Tag Archives: inner city

The Gift of Discontentment

Do you ever feel torn between worlds?  Wanting to be fully present in two places at one time?

A while back homeless families from the CARITAS program were staying at my local church.  CARITAS provides shelter to the homeless through local congregations who host residence for one week a year.  In a large Sunday school classroom filled with cots my church was providing shelter to more than a dozen families.

I was headed into worship as the families were arriving and made a brief detour into the room where they were staying.  As I entered Shanna, a young mother of two, recognized me and said, “Hey ya’ll it’s the Embrace lady!”  I was greeted with warm smiles, hugs and words of excitement.  Gloria shared that she was exiting the shelter in the coming week and Donna announced she was coming to see me the following week for our employment assistance program.  I felt at home in that room, not because I was in my home church but because these individuals had become my community.

If my family had not been waiting for me in the sanctuary, I would have stayed in the back room with my urban friends.  As I was leaving, a dear woman by the name of Anne came up to me, took my arm, stared deeply into my eyes and with soft intense words she said “Please pray for me tonight.”  There was urgency to her words, as though her survival was dependant on my prayers.  I wanted to stay there with her but I couldn’t.  I wanted to take her with me, but I could not.  This encounter is a picture of the tension I find myself in.  My heart is in the city with the homeless I serve.  I want to stay with them, but my family and friends are in the suburbs, so I am pulled back and forth between these two worlds.

As I sat in service that day, I felt a strange sense of loneliness.  My Pastor preached on the importance of our new multi-million dollar building campaign and my spirit grieved.  I felt so disconnected from this place.  Every month I struggled to keep the doors of our ministry open so that poorest of the poor would have their basic needs met.  I have received almost no financial support from my local church and as I sat there, I felt like an alien in a foreign land.  My church is not a bad church, it is like most mainline suburban churches; it is focused on the needs of the affluent community surrounding it.

I have a third place I call home.  It is the twenty-two heavily wooded acres my husband and I purchased several years ago.  There is a small creek running through it and a steep ridge overlooking a grassy pasture on the other side of that creek.  It is the place where I experience God’s presence most deeply.  It is the place where I am reconnected with myself.  It is the place where I am most creative, where most of my ideas begin to take shape.  It is the place where I finally find the time to write all that has been stirring in my soul.  My family often comes here on Sunday.  For me this is a place of worship.  The trees, the creek and the birds sing of God’s goodness and beauty.  The sun warms me not only on the outside but deep within as I am reminded that God is in all of creation.

I began writing my first semester in seminary eight years ago.  Seminary was such an eye opening experience for me.  It has taught me much about the scriptures and the God who created us.  However, it has also taught me that we never arrive; we are always on a  spiritual journey.

One of my favorite professor, Dr. Stephen Brachlow once said “The way we know we are growing spiritually is that we are discontented.”  When we become comfortable, satisfied, and secure, we are no longer willing to take up our cross and to follow.  Following only results from a desire for change and a desire for change only comes from discontentment with where we are.  I used to think my constant journeying was a curse or perhaps a personality flaw, but I have begun to see it as a gift.  Dr. Brachlow called it “The gift of a discontented soul”.

I have reflected on Dr. Brachlow’s comment often and I think perhaps there is something missing from his statement.  As I sit here on my ridge, high above a babbling creek and watch the leaves gently float through the air in the cool breeze, I realize I am completely content at this moment and in this place.  Much of my journey has taught me to find this inner contentment.  I am totally content with who I am.  However, I am discontented with the world and its brokenness.  I am discontented with racial and economic segregation.  I am discontented with poverty and spiritual depravity.  I am discontented with consumerism and the world’s ideas of success.

I think spiritual maturity is finding contentment with ones self as a child of God, but recognizing the brokenness of this world and allowing ones self to be discontented in a way that drives us to action.  Christian leaders often refer to this as the inward and the outward journey.  We must journey in both directions at the same time.   The inner journey nurtures us and makes it possible for us to endure the struggles of the outer journey and the outer journey helps us to appreciate and crave that inner peace that can only come from God.

