In his new role as minister of students for Brainerd Hills Baptist Church, Matthew Vandegriff isn't likely to hear anything he hasn't seen (or perhaps done).
As a youth involved in mischief, as a Chattanooga police officer, as a Hamilton County sheriff's officer, as a school resource officer and as a school resource officer supervisor, he's been around the block.
"Seeing that, having been in those situations, seeing people in desperate circumstances, you know there is redemption even from what seems like hopelessness," said Vandegriff, who had been interim youth director at the church on two prior occasions.
The third-generation Chattanooga-area cop recently turned in his badge to work with some 60 students in grades seven through 12 at the East Brainerd Road congregation.
Vandegriff said when he graduated from college, he wanted to work in law enforcement or the ministry, two fields his friends told him were at the opposite ends of the spectrum.
"To me," he said, "they never were. I feel like a lot of the issues we deal with in law enforcement come out of a seeking for something God has created us to seek. A lot of the needs students are seeking to fulfill with drugs and alcohol and sex and deviant behavior and gangs and crime are their seeking legitimate God-given needs, but they're seeking them in the wrong place."
Education: East Ridge High School, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (degree in human resources management).
Family: Wife, Erica; son Jackson, 4; daughter, Olivia, 1.
Q. How will your experience in law enforcement assist you in your role as a youth minister?
A. I've seen the worst people in the worst circumstances. ... So when I meet with students, I'm able to tell them, "You're not going to tell me anything that's going to shock me. Here's some of the things I've seen people do, students do. There's nothing you're going to say to me or confess that's going to make me think, oh, you're a bad person."
Q. Did being a school resource officer and supervisor give you additional experience?
A . ... Not many people go into policing to work with students. But the opportunity came, I took it somewhat reluctantly, was grateful for it. ... It was not what I intended to do with my career, and I ended up loving it.
Q. Are youth just as hungry for a spiritual relationship as they were when you were growing up?
A. I think they're probably more intensely hungry or are seeking a relationship than that age group has ever been. It's also different. I don't think that students are turned on by religion, by, necessarily, religious structures, or traditions or practices, or organizations, but they are seeking a relationship. And that goes back to that identity and connection. "Relationship" is so overused in religious circles right now. They're seeking a real, an actual, an authentic connection to something. Even if they haven't identified with what that something is, it's God.
"The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who could know it?" Jeremiah 17:9.
Prior to Matthew Vandegriff's law enforcement service (three years with the Chattanooga Police Department and seven years with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office), his father, Forrest, was a Chattanooga police officer from 1974 to 2001 and his grandfather, Elijah, an officer with the same department from 1957 to 1987.
FAVORITE TELEVISION SHOW
"Star Trek" (original series), 1966-69.