Monthly Archives: March 2011

Just Get a Job!

Phoenix Downtown 9photo © 2010 Jonathan Wade | more info (via: Wylio)We have all heard –and perhaps spoken–the phrases, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “You get what you work for,” “Hard work pays off,” and “Live the American Dream.”  We have all driven past men and women in our city intersections holding signs that say “Will work for food” or “Homeless. Please help.”  Probably the sight of them has sparked in us some combination of pity, guilt, and disgust.  Many of us have thought or said, “Get a job!” as we speed past, avoiding the sign-bearers’ desperate eyes.  Most likely, we are not so much heartless or uncaring as confused and frustrated.

In a society where there is supposedly equal opportunity for all, why are some unable or unwilling to work for a living?  Why would anyone choose to beg on a street corner when there are homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens throughout our cities?  We are doing our part, we reckon, by giving to the local shelter, praying for these men and women, and serving in the local food pantry. Yet the problem persists.

I started out working with the homeless population in Richmond in 2004, and continue to provide economic opportunities to more than 15 homeless and at-risk individuals per year through our AmeriCorps program.  Through the years, I have come to realize that the only true way to end homelessness is for people to work.  I also came to realize that unemployment was not just a problem for homeless individuals but the infinitely larger population of those living in poverty in our city.

I spend much of my time these days with the folks who live in the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) public housing complex of Hillside Court.  Less than 25% of the 446 households report having any form of employment income.  For those who do report employment income, the average annual wage is roughly $13,000.  The average household income for all households in Hillside court is $8,600.  Hillside is not unique.  It has only slightly lower employment and income when compared to other RRHA communities. There are a total of 3,605 households living in the six RRHA public complexes in our city.  Only 831 of those households report employment as their primary source of income.  That means these communities have a 77% unemployment rate!

Of course this is not the whole picture.  71% of the households do have income from government funded programs.  14% receive public assistance largely in the form of TANF (temporary aid to needy families), 25% receive social security income for a disability, 17% receive social security income because of age, and an additional 14% receive other forms of social security income which I am assuming is for disabled children for a total of 57% of households receiving social security.  Only 54 households have no reported income.

Perhaps you are wondering how people live on $8,600 per year.  The answer is incredibly low rental rates.  The average rental rate in RRHA public housing is $177 per month which includes all utilities.  Basically, without RRHA public housing those living exclusively off of social security and public assistance would have no place to go and would likely find themselves on the street corner or in the homeless shelter.

There are a total of 8,959 “official” residents in RRHA housing complexes, 4,631 of which are children under the age of 18.  I say “official” because for every “official” adult resident there is a sister, son, cousin, boyfriend living in these apartments off the books.  My guess would be that there are well over 1,000 unofficial residents in who call RRHA public housing complexes home. Just for the purposes of comparison, the total estimated “homeless” population in our city at any given point in time is around 1,000 adults and roughly 150 children according to Homeward’s most recent point in time count. Compare this to the roughly 10,000 individuals who call RRHA home. So every time you see someone begging for money on the street or hear a plea to help the homeless, remember that there are more than 10 unseen individuals whose financial picture is only slightly brighter.

It should be no surprise that the number one request we receive from the residents of Hillside is that we help them gain employment.  For the past month we have been doing a series of “listening” meetings around the topic of employment to try to figure out exactly how we can help our friends get jobs.  As you can imagine there are a number of barriers facing our friends.  These include – lack of education, lack of childcare, lack of transportation, lack of experience, lack of access to computers and on-line job resources, lack of phones, lack of knowledge about open positions, lack of interviewing skills,  lack of motivation, lack of a resumes, felony convictions, lack of identification documents, and the list goes on and on.

After listening long enough to get a clear picture as to why 77% of our residents did not work, we asked them to pick the two issues they felt were creating the greatest hindrance to them obtaining employment.   As I predicted transportation was the number on concern, but I was actually surprised when the group unanimously voted “lack of motivation” as equal important.

Over the last two weeks we have been unpacking these issues.   Our job seekers have convinced me that if we somehow overcame the transportation issue and we provided people with individual “encouragers” to help them navigate the employment systems and overcome their barriers, that the vast majority of the 77% unemployed residents of RRHA would be able to obtain and maintain employment.

Out of this conversation, we are starting an initiative to help our friends get jobs.   The central element of our approach will be to connect each of the job seekers with a “job coach” who will provide the motivation and accountability to help them overcome their individual barriers.  In addition, we are seeking individuals who will help our friends “navigate” the various employment related systems including on-line employment resources, employment centers, Department of Rehabilitative services, and other programs designed to help our friends.  In the past we have simply referred our friends to these resources and they tend not to find them helpful.  I believe if we teamed them up with a “navigator” who knows what questions to ask and how to advocate on their behalf we would be better able to tap into these resources.

As we unpacked the transportation issue, we found that in most cases it is a “gap” issue. The job seeker cannot get to the interview or to work for the period between the start date and the first pay check.  Once they receive their first paycheck, there will be the ability to hire a private transportation service or pay for bus tickets.  Of course the bus does not run out into the counties where the majority of the jobs are but we are hoping to find or create “pay as you go” options for those who have this kind of on-going need.

To address the front end “gap” issue, we are seeking volunteers who will help with the transportation needs of our friends to and from interviews.  In addition, we need donations of gas cards so that we can run our Embrace van to help those who secure employment in jobs not on the bus line.  We all know that transportation is a tough issue and we do not have all the answers so we welcome any ideas you may have. I would also love to know how other cities are addressing this issue.

