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!