Prichard, Alabama

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Recently I’ve been reading Tattoos on the Heart, in which Father Gregory Boyle tells about his 20 years of living among and loving the gang members of Los Angeles. His stories are heart-breaking—children who grow up with no one to parent them, teenagers eaten alive by shame, violence enacted as a form of self-hatred and a way to dabble with suicide. In short, he describes a world torn apart by generational poverty, drugs, alcohol, death and despair.

As I’m reading, my compassion is stirred; and yet, Father Greg’s world seems far distanced from my own. His stories contain echoes of my old favorite, The Cross and the Switchblade, and of the soul-stirring production of West Side Story  I watched with my children last fall. This desperate world of gangs and deadly encounters between rivals is so cinematically familiar to me that the reality of it doesn’t want to seep in. Even with all of my experiences in the El Crucero neighborhood, the bleakness of Father Greg’s community is almost ungraspable.

And then I read this:

I had a three-state set of speaking gigs and brought along two older homies, rivals, Memo and Miguel, to help me do it. We were in Atlanta, DC, and finally Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. After our last talk in the morning at the college, we meet a man named John who tells us of his ministry in Pritchard, Alabama, and invites us to go visit his community. We take two hours to drive and walk around in what I think is about the poorest place I’ve ever seen in the United States. Hovels and burned-out shacks and lots of people living in what people ought not to live in.

Memo and Miguel are positively bug-eyed as they walk around, meet people, and see a kind of poverty quite different than the one they know.

We return to the house where we’re staying and have half an hour to pack before leaving for the airport and our return home. We all dispatch to our own rooms, and I throw my suitcase together. I look up, and Memo is standing in my doorway, crying. He is a very big man, had been a shot caller for his barrio, and has done things in and out of prison for which he feels great shame—harm as harm. The depth of his core wound is quite something to behold. Torture, unrivalled betrayal, chilling abandonment—there is little terror of which Memo would be unfamiliar.

He’s weeping as he stands in my doorway, and I ask him what’s happening.

“That visit to Pritchard—I don’t know, it got to me. It got inside of me. I mean [and he’s crying a great deal here] how do we let people live like this?”

Prichard, Alabama.

The Prichard, Alabama that sits less than 7 miles from where I grew up in Springhill, Alabama.

The Prichard, Alabama that is only 10 minutes up the interstate from the house I called home from age 2 until 23.

The Prichard, Alabama whose high school, Vigor, was my high school’s main football rival.

I find myself stammering here: “Wow, I didn’t know…. I had no idea….I never saw…. “

I’ll tell you what I did know.

I knew that Prichard was poor.

I knew that Prichard was where “black people” lived.

I knew that Prichard was dangerous—a place to be avoided.

Poor. Black. Dangerous.

And, like everyone else, I stayed away.

To this day I’ve never seen Prichard, Alabama.

I have many stories about racial division and inequity I could (and maybe one day will) tell you from my growing up years in southern Alabama. Stories about how I perceived the African American children who were bussed into my otherwise all-white elementary school, stories about my large high school where I sat in almost entirely white classes even though the school’s population was about 60 percent minority, stories about wanting to cross the us/them divide and not being able to find a path between the two.

But for now, I just want to share my indignation, my sorrow and my guilt.

To my neighbors for the first 2 decades of my life: I apologize to you. I am sorry I never saw where you live. I am sorry I categorized and dismissed you. I am sorry that I was scared of you and avoided you. I am sorry I never cared what your life was like. I am sorry I never prayed for you or felt compassion for your trials.

And to everyone else, I would like to ask a simple (yet profoundly difficult) question:

Who is living in your backyard?

Grace in the Storm: El Crucero Goes to Sky Zone

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Around January, someone donated a significant amount of money to El Crucero with the expressed desire that we take some of the El Crucero children to Busch Gardens (or somewhere comparable) for a bit of Spring Break fun.

I was excited by the idea, but also nervous. By now, we had gained plenty of experience taking children on outings, but always only one small group of children at a time. This would be different—a full day out with both boys and girls, 3rd grade and up (including our middle schoolers and our stray high schooler).

As I began to query my team for input, I quickly realized that most of them were extremely uncomfortable with the idea of taking the children to Busch Gardens and that I would be hard-pressed to find enough adults willing to transport and chaperone the children all the way to Tampa.

So my friend, Jill, and I began to brainstorm alternatives. Jill suggested Sky Zone, and we met there one afternoon to give it a look-over and to get information about scheduling an event.

It seemed perfect—far enough away that I knew the children would feel like they had traveled somewhere, large enough that we could bring as big a group as we could gather, exciting enough to compete with a theme park, especially to kids who’ve never experienced one.

