Monthly Archives: January 2010

Destination Unknown

In 1982 when Missing Persons released the song “Destination Unknown”, I was a sophomore in high school. (Yes, I am really that old.)  I loved that song! I have always had a very high pitched voice and vocalist Dale Bozzio made quirky high-pitched singing totally cool.

I had a sudden urge this week to listen to that song.  The album was ruined in a flood years ago but thanks to lala.com, I was transported back to 1982 with the touch of a button.  I was 16 again and as I listened to the lyrics, I realized, not much has changed.  No, I am no longer that awkward small town girl who wondered if she would ever make it past the Lampasas city limits but my destination is still unknown and life is indeed very strange.

Destination Unknown – Missing Persons

Life is so strange when you don’t know
How can you tell where you’re going to
You can’t be sure of any situation
Something could change and then you won’t know

You ask yourself
Where do we go from here
It seems so all too near
Just as far beyond as I can see
I still don’t know what this all means to me

So you tell yourself
I have nowhere to go
I don’t know what to do
And I don’t even know the time of day
I guess it doesn’t matter any way

Life is so strange
Destination unknown
When you don’t know
Your destination
Something could change
It’s unknown
And then you won’t know
Destination unknown

You ask yourself
When will my time come
Has it all been said and done
I know I’ll leave when its my time to go
‘Til then I’ll carry on with what I know

Life is so strange
Destination unknown
When you don’t know
Your destination
Something could change
It’s unknown
And then you won’t know
Destination unknown

 

In a few months, my first book will be in print and this week I began working on the proposal for a second book.  I know if at age 16 someone would have told me I would be a minister in the inner city of Richmond Virginia working with homeless individuals and writing books, I would have thought them crazy.  Life is truly strange and I am thankful the destination is still unknown.

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Tracking Strange Creatures

Every chance I get, I retreat to our small cabin in the woods perched atop a steep ridge overlooking Fish Pond Creek near Prospect, Virginia.  Last week the snow and ice on top the ridge was nearly gone but the snow along the creek bed remained.  As I walked along the creek, I saw clear tracks in the snow; raccoon, deer, dog, tire tracks of a trespassing neighbors four wheeler.  I was able to identify all the tracks except the ones in the pictures above.  It looked like a bird track but it was very large (the yellow in the picture is a standard size post it note) but also deep indicating a heavy animal.  It has three long distinct “toes”, for lack of a better word.  So what is my strange mystery creature?  Other than its strange footprint, it left me no clues.

I came here to my cabin in the woods to spend some time reflecting and praying about where God is leading Embrace and myself in the coming year.  I fell into homeless services related ministry very much by chance.   I met a homeless woman while in seminary, she had a need, I met her need, she had a dream of helping others and together we set out to help others transition out of the shelter into their own homes.  For the past five years, I have been focused on “What we do”; offering furniture, employment assistance, transportation assistance, missions opportunities for churches and emotional and relational support to people in crisis.

However, today I am here reflecting on the question “What are we?”  That is a much more difficult question.  I am reminded of the old superman line “It’s a bird, no it’s a plane, no its Superman!”  From afar some would look at us and say Embrace is a “human services agency”, if you get a little closer you may think of us as a “mission’s organization”, but those that are closest to us see something even more mysterious, they see “the family of God on mission together.”  They see at the heart of Embrace what my associate sees as the perfect definition of the church; “a community of hope committed to the belief that love wins.”  The bible says you will know us by our fruit or in this case by the tracks we leave behind.

A few weeks ago our staff gathered for a time of sharing praise and concerns and the number one praise related to the relationships that we have with one another and with the communities we serve; relationships are our tracks.  If you spend a week with us, that is what you will see, relationships built on the belief that love wins, even in some of Richmond’s darkest communities.

If we were a pure “human services agency” the fruit would be measured in outputs and outcomes; number of families served, number of items distributed, level of family stability achieved.  While we care deeply about the families we serve and their well being, the heart of Embrace is not what we “do” for the families as much as it is our “being” present in the struggle with them.

As an Executive Director, part of my role is to figure out how to fund the work we are doing and funders want “measurable outcomes”.  I started off this fall trying to get my team to focus on measuring the outcomes they were producing so that I could apply for funding and it has been a real struggle.  My team just wants to love people and they don’t want to document it, measure it and report it.  The more I push to get them to function like a human services agency the more strife and unrest and division there has been.