Teresa of Avila’s classic book, Interior Castle, teaches us about the beauty of the inner voyage.  She paints for us a picture of this journey complete with the trials and difficulty of reaching that inner place where we are totally united with our creator.  Liberation theologian Oscar Romero teaches us about the outer journey of discontentment that is willing to take up the cross and fight for justice for the poor and oppressed. Avila not only had a rich contemplative spirituality, she also served the poor in her community.  The same is true for Romero whose deep spirituality would not allow him to be content with the oppression of his people for which he became a martyr.

While my life would be simpler if I just had one home, I am thankful for all three.  My hammock on my ridge allows me time to continue that inward journey to wholeness while my time in the city teaches me discontentment and calls me to continue that outer journey to “do justice”.  My time in between, in the suburbs surrounded by wealth and waste, reminds me that we are all in this together.  We will never see an end to poverty until we take a hard look at wealth.  I must struggle with the continual cultural messages of accumulation and consumption that my neighbors must combat.  The hardest place to remain faithful to the Gospel is not the inner city with all its neediness; it is in the suburbs with all its affluence and its call to complacency and comfort.  I am thankful for my discontented soul that seeks and finds a home in God alone.

How do you find contentment for your soul?  What issues drive you to embrace your discontentment with the world?

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The Weirdest Day Ever: Dead bodies, mice, preaching heroin addicts and more

Today, February 4th, 2010 will go down in the history books as the strangest day ever.  I woke this morning and found I had no voice despite the fact I was to facilitate two conversations today; one in Fairfield and one in Hillside.  Yesterday I was diagnosed with a sinus and ear infection and today I am voiceless.

 The children had a two hour delay due to ice and snow.  As I was going out the door to the car, my 16 year old slipped and fell down the steps, I tried to scream but nothing came out.  Last year I was diagnosed with osteopenia after I fell down some steps and shattered my arm which has made me very uncomfortable on steps. I froze in fear and just stood there and watched my daughter tumble down.  She was fine but I was feeling helpless.

When I got to the office today, the road was blocked off.  Apparently someone hit an electrical pole and was killed, the body still lay on the side of the road covered with a blue tarp as on lookers waited for the coroner to arrive.  I watched as a woman got out of her car looked toward the blue tarp and collapsed crying and screaming on the ground.  As I entered my building the lights flickered twice and then went completely out, the woman, the onlookers and even my building were left powerless.

When I went into my building, I saw the Homeward staff gathered under the emergency lights in the hallway as Julie my teammate came running down the hall screaming MICE!  Our building has no windows and other than the one dim emergency light in the hall there were no other lights, leaving the side offices in utter darkness.  Darkness means mice and mice equals panic in an office of all women.  We found Joe outside but sadly learned that he is more terrified of mice than Julie!  So we abandoned the building and left it in darkness.

When I arrived in Fairfield I learned that my teammate Sara Rhoten’s  grandmother died this morning, she learned of her death in the parking lot in Fairfield and this evening a second team member Jamie Mitchell learned that her grandfather died this afternoon.  Today it seems I was surrounded by death.

During  our Fairfield meeting, one of our teammates shared that his application to volunteer with a local youth program had been denied because of his criminal history.  He has had no trouble with the law for more than 20 years and all his convictions were drug charges; no violent or sexual offenses. He had wanted to volunteer with young boys to tell them his story in hopes that they would choose a different path than he had chosen.  He tried to find out why he was denied but no one would listen to him.  Like me, he was voiceless.  Tomorrow, I will wake and my voice will return but my Fairfield friend, whom the world will continue to see as a felon will still be voiceless.  Unable to vote, unable to volunteer, unable to get a job, all because of mistakes he made as a young man.  He is truly voiceless.

Another Fairfield friend shared that her son went to visit his aunt in a nearby public housing community and was charged with trespassing.  I learned today that the streets and sidewalks in public housing complexes were “privatized” which apparently means that if you are caught in those communities and are not a resident, you can be charged with trespassing simply by walking down the street.  Apparently her son is a bit stubborn, as most teen age boys are.  He got caught in that community and charged with trespassing three times.  I learned something else today.  If you are caught and charged with the same misdemeanor three times, the judge can compound the charges and charge you with a felony on the third offence.  This means that her son now has a felony conviction which has resulted in his inability to get a job simply because he went to visit his friend and family in a neighboring community.  Like me this mom feels helpless .  My helplessness was the result of ice on the steps but hers the result of an unjust law.  My daughter suffered no long term harm, but her son will pay for his felony conviction the rest of his life.  He is truly helpless.

