Tag Archives: Urban Ministry

The Nehemiah Strategy

Street Saints: Renewing America's Cities

Street Saints; Renewing America’s Cities by Barbara J. Elliott is one of my all time favorite books.  Elliott has captured stories from across the country that demonstrate the power of the ordinary person who seek to be a blessing to their community.  My favorite chapter is the chapter titled the “Nehemiah Strategy” through which Elliott shows us the power of organizing the efforts of grassroots initiatives using the analogy of the story of Nehemiah.  Below are some of my favorite quotes.

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Welcome to Wonderland: Insights From a Couple of Angry Alice’s

alice in wonderland at the criss museumphoto © 2010 RAFTWET Jewell | more info (via: Wylio)I think I know what Alice felt like when she returned home after spending time in wonderland.  I doubt she went back to life as it was before.  I think she longed to see the mysterious Cheshire Cat appearing and disappearing and I bet she missed the Mad Hatter’s jokes.  I suspect she had a hard time discerning what was real for the rest of her life.  People who fall into rabbit holes are never the same!

Spending my days in the inner city in a culture of extreme poverty and my evenings at my home in the suburbs living midst people of relative wealth, is like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole every morning, spending the day in Wonderland, and coming out into Disneyland every evening.  I spend many weekends in my cabin in the woods simply trying to make sense of these two worlds.   The insanity of Wonderland leaves my head spinning.  Things like kids killing kids, substance abuse, violence and neglect are so challenging to my Disneyland existence.  After spending time in Wonderland, Disneyland just feels fake.  From the master planned communities, to the manicured lawns, to the pedigreed pooches, we are all living out a script in a world designed for our comfort and convenience.  Which is real?  Is it all just an illusion?

In Wonderland $50 would keep a family in housing for a month, but in Disneyland it is simply the price of dinner for two.  Down in the rabbit hole, no one has a car, yet in Disneyland a car is a rite of passage for most every sixteen year old.   In my urban context, people struggle to keep phone service often paying by the minute while every child over the age of seven in the burbs has unlimited minutes and texting.  My friends in the inner city wait in long lines for handouts from strangers to stock their pantries, while we roll through the grocery stores selecting the finest foods for our tables.  I have friends in the inner city who have been looking for a job for years, yet my sixteen year old got a job in a week.

I am not saying this to make anyone feel guilty.  My daughter has a car, all my girls have cell phones and Chris and I have been known to drop more than $50 during a night out for just the two of us.  What I am trying to capture is the surreal nature of these two extreme ends of our American culture.  As one who travels back and forth between these “lands”, I struggle making sense of it all.  I also sometimes get angry: angry at the injustice I see in Wonderland, angry at the waste I see in Disneyland, angry at the church that appears to be just another ride in Disneyland and angry at myself for not being able to stop the insanity of it all.

Hugh Hollowell wrote an excellent post titled “Why I Am Angry – Or Down The Rabbit Hole.” He captured far better than I can, why the Alice’s are angry.  I strongly encourage you all to read Hugh’s post.  I think it might help you all understand why some of my writings may come across as angry.

There is also a certain element of guilt that I feel because I choose to live where I live.  Disneyland has great schools and my children are receiving the finest education.  I think most of us choose Disneyland for our children.  The challenge is to remember that Disneyland is not reality.  We swim in waters that tell us that we deserve a $4 coffee every morning while kids in Wonderland go hungry.  We believe the Disneyland version of a God that would only call us to do things that are safe, convenient and make us feel good.  We want to love our neighbors in Wonderland but only if we can do so from the comfort of Disneyland.   Yet, Wonderland is a world without rules, without schedules, without reason. You cannot minister in Wonderland with a Disneyland approach.