The only thing I know is that employment is the only way to permanently end poverty and I also know that as Christians we are called to walk in solidarity with the poor.  We all want to see Congress balance the budget.  Many are in support of cutting federal entitlement programs.  But are we willing to be a part of the solution? Are we willing to literally walk with people on this journey?  Are we willing to use the assets we have, for example our cars, to help them do what we say they need to do – get a job?  Are we willing to move beyond charity and help people move away from dependence on public programs?

For those wondering how to respond to panhandlers, I suggest you read the post “Panhandlers: To Give or Not to Give.”

If you would like to help us address the issues noted above and help people get a job, please email me at

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Filed under Community Development, Urban Ministry

Mud Slinging Christians: Dreaming of Another Way

muddy shoesphoto © 2006 Ivy Lique | more info (via: Wylio)I grew up outside the church and one of the things that kept me out of the church for many years was the divisions among Christians.

I came to faith in an ELCA Lutheran Church in my late 20’s, attended a Methodist Church for many years, and was on staff at an evangelical non-denominational seeker church for a while.  I started a women’s ministry consisting of women from all different denominations.  I have a spiritual mentor who is Catholic, and I graduated from a Cooperative Baptist Seminary.  I now spend my days with those who met God through Alcoholics Anonymous and who experienced God’s healing touch in ways I can never fully comprehend.  Most of those who call themselves Christians in my urban context are from a Pentecostal background.

I have spoken and worked with congregational groups across the spectrum from very liberal to ultra conservative and have found things about all of them I love.  As my love of diverse expressions of the Christian tradition has grown, my distaste for the divisive, exclusive, judgmental ways in which various groups treat one another has also grown.

As I shared in my post “Will Gandhi Burn?”, Rob Bell is taking a lot of heat from those in power in the evangelical right but the ugliness is spreading.  I read this week that a Methodist minister got fired just for blogging about Bell’s book.  I also read a very insightful post by Drew G.I. Hart that views all this infighting as a power struggle among the white male evangelicals for control of religious dialog in this country.  No matter how you view it, I am just tired of the constant bickering.  I think it is distracting us from our real call to be reconcilers who work together to usher in the Kingdom of God here and now.

I dream of an expression of the Christian tradition where people from all different theological positions and who have taken all different types of paths to God can respect and love one another.  I think the only way this kind of unity will ever occur is for us all to accept that none of us are God and none of us truly have the mind of Christ.  I think the thing most lacking in our religious dialog is humility – thus my whole point in writing “Will Gandhi Burn?”

Last week I attended my first Quaker service.  I was invited to share a little about Embrace Richmond with a group that has been supporting our work for many years.  After the service, I engaged in an extensive email dialog with an acquaintance who is Quaker.  He was gracious enough to share with me the Quaker beliefs.  From what I can see, their beliefs are incredibly open to a diversity of theological positions.  I guess the only way we will ever achieve Christian unity is not to open our mouths!  I love the idea of simply connecting spirit to spirit with other Christians.  I am not sure how it plays out in the broader Christian context.  Maybe I need to hang out with my Quaker friends a bit more.

So while I am dreaming, my ideal expression of Christianity would embrace people wherever they are on their spiritual journey – liberals, conservatives, agnostics, atheists, etc.  However, it would encourage all to grow in Christ likeness (or love, the spirit, the light or whatever word people identify with what I know as the Holy Spirit) by engaging them in the work of reconciliation.  These “reconcilers” would seek to heal a broken world and usher in God’s Kingdom through relationships across race, class and religious beliefs.  I envision diverse groups of people who come together to address the brokenness of our world through very real, tangible projects such as increasing affordable housing, creating jobs for people with barriers, helping urban youth escape the cycle of poverty. The most important element of these groups is not the “project” or “mission” but the fact that we bring together people who are radically diverse and learning to hear, love and respect one another.  These types of reconciling relationships will do more to usher in “The Kingdom of God” than anything we “achieve” through our efforts.

The final element of my dream expression of the Christian tradition would foster deep, life giving spiritual practices such as contemplative prayer, meditation on Divine writings and the fostering of spiritual experiences.  As I shared in a recent post, spending time alone in nature feeds my soul.  I can see people alone in the wilderness, sitting in urban gardens and resting in God in their living rooms.  As we rest, I trust that we will experience God’s spirit in powerful ways.   Like my Quaker friends I think we spend way too much time talking about God and not nearly enough time experiencing the healing, life giving presence of Christ spirit within us.  Silence, reflection, meditation and contemplation open us up to these experiences far more effectively than debating theology and dissecting passages of scripture.

I would of course love to see people gather so those who feel led can share their spiritual experiences with the group through the ancient practice of testimony.  I have recently participated in a group that used group spiritual direction as a way of sharing spiritual insight and found it spiritually nurturing and far more effective at bringing about spiritual conversations than the traditional small group curriculum.  I think learning to share our unique experiences of God is both nurturing to those sharing and enriching to the broader community.

So that is my dream.  Not sure if this dream will ever become a reality but if you have read my book you know I am a dreamer.  I have been blessed to have been a part of so many expressions of the Christian tradition and the diversity of my experience has enriched my spirituality.  However, it makes me hungry for places where we can all come together and appreciate how God moves in and through each of our Christian expressions.   I actually think my Quaker friends may offer the expression closest to my dream.  Perhaps I if I spend a bit more time with them, God will use their openness and commitment to peace and justice to teach me how to better unite the broader body of Christ in both action and contemplation.

Just imagine what God could do with a united Body that loved and respected all God’s children?  That is what I dream of and pray I get to experience in my own little corner of the world.  Perhaps I will only see it in our work in Hillside Court but I do hope God allows us to start a movement that will sweep across this city.  I don’t expect this movement of unity and reconciliation to come from the superstars of the faith like Piper and Bell.  I think it will be the little people like me and my friends at Embrace and as I shared on Friday, it will be a very quiet revolution – not nearly as entertaining to watch as the Bell and Piper debate but far more sustainable and life giving.


