletes in Action®’s JAM Camps, Taurus is living proof that God can redeem even the most powerful labels, the most troubling history.

Naomi Rust, an Athletes in Action® staff member, meets with the students in her group one morning. JAM Camps were originally designed to connect with inner city teen boys, so the letters of JAM Camp represented Jesus, Authenticity and Manhood. As teen girls were included, the “M” came to represent “Mentoring.”

Taurus is experiencing firsthand how God is redeeming an entrenched part of his story by revealing long-held, deep-seated biases. A profound hatred toward officers formed during his Air Force Academy years, yet Taurus couldn’t have imagined how God would bring redemption of his experience through the least expected of sources, a retired Air Force colonel.

Labeled as a troublemaker

Growing up on the rough streets of Southeast Washington, D.C., Taurus was determined to get as far away from that environment as possible. When an admissions advisor from the Air Force Academy called, Taurus jumped at the opportunity. Two weeks later, he was enrolled for a year of prep school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to prepare him for life at the Academy.

During that year, a group of Black cadets were sitting together in the chow hall when a white student came up and made a crude observation about them. Taurus retorted, “This is an A and B ‘conversation,’ so C your way out.” 

A week later, Taurus found himself in the commanding officer’s post, defending his comment. A thorough investigation exonerated him, but the label “troublemaker” stuck throughout his Academy career. It planted seeds that would cultivate a lifetime of anger toward people in authority.

The final straw in his Air Force Academy experience happened his senior year. As Taurus carried some items down a stairwell to his car, someone unexpectedly tried to stop him. In his anger, he shrugged off the hand. He didn’t know that it was an officer who had grabbed him.

This incident led to another investigation and charges of insubordination. Taurus’ anger reached its boiling point. He decided to resign. The commanding officer asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?” It was one of a handful of times he ever felt the slightest bit of support from a superior. Still, Taurus said, “Yes!” and walked out of the office.

Those four years at the Academy were formative for Taurus, but in the worst way possible. When he resigned during his senior year, he left with a visceral hatred toward officers because he never felt supported or helped by any.

In the years that followed, Taurus carved out a life for himself. He got married, held a variety of jobs and tried to make sense of his past. Even though he turned to follow Christ in his late 20s, his quick temper remained solidly rooted.


“I didn’t know how to process anger. I would resort to anger simply because of something I didn’t like; that’s how I was.”

Taurus James

It was an unending cycle that he seemed he could never break free from.

A turning point emerges

Years later, with Taurus now in his late 40s, a friend reached out to say she would be in Dayton, Ohio, for the Air Force Marathon. This friend invited Taurus and his wife over to the house of another friend.

The host, John Oliver, after just a few minutes told Taurus about JAM Camps, where John served. John thought that campers would listen to a man like Taurus. Initially, the acronym JAM represented Jesus, Authenticity and Manhood. As the program expanded to include young women, the “M” became Mentoring.

A few months later, Taurus found himself helping out at the weeklong camp for inner-city teen boys.

Between volleyball games, Taurus offers spiritual object lessons to his group of 50 campers while John Oliver looks on. The coaches periodically add new elements and rules to the competition to generate these lessons.
Taurus takes a moment to speak quietly with a young man on day two of the three-day JAM camp.

John told Taurus he would become JAM Camp’s lab director — setting up sport competitions for campers to reinforce lessons and coaching them for a culminating camp event called the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. 

Even though he was just getting his feet wet, Taurus was impressed with how John trusted people and believed in them. Over the course of several JAM Camps, Taurus’ level of trust in Oliver grew. He had never had a leader believe in him before.

John and AIA staff member Naomi share a moment of levity. Naomi hopes to bring the JAM Camp team to her home state of North Dakota, to run a camp with Native Americans.

“John would give people a task and set them out there to do it,” Taurus says. “He trusted people. He allowed them grace to fail and helped pick them up if they needed it. In the military I never experienced that.”


“John led in a different way than I’ve ever experienced.”

Taurus James

This kind of leadership was life-giving for Taurus.

During the spring 2021 JAM Camp in Xenia, Ohio, Taurus awoke to a strong internal impression: “You know he’s a colonel, right?” As Taurus processed these words, he could only think about John when suddenly it dawned on him. This was Colonel John Oliver. When Taurus found him later and in a roundabout way asked, “You’re Air Force Colonel John Oliver?” John just smiled.

John (right) connects with students over a lunch break while playing a few games of Uno.