But the reality is that if we do not produce, track and measure the outcomes, we cannot get foundation or grant funding and my little team will not be around to be a family next year.  So the market is telling me I have to look like a duck, walk like a duck and fly like a duck but Embrace is more like an platypus; part duck, part mammal or our case part human services part community of faith.  From the congregational side of things we hear that because we are not “Methodist” or “Baptist” or “evangelical” enough we cannot receive funds from some Christian groups.  So we are too Christian for secular funds and to secular for Christian funds.   I know we are producing incredible outcomes simply by bringing hope and light in to some of Richmond’s most underserved communities but hope is hard to measure and relationships are hard to quantify, market, and sale to funders.

Over the years, I have struggled with this battle to make Embrace easy to define.  Some wanted us to focus on the furniture piece and become a “Furniture Bank” arguing that we could better define our place in the market if we did that.  Others have wanted us to be more evangelical and focus more on bible study and “leading people to Jesus”. While both goals are admirable and good; neither captures the heart of who we are which is found in building relationships and community through shared mission.  The “what we do” or programs and activities are simply a means to an end.  My Associate Director, Joe Torrence, helped me see this week that the “outcome” is community; a place where love really does win.  Our Board Chair, Becky Qualls, helped me see that creating community around shared mission brings unity of the Body of Christ and that somehow God’s spirit moves powerfully when we are united across race, class, and geographic barriers thus unleashing a powerful movement of God’s spirit which all of us have seen but none of us can measure and report.

I have developed a real affection for that strange creature who roams my creek bed.  I kind of like odd ducks; creatures that stand out from the pack.  I think perhaps it is OK for Embrace to be that odd duck that simply defies identification.  If we can easily package ourselves in a nice tidy box, I know we would raise more money and I know we would have better name recognition and be able to market ourselves better and thus raise more money, but then we would cease to be what we are; an odd bird roaming the banks of poverty looking for those we can pull from the rushing waters.

I think odd ducks like Embrace are increasingly falling prey to funding challenges and we are a near extinct breed.  We are a throw back to the early days of Christianity before “human services agencies” existed; back when all people of faith saw it as their privilege and obligation to care for the sick, the poor, and the oppressed.  Our society has so focused on specialization that we have cut the heart and faith out of caring for the poor.  We have so focused on efficiency and productiveness that we do not take time to simply be present with one another.

I must confess, as an Executive Director this is my job; to produce the best measurable outcomes possible with the limited resources that I have.  However, the ED and the Pastor side of my role are constantly at war with one another and I have simply grown weary of the battle.  I give up!  I refuse to be an ED anymore and choose to put back on my Pastor hat.  If we suffer funding losses, loose some of our team mates to budget cuts, so be it.  I have to trust that this is all God’s doing in the first place and if we are meant to have all our team members in the coming year, I trust that God will raise up donors to help make that happen.

My hope is that some of you reading this may have an affinity for the platypuses and a longing for an expression of the Christian tradition that simply seeks to be faithful to the biblical call to care for the poor through presence, faith and love.  Please consider helping to preserve our species by becoming part of our family.  While we need financial supporters, we also need your prayers and your faithful service.  Are you an odd duck?  Do you feel called to join our little family and go on mission with us?  The first Thursday in March, we will start our next Unity Works session.

In Unity Works we will introduce you to the waters of homelessness and poverty in our city through the experiences of some of our odd family members who have somehow by the grace of God escaped those rushing waters.  Please prayerfully consider joining us on this journey.

My prayer this day is that over the next year, I am able to fully let go of the Executive Director role and be allowed to simply help build communities of faith where love wins and inspire people to join this family of odd but faithful birds.

By the way, if you know what creature made the tracks I found, please let me know!

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A Glimpse of Dr. King’s Vision

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King in his letters from a Birmingham Jail writes to his fellow clergymen, “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. . . All too many have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows. . . The contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. . .But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

What I have always loved about Dr. King is his passion for unity and commitment to bringing about that unity through love.  I belive this passage is written not out of anger or disgust, though I am certain those emotions were present, but out of true affection for the church and what she is called to be; a unified body striving to reconcile the world to God while reconciling humankind to one another.  I read these words and am saddened that some 47 years after Dr. King wrote them, many of our white suburban churches still look more like country clubs than the radical counter cultural early church and many who profess Christ still sit silently in the wings while their brothers and sisters are persecuted across the world and in their own city.  I write these words not because of a dislike of or anger at the suburban church but out of a deep love for the Body of Christ and a grieving spirit that wants so desperately to see this broken and fragmented body unite. 