Filed under missional church, Personal Reflection, Spirituality

A Quiet Revolution

My post “Will Gandhi Burn” launched me on a journey – a journey toward understanding the bigger vision of Christ’s mission to reconcile all things. Last week I shared some of the biblical foundation for our call to be reconcilers.  However, that post did not go quite far enough in defining the practical realities of living our lives as “reconcilers” of a broken world.  This week I picked up Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice’s book, “Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing” and was both challenged and encouraged by some of what they had to say.

“Reconciliation is an invitation into a long and fragile journey.  It is not a “solution” or an end product, but a process and an ongoing search.  We find ourselves pilgrims in search of something better in a divided world. Reconciliation flows from hope – hope that the way things are is not the way things have to be.

Recently Charles and I were invited to speak on the topic of racial reconciliation.  I actually found this topic to be somewhat uncomfortable because “racial reconciliation” is so often seen as a “goal” to be achieved verses a journey to be embarked on.  As I reflected on the topic, I realized that I did not set out to “reconcile” the racial divide.  I simply felt called to hang out with people who had a different story to tell.  In their stories I came face to face with the same Jesus I had come to know and love.  It was through our common identity as children of God that we connected across race and class.  It was through this shared identity that we began to see one another as sisters and brothers.

I have also learned that reconciliation is a two way street.  It was as difficult for Charles to cross over into a white middle class community as it was for me to feel at home in an African American inner city neighborhood.  However, we were both pilgrims called on the same journey through the hope that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.

“The journey of reconciliation begins with seeing that reconciliation is not the goal of human striving but is instead a gift God longs for us to accept.  God’s mission of reconciliation challenges, moves beyond, and even explodes the conventional distinctions. The more Christians are able to ground reconciliation as a journey with God from old toward new, the more we are able to recover the indispensible gifts that sustain that journey and make it possible.”

This past week we had a listening session around the topic of safety in Hillside court, one of the most violent neighborhood’s in our city.  There were black, white, rich and poor all present in that room.  My Hillside friends could have easily said, “You do not belong here!  What do you know about life in Hillside Court?” Honestly, that is what was running through my mind.  However, we were able to be reconciled in our willingness to go on a journey together with God as we move from the “old Hillside” to the vision of a “new Hillside.”  A vision where God’s people stand hand in hand and beseech God to bring peace to this wounded community.  On Wednesday there were no newspaper reporters, no fanfare, but I do believe we started a quiet revolution to reclaim the streets of Hillside Court and make them safe for the next generation.

“A Christian vision insists that reconciliation is ultimately about the transformation of the everyday- a quiet revolution that occurs over time in everyday people, everyday congregations, everyday communities, amid the most broken places on God’s earth.  God’s life-giving vision grows out of a story; and that story is about a quieter revolution.  We must gain the eyes to see this hope because this quiet revolution often happens under the radar screen.”

The picture above is of that quiet revolution.  It is a photo of my friend John cooking with a volunteer from Salisbury Presbyterian Church.  John is a resident of Hillside Court, one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in our city while Salisbury is one of the wealthiest communities in Metro Richmond.  Through the everyday act of cooking together, God’s mysterious spirit is reconciling our city and writing a new story.  This quiet revolution is being sparked by boundary crossers like John who believe that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.”

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down,  but not destroyed…therefore we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:8-9,16). We’re able to not lose heart because we look beyond the now, beyond the visible, and remember the story of God. Without that story, we would be overwhelmed, crushed, destroyed.  That is why stepping back from relentless activism is essential in order to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” “

As I shared in my post “A Voice Calling in the Wilderness”, I have developed a regular rhythm of stepping back and reflecting through my time in the wilderness.  We have also built into our Embrace team schedule times of reflecting on what God is doing in our midst and inviting God to ground us in truth as we seek to join God in the unfolding story of our city.  These times of meditation and reflection have radically transformed our team over the past year and have taught us to listen not only to one another but to that still small voice that is the power behind all we see and do.  It is only in remembering that the story the world sees, a story of murder and violence is not the only story unfolding.  This quiet revolution is tapping into the unseen story of God’s reconciling spirit that is changing Hillside Court from a community terrorized by fear to one triumphant through God’s power.

“The problem with individualistic Christianity is what we call “reconciliation without memory,” an approach that ignores wounds of the world and proclaims peace where there is no peace (see Jer 8:11).  This shallow kind of Christianity does not take local places and their history of trauma, division and oppression seriously.  It abandons the past too quickly and confidently in search of a new future.  This  insufficient version of Christian mission or reconciliation without memory,  jumps over the past too quickly by offering cheap grace to those who have done wrong and never repented.”

Over the past several months we have been listening deeply to our Hillside friends and trying to understand the fears they have that hold them in bondage to terrorist forces in their community.  When we had a conversation about neighborhood watch we heard, “I don’t want to be seen with police…I don’t want to be a snitch…I keep to myself and I stay safe that way.”  When we asked our team to pass out flyers, they expressed fear over being associated with any conversation about safety.  I realize now that we were seeking “reconciliation without memory.”

As we listened more deeply I discovered a very real fear of the police.  Many of the residents had been harassed by the police in the past and had little confidence in the police department’s ability to protect them from the criminal element.  I finally understood why my friends were so resistant to any safety solution that required them to collaborate with the police.  As we listened to their traumatic memories, we allowed space for a different means of reconciliation to take shape.

We discovered that the residents cared deeply for their children and felt called to create safer streets by simply providing more adult presence outside with the children and by also supporting the single mothers in the community.  This is not the direction I thought the conversation would go but it clearly a better starting place for the community.  We never would have found this path toward peace had we not listened to their experiences and pain.