Taurus was surprised to discover that his friend and mentor was Colonel John Oliver. A colonel is designated as a senior officer and holds the grade of Officer-6 (O-6), which is one step below grades listed as general. Colonels often command bases or serve as heads of staff in military staff agencies. A cadet who graduates from the Air Force Academy would begin his or her career at grade O-1 or O-2. It would take years to reach O-6. For John Oliver to be an O-6, he would have had an exemplary military career. This likely impressed Taurus, especially since John didn’t give off the vibe of being military. (Taurus’ wife, Trauna, is still in active duty in the Air Force. She holds the same rank John held when he retired in 2014.)

In the more than three years they’d now interacted, Taurus had no inkling that John was military. “If I had known John was a colonel, it would have affected my attitude toward him,” he says.

Taurus probably would not have jumped in to help at JAM Camps, he adds — because his disdain toward officers was so powerful.

This new piece of information was a turning point. The Spirit of God began unearthing long-standing biases inside Taurus.

A new event, the same challenge

John was just as surprised to learn of Taurus’ military history and his level of dislike toward officers. By then, the two experienced a deep mutual respect.

John says he didn’t notice a change in attitude once Taurus found out about their shared military background, but that Taurus continued “to bring his servanthood and selflessness to help JAM Camps run smoothly.”

Several months later, Taurus again joined John to help lead that JAM Camp event for Haitian teens in Winter Haven, Florida. They were joined by Cru® staff members from Cru Inner City, Unto®, City, High School and AIA. Karen Akers, who leads Cru Inner City’s Orlando team, thought this was a perfect opportunity for partnership.

As an object lesson, one teen does jumping jacks as a penalty for everyone else who broke rules on the volleyball courts. Ultimately, the coaches use this lesson to teach how Jesus pays the penalty for people breaking God’s rules.
Taurus (right) asks each student to say his or her name on video. The video will help him pray for students after the camp, but he also uses the moment to build on a spiritual point: Names have power and purpose.

Cru® Inner City began as an independent ministry under the umbrella of Cru in 1983. Its mission is to serve and mobilize the church to live out God’s heart for the poor, so all can grow in Christ to build spiritual movements everywhere.

Karen Akers, who has led Cru Inner City Orlando since 2005, shared this about how the JAM Camp partnership came into being between Athletes in Action®, Cru Inner City and El Shaddai Haitian Church:

“Pastor Dony St. Germain from El Shaddai came to a one-day JAM Camp we hosted in Orlando during spring break 2021. Once he saw how much the camp could affect the teens that attend, Pastor Dony knew he wanted to make this happen for his church. We immediately started making plans for a summer JAM Camp in Winter Haven, Florida.

“One of our goals in Cru Inner City is to come alongside our partner ministries as much as we can, in whatever way we can. Sometimes we do that by investing [in] tangible items to give away to their neighborhood — or in this case, by going and serving at their church. So our whole mission and vision is to resource, come alongside and encourage local ministries.

“To run this camp in partnership with AIA meant our small team wasn’t doing it alone, and to help a Haitian church meant a three-fold partnership.We helped El Shaddai jumpstart their youth ministry, and we were building generations of people knowing and living for Jesus. It was also a tangible way to get both adults and youth involved in outreach to their community. 

“Cru Inner City is all about trying to resource, train and come alongside a ministry to increase their footprint in their neighborhood, and to help them share Christ more easily and abundantly. I think we saw God do all those things.”

One night as the Cru staff team sat around talking after camp activities, Taurus sensed God speaking  to his heart, You know who is surrounding you? All the ones you have hated all your life. Over the years, the list of people he didn’t like had expanded to officers, older people and Caucasians.

“I haven’t been an active participant in the transformation if something was going on inside of me,” Taurus says. He readily admits his hesitancy to look honestly at his biases. I’m not ready to let that go yet, he thought. 

But God would continue to challenge him.


 “My problem is I haven’t always seen what God was doing in my life.”

Taurus James

Needing to take some time to reflect on the power of this moment, Taurus stepped outside the house. He thought back to all the ways John had treated him, believed in him and given him space to become a leader in his own way. Taurus started feeling a deep gratitude for the ways God was already changing his life.

Taurus became courageously willing to let God do His redeeming work in his heart.

Taurus speaks to the camp. Spiritual talks, where principles build upon each other, are sprinkled throughout the three-day camp — encouraging teens to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth.

“The biases continually try to rise up in me,” Taurus says, “but God reminds me those things aren’t who I am now. I have a choice to make: whether I’m going to engage them the way I used to or whether I’m going to live out the truth of what I know and who I know.”

