A Still, Small Voice. (Rebecca’s God Story.)

IMG_3303

My dear friend, Rebecca, recently had an encounter that deeply encouraged my heart. I’ve asked her to write it out so that I can share it here.

In Rebecca’s words:

My daughters and I visit a local park a few times a month. On one of these visits I noticed two Spanish gentleman sitting on the stairs by the park restroom. They both had backpacks next to them. I could tell by looking at them that they were men in need. I just wasn’t sure yet what that need was. While we were at the park I couldn’t help but glance over and wonder what was going on with them. Were they homeless? Were they in need of a job? Were they hungry? They stayed on my mind the entire time at the park. God was speaking, but I was trying to visit with my friend. Okay, God, I hear you, but I have important mommy stuff to talk about. We left the park that day, and I said a silent pray for those men and went about my life.

A week or so later my daughters and I were back at the same park, and this time only one of those men from our previous visit was there. Same spot, same sad look. Again the Lord put him on my heart. I couldn’t help but feel the conviction of my heart telling me I needed to help that man. Of course I had a handful of reasons why I couldn’t. I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t know him. What could I do to help? So my mind and my heart started to battle. That day my mind won, but Jesus had a plan.

A few weeks later my church had a local outreach. I was going with a team of volunteers to a couple of our local parks to serve in our community and share the love of Christ. The second park we went to was the same park where I had seen the man sitting on the stairs. When we got to the park, he was there sitting in the same spot as before. I thought: here I am living my life, always on the go, and here is this man just sitting there waiting. Waiting for something. Waiting for help? That day I had a friend with me who spoke Spanish, so now was my chance to listen to God and go speak to him.

My friend and I walked up and asked him his name. His name was Franco,* and he was indeed homeless. He was estranged from his family. Franco had been staying at the Salvation Army whenever he had the ten dollars a night to stay there. He was out of work and in need of a second chance. After getting to know Franco’s story, I told him I would see what I could do to help him out. I told him I needed a week….a week of prayer and to reach out to some of my friends who I though might be able to help him with a job. I asked Franco to meet me the next Saturday at the same time and place.

My group and I headed back to church to have lunch after our park day. At church I ran into my friend who owns a local plant nursery. I told her all about Franco and how the Lord had put him on my heart and in my path. She instantly wanted to help, and said she would talk to her husband and get back to me. A few days went by before she contacted me to say that her husband would be willing to give Franco a chance at his nursery. I called my Pastor at El Crucero where I teach in the children’s ministry and asked if he would meet me at the park on Saturday to talk with Franco.

Next Saturday came, and my girls and I headed to the park to meet Franco. He was there, sitting in the same spot as before with all of his belongings. A few minutes later, Pastor Andy showed up. Immediately, Pastor Andy recognized Franco. Franco was someone he had met in the neighborhood where El Crucero is. After a few minutes of talking, I realized I knew Franco’s children, and I had met his wife before. I knew where his house was! I knew at that moment this was a divine intervention! It’s truly amazing when you see how God works! Pastor Andy and I set up a plan to get Franco to his new job. My husband and I picked him up on Monday morning at the Salvation Army and drove him to work. Pastor Andy would take it from there. I spoke to my friend at the end of the week, and she said Franco was coming every day and doing well.

I am so thankful I obeyed God’s prompting on my heart and that Franco has a second chance. I’ve always been a firm believer God uses us to answer each others’ prayers.

Whose prayer is God asking you to answer?

Blessings, Rebecca

*”Franco’s” name has been changed for privacy purposes.

Grace in the Storm: El Crucero Goes to Sky Zone

IMG_5449

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.

————————————-

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

bowling

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.

——————

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!

9 Lessons I’ve Learned from “Christian Community Development”

soccer camp 5

A year ago I had never heard of “Christian community development,” and was only vaguely aware that forms of incarnational ministry to the poor existed in America.

As my experiences ministering in an impoverished neighborhood were increasing, so were my questions and concerns. Clearly, there had to be more effective and loving ways to help the poor than what I was seeing (and doing).