“The Christian practice of reconciliation has to do with recovering a posture of receptivity and gratitude as a key virtue – the original virtue – for Christians living in a divided world.  The story of Scripture hangs on this theme of movement toward new creation. We must give ourselves and others time and space to become new people.  We need one another to become all that Christ has called us to be. This is work in which we learn to lay down our lives for the sake of a deeper hope breaking into the world. However weak it may seem to us, we are called to work on skills of forgiveness, self-giving service and costly love of the enemy.  Unless a Christian pursuit of peace and reconciliation constantly points to this story of “the battle is the Lord’s,“ it can never be sustained.”

I think developing a posture of openness is the key in everything we have done at Embrace.  As we remain open and receptive to the stories of people whose journey is very different than our own, we allow ourselves to be transformed into reconcilers.  As reconcilers we are able to usher in a new reality.  In the case of Hillside this reality would be a community where fear does not rule the streets.  I pray my Hillside friends grow in confidence knowing that “the battle is the Lord’s” as we all work on skills of forgiveness, self-giving service and costly love of our enemies.

I am only half way through this wonderful book but hope to share more insights next week.

Do you see God’s Kingdom breaking into our divided world?  Are you called to be an agent of reconciliation in your own city?  What challenges have you faced?  What breakthroughs are you seeing?

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Filed under Community Development, Spirituality, Theology

A Search for Kingdom Churches: Northminster Part 2 – Cassie’s Story

Last week I shared with you Jeanne’s story and how God used her to spark a movement.  While Jeanne sparked a vision, it was Cassie Matthew who fanned that spark into a flame.

I was blessed to spend some time this week with Cassie, the founder of “Hands Up Ministries” ( ) which grew out of the food pantry of Northminster Church.  I was struck as I spoke with Cassie how her ministry and my own had taken parallel tracks and had arrived at many of the same conclusions.  Below is a brief summary of Cassie’s journey and the formation of Hands Up Ministries.

“I originally got involved with the food pantry at Northminster Church because my friend Terry asked me to help her out. I not a member of Northminster but I have always had a heart for the urban church. I have been blessed to go to Haiti on numerous missions trips and loved working with the people there and welcomed the opportunity to take what I learned in Haiti into the inner city of Richmond.

What became the “Free Market” actually grew out of a request from a friend who was dying of cancer.  She asked me to help her get her house in order.  I decided to give all the belongings she no longer wanted to the guests of the food pantry as a way of honoring my friend and her giving heart.  I realized that having these additional goods for the food pantry recipients not only met a need, but also provided an additional opportunity to connect.

Almost overnight we went from a one-time Christmas season event to an every Saturday “Free Market.”  In the beginning there was an “us” and “them” divide between my team of volunteers and the residents of the community.  They were used to coming and taking whatever we had to hand out.  I had done enough missions work that I knew this was not the right way to go about things.  I also knew that the “stuff” was not the real need.  However, the “free market” had grown so much that I found I had little time for the important things like building relationships. I knew I needed to give the ministry away to those who were benefiting from it so that I could get at the root issues facing the community.

This required that we scale back our “Free Market” from every Saturday, which we had been doing for three years, to one Saturday a month. I began my season of discernment in the fall of 201o.  On the Saturday’s we were not doing the “Free Market” I just started listening to the food pantry recipients.  I took in-depth survey’s out every Saturday to find out what the real needs of the people were and I quickly realized that employment and affordable housing were the top two issues.

In the early part of 2011 after spending months listening, I clearly heard from God a call to help people overcome barriers to employment and to find some way of creating affordable housing.   The housing part was relatively easy.  The cost of housing has dropped so low that my husband and I have been able to purchase four homes and have leased them to our urban friends for a price well below market but at a rate that covers our mortgage.  We are hoping to add more homes in the future and would encourage more people to invest in these distressed communities and in these wonderful people.

The harder issue has been employment.  I realized rather quickly that any attempt to address employment would require me to address the multitude of barriers faced by my friends.  From a lack of identification, transportation, education, childcare, and internet access; the barriers are numerous and different for every person who walks in my door.   I have been on a steep learning curve since February of this year as I have walked with my friends and helped them overcome these barriers.  I realized that only through one-on-one mentoring and encouragement could I meet each of my friends where they were and help them overcome the obstacles that stood between them and employment.

I realized that I could not run the “Free Market” and work one on one with my friends.  So I began giving the “free market” away.  We are finally at a place where my team, make up primarily of community  residents, really does not need me.  I am basically just an encourager to the wonderful “volunteer staff” who keep the “free market” in operation.

I have also been blessed with a number of college students and congregational volunteers who are coming alongside my friends and helping them overcome the challenges they face.  These volunteers help prepare resumes, help people fill out job applications or tutor them for the GED.  I think it is important that people understand, I am not alone in all I do.  God sends me people at every corner.  I have had fabulous support from Rhonda Schwartz & Eureka Pendleton along with many others whom I cherish.

I am driven because I feel it is what God is calling me to. I never feel like there is enough time. I want to love as many people as God puts before me.  That love looks different with each person.

The greatest need right now is for churches and Christians who are willing to give people jobs.  They don’t have to be long-term jobs.  My friends just need a chance to earn a little money and prove both to themselves and future employers that they are willing and able to work.”

I am sure anyone who has read my book or who is familiar with the journey of Embrace Richmond can see the parallels between my ministry and that of Cassie.  I think many Christian’s start off like Cassie and I – simply meeting emergency needs.  However, if you do “relief” work for any period of time you realize it is not a long-term solution.  The only long-term solution to poverty is finding ways of helping people stand on their own two feet without being dependent on others.  This requires both a reasonable cost of living and an opportunity to work.  Many of our urban friends have neither.