I felt ecstatic as I looked at the event options and realized that for about half of what it would cost to take them to Busch Gardens, we would be able to pay for an hour and a half of jumping, rent our own dodge ball court and then take them out to lunch before heading home. That would leave the other half of the donation to fund a soccer camp in the neighborhood this summer! …or to fund sports scholarships to kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to join a community league!

Then I saw the waiver.

For those of you who’ve never been to Sky Zone, there is a row of kiosks at the front door where parents and guardians fill out an extensive waiver before their children are allowed to jump. Not only does this looooong waiver suggest the possibility of death:

NOTICE TO THE MINOR CHILD’S NATURAL GUARDIAN

YOU ARE AGREEING TO LET YOUR MINOR CHILD ENGAGE IN A POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS ACTIVITY. YOU ARE AGREEING THAT, EVEN IF SZITP USES REASONABLE CARE IN PROVIDING THIS ACTIVITY, THERE IS A CHANCE YOUR CHILD MAY BE SERIOUSLY INJURED OR KILLED BY PARTICIPATING IN THIS ACTIVITY BECAUSE THERE ARE CERTAIN DANGERS INHERENT IN THE ACTIVITY WHICH CANNOT BE AVOIDED OR ELIMINATED.

…but it also requires the parent to fill out their complete address, birthdate and driver’s license number.

A driver’s license number???

To understand my horror, you need to know that I consider it an accomplishment when I manage to get back a form with a child’s last name, a street name, and some semblance of a phone number on it. An actual house number requires a minor miracle. I knew there was NO WAY my children were going to get their parents to fill out a form that asks for a birthdate and driver’s license number.

This waiver was a deal breaker, an insurmountable obstacle to Spring Break jumping joy.

But where else could we go? I was out of ideas. After chewing on it for a few days, I decided to find a way to make Sky Zone work. I began by calling and asking if I could sign the waiver for children who weren’t my own. The guy who answered the phone told me “yes.” Ahhh, hope.

Next, I called the event coordinator and began planning the details of our visit. After establishing date, time and best-guess group size, she brought up the waiver. Sigh. There it was again. I explained a bit about our group and asked if I could take responsibility for the children myself. “No, all the children will have to have waivers signed by their own parents or guardians.” Defeat. “But…,” she continued, “I can make up a paper waiver for your group that doesn’t ask for a driver’s license number.” Clearly, this woman was an angel in disguise!

This angel-woman made Sky Zone possible for us. Not only did she make up a paper waiver, she highlighted in yellow everything that had to be filled in completely and later hand-entered all of the children’s information into the Sky Zone system. The waiver still presented a challenge, but at least now it didn’t seem insurmountable.

Now I began to prepare for our special day. I made up a flyer and printed the waivers. I recruited chaperones. I started talking up the event to the kids. But mostly, I began to pray. I passionately prayed no one would get hurt; but I also prayed we’d have enough drivers to get everyone there and that the day would generally “go well.”

Do you pray the “ everything go well” prayer, too? I ask God for “all to go well” in the hope that all will go perfectly. You know…perfectly…without hitch or complication, without conflicts or bad attitudes. What I’m really praying is that everything will go exactly according to my own plans and expectations.

I’ve found that particularly in ministry this prayer rarely goes answered.

Sky Zone day was no exception.

For starters, in the week leading up to the event I lost 2 of my chaperones, one to a family funeral and the other to an unexpected work conference.

Then, the morning of the event, my 5-year-old daughter woke up with a fever. I didn’t have any choice but to leave her behind and pray I wasn’t passing along any terrible virus to my 82-year-old mom.

Twenty-two children, waivers in hand, were happily waiting for us when we arrived at El Crucero. We quickly checked forms and divided kids into cars. Our caravan, including 7 adults and 29 children (the 22 from the block + 7 volunteer’s kids) made it to Sky Zone without incident.

IMG_5280Then we jumped (and jumped and jumped and jumped). The jumping was glorious fun, but while our group radiated joy and laughter inside, outside the sky was growing ever darker and more ominous.

Here in Florida, most days are sunny. Rainy days are the exception, and stormy days are a rarity. But by the time lunchtime rolled round, the entire sky was coming apart. Thunder. Lightning. Torrential rain.

According to my carefully laid plans, we were supposed to go to the Steak and Shake two blocks up the street and feed the kids hamburgers and milkshakes. It was a perfect plan, perfectly prepared. I had called ahead. I had pre-bought gift cards at Sams and clipped coupons in my effort to get the best deal possible. And I had gotten the kids excited for this new restaurant experience.

