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August 2017 : YDI Comes to Hell Gate

Above: Aerial shot of New York City used as a promotional piece for Youth Development International, circa 1960

This August, the BGC Archives highlights the work of Youth Development International in East Harlem, New York, a ministry to at-risk youth established by Jim Vaus in 1959. A former electronic surveillance expert, Vaus worked as a wiretapper for both the Los Angeles Police department and LA mobster, Mickey Cohen in the late 1940s. Vaus' career took an abrupt detour in November 1949 when he converted to Christianity after hearing Billy Graham preach during his Greater Los Angeles evangelistic campaign. Shortly after the meetings, Vaus began his own ministry as an evangelist, speaking at regional Youth for Christ and Navigator meetings. Vaus detailed his harrowing work as a wiretapper and his dramatic conversion in his book Why I Quit Syndicated Crime (1951).

In 1958, Vaus' career took another detour, this time to New York City's most crime-ridden neighborhood in East Harlem. Popularly known as "Hell Gate," this square-mile stretch was notorious for its juvenile gang activity. Vaus himself had served a sentence in the Los Angeles County Jail for armed robbery and the glaring needs of East Harlem grabbed his attention. In his memoir, The Devil Loves a Shining Mark, Vaus recalls the impact of his first visit to Hell Gate: "I wanted to get inside of this and offer something more. Something other than just a life that would end because of a murder, a suicide, a gang bop, an overdose or, if violence misses, grind out slowly on the skid row streets"(90). Vaus relocated from Los Angeles to East Harlem where YDI was officially incorporated the following year after turning a vacant storefront into a Clubhouse for local youth. Vaus continued to minister in East Harlem for over a decade before returning to the west coast to launch youth camp ministries in California.

Above: Jim Vaus stands outside the Hell Gate Post office. In his memoir he describes how the 23rd Precinct in East Harlem got its name: "Many years ago, people noticed the the Harlem and East rivers became very tempestuous where the two intersected. They called it the Devil's Boiling Pot. Later, they called it the Gate of Hell. The adjacent land was known as Hell Gate. The name describes the way it feels live in that area" (88).


These photographs are found in BGC Archives Collection 693 Papers of Jim Vaus, which is newly opened to the public.

In addition to the records of YDI, the collection contains in material on Vaus' conversion, including a silent copy of the 1955 film Wiretapper, Vaus' use of electronics in evangelism, the Missionary Communication Service, and his later youth camp ministry and outdoor adventure programs in California.

Left: Jim Vaus reads the Bible with YDI Club member, Eddie Saurez. Collection 693 contains an interview with Saurez conducted by Jim Vaus, describing gang life in East Harlem and the effect of YDI on the community.

Below: One highlight of Vaus' early ministry with YDI was Billy Graham's visit to Hell Gate in 1960. Graham and Vaus remained friends following Vaus' conversion in 1949, and Graham enthusiastically endorsed Vaus' ministry in East Harlem following his visit. The Grahams even donated the soda fountain for the YDI Clubhouse.

Above: Billy Graham standing with local teenagers in East Harlem

Above: Billy Graham preaching in the YDI Clubhouse. Vaus recalls, "When he came to 2110 to talk to the boys, walk the streets with them, and visit their families he led many to change their lives for Christ" (111).

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Last Revised: 08/1/2017
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