I don’t know why God drew me to Northminster but I do hope that I have the blessing of working more closely with Cassie and the Hands Up Ministries team.

I think what has most inspired me about Northminster Church is its willingness to give itself away.  Cassie is not a member of the church and Hands Up Ministries is a stand alone 501c3 non-profit.  From everything I have learned so far, Northminister truly is a “Kingdom Church” and is striving to meet all four of the criteria I set out to find in my original post “A Search for Kingdom Churches”;

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Are doing more than giving money or stuff, but are building relationships that are transforming not only our city, but also the church.
  4. Are supporting Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like trying to recruit church members.

There are a few other key players in the Northminister story that I hope to introduce you to in the coming weeks.

Is your church a Kingdom Church?  How does your church interact with those in need in your city?  Would your church welcome someone like Cassie from outside the church and see her work as Kingdom Building?

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Reconciling Theology: It’s Bigger than Gandhi’s Fate

04 Gandhi statue. Tavistock Square, Londonphoto © 2006 Jose Mesa | more info (via: Wylio)

“The end is reconciliation; the end is

redemption; the end is the creation

of the beloved community.”

– ML King, Jr.

In just one week, my post titled “Will Gandhi Burn” became one of my top five most popular posts of all time.  It also drew a good number of very insightful comments which made me want to unpack this issue a bit more.  This week I would like to dig a little deeper into Jay’s comment:

“We diminish Jesus death and resurrection if we do not lean fully into His great big, grand salvation plan (the redemption of all things Col 1).”

Like Jay, I think when we over emphasize “individual salvation” we miss the fuller understanding of Christ work of reconciling all things.  Many other writers and theologians also agree that our obsession with the afterlife and who is “in” and who is “out” has gotten us completely off track.  This quote from Richard Stearns, “The Hole in Our Gospel” says it best,

“The Kingdom for Christ was not intended to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife; no, Christ’s proclamation of the “kingdom of heaven” was a call for the redeemed world order populated by redeemed people – now.  Focusing almost exclusively on the afterlife reduces the importance of what God expects of us in this life.  The kingdom of God, which Christ said is “within you” (Luke 17:21), was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. In the Lords prayer “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” were and are a clarion call of Jesus’ followers not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news, here and now. (Matt. 6:10)  This gospel – the whole gospel – means much more than the personal salvation of individuals.  It means a social revolution.”

When I spoke with Jay this week, he suggested I read Operation: Restoration by Eric Smith.   Below are a few excerpts from that text.

“More than any other single topic, Christ taught about the Kingdom of God, which is the world as it ought to be—a world marked by harmonious relationships, a sufficiency of resources, and shalom living. Scriptures about the new heavens and a new earth describe a scenario where God’s reign is made fully manifest. (Isaiah 65:17-25, Revelations 21:1-7 & 22:1-5) They give us a clear picture of what Christ means when He talks about the Kingdom of God.

Christ’s program of healing and casting out demons was meant to be a concrete expression of this new reality breaking into a fallen world. Not only did Jesus talk about it, He taught us to pray about it. The Kingdom was Christ’s framework for describing the world when God’s reign is complete—where His values and agenda are fully manifested.

God’s intention for the whole creation, and especially for human beings, was that all things should exist in peaceful, loving harmony so that the whole creation could flourish. This is shalom; all things as God intended them to be and do. And all people living up to their full potential as His image-bearers.

The Church is sometimes referred to as, “the people of God doing the work of God.” This definition begs the question, what is the work of God? Another way of asking that question is, what is the agenda of God? And what role do we have in living this agenda in our communities.”

2nd Corinthians puts it like this:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 NIV).”

Eric Smith summarizes with this:

“Christ’s mission was to reconcile all things, both spiritual and physical, both individual and corporate. In order to have an impact at the individual (mercy) level, the Church must also have an impact at the corporate (justice) level. The Church must be missional in its mindset, holistic in its approach and transformational in its impact.”

I loved these words from Sammy Williams blog post titled “Genesis”

“Well, it’s amazing how many Christians begin the biblical story with Genesis 3, focusing on sin and the fall of humanity. Neither the word sin nor the word fall occurs in Genesis 3. If you begin the story with Genesis 3, the primary issue becomes the removal of sin and the posture toward people is who we are not (not worthy, not holy, not good enough). If you begin the story with Genesis 1 and 2, the story becomes about the restoration/renewal/reconciliation of all things, which obviously includes the removal of sin but extends to the ends of the cosmos.”

I’m with Dr. King, Jay, Richard, Eric, Sammy, the Apostle Paul and Jesus – our job as Christians is to remember that all of us are children of God, created in God’s image.  Christ is calling us to be “reconcilers,” people who see the beauty of the original design of creation and who are ushering in the Kingdom of God here and now.


Filed under Theology

A Search for Kingdom Churches – Northminster Church Part I

“In John 14:12 Jesus states that “anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to the father.” In order to achieve Christ’s lofty vision for His church, we must become missional in our mindset, holistic in our approach, and transformational in our impact. Many churches need a new framework if they are to become transformational in their communities.”

This quote is from a study called “Operation: Restoration” which is available at the Communities First Association website. This quote captures the essence of what I shared in my post “A Search for Kingdom Churches” which I published last June.  At the time I wrote this post, I asked for people to help me find churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

Over the years, I have had countless people share with me that Northminster Church was this kind of kingdom focused church.  Like many urban church’s in the city of Richmond, Northminster, suffered the ravages of “white flight” as church members fled the city for the suburbs. Ten years ago, the church was primarily a commuter church made up largely of middle class white suburbanites who only ventured into this low income largely African American community for worship once a week.  Over the past ten years, this church has made the journey from being a church “in” the community, to doing ministry “for” the community, to being a church that does ministry “with” the community.