I proceeded form Fairfield to Hillside Court only to find that the power outage that shut my building down also resulted in a power outage in Hillside court.  As my teammates and I stood in the parking lot trying to figure out what to do, a woman approached us.  I did not know her but the residents who are a part of my team did.  She proceeded to share that she needed prayer and invited us into her home.  As all eight of us crowded into her tiny apartment, she introduced us to her “mate”, a quiet young girl who shyly stood in the corner.  I suspected something was wrong with our hostess because she kept losing her balance but I was trying not to jump to conclusions as she proceeded to tell us how she loved the Lord and began quoting scriptures.  In the midst of her own preaching I watched as she nodded off and I realized the woman was stoned on heroin.  I looked to Rudy who confirmed my suspicion.  We did what we came to do; we gathered in a circle and we prayed for her.  Of course as the prayer ended she proceeded to share a sob story about needing money for school and again shared that she went to church regularly  and studied the bible.  I may be naive but I am not stupid.  I knew her tuition money was running through her veins and I had no interest in investing in that.  As we drove away, I realized that this woman had the knowledge, she knew the scriptures, professed to know the Lord, said she attended church regularly but still she was powerless against her addiction. 

I now sit in my nice warm lit bedroom in the suburbs reflecting on this day.  It is now dark outside and in Fairfield and Hillside, this is the time when the “rats” come out to devour anyone they can find.  I sit in light but my friends sit surrounded by darkness.

The image of that body laying under that blue tarp still haunts me.  It was lying there for hours which according to my friend Rudy is “normal”.  Sadly dead bodies laying on the side of the road is not an uncommon sight to for my urban friends who are all too familiar with death.

Today I experienced temporary voicelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, darkness and briefly felt the impact of death on those around me.  Sadly for many of my friends voicelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, darkness and encounters with death are everyday occurances; a reality of life.

Tonight I am grieving many things.  I am grieving the lose of the life of the driver. I am grieving the pain of Sara and Jamie for the loss of their loved ones.   I am grieving the injustice that makes my friends feel voiceless and helpless.  I am grieving the darkness that surrounds people trapped in poverty and leaves them feeling powerless and I am grieving the fact that death is common place and not even grieved in some communities.

However, I am also hopeful because today my team brought light into the darkness simply by being present and standing in solidarity with our urban friends.  Did we change anything?  Did we overcome injustice, bring freedom to the oppressed,  sight to the blind, raise the dead?  No, but we were faithful and that is all God asks of us.  On my way home tonight I was behind a minivan with the license plate “HZ LORD” and in spite of today’s circumstances I choose to believe He Is still Lord.  I don’t understand why today happened the way it did.  I am writing this post so I remember when I get to heaven to ask God to explain the events of February 4, 2010, the weirdest day ever.  I am sure somehow, someway, someday, this will all make sense but tonight I am at peace simply knowing it is not for me to know.

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Filed under Personal Reflection, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

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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Filed under Stories from the Street, Top Post's of All Time, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

I choose “not Fear”

The headlines in the Richmond Times Dispatch today reads:

Two males were found shot today near the Hillside Court public-housing complex in South Richmond. Authorities were investigating to see if the shootings were related.

Richmond police said one male was found shot in the abdomen about 10:15 a.m. near Rosecrest Avenue and Harwood Street. Another male was found with a gunshot wound to his lower left arm about five minutes later in the 1300 block of Minefee Street, a short distance southwest of the first shooting scene.

At 10:45 my team turned the corner onto Rosecrest to see squad cars and ambulances removing the bodies from the scene. 

At the same time I was facilitating a conversation at Fairfield Court where two weeks earlier an elderly team member was beaten and robbed.  The goal for today was to help the team cast a vision for what they would like to see in their community.  The prior week they drew pictures of children playing and people walking the street without fear.  Safety is the #1 concern of residence. 

However, I was shocked when I said to the group “How do we help your community overcome fear?”  One very thoughtful member of our team boldly said “What do you mean fear?  I do not have any fear.  I have Jesus, what is there to fear?”  He did not say it in an arrogant manner, but more as a stated fact.  Every member of the group shared that it was their faith that helped them overcome their battles with fear.   

