Editor’s Note: Justin Mayo is the equivalent of a hurricane—he blows in, disrupts everything, and leaves behind an unforgettable impact. One big difference: His legacy is grace, not destruction. Justin, 32, founded a unique non-profit organization called Red Eye, based in Los Angeles and New York City, but with chapters in Sydney, London, Paris, and (soon) Milan and Las Vegas. He’s the son of Jeanne Mayo, longtime and legendary youth pastor, columnist for GROUP, and track leader at our Simply Youth Ministry Conference. Justin’s dream is to impact the young culture-creators in the creative hubs of the world. We started our conversation with a run-down of Justin’s last week—flying to Utah for the Sundance film festival, where he was supporting 33 of his Red Eye “crew” involved in films screened at the festival, then cross-country to Washington DC as an invited guest for the inauguration and meetings with the Obama administration on his humanitarian work, then back to LA for the birthday parties of two Red Eye-ers, ending up at a nightclub until four in the morning. And then he hauled himself out of bed and went to church, later ending his Sunday in gang-infested Heroin Alley, where he led a neighborhood outreach he calls Skid Row Karaoke. I interviewed him at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel, where he was hanging out with the actress who’d just finished a run as Mary Poppins on Broadway (another Red Eye’er) and a guy in a rock band who was fresh out of a recording session.
Rick Lawrence: You remember Highlights Magazine had a feature in it called “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” So if we applied that question to your schedule over the last week, the thing that doesn’t belong is: “I went to church.”
Justin Mayo: (laughs) Hey, it’s the truth, though! Too often the church says, “Hey, everyone should come to us.” But serving God is literally meeting people where they’re at. I think God creates places for people to belong, and then often the belief comes.
Rick: Tell me a little bit about the path that led to what you’re doing now.
Justin: Sure. After I finished my master’s degree in business management, I moved to Sydney, Australia, to work at an incredible place called Hillsong. I became the youth communications director—to be honest, I think I actually created that title. I just saw a need and started making stuff happen. Great things were opening up there, but I really felt in my heart that I was supposed to try to create this Red Eye nonprofit. It’s a community of creatives and young influencers in the entertainment business. They just want to have a safe place to belong and do life with people. Also, we give them more private settings to get into humanitarian work.
I grew up in an incredible family—both of my parents are from high-profile ministry circles and our family name is connected to a respected chain of hospitals. Often I had people who were nice to me because they wanted access to my parents. They didn’t really care about me. So I grew up feeling like people were using me, and I started thinking about other people who might feel like I did—people who are just looking for a real friend, too. So I thought about the hubs of influence in our culture—places like Los Angeles and New York. I thought there must be lots of influencing people there who are just looking for one real friend.
Rick: So what’s the mission at the core of Red Eye?
Justin: Red Eye is a community of creatives and influencers who are supporting each other while at the same time utilizing their platforms to give back and help those in need. Our three-pronged mission is Creativity, Community, and Humanity. We just want to create a safe community of influencers to support each other and give back to worthwhile causes. Lots of times people will see someone on a cover of a magazine and they’ll talk trash about them—“Oh, they’re so full of themselves.” And I’m thinking, “This person was just with me in a South Central housing project this past weekend, serving kids, giving away food, painting the nails of little girls and everything. But they don’t want the press—they’re doing it because they actually care.” So often these influencers just want a safe community—they just want a real friend. Our goal is to positively impact our youth and young adult culture by empowering those who are shaping it.
Justin: That’s a great question. “Empower” means literally trying to be there in someone’s time of need—to just be a real friend. Someone might be on a world tour, and I’ll fly to their most boring stop to try to make it exciting for them. Lots of these people go from city to hotel to interview and they just want to feel like a normal human being. They might be in the middle of all this crazy press about them, and they just want someone to hear their heart and their side of the story. Or they might want to just want someone to hang out with. I’ll be flying out to New York Fashion Week next week, just hopping between different fashion shows.
I know I’m not cool enough to be in these scenarios—I don’t know how to network the right way. But I believe that God opens these doors to provide a way for me to be a beacon of hope and life, and just be a real friend to people. Last week I was at this event with the First Family, and they asked me to sit where all the world’s ambassadors were sitting. Okay, the ambassadors of the world, and then me!? Who am I? It’s an honor just to be a regular ambassador of hope.