I had a pastor from a very wealthy suburban church ask me this week, “Where does the suburban church fit into the battle to alleviate poverty in our city?”  The truth is you cannot battle the injustice in Wonderland unless you are willing to leave Disneyland. The journey from Disneyland to Wonderland happens physically but more importantly mentally and spiritually. You have to become like Alice, lost in a strange new world with its own rules.  You have to allow white rabbits to lead you and you must be open to learning from a caterpillar.  You have to put up with the misdirection of that mischievous cat, pointless tea parties, and the harsh injustice of ruling kings and queens.  Like Alice you enter this world without a map or a compass, without power and control, and you have to simply feel your way through like a lost little girl.  Sometimes, you will catch a glimpse of a white rabbit and think you are heading the right direction only to find you are more lost than you thought. Unlike the God of Disneyland where we pray and get what we want, the God of Wonderland works in mysterious ways in a land where children are beaten and neglected and others shot and killed in the streets.

Only those seeking to follow a crucified savior dare enter this world.  Only those who believe God can work in uncertainty and chaos will survive.  Only those who believe that their simple presence holds power would find meaning in entering in.  We do not enter Wonderland to “change it”, we enter to be changed by it.  Somehow, when little girls from Disneyland become friends with the March Hare’s of Wonderland, the illusions of both worlds are shattered and the reality of God’s Kingdom breaks in.

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Filed under Personal Reflection, Urban Ministry

Racial Reconciliation in Richmond Virginia?

I think one of the most difficult realities of trying to bridge the inner city of Richmond with the surrounding counties revolves around issues of race.  John Perkins in his book Beyond Charity states, “Because race is such a major player in our history, any attempts to solve the problems of our cities will mean, first, acknowledging the race problem instead of denying that it is a factor, and second, planning our strategies to anticipate the wild card of race.  Otherwise race will continue to be an obstacle with enough emotional power to divide and conquer.”  This is particularly true in Richmond Virginia – the capital of the confederacy.

As I began doing the interviews for my book From the Sanctuary to the Streets, I was surprised by how many times my homeless African American friends brought up race with many commenting on how they “used to hate white people.”  The first time I heard this from someone whom I had grown very close to, I was surprised.  However, the more I heard this same statement, the more I realized that racial tensions are still very strong, especially among those who are on the margins of society.

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Filed under Book Related, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

Giving Up on Serving the Poor

Over the years I have met many people who have said to me “I gave up on serving the poor” for a variety of reasons; they became too busy, they got burned, they did not feel like they were making a difference or did not feel like they were appreciated.  However, Claudio Oliver gives an even better reason in a post on the site  The Ooze titled “Why I stopped serving the poor”.  Below is a small excerpt from the post.  I encourage you to read the full article.

“I’ve given up on helping the poor, given up on serving and saving them. I have rediscovered a hard truth:

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer.

God Shows Up in Our Need to Be Healed

Jesus’ agenda only brings a message for those who recognize themselves as poor, naked, hurt, tired, overburdened, needy and hopeless. As for the rest, his agenda has little or nothing to offer.

The only way to remain with the poor is if we discover that we are the miserable ones. We remain with the poor when we recognize ourselves, even if well disguised, in him/her who is right before our eyes. When we can see our own misery and poverty in them, when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda.

God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed. Finding out this weakness of ours leaves us in a position of having nothing to offer, serve, donate, but reveals our need to be loved, healed and restored.

Herein lies the meaning that the power within us is not the power of our strengths, abilities and wealth, but rather, in the power that is present in our personal misery, so well hidden and disguised in our possessions and false securities. As Jean Vanier says in a book I recently read. “We are called to discover that God can bring peace, compassion, and love through our wounds.”

I have given up on serving the poor. I’m going back to encountering the poor and finding myself in them. I have rediscovered my poverty. And with it I can cry out again: “Son of David, have mercy on me.

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Filed under Theology, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

Are we all Addicts?

What is your drug of choice?  comfort, security, competition, praise, staying busy, controlling people, being in shallow relationships, having too much or too little money, worrying, seeing ourselves as superior or inferior to others.

The above list of addictions came from an intriguing post on Theoblogical titled “What’s Stopping Us?” which claims that we are all addicted to something and for most of us it is not substances but culture.  So, what are you hooked on?

Assuming there is some truth to this statement how do we overcome these addictions?