So, I began a search. Certainly there must be others who have done or are doing what we are doing at El Crucero. Someone out there must have some advice or hard-won wisdom to light my path.

My search led me to John M. Perkins’ book Beyond Charity and the concept of Christian community development. Perkins has since become one of my “heroes of the faith.”

After having grown up parentless and hopelessly poor in 1940’s Mississippi, Perkins eventually “escaped” to California where, as a 27-year-old husband and father, he powerfully encountered the love of Jesus for the first time. Three years later, he decided to carry this love back to his impoverished black community in Mendenhall, Mississippi. Perkins would spend the next 4 decades living and ministering in poor neighborhoods, exercising his idea of Christian community development in 3 different cities.

Out of his life work, an organization called the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) was born, which has been connecting, educating and inspiring numerous individuals and ministries across America since 1989.*

At the core of the Christian community development ideology is the belief that the church is called to walk alongside the poor by offering relationships “that reflect the kind of careful, quality attention we have in our own families” (i.e. to actively love our neighbor as we love ourselves).

As Perkins puts it,

“I loved myself enough to want a good job, a safe home, and healthy food. As I began meeting people without basic things, I saw that God’s love in me wanted them to also be healthy…”

In other words, do we really love our neighbors as we love ourselves if we are content to leave them hungry, homeless, uneducated, jobless, unsafe, hopeless…?

Although I am far from having attained the right to call myself a practitioner of Christian community development, I have taken much of their teaching to heart and have been trying to be faithful to what I’ve learned.

For myself and those who volunteer with me, I have created a list of 9 essential guidelines to follow when working with the poor:

  1. Always start by intently listening.
  2. Identify the person or community’s felt needs (what they perceive to be their own most important needs).
  3. Work with (not for) the individual or community to address the felt needs first.
  4. Don’t solely focus on needs. Identify the individual or community’s inherent assets and strengths. Purposefully build on and develop the assets.
  5. Always respect indigenous leadership where it exists and work to develop it where it doesn’t.
  6. Affirm every individual’s dignity.
  7. Relationships are essential, but work to develop relationships built on equality rather than need-based relationships that place one person over another.
  8. Never forget the supernatural power of the gospel to transform and restore.
  9. Pray, pray and pray!!!

I know I have much left to learn. If you have more experience than I do, please, please share it!

 

*Here is a short list of organizations that follow the ideology of Christian community development:

InnerCHANGE

Word Made Flesh

Servant Partners

FCS (Focused Community Strategies)

Compassion International

 

 

 

Feliz Navidad

nativity 1

Two weeks ago, we had our one and only semblance of a rehearsal for the El Crucero children’s Christmas program. It went about how I expected. Lots of noise and chaos.

Mary and Joseph were both deeply embarrassed and didn’t want to stand anywhere in proximity to each other. Little Eric (a wise man) was so horrified I had put him in a “dress” that he spent the whole practice holding the tunic hiked up above his waist. Monica nearly gave a couple of other children black eyes with her shepherds’ crook.

I had no idea what to expect from tonight. I had assigned 8 costumed roles and 5 significant narration roles and knew it would take a miracle for them all to show up. I had told them to invite their parents to come watch, but  didn’t know if any of them would.

But, thanks to much prayer and God’s grace, the program went well. Although 2 of my expected performers didn’t come, two other children joyfully (even eagerly) replaced them. All of my narrators came and read beautifully. Eric kept his skirt, er tunic, down and Monica kept her crook up.

I know that not all of their parents came, but some did and the small sanctuary felt full. Afterwards we had a lively cookie and punch reception, where I had opportunity to get many Merry Christmas hugs.

So tonight, I am grateful. Grateful for all of my friends who helped out. Grateful for everyone who prayed. And grateful for my brave, wonderful El Crucero kids.

I’ll leave you with another nativity picture. The one above was taken shortly before we opened the doors to the sanctuary. I had put everyone in place and they happily posed for my camera. This second picture was taken during the actual program. I think you might be as entertained by the differences between the two as I am.

nativity 6

May you all have a Feliz Navidad!