Rick: So a lot of people would say: “Hey, where does God enter the picture? When do you tell them about Jesus?”
Justin: Great question. Billy Graham once asked Bono, “Are you a Christian?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” And Billy Graham asks Bono: “You have such a huge platform—why do you choose to not be more blatant about that?” And Bono’s like: “I see it like this—if an apple tree is producing fruit, it shouldn’t have to have a sign on it that says ‘Apple Tree.’” And I think that people should see the fruit that’s growing and recognize what kind of tree it is. I never want to cheapen the message of Christ down to another sales pitch. I think, too often, people focus on things that distract and tear apart—what Red Eye tries to do is focus on a common thread, a message of love, because God is love. We try to treat everyone like the VIP that they are. I don’t care if they’re on the cover of a magazine or if they’re living on the streets of Skid Row. We’re going to treat ’em with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
Rick: So how is this thing funded?
Justin: Literally, it’s just random people who decide to step up. Sometimes a foundation will give us a check and say, “Hey we believe in what you’re doing.” And there are people like Mark Batterson, he’s a pastor out in Washington, D.C. He’s like, “I want to make an impact with you guys—I want to partner with you.” It’s just people who want to make a positive impact with these culture-creators. It’s a miracle.
Rick: What are some things you’re doing that are similar to youth ministry, and some things that are very different?
Justin: This generation is looking for ways to be socially involved with the needs of our culture. And I think lots of churches are realizing that the “Come to us, come to us” strategy might have some room for growth. The goal is to actually meet people at their point of need. Whether you want to call it social justice, humanitarianism, philanthropic work—I think people are realizing that this generation is focused on justice. They’re looking for something larger than themselves to be engaged in.
In the Bible Jesus met people where they lived—at their watering wells. And we’re trying to connect with people at today’s “watering wells.” Jesus went to meet Zacchaeus when he was hanging out with his friends, called “notorious sinners.” But that didn’t throw off Jesus. He’ll meet people where they’re at. And we want to be a generation that does things, not just talks about them.
Rick: If you were talking to a church youth worker who’s been frustrated in her efforts to engage kids who don’t show up to church, what advice would you give?
Justin: I’d say give them the honor and opportunity of being a part of something bigger than themselves. Give them a chance to actually engage where people are at.
Rick: Jesus commanded us to be “in the world but not of the world.” So you’re wholly immersed in the world—what have you learned about not being of the world?
Justin: Over and over my mom told me when I was growing up: “Where others may, I may not.” That doesn’t mean I’m better than someone else, but I understand some things are not right for me to do. My dad always told me to be a person of balance, but I think I get my balance from living life in extremes.
Rick: It’s fascinating to me that out of your experience growing up, where people were always trying to use you, that God has taken what was ugly and made it beautiful. He’s planted you in a subculture that is highly sensitive to ulterior motives.
Justin: Yeah, you’re completely right. Red Eye was a dream in my heart for maybe nine years before I even had the honor of going for it. But people questioned how I’d finance it, or questioned my motives. So I thought I must be a horrible person. I literally let the dream die. And then about a year later, the dream came alive in my heart again—a seed has to die before it can take root and grow.
Rick: Red Eye operates by a creed—can you describe that?
Justin: The first of our seven points is “Embrace Inconvenience.” Often the most divine moments happen at the most inconvenient times. The second is “Embrace Rejection.” I think too often people have a hard time when their ego gets hit. I believe God’s not out to hurt our pride; he’s out to kill it. Next is “Prepare for Unknown Variables.” Too often people stick too closely to the set plan. The next is “Remember That God Uses Small Things to Do Big Things.” We’re often too focused on what’s big, but God uses the small. Also, “Work Hard, But Play Harder.” You can have an incredible work ethic, but don’t be afraid to enjoy life’s journey. The sixth one is “Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable.” It’s not going to be easy. And the seventh one is “Be More to a Few, Rather Than Less to Many.” Sometimes people go for quantity over quality, but a lot of people just want one real friend. They don’t need another huge event. By empowering those strategic few we can make a positive ripple effect that impacts our whole youth and young adult culture. (To learn more, or to partner with Red Eye, go to RedEye.org)