This is a story of transformation that I think will give hope to many urban churches.  It is a story that involved not just one person, but the whole body pulling together to change a community from the inside out and in the process transform a church.  Over the next several weeks, I will be sharing with you how God used ordinary people who possess a kingdom perspective to usher in the reconciling Kingdom of God here on earth.  I am sure all my friends at Northminster will agree, they are still on a journey but I think we can glean a lot from their story thus far.

This past week when I met Sammy Williams, Senior Pastor of Northminster Church, he pointed me in the direction of Jeanne Murdock and said that the transformation at Northminster started with Jeanne.  I had the privilege sharing a cup of coffee with Jeanne.  What follows is her story.

Ten years ago, Jeanne joined the staff of Northminster Baptist Church as the office manager.  One of her duties involved giving out food to those who contacted the church for assistance.  At that time the food pantry was rather small and seen as an auxiliary ministry but God gave Jeanne a vision for something more – something relational in nature.  She shared her vision for expanding the food pantry and having it open one Saturday per month with several people she hoped would run with it.  However, it kept coming back to her. It took a while, but Jeanne finally accepted God’s call.

Her first challenge was to secure space. The perfect room for her expanded food pantry was being used for storing what Jeanne termed “junk” that had accumulated over the life of the church – things like hymnals from the 1970’s, old Sunday school curriculum, broken furniture.  Jeanne overcame this first obstacle but not without some resistance.  She set up her new food pantry and was surprised when 12 people came on the first Saturday for food.

From the very beginning, Jeanne’s husband Buzz was at her side.  Initially, Buzz, a retired police officer, came to insure her safety.  However, as word spread about the food pantry, Buzz realized that people were walking miles to come and he began offering rides home.  That is where the real relationships began to take shape.

Within five years, the ministry had grown to every Saturday and was serving roughly 50 households every Saturday.  Over the years, VCU students had become the primary volunteer base.  One Saturday, Jeanne was running low on volunteers and one of the individuals who had come for food, Keith Parker, said “Looks like you need help”, and jumped right in.  From that day forward, Keith never missed a Saturday.  As Jeanne watched Keith come alive as he served his neighbors, she heard God saying “Give it away.”  She asked Keith to take over as the distribution manager and was thrilled when he began recruiting other community residents to help. He was from the neighborhood and was able to easily connect with the food pantry residents who gladly joined in.   Jeanne did not know it, but the day Keith crossed over from receiving to giving was the day God began a whole new chapter in not only her ministry but the life of the church.

Keith and Buzz became fast friends. Buzz discovered that Keith had lost his driver’s license, was dealing with substance abuse, and had become homeless.  When Keith made the decision to enter The Healing Place, Buzz committed to pick him up every Saturday so he could continue to volunteer at the food bank.  Keith graduated from The Healing Place and has been clean and sober every since.  He now speaks to groups around the city and mentors other addicts.

As Jeanne watched the ministry  grow and more and more residents joining in to help, she longed to see deeper relationships form.  In 2007, she had the idea of setting up a lemonade and cookie station so people could fellowship with one another during the distribution.  She shared the idea with Terri, a fellow member of the church, who loved the idea.  Terri was so excited about the idea that she shared it with Cassie Matthew her next door neighbor.  Though Cassie was not a church member, Jeanne welcomed her to join in the effort.

Cassie took the idea and ran.  She started not only putting out refreshments but began bringing in gently used clothing and other items that she and her friends wanted to give away.  As Cassie saw how grateful the food pantry recipients were to get the clothing and other items, God gave Cassie a vision for what she called a “Free Market” – basically a church yard sale where everything was free.  Christmas time 2008, Northminster hosted the first “Free Market.” The event was so successful that it has become a monthly event.

As Cassie was launching the “Free Market”, Jeanne was grieving the loss of her husband Buzz.  Jeanne realized that she would have to take a huge step back for a season but was thrilled that the food pantry would continue with community residents now running all aspects of the program.

This is the end of Jeanne’s story but the beginning of Cassie’s adventure.  I hope you will join me for Part II of this series next week.

Is your church a Kingdom Church?

Please share how your church is transforming your city by empowering under-resourced communities to meet their own needs.

Interested in becoming a Kingdom focused church?

Embrace Richmond is thrilled that Jay Van Groningen, the Executive Director of Communities First Association will be coming to Richmond.  Please join Jay and the Embrace Richmond team on May 26th – May 28th to learn more about Asset Based Community Development and how these principals are sparking a movement of community transformation and church renewal across this country.  To learn more about this opportunity, contact me at or watch the Embrace Richmond website for more information in the coming weeks.


Filed under Community Development, missional church, Stories from the Street

A Voice Calling in the Wilderness – March Synchroblog

Desert Leaderphoto © 2006 Hamed Saber | more info (via: Wylio)One of my favorite seminary professors was Dr. Stephen Brachlow who is the professor of Spirituality at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Every May he leads a class called “Wilderness Retreat” in which he takes seminary students out to a local retreat center and has them spend a week in the wilderness listening to God.  While I never had a chance to take this particular class, I did take a class on Celtic Spirituality with Dr. Brachlow which involved the same practice of getting lost in the wilderness and in the process discovering our creator God.  While many students struggled with hearing God in nature, I felt closer to God out in creation than I have ever felt anywhere else.

Five years ago, after taking my first spirituality class with Dr. Brachlow, I felt God leading me into the wilderness as a regular spiritual practice.  My husband and I purchased 22 acres in the middle of nowhere, put a small cabin on it and I began withdrawing to this place every chance I get.