I was so astounded by their incredibly bold rebuke of the spirit of fear that I was completely insensitive to my dear friend who was driving my Hillside team home right after the hillside shootings.  When I arrived at lunch I could tell she was upset about the shootings and I naively thought that calling on her faith and sharing the bold spirit of our East End friends would enable her to overcome her fear.  I was wrong and my insensitivity to her very real fear, was inexcusable. 

As we have sought to build bridges from some of the safest communities in Richmond to some of the most dangerous, fear has been our enemy.  It is an enemy I have had to do battle with in many different ways and many different forms. 

In 2005, a gun man began firing at one of my clients across the street from where my children were serving in the courtyard of a church building in Highland Park.  That was my first real test.  I consulted those wiser than me and they all challenged me to overcome my fear and remain in the community but fear won that battle and I left Highland Park.  I abandoned the team that had served with me there for safer territory and I have regretted it every since. 

We are now in communities equally as dangerous as Highland Park and today I was consumed by a different spirit, a spirit of boldness.  I refuse to be intimidated and I refuse to allow the enemy to derail our team from the good work it is called to. 

I understand why many of my teammates choose not to be in the community today, years ago I would have made the same choice.  However, I pray they understand why that was not an option for me.  I rarely do aftercare visits in the community anymore because of my busy schedule but when my team choose not to go, I heard God saying “Whom shall I send?” and I boldly said “I will go.”  This decision, this battle, was my own.  It was a show down between me and the enemy and this time, I overcame fear.  The strange thing is, I was not fearful.  After the Highland Park incident, I prayed that God would remove far from me that spirit of fear and give me a boldness and God in his faithfulness has and I see this same spirit in my urban friends.

I apologize to those I was insensitive to today.  I pray you understand that years ago, I choose never again to allow fear of bodily harm to keep me from what God called me to.  Perhaps it is a unique gift that not all receive, or perhaps it only comes after many battles, or perhaps I am simply foolish. 

I do want you all to know, should by some chance the enemy win and take me from this earth, I pray you will celebrate my call to be faithful and recognize that should I depart, it is because it is God’s will and not because of some foolish choice I made.  I choose to believe that God is in control and that even I can not mess that up.

My dear friend Martha Rollins has been leading inner city ministries in Highland Park for much longer than I.  She once said to me we decided we would “choose love not fear” and every time we are tempted to give into fear we just remind challenge ourselves “choose love not fear”.  Martha’s ministry has adopted her bold spirit and when I asked her how she did it, she said “it takes a couragous leader” to model “not fear”.  Today, in my spirit, I knew I had to model courage and I pray someday my team will follow or at least understand my choice.

A dear friend Jamie helped me see that we all have fears.  While I have overcome my fear of bodily harm, I am still fearful of other things, like not being able to make payroll, or not meeting our outcomes goals.  Today was both a victory for me and a conviction.   I pray God continues to work in me and continues to drive out all fear, in all parts of my life.  These passages remind us that fear, all types of fear, other than the fear of God, are not of God.   I pray they bless you as much as they have me.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
1 John 4:17-19

 

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
1 John 3:15-17

 

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:17-19

 

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear ; do not be frightened.”
1 Peter 3:13-15

 

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
Romans 8:14-16

 

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Filed under Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

STOP the INSANITY!

The headline reads “Elderly Woman Beaten and Robbed.”  How many captions of this nature do we see and dismiss?  Normally I would not even pause to consider the victim or the perpetrator, that is not until the “Elderly Woman” moved from an anonymous victim to a friend, co-laborer, and teammate.  Mrs. Gabriel is a kind-hearted resident of Fairfield Court.  She cares for her grand children, serves on the tenant council and comes faithfully twice a week to serve on our Embrace Fairfield team; at least she did until a twisted, cruel person beat her, robbed her and stole her peace of mind. 

It was not until this week, with the beating of this sweet elderly friend that I really realized the level of fear and oppression my friends live under.  Every Tuesday and Thursday, my team and I drive into some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Richmond but it is easy to forget where we are.  We arrive to see the smiling faces of women like Mrs. Gabriel. They are the saints, the remnant, who were left behind to pray and seek justice for their impoverished neighbors.  Many of them have lived in these communities 30+ years and tell stories of how the projects used to be. How back in the day, children played on the streets and families cared for and supported one another.  Now mothers who care about their children keep them locked inside, and neighbors avoid one another and isolate behind closed doors.  The once peaceful communities are now controlled by drug dealers and their residents consumed by fear.