Theoblogical gives us this cure for what ails us:

  • a group that is breaking with the culture, the world’s systems, and providing support for total recovery from that culture [according to the post it is “in Christ” but I think my AA friends would argue differently]
  • a reconciling group of extreme diversity, especially highly privileged and severely oppressed
  • a group closing the gap between the deepening of personal faith and the expression of that faith in public political ways
  • a group seeking biblical justice in all forms, including the redistribution of wealth
  • a praying group, growing in our capacity to love, understanding that authentic love is always nonviolent.

I liked the above prescribed cure because it so closely aligns with what our Community Works groups are all about.  We are gathering a radically diverse group of people in low income communities (where the wealthy never step foot) and telling them that they (not the government), by the power of God (not human might) hold the power to change their own lives and their community.  We are breaking with the cultural messages of  that breed complacency, materialism, entitlement, dependency, arrogance, fear of the other, powerlessness, hopelessness and building up a spirit of unity, humility, advocacy,  self-sufficiency, love and generosity.

I know a number of you are in recovery from various addictions both substances and culture. What do you think of the cure proposed above?  Do you agree, disagree? Would you add to it, subtract from it?  What freed you from your addiction?  Do you think we are all addicted to something?  If so, what would you say to those who are still in denial?

While many in our communities battle addictions to substances, it is the additions to culture named in the Theoblogical post that we can’t see that are cancerous to our society and impact us all.

So, are you an addict?  Are you willing to admit that you are “powerless” over your addiction and join a group of fellow addicts who are seeking to “work their recovery” together?  If so, I invite you to join one of our Community Works groups and be embraced by a bunch of sick and suffering cultural addicts who together are finding healing.

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Maintaining Balance

Have you ever felt your life was out of balance?  Have you ever had a season when you were simply to busy to rest and reflect upon your life but later came to realize that by resting and reflecting, your life actually got easier and made more sense?  I have just recently come through a season like this.

This past week Jamie, who leads our Fairfield Court missional community, shared that when our communities gather and the conversation is more spiritual in nature, there is a real energy in the room verses conversations that more focused on the tangible stuff our groups engage in like GED tutoring or planning a clothing give away.  I have also seen the exact opposite happen in groups that spend all their time on spiritually focused things, like bible studies.  Often these groups come alive when occasionally people start to discuss how they can tangibly live out the scriptures in the world.  I think the key is balance.

I just went back to a post that I wrote August 1, 2009, titled “Empowering a Movement” based on a book about Church of the Savior.

This particular quote from the book caught my attention:

“We have found it incredibly hard to hold to the concept of the inward and outward journeys. We early discovered that not many persons want them both. Weighted heavily on one side or the other, most of us struggle intensely to keep these two dimensions in any kind of creative tension in our individual and our corporate lives.”

I think we need to be intentional in balancing these two elements of the journey in our own lives and modeling that balance in our missional communities.  I think Jamie’s observation that when the conversation is rooted in the things of the spirit, the passion and energy is present is because perhaps we have been more heavily focused on the outer journey in our groups.  If we want to get to the core of some of the issues faced by those in our communities, like hopelessness and apathy,  we have to find ways of helping people along in their inner journey.

I would love to hear from all of you regarding practices you have developed that have helped you in your inner journey.

The outer journey is obviously the easy side of the equation for me.  I am a “doer” and I have to work hard at making time and space to simply “be”.  For me, practicing stillness or contemplative prayer in nature has been the most powerful practice for me related to the inner journey.  My time spent on my ridge alone in the middle of nowhere just sitting and soaking in the presence of God does more for my spirit than anything else I have found.  I gain such clarity and discernment from this practice in addition to inner peace and healing.  I experience the same healing presence when I am alone in my kayak.  Sometimes I paddle to spiritual music which can be healing but sometimes God sings to me through the birds of the air.  Today was one of those days…blue sky and God’s love in the subtle breeze across the water.

I took a class in seminary called Celtic Spirituality which met at Camp Hanover.  We would gather in a cabin, then we were to spend the next hour seeking God in the wilderness, then came back to class and shared where we met God.  It was a powerful class!  I learned more about spirituality in that one class than I did in all my theology books.

That has been my pathway to a healthy inner journey. When I neglect this practice, I become unhealthy and the outer journey is simply no fun. I encourage you all to share your own path.  I think it may help us to discern how we can help others find their way while we learn more about one another and how God has shaped each of us.