As our ministry has gotten more and more complex, the call to embrace the simplicity of this isolated place has grown stronger and stronger.  Eugene Peterson in his book “Under the Unpredictable Plant” writes,

“A contemplative life is not an alternative to the active life, but its root and foundation.”

In the endless chatter of leading a growing ministry, I find it difficult to clearly discern God’s voice without intentional times of contemplative prayer.  With out these times in the wilderness alone with God my ministry becomes overwhelming and I can’t see the forest for the trees.  My days are filled with endless meetings, Twitter posts, Facebook chats, numerous emails, website comments and telephone calls.  However, in the wilderness there is no cell service, no internet connection, no television or radio – there is only silence and the still small voice of God.  Everything becomes so much clearer with out all the clutter of contemporary life.

I am writing this post on a Sunday morning and my heart is at peace as I sit here and listen to the rain and gaze out over the land that stretches before me.  The cows have sought shelter under a grove of oak trees, the fields are freshly plowed and the seed they bear rejoices at God’s provision of water.  The hills in the horizon appear hazy as I peer through the rain and remind me that the mountains are just an hour away.

Here in the wilderness, I feel so small and insignificant as I sit under 300 year old oak trees that tower over 80 feet into the air.  I am reminded that all my toiling and spinning is so totally unnecessary as I watch the birds of the air and the lilies of the field do what God created them to do with no effort at all.  As rain waters run into the creek which will eventually empty into the ocean, I am reminded that all of life is caught in endless cycles that continues without our even thinking about it.

The scriptures tell us in Luke 5:16 (NIV) that,

“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

Through the magic of Bible Gateway, I looked up this verse in 15 different translations and found that what the NIV translates as “Lonely places”, is translated into the following terms by other translations.

1.) the wilderness (NASB,KJV, NKJV)

2.) out of the way places (The Message)

3.) desert (Amplified, Worldwide English)

4.) desolate places (English Standard)

5.) some place where he could be alone (Contemporary English, New Century)

6.) deserted places (Common English)

7.) away to be by himself (Readers version)

8.) desert places (Young’s Literal)

I wish I had retained everything I learned in Greek class and could tell you what the Greek word being translated here is, but sadly my old brain did not retain much from that class.  (Don’t tell Dr. Spencer my Greek professor!)  Even if I could give you the Greek word, I think it is clear that there is no easy English equivalent.  If there were, there would not be 9 different ways of translating the word.

Having spent many hours in my own “wilderness” places alone with God in prayer, I think the fullness of what this passage of scripture is trying to tell us includes all these understandings and more.  Wilderness places are those places where there is nothing but God.  Places with desert like conditions void of human presence or influence.  Places that are out of the way, uninhabited and which possess the mystery of God’s presence.  At least that is my purely experiential interpretation.

This morning when I posted on my Facebook page that I was retreating into the wilderness, I did so with a little bit of hesitation.  I know there are those who think all good Christians should spend every Sunday morning in worship services conducted by human beings.  I pray some day we free ourselves of seeing worship as something we “do” and instead as something we “experience” wherever we encounter God.  While I have not sung a single note this morning, my spirit is worshiping the God who created such beauty and who has called me to this place to spend some time alone with me.

I wish more churches would teach people about the power of time alone in the wilderness the way Dr. Brachlow taught his students. You cannot “learn” about God’s presence in the wilderness, you must “encounter” it.

What if one Sunday a month, the churches in our city met in the forests and parks throughout and surrounding Metro- Richmond and committed to getting lost in the wilderness?  What if instead of bands and choirs, we all committed to silence and listening?  What if instead of sermons, we all gathered in small groups after spending a time alone with God and shared the insights God gave us?  How would such a practice change our view of what it means to be a church?  Are you willing to follow in Jesus footsteps and withdraw into the lonely places to encounter God?

I am reminded of John the Baptist who quoted the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (John 1:23) I believe there is still a voice calling in the wilderness that will lead us straight to the Lord, are we listening?

To read more about this months Synchroblog topic “Experiences in the Wilderness” visit the Synchroblog website.  Visit other posts on this topic through the links below.

Patrick (at Dual Ravens) was prolific with a four part series called “Musings” and they can be found here:
Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four

Katherine Gunn at A Voice in the Desert writes What is Wilderness?

Wendy McCaig giving us a View from the Bridge brings A Voice Calling in the Wilderness

EmmaNadine who describes Life By List wonders about Life in the Wilderness

Tammy Carter of Blessing the Beloved is taking a rest as she Puts down the axe

Jeremy Myers writing at Til He Comes ponders The Gaping Chasm of Suicide

kathy escobar shares the carnival in my head and writes about belonging

Steve Hayes of Methodius describes Anatomy of exile

Marta Layton at Marta’s Mathoms writes On Sabbaths, Mountain-Tops… and Brothers’ Keepers

Liz Dyer at Grace Rules discovers Beauty In The Wilderness

Christen Hansel of Greener Grass offers up Snapshots of the Desert


Filed under Spirituality

Will Gandhi Burn?

Gandhi (pb130012)photo © 2010 Vards Uzvards | more info (via: Wylio)I have wanted to write this post for a very long time, but was too afraid of the possible backlash from some segments of the Christian tradition.  However, all the hype over, “whether Rob Bell is a Universalist or not”, finally gave me the courage to say what I have wanted to say for years:  “No one knows the mind of God.”

Despite those who will claim with 100% certainty that Gandhi is burning in hell, the truth is that God is not limited and God’s grace knows no end.  God is not even limited by the words we humans wrote down in a book we call the Bible.  While I believe the words in our sacred scriptures are indeed sacred, I don’t think God is bound by them or our very narrow interpretations of them.