The redemption effect

Taurus’ change affected others too. “The stuff God does in our life is redemptive and healing,” observes Karen. “He takes the wounded parts of our souls and mends them, if we allow Him to.

“If Taurus was in a space to confront his old way of thinking, it puts a question in front of all of us: ‘What are you going to do with what God is showing you?’ God is all about redemption, in whatever issues we are dealing with.”

It is normative practice in the military that officers don’t keep company with enlisted men and women. This relational and leadership separation developed out of a fear that if officers are friends with the enlisted, they might show favoritism instead of following the chain of command. To avoid the perception of favoritism and keep conflicts of interest at a minimum, the military developed this unwritten code.

However, this code can cause confusion outside military contexts, such as in church or during off-base social interactions. Add in the element of Taurus’ bias against officers, and his relationship with John Oliver might have seemed impossible. Yet this is the beauty of redemption.

John retired from active Air Force duty in 2014 and started JAM camps in 2017. By then, he was no longer operating relationally from the separation mentality and could offer friendship and mentorship freely. When Taurus came to him in 2021 with the question, “You’re Air Force Colonel John Oliver?” there was no perceived separation on John’s behalf. He treated people with respect and grace, and the way he treated people helped Taurus confront his biases.

“I was a picture of people he hated,” John says. Taurus had declared that to John’s face, believing that no Air Force leader had stood up for him. However, John adds,  “When he was able to connect the dots that said, ‘This is the type of person of authority that I had issues with, but I have been working alongside this individual and we have gotten along well,’ it seems he’s been able to put that issue in the past.”

John considers their partnership a great one — two men “completely in sync” in their work with the teens. "We both defer to each other at times. He loves to speak up front. All of these gifts which he has, none of which I have, and a heart to say, ‘John, I’m here to support you, whatever you need.’ He is very supportive and adds elements to JAM camp as we go along.”

In addition, after being  deeply wounded by words and labels in the past, Taurus now chooses his words carefully. ”Every word has a meaning,” John observes. “He doesn’t waste words when I engage with him . . . and doesn’t waste words in communicating the gospel.”

Karen Akers makes this observation about John and Taurus’ teamwork: “It was awesome, especially since I didn’t know there was a military imbalance. There was no imbalance of power and authority between them apparent during JAM camp. John is very humble and acquiesced toward Taurus’ leading of the Holy Spirit whenever he could.”

Karen speaks more about redemption: “Each of us is broken, and we all have our own issues that we need God to heal, mend and redeem. Cru is about redemption — fallible people striving to live out redemptive relationships that show a picture of redemption to the world.”


“The first step I can offer is being able to look at people with compassion and understanding.”

Taurus James

And Taurus wants to give a picture of redemption to the world.

“Anybody I meet shares the same plight as me,” he says. “Many people don’t know who they are. The first step I can offer is being able to look at people with compassion and understanding. . . . He wants me to just see them, to observe and notice God doing something.”

John sets up relays and races that force students to build on teamwork. This race features two students running forward and two running backward, all while competing against other teams.

“I won’t know how to help you unless I find out who you are,” he says, “and that takes time. JAM Camp drills home that I can’t help build into these kids without seeing them first.”

Words born out of redemption

Words haunted Taurus for years. The words Taurus spoke in a knee-jerk reaction when he was 17 labeled him a troublemaker. God is in the business of redeeming the hurtful parts of people’s stories. Taurus can see the difference in his own story.

“I bring what I hear to him, and he helps me analyze if it’s true,” he says. “So many different things that I’ve built up and God continues tearing them down.”

On the volleyball courts at the Winter Haven JAM Camp, Taurus appears commanding, even intimidating. But Coach T’s presence also carries something different: love. It’s the kind of love he can only pass on because he experienced it deeply. 

Numerous times during the three-day camp, Taurus reasserts his love for the kids. Taurus held his arm around one boy on the court while addressing 50 other sweaty teens. Something powerful was happening. Love was having its effect. As the scars of 17-year-old Taurus are slowly peeling off, he offers the words of life that he himself needed while growing up. His words hang in the air taken in by teens who will certainly remember, “Words have the power to tear down or give life. Choose your words carefully.”

Taurus is passionate about connecting with teens, often trying to give them the words of encouragement he didn’t get as a teen himself.

Next Steps

Taurus continues to work through his biases and hatred toward a place of forgiveness. Consider listening to this podcast on processing trauma and moving toward forgiveness.


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