Seeds of Beauty

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Friday evening, I went to the funeral visitation for the father of one of my El Crucero girls. Two friends and I had already visited this child’s grandmother earlier in the week, where we had sat, drinking the cold water we had been handed and listening (via translation) to the grandmother’s grief. Her husband had passed away only 4 short months ago, and now her son, the baby of her 7 grown children–was gone, too.

It is too much.

Our young friend, the daughter of the deceased, wasn’t there. We don’t see her until we get to the funeral home. When we arrive, she is surrounded by cousins. Her little brother is coloring and seems unconcerned by the weight of the event. All of the children are in the front room of the funeral home, avoiding the specter of death in the room behind them. I avoid it, too, staying with the children, meeting the ones who are new to me, talking with a couple of their mothers.

It is the most somber visitation I have ever attended. I also come from a large family and have attended many viewings. They have always been one part tears and one part laughter. This visitation is missing the laughter.

This is our 3rd child to lose a father this year –2 to death and 1 to deportation.

Somehow that doesn’t seem normal to my experience. Elementary school and middle school children shouldn’t lose their parents on such frequency.

I often forget that there are aspects of my El Crucero children’s lives that are outside of my experience. The more time I spend with them, the more I forget. I see their joy and their squabbles. I hear their chatter about school and parents and dreams, and it all seems so normal and predictable. . .

Until I get a jolting reminder that many of my children deal with circumstances that should never be considered normal:

A child will ask for an extra bag of chips at the end of church on Sunday and tell me that our evening snack is the first food she’s had all day. Another child will privately tell us about the man who has been arrested because he did something to her he shouldn’t have. At homework help, a conversation about crushes will morph into an enumeration of which of our 7th-grade boys smoke pot.

Somehow, I always feel blindsided by these proofs of what is wrong with our world. Every time.

But I’m also perpetually discovering the beauty of loving well in hard places. Wherever pain and loss and lack is present, we have an opportunity to plant a seed of beauty. . . a seed of grace, a seed of hope, a seed of community.

This week my heart is heavy for a beautiful family’s loss, but it is also encouraged by the ways I’ve seen our El Crucero community rally to be a physical expression of Jesus to this family–through significant donations to the burial fund and a gorgeous bouquet of flowers, yes; but most especially through presence and connection.

I am increasingly realizing that every ugly, scary, painful situation around us is an opportunity to plant a seed of beauty. To stand in solidarity. To offer what help we have to give–a meal, a ride, a hug, a smile, a listening ear, a sincere prayer….

Of course, it is so much easier not to reach out into someone else’s pain, but these seeds can only be planted by pulling up our sleeves and getting down into the dirt. Being present in a dark place hurts. But choosing to do so out of love for another is a holy experience. Such choices connect us to each other and to God.

Be a seed planter.

Why Minister on the Margins?

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I still remember the shock I felt so many years ago, sitting on that church classroom floor, listening to the VBS teacher. I was 10 or 11 years old—it was probably the last VBS of my childhood—and, besides the Kool-Aid, I have only retained this one memory from that week. The teacher, who was the mom of one of my classmates, was telling us about Jesus, but she was saying things I had never heard before. Disturbing things.

In my mind I can still see her now, leaning down from her chair to explain to us that Jesus had really come to earth for the poor. I don’t know if she added the phrase “and not for us,” but somehow that is how the memory plays out in my mind.

I was stunned and confused. I had ferociously placed my hope in Jesus, my savior, a year prior to that and felt dismayed at the possibility that I was not included in the group for whom he had come.

On one level, I rejected what she said as untrue. Jesus, I was certain, had come for everyone. Yet, on another level, I became very sensitive to the idea of a connection between Jesus and the poor. I wanted to evaluate this new teaching. Why would she think that? What would it mean for that to be true?

As an adult looking back, I’ve often thought about how bold of a statement that was to make to a group of children. In the context of this room full of army brats living securely and rather uniformly on a military base in a foreign (and affluent) country, the idea that Jesus was for the poor excluded not just us but our whole known world.

In the years that followed, as I returned Stateside and continued my involvement in church in the deep South, I never saw anything to help me understand how, if Jesus had come for the poor, those who bore his name could be so affluent and comfortable.

By this time I was also reading the Bible for myself. I knew the story of the rich young man who loved his money more than God (Matt. 19:16-28); I knew about the poor widow whose piddling offering Jesus considered worth more than all the lavish offerings given by the rich (Mark 12: 42-44); I had read the beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20).

And some interior voice told me that it was true. Jesus had come for the poor.

Believing something and understanding it are quite different things. While I continued to believe that Jesus came for everyone (1 Tim. 2: 1-5), I also grew to believe that Jesus had come especially for the poor … but I still didn’t know how that fit into church as it existed around me.

I think that we Americans tend to bristle when we hear someone say that “Jesus came for the poor.” Just as I did as a child, we interpret this to mean that we are somehow excluded. And so we defend ourselves:

“Certainly Jesus just meant that we are not to love money more than we love him.”

“I live paycheck to paycheck. No one would call me rich.”

“Wealth is not a sin. God rewards those who believe.”