I also do not believe that those who believe God’s grace is big enough to rescue Gandhi should be labeled Universalist.  I am not saying Gandhi is in heaven nor am I saying he is in hell, I am saying I am not arrogant enough to believe I know.  I believe God is mysterious, unpredictable, loving and powerful.  I believe as people of faith, we should walk humbly before our God.  I think the Apostle Paul felt the same and says as much in 1 Corinthians 2:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” the things God has prepared for those who love him – these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”  But we have the mind of Christ.

Like the Apostle Paul it is with humility, fear, and trembling that I say to you that, “I know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  I choose to believe in God’s power.  I will not place my faith in my own wisdom or that of those who claim to know the mind of God.

I don’t understand why some Christians find a stance of humility so threatening. Why is it so hard for some to admit that we do not know where others will spend eternity?  I don’t find a God who is easily understood and whose actions I can predict with certainty all that appealing.  If God can only do what I can explain, that is a pretty small God.  I like that God’s wisdom is hidden, mysterious and beyond my very small finite mind’s ability to comprehend.

So, why are Christians so afraid of a God powerful enough to save Gandhi from hell?

Does our only power as Christians lie in our ability to condemn people who do not believe as we do?  Do Christians really believe people choose Christ solely to avoid hell?  What does that say about the power of the love of Christ?  Does Christ become any less the savior of the world if God’s grace extends beyond our faith borders?  Have we become the Pharisees of our day?

I hope I get to meet Gandhi in heaven someday.  In debates like this I identify with his words, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”


Filed under Theology

Changing Seasons

sprungphoto © 2009 Robert S. Donovan | more info (via: Wylio)I love this time of year because I can sit in the sun and allow it’s warmth to penetrate my skin and thaw me from the outside in.  This year, spring carries with it so much promise, hope and joy.  It is a literal representation of what is happening in my own life and ministry.  I feel like the ground I have been plowing for the past eight years is thawing.  In some places the seeds we have sown through the ministry of Embrace Richmond are starting to take root and I even see buds forming in places I never expected would bear fruit.

The journey of Embrace can be marked by our physical locations through the years.  This week we moved into our sixth site which marks for us a whole new season in our existence.

We started in late 2004 in my garage.  I guess you could call that the conception period.   No one, including me, knew that what we were witnessing would one day take on a life of its own.

However, by March 2005 it was time to give birth to this new baby.  We incorporated and moved into our first borrowed building – Highland Park UMC.  This was truly our infancy.  We were completely dependent on the generosity of others.  From our free space, to our volunteer labor, we were vulnerable and fragile.

In the summer of 2005, when a gun man decided to fire upon our guests, we knew it was time to stand on our own two feet and find space that was safer for ministry to really grow.  It was with great fear that I signed the first lease with First Contractors and we moved to Lombardy Street. During those toddler years we hired our first part-time staff.  It was as if we were learning to walk.  We fell down a lot and I have a lot of scars to prove it.  However, it was in our Lombardy location that Embrace Richmond found its identity.

By late 2006, we had completely out grown our little home off of Lombardy Street.   We had grown confident and made a bold move to a space 5 times the size off of Sledd Street.  When we selected the site we had no idea how strategic this location would be.  It was right next door to CARITAS, the largest emergency shelter in Richmond, which is run by Karen Stanley, one of the top Executive Directors in the city.  Our Sledd Street years were like grade school.  Karen taught me a lot about running a non-profit and helped me build collaborative relationships with agencies across the city.  I learned what being an effective Executive Director required and I committed myself to the task.

By the summer of 2008, the furniture bank component of Embrace had out grown me and the Sledd street space.  I had found a new site off Commerce Road but the price tag was well beyond our means.  Though there was always a mentoring component in our program design, the furniture component was requiring all my time and was the component that Karen Stanley was most interested in helping me expand.  I was growing increasingly discontent with where Embrace was heading and was personally struggling with my own call.  I realized that summer that I was not called to be an Executive Director of a furniture bank but a pastor of an urban expression of the church.  I approached Karen and asked her if she would consider absorbing the furniture bank component of our program.  CARITAS took over the furniture bank in the fall of 2008.  We had grown one baby to the point of graduation and it was time to let it go.  It took me about a year to fully transition out of a leadership role with the furniture bank, but it has been a tremendous blessing to watch it continue to grow and thrive under the direction of CARITAS.

From the time I resigned as the director of the furniture bank in the spring of 2009 through today, Embrace has been rediscovering its original call to be the holistic relational ministry that I had envisioned in 2004.  Over the past year, with the publication of my first book and increasing name recognition among church leaders, I have had the blessing of doing a lot more speaking, teaching and coaching and have found that I absolutely love these opportunities.  Our community development efforts in Hillside Court have grown and God has brought us the most amazing staff imaginable.  Our staff has the training and experience to take the ministry model we have developed beyond Hillside and to help congregations move from the sanctuary to the streets all across this city.

I think our new location at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond marks a new season – I feel like we are going to college.  In the next few years, I hope we are able to take all the lessons we have gleaned from this wild ride, discern the truths from these lessons and ultimately begin to teach the next generation of Christian leaders how to do church beyond the walls.  In this new season, we will be dedicating ourselves to studying what God is doing across this country and will strive to distill what we glean and communicate it in a way that the Metro Richmond community can be blessed.  In this new season, I will get to do more of what I love – read, write and teach.

I am very excited about this new season in our journey.  In many ways I feel liberated.  I feel like I just stepped foot into the promise land.  I know the many trials and challenges of the past eight years have made me appreciate this season more than I would have had it come earlier.  I also know that without the journey of the past, I would not have been ready for what lies ahead.

Thank you all for letting me take this little trip down memory lane.  I needed to reflect on the past in order to more fully see the future.

Please pray for Embrace Richmond during this season of transition and for us to have the wisdom to take full advantage of future that lies ahead.

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Filed under Personal Reflection