Tomorrow is MLK Day and we at Embrace Richmond and some 80+ volunteers from both the suburban church and inner city communities where we serve will join hands and make Dr. King proud as we celebrate the amazing creative gifts of inner city children and the compassionate hearts of suburban youth.  Perhaps it is too late for my generation to live fully into Dr. King’s vision of unity but I know without a doubt our children will lead us into that promise land.  I can not wait to catch a glimpse of this vision tomorrow!

Please pray for all those serving through MLK Day celebrations across this country.  May we all remember the great sacrifices of Dr. King and embrace his vision of unity and justice.

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Has the Light Gone Out?

Several months ago my friend Charles and I were delivering school supplies to a church for inner city children living in Church Hill.  This community was named Church Hill because there is a church on nearly every corner; large stately churches that cast ominous shadows.  I mistakenly missed the turn to the church parking lot and was forced to make the block.  As I turned right on “T” street, it became obvious from the number of women standing on the corners that I had stumbled into territory belonging to the “working girls” and their “business managers”.  As I drove slowly past, Charles said “stop the car”.  He rolled down his window and struck up a conversation with a man who was leaning on a large stick.  As he approached the car, I could see the perplexed look on his face.  He knew Charles from the street, I am sure he was wondering what Charles was doing in a minivan with a white woman loaded with school supplies.  Charles just smiled at him, asked how he was doing and said “Man, I will have to catch you later, I got to get back to work” and we pulled away.

I asked Charles who the man was and he shared that he had been in The Healing Place, which is a recovery program, but had relapsed and gone back out on the streets.  He then educated me about how he made is living by selling his girlfriend who was on the corner across from him.  He offered her assurances that if anyone messed with her, he will kill them, thus the importance of the stick and his presence.

We turned the corner, pulled into the church parking lot but my eyes could not help but return to the half dozen women selling their bodies there in the shadow of Christ church.

“The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned”, the author in the book of Matthew in the 4th chapter claims that Jesus is the fulfillment of these words originally spoken by the Prophet Isaiah.  I have a question.  If Jesus is the great light to those living in darkness, has the light gone out?

If you stroll through some of the darkest corners of our city you will see some of the most spectacular church buildings ever built in Richmond.  But instead of being a light casting out darkness, many are abandoned and now their shadows only add to the darkness.

We have all heard that “the Church” is not a building but a people, so where are the people?  Sadly the truth is that the original architects of these churches have fled these communities out of prejudice and fear.  The Body of Christ abandoned not only their church buildings but also the people living in darkness in its shadow.

In my work, I visit many suburban churches and it seems that every one I visit is going through some phase of a building campaign.  They usually give me the grand tour, proudly pointing to an architectural drawing on the wall saying “We are in Phase 4” but in “Phase 8” we will have a gymnasium and a new family life center.  I listen to their sermons many of which are simply creative messages aimed at soliciting the funds needed to complete these grand complexes.  I wonder, will they one day abandon these as well?

When I look at the church budgets, I see 30%-50% of the budget going toward buildings, with less than 1% going toward caring for the local poor.  And I wonder, “Why is it so dark in the shadow of the church?”

So how can we restore the light?  Matthew also gives us the answer to that question in Chapter 5 vs. 16 “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”  The Body of Christ must carry the light into dark places, to the women on “T” street, to the men purchasing their services, to the dealers selling the drugs, and to the children who witness the violence of it all.  We do not carry the light with our words; according to Matthew it is in our “good deeds” that the light shines the brightest.

I asked Charles what we could do for his friend on “T” street and he said “I just did it.”  I looked at him puzzled and asked “What did you do?”  “I let him know that I still care about him and I showed him that the program works simply by me being with you, working an honest job, I am bearing witness that God has saved me and can help him when he is ready.”  Charles is a very wise man.  Sometimes our simple presence in dark places is a light to those living in darkness.

Let us remember Jesus who was and is “The Light of the World”.  I pray you will choose to become little children and live the words we have all sing but seldom embody “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine , let it shine.”  Don’t let Satan snuff it out with fear and lies, don’t hide it under a basket, but choose to hold it high so that it drives away the shadow of darkness and brings hope to a hurting world that thinks the light has gone out.

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