At the conclusions of our gatherings, my staff and I return to our safe havens in the suburbs, leaving behind our fragile friends in this crime infested battle zone.  When I heard the news about Mrs. Gabriel, I was sad but the sadness quickly turned to anger, then outrage.  This would never happen in my community, we would not stand for it!  I was even more shocked when my friend Charles was surprised by my anger and said “What’s wrong with you, this kind of thing is normal. They target the elderly on the 1st of the month and follow them home from the store where they cash their social security check.” He said as if I should expect such things.  He sees the beating of the elderly as “normal”.  I suspect that Charles may have either known perpetrators of crimes of this nature or he could have even been the perpetrator back before he was freed from his 30 year addiction.

This event happened just a few days after I met a lovely man named Calvin.  Calvin is trying to raise awareness of what he feels is an unjust sentence imposed on his nephew.  His nephew was sentenced to 30 years in jail for possessing $350 of drugs.  My first thought was “Would a white kid in the burbs receive a 30 year sentence for possessing $350 in drugs?”  My heart went out to Calvin and the three small children who will grow up without a father.  It seemed so unjust, so extreme, so over the top.  But that was on Thursday and today is Sunday and a sweet little old lady is now in the hospital due to the madness of an addict.  I now empathize with that judge…the madness must stop! We are at war and the enemy is drugs and those who are supporting the drug trade. 

Drugs lie behind almost all of the suffering I have witnessed over the past five year.  It is the number one contributor to homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, robberies, violence, and the utter insanity that plagues communities of intense poverty.  I believe in being tough on crime and I understand zero tolerance and the determination of those we have charged with the responsibility of protecting citizens like Mrs. Gabriel.  However, I am still haunted by the faces of the children at our inner city elementary schools, more than 25% of whom are growing up without parents due to incarceration.  How do we keep Mrs. Gabriel safe and give these kids what they need; healthy parents?   

In the past five years I have met some of the nicest addicts and have witnessed how their addiction leads them to do some very evil things.   I hate the violence but I have come to see that when these individuals are not using substances, they really can be contributing members of society.   They can be good mothers and fathers and most deeply love their families…that is when they are not on drugs.  I have also seen how these loving, caring parents can become some of the most neglectful hurtful people when they fall prey to addiction. The war is not between us and them, most do not want to live the way they are living.  The war is between them and the addiction that is stealing their lives and destroying our communities. 

I have interviewed a number of former inmates and all of them have confirmed that all jail did for them was make them better criminals.  They learned who the major players in the drug world were, where to get the best stuff, how to conceal the drugs better and  built a network to keep themselves safe on the outside.  Our jails are simply a school for criminals and we are turning out people with PHD’s in Criminal Behavior. 

I write this post not because I have an answer but more out of utter frustration that no one seems to have a clue how to address this issue but worse is the fact that the vast majority of us do not even care to try.  Mrs. Gabriel is “down there” and we are “out here”.  It is not our problem.  “Those people” need to figure it out.   As a society, we have done some amazing things, found the cure for deadly diseases, achieved major advances in technology, but we cannot rid our community of drugs or prevent the suffering it causes.  30 year jail sentences are not the answer but neither is allowing my friends like Mrs. Gabriel to live in fear.  There has to be a better way!

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What If…

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What if every impoverished child living in Richmond experienced true, authentic, unconditional love?   

What if every Christ Follower actually loved like Christ and was willing to follow Christ into the margins of society in order to see Christ in the faces of the least, the lost and the forgotten?

What if the Body of Christ stopped casting stones at one another but instead united to break the bonds of generational poverty by truly becoming the hands and feet of Christ in the world?

These are the questions that came to my mind when one of the speakers from the Exponential Conference challenged us with this question “What if God really could do what God did in the New Testament?”  He then asked us to formulate “What if Questions” that reflected the heart of our ministry call.

At the heart of Embrace is a desire to help individuals escape from poverty.  As I have had the opportunity to hear the stories of dozens of homeless men and women over the years, I have found an alarming pattern.  Many of those who are trapped in homelessness are there due to wounds suffered as children.  While this is not always the case, I have seen this pattern more times than I care to count.  Those who suffer from these scars are among the hardest individuals to work with because many have never experienced unconditional love and often do not believe they are even worthy of this kind of love.  So the question I most want an answer to is “What if every child in Richmond experienced true, authentic, unconditional love?”  Would it make a difference?  Would it break the cycle of poverty?

You may be thinking to yourself, “How could this ever happen?”  That leads to my second question “What if every Christ Follower actually loved like Christ and was willing to follow Christ into the margins of society?”  If those of us who profess to be Christians actually did what Christ did and spent time with those impacted by poverty; we would come to know the children and the Christ spirit that dwells in us would empower us to develop real, authentic relationship with these children which over time; would allow every child to know they are loved.

I know that these children are still going to be wounded but my belief is that once they know they are lovable; they will be able to heal without the magnitude of long term damage I currently see.  I do not want to give up on the adults, we need to continue to work toward healing but I think the church can have the greatest impact in the area of prevention.

So what does this look like?  I honestly do not know.  I am just starting to ask the question.  What I do know is that it must be relational, not program or event driven.   I do know that there are others like the Micah Initiative and Youth Life Foundation who have come to the same conclusion; if we want to break the cycle of poverty we much invest in the children. 

In a recent Unity Works session one of the participants said “I really want to minister with my family.  Are there any opportunities for families to do ongoing relational ministry with families in transition?”  Sadly my answer was “not right now”.  However, as with all things Embrace, all it takes is one dreamer.  Please join us in asking some new questions and in dreaming some new dreams.  If you are aware of ministry opportunities that engage families in ministering together in relational ways, please let me know.

So what would the world look like if God really could do all the things God did in the New Testament? 

Jesus said “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”  John 14:12

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Filed under Urban Ministry

It’s Good to be Me; Lessons I learned from Rudy Green

In the fall of 2008, Embrace Richmond received an AmeriCorps grant which we have used to hire a number of homeless and formerly homeless men and women.  Many of these individuals are graduates from The Healing Place a 198 bed residential recovery program based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.   Rudy Green was among the first group of men we hired from The Healing Place. 

I remember the day I first met Rudy, his large sensitive eyes revealed a depth to Rudy that I doubt anyone will ever fully understand.   As a child Rudy was bright, he showed great potential.  Growing up in the projects where less than 50% of students graduate from high school, Rudy beat the odds.  He went on to college and his entire family believed he would be the one; the one to escape the generations of poverty that had held his family back from living the American dream.

Though Rudy escaped the outward indications of bondage, he had been infected with a deadly disease that steals far too many promising lives; the disease of addiction.  Rudy will tell you that he was addicted to everything;  drugs, money, guns, alcohol, girls, and anything else that helped him feel alive and on top.  He was smarter than the rest, he kept his disease under control for years. 

After six months of college Rudy dropped out and eventually joined the army.  He found himself stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, just a few miles from my hometown, of Lampasas.  I remember growing up that we were warned to stay away from Fort Hood, that it was a dangerous place.  I was warned never to go near people like Rudy and for good reason.  It was at this time in his life that Rudy’s drug use got totally out of control and he found himself being dishonorably discharged from the military. 

Rudy’s story gets a little fuzzy at this point.  He spent time in jail and somehow made his way back to Richmond, Virginia where he had grown up.  He found himself homeless, friendless and penniless.  The bright boy with a bright future found himself living in an abandoned building, begging for change on the street corner, and living day to day for the next fix.  Most “Rudy’s” never make it past this point; most die on the street.  But somehow, for some reason, Rudy found his way to The Healing Place.  He went there first to get out of the cold but was drawn into the program by those who had gone before him and who professed to have made it out.

Upon graduating from The Healing Place, Rudy choose to stay for six months and serve as a peer mentor.  He gained a reputation for being an honest trustworthy friend to all and this is where I met him.  His sad eyes revealed the depth of the hell he had survived but also held a glimmer of hope that was captivating. 

When I asked Rudy what he wanted to do with his life he answered “I just want to help people.”  For those of you who know the story of how Embrace started, you will recognize those words.  Those were the words spoken by a homeless heroin addict five years ago that drew me into this ministry.  My primary calling is that of a dream releaser; helping people find their calling in life and live it.  I could see so much potential in Rudy but had no idea where it would lead.

In the early months of his time with us, Rudy served in our warehouse.  On his spiritual gifts inventory Rudy scored high in the area of leadership.  However, it soon became evident that years of surviving on the street had undermined Rudy’s ability to supervise his peers.  There was some kind of secret code of honor that I found puzzling at first.  When given responsibility, most of my guys did not want it.  One of my men finally confessed “I just want you to tell me what to do; I don’t want to tell other people what to do.”  I caught me completely off guard.  I have always worked with professionals who were programmed to climb the corporate latter; gain responsibility and move up in life.  But I found many of my Healing Place friends, simply lacked that drive.  There was a contentment that I still so not understand; contentment with being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it.  While Rudy suffered from the “I don’t want to tell others what to do”, he was not content just taking orders.  Deep down I could sense he had dreams, he wanted more out of life but for months we struggled with one another.  Rudy seemed to be just existing, floating through his time with us and after trying multiple roles and having the same outcome, I was ready to give up.

One fateful day, we had a group of youth come to serve at Embrace from my daughters High School.  I asked Rudy to share his story and I watch as he captivated the attention of over 50 students who were enthralled with his subtle way.  Rudy’s gentle voice and calm demeanor lulled them into thinking he was just an ordinary man, but when he shared his extraordinary journey to the depths of depravity and back, I could see he made a connection that few could have made.  In those moments of sharing, I saw Rudy come alive.  A week later the youth form Monacan High School, made cards for Rudy and Tom, the other member who shared, expressing their heartfelt gratitude for having heard their stories.  I remember one said “Rudy is the Bomb”, which made us all smile.  All the cards contained honest reflections on what they had gained from their encounter with Rudy and Tom.  Rudy took those cards home and over the months has spent time reading them and reflecting on that experience.

I decided to have Rudy act as a guide for our Unity-Works training sessions and found that he had the same impact on adults.  Rudy has a way of sharing himself that brings others into his story, leads them to new insights, and transforms their minds.   I tend to be a bit loud, excited and passionate about what God has done through Embrace.  That passion can move a crowd to action but I watched as Rudy’s gentle way of sharing himself lead the group not to action but to new insight and understanding which ultimately prepared them for thoughtful action.

One of the projects toward the end of Unity-Works is to draw a picture of what you would do for God if you knew you would not fail.  Rudy drew a picture of himself teaching and leading youth.   Rudy had finally found his call.  On his picture he wrote the words “Every ending has a beginning” and he remembered that bright young boy who could have done so much but who lost his way due to drugs and alcohol.  Rudy’s dream is to help that boy avoid the things that led him astray; to guide the next generation to a better future.  As Rudy shared his dream, I felt as though the heavens had opened up and spoken to Rudy with such clarity. 

For months I had watch Rudy float through life, doing what he was told, but never finding his place.  A few weeks after he revealed his picture of working with youth, we were doing morning reflection and Rudy shared a story of how he had introduced his 12 year old nephew to the drug trade.  He shared the guilt he felt over having used this innocent child to further his own selfish gain, and how he so wanted to make amends not only to this young man but for all who could follow in his footsteps.  It was a solemn offering and we could all see the pain he carried.

I began reaching out to ministries that I am aware of who work with at-risk boys and began talking with Rudy about his future and his dream and God began to confirm that dream in Rudy’s heart and mind.  This week, I heard Rudy say something I have heard him say many times before but this time, he said it with a new conviction; this week Rudy proclaimed with boldness “It’s good to be me.”

So what did I learn from Rudy?  I learned that we must be true to ourselves.  For months, I have been trying to be something I am not; I am not a business manager of a furniture bank.  I am a minister.  While Rudy was floating on a river of discontentment; I have been paddling with all my might up stream, trying to save a sinking ship; a ship that needs a real captain.  While I am busy bailing water, a true leader could help this ship navigate to calmer waters and could steer the furniture bank onto a new course.  I have tried to be something I am not and I have made myself and everyone around me miserable.  I have worked harder in the past few months than I ever have in my life but we are still taking on water.   It is time for me to turn this boat over to a more capable seaman and go back to what I do best; helping “Rudy’s” follow their dreams.   When I am doing that, I too can say with confidence “It’s good to be me!”

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Filed under Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry