COLUMBIA — Jesse Schrader was once a promising basketball player at Truman State University. Now he sometimes sleeps on the streets of Columbia. He’s never been happier.
Last year, Schrader, 21, gave up his basketball ambitions at Truman State in Kirksville, transferred schools and now participates in a homeless ministry at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly.
For years, basketball was the main focus of his life. He was a prominent player at La Plata High School and was recruited to play for Truman State. There was even a possibility of playing ball overseas after college.
Schrader was on a career path similar to that of his father, Jack Schrader. He played professional basketball in Spain and coached for 36 years, 16 of those as head coach at Truman.
“All my identity and hope was in sports, was in basketball,” Jesse Schrader said. “It dominated my life for a long time. But I didn’t want it to.”
He said there was pressure to play, but it never came from his father.
“Basketball was a large part of the high school he was at — they were very successful,” Jack Schrader said. “He had talent, so I guess it was expected that he use those skills.”
When Jesse Schrader went to Truman in the fall of 2008, he had a plan. In five years, he would graduate from the exercise science program with a master’s degree in education and would play basketball for his father.
Soon after Schrader started at Truman, however, he ran into difficulties. Although he excelled academically, he found it difficult to relate to his teammates and peers. He was the only freshman on the team; the rest were juniors and seniors.
“The first semester was really hard,” he said. “Just adjusting to a new place, new people, was tough. My teammates were kind of into the party scene. They were good guys, but I didn’t fit in still.”
A foot injury hindered Schrader’s ability to play. Tendon problems required him to wear a boot and miss five months of playing time.
Schrader said he had dealt with anxiety and depression while growing up, and the isolation he felt at Truman caused those issues to resurface.
"I was crying out to God and other people to try to help me out,” he said.
Discovering campus ministry
Schrader sought counseling and had long talks with his father. One day, a friend emailed him about going to a campus ministry session at Truman, and, after some thought, Schrader checked it out.
The decision led him not only to a change in schools but a change in the direction of his life.
Although he had considered himself a Christian, Schrader hadn't gone to church regularly, and he hesitated before agreeing to take part in the discipleship group.
“I was scared to death because my life was a mess,” Schrader said. “I didn’t know much about the Bible, so that was kind of weird, but I always had lots of questions.”
The group met weekly to talk, read Scripture and sometimes pray.
“We just talked about life, really vulnerably, really openly,” he said. “I had never experienced something like that before. I don’t think many people have, actually.”
From the first meeting, Schrader started losing interest in basketball. He spent more time attending discipleship. By the end of summer, he had no desire to continue his basketball career and wanted to transfer to a Bible college. But he had already signed an apartment lease and couldn’t back out. He was disappointed but came to terms with staying on at Truman.
“I knew I was supposed to stay one more year just to learn and grow,” he said.
Developing a new passion
Schrader transferred to Central Christian a year ago and is about to start his senior year. He and his housemates are active in the homeless ministry program, one of the many student-led ministries at the school. The homeless program makes trips to Columbia to talk with people living on the streets about their lives and struggles.
“There’s drugs, there’s prostitution, there’s everything going on in Columbia,” Schrader said and shrugged. “I don’t know if everyone knows that, but it happens.”
Schrader said students active in homeless ministry have to dedicate a lot of time to make a difference. During Columbia trips, he and the other students often spend the night on the streets with the homeless community. Their goal is to build strong relationships with those they’re trying to help, and they see this as the best way to achieve that.
“It’s really important to be able to be consistent and persistent in going down every week to build relationships,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s just an encounter. An acquaintance doesn’t really do much.”
Schrader and his housemates have taken the homeless ministry a step further, opening their home to men trying to get off the streets and rebuild their lives.
“Maybe you’ll have a good conversation with them, if you can, if you happen to see them one night a week,” Schrader said. “But then the rest of the time, they’re around all the things they struggle with.”
By offering the men a place to stay, it gives them a chance to get away from their negative environment. Since September, three men have temporarily lived at the house, and one is currently living there.
Schrader understands from experience the difference environment can make, but his father thinks the young man's core has stayed the same in the face of a big transition.
“I think the direction is what changed, not the personality,” said Jack Schrader, who retired from Truman after the 2010-2011 season. “Jesse’s always been intense at whatever he puts his mind to. He’s pretty task-oriented; if he’s going to do something he’s going to go all out."
Jesse Schrader has no regrets about leaving his life on the court behind — he rarely even plays basketball anymore.
"I've told people what I used to do, what I used to be like, what I do now," he said, "and they don't believe the old life."