Braving the downpour, my volunteers and I herded our 29 children through the dark, rainy parking lot into our various vehicles. My van full of girls squealed and made much noise about being wet, but I told them we were having a grand adventure. Don’t you think the rain makes the day more fun, girls?

Meanwhile I tightened my grip on the steering wheel and snaked my way through rain and traffic to Steak and Shake where I was met by an employee waiting to tell me that the storm had caused them to lose power. We would have to go somewhere else.

I quickly tried to coordinate with the other 5 drivers what was to be done. There were no other viable restaurants in the immediate area, so we planned to make our way to a Chick fil A about 10 minutes away.

Chick fil A was chaos. By some mercy, we eventually got everyone fed, shuffled back into cars and  safely delivered to their own doorsteps.

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I will not say that the day was easy. I had prayed that “all would go well” and then encountered loss of volunteers, a sick child, an unexpected (and expensive) change of plans and an epic storm.

And, yet, the day did go well. God provided a good turn out of children, an adequate number of vehicles and chaperones, an alternate lunch spot, and safe passage through the rain and traffic. All of the children were allowed to jump (even though I later learned that some of their waivers were not fully acceptable). No one got hurt. Everyone had fun. Grownups and kids strengthened their relationships, and God was glorified.

I used to think that if God loved me, he would smooth the path for me. I’m an “acts of service” girl and feel most loved when someone helps me out. It has taken me a long time to accept the fact that when I choose to take the road of sacrificial love and compassion in Jesus’ name, God, more often than not, allows the road to be littered with complications and difficulties. But, in the end, all is well, because God is in our midst and his love is never failing. I just need to remember to stop looking at myself and my own worries and frustrations to see it.

 

A Tricky Endeavor–Field Trips at El Crucero

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Field trips in a ministry like El Crucero are tricky endeavors.

When gathering children off of the streets for church is a common practice, how do you carry children away from their neighborhood without running the risk of being considered a kidnapper?

…and yet, how do you get permission from parents you never see and who never engage with the ministry?

How do you trust a permission slip when it is illegible and generally incomplete? … when there is no emergency contact number? …when it looks like the child filled it out?

And what do you say to the 4th grader begging to bring along her 2-year-old sister because she serves as the baby’s primary caregiver and won’t be allowed to go unless she can bring her little charge with her.

…or to the family of siblings who matter-of-factly declare they are not available to go on the field trip because it falls on “wash day,” and they are expected to go to the laundromat and help their mom with the week’s dirty clothes.

How do you decide how many children to expect/prepare for when you never know who is going to show up at the appointed time? Will there be enough drivers to transport everyone? Will we have enough adult supervision? Will there be enough food, enough goody bags, enough seats?

Or, on the contrary, will there be enough children? Will they remember to come at this unusual time? Will their parents decide to postpone wash day or let to their oldest ones leave the babies at home? Will we plan and buy and anticipate only to be disappointed…or, even worse, to BE a disappointment?

And what about the risks? What if someone gets hurt? How will we let her family know? And won’t we be held personally liable? If something goes wrong, might it not destroy the ministry? Is a field trip really worth all this risk?

For the first year of El Crucero, such questions made outings and field trips seem like an impossibility to me. But slowly, as we got to know the children better, I began to dream. Couldn’t we take a few of the older children to the movie theater? None of them had ever been before. Might I not have a tea party for the girls at my house and serve them on my best china and make them feel like princesses? Oh, wouldn’t the boys love to go bowling or to their first baseball game or to play laser tag at the mall?

We began small, but over the past 2 years we’ve grown bolder in planning such outings. At first, we would only take out groups of 4 or 5 kids, but later we began to bring entire small groups of up to 13 boys or girls at a time.

We made up our own permission slip and would often follow kids home to get a parent’s signature. We knew such slips didn’t give us any real legal protection, but we decided that making sure the parents knew where their children were and had given permission for them to go was good enough. The special opportunity to build and strengthen relationships in the group combined with the joy of watching how exuberantly our young friends enjoyed these new experiences proved to be well worth all of the risks.

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Eventually, we have begun to use such outings as incentives. We  keep “star boards.” Children earn their way to participate in the next small group outing by earning a pre-established number of stars. Stars are awarded for showing up for church, memorizing bible verses, remembering to bring a bible, and reading the bible at home during the week.

Amazingly, using outings as incentives has proven to be extraordinarily effective. Not only have the children been showing us how responsible they can be; but, quite unexpectedly, the participation in trips has grown exponentially. And the star boards give us frequent opportunity to explain and demonstrate grace.

 

Do you also minister to children in an impoverished community? I’d love to hear about what has worked and not worked in your group. Let’s share stories!