I ask that we embark in this sharing with a gracious spirit, a spirit that respects each contributors journey as valid and equally true as any other person’s journey.  My prayer is that while we may not all have the same practices, we all can respect the practices of others and the fruit that each practice yields.

So, where do you encounter God most powerfully?  How do you find inner peace and healing?

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Filed under Leadership, Urban Ministry

Meet James; our prophetic, hungry, new friend

Have you ever had a total stranger speak such truth into a situation that you knew God was speaking through them?  Well, I have not had that happen very often but today was one of those once-in-a-blue-moon kind of days.

Every Wednesday a group of key leaders from Embrace gather to pray and seek God’s guidance regarding our ministry.  We gather at Commonwealth Chapel because Pastor Rob Rhoden and his church have always been very supportive of the ministry of Embrace.  They have been so generous that they have given Joe a key to the church and allowed us to have full use of the building for our leadership team.  Today, as with most Wednesday’s, the church is empty as we unlocked the door and proceeded to make it our home for the next couple of hours.

Every week someone wonders into the church while we are there praying.  People looking for the pastor, sales people, people asking about various ministries at the church.  We are never able to help them because none of us are actual members at the church.  Honestly, it was getting a bit annoying.  I was even thinking that we should lock the church doors each week so that our bible study time would not be interrupted.

But today we had a different kind of stranger walk through the door.  The minute I saw James, I was annoyed…yet another interruption of our very important time with God.  However once he began to speak, I was deeply convicted.  This stranger was there for us.   I wish I would have had my tape recorder out to capture his exact words but this is what I recall him saying and there were five witnesses to this event who can correct me if I am wrong;

“Hi, my name is James, and I was just released from the county jail and well I have been going round to all the churches trying to get me and my family some food but nobody will help us.  I tried all the churches round my house in the east end and no one would let me in.  It’s like I must stink or look bad or something.  So I decided to come uptown and try to get some food.  I thought that at least one church in the city would help me but seems the church don’t help people no more.  I am trying to stay calm but I feeling very frustrated.  Will someone please help me?”

It was obvious that James was feeling hurt, rejected, and less than the beautiful child of God that he is.  James sincere rebuke of the church, broke the hearts of all five of my fellow Christian leaders and I.  It was as if Jesus walked in the door, and laid bare the reality of what the church has become; a gated community, locked up with those in need of Christ compassionate touch locked out.

Our team prayed with James and an angel named Dick Denzler, with Tabernacle Baptist Church, which happens to be just two streets away, opened up their food pantry just for James and his family.  While James rebuke of the church shines a telling light on the church at large, I am grateful that God put us in Commonwealth with an open door and gave us friends like Tabernacle Baptist so that we could minister as Jesus would have us minister.  These two Churches helped James see that Christ spirit still dwells in the church.

It is quite ironic that James traveled from the east end, where we have a ministry, to a church, where we are not ministers, and happened to walk through the door while we were praying about how Embrace could more fully usher in the Kingdom of  God in the City of Richmond.  It was as if God was saying, “Do you love me?  Feed my sheep.”  Not just in a spiritual sense but in the very real tangible way that James needed food.

As a side note, we have invited James to join our East End missional community and are praying he will take us up on this offer.  Please pray for James and his family and for the doors of the churches across our city to be opened up to Jesus who wears the disguise of the hungry, the homeless and the broken.

So, what do you think of James rebuke of the church?  Do you think his experience is typical?  If James walked into your church (assuming the door was unlocked), how would he be received?  Are we so busy studying God’s word and praying for the hurting, that we have failed to live God’s word and physically embrace the broken?

Before James would leave to go to Tabernacle to get his food, he insisted on hugging each and every one of us…I feel like I got a hug for Christ today…a pat on the back…a “well done good and faithful servant” and the Lord sent that hug in an unexpected stranger named James.

(For those of you who are wondering, yes, the photo above is our very own Yolanda and if you can not read it the sign she is holding says “As Unto Christ”.  We shot this picture as we were trying to come up with book covers and Yolanda is a great model!)

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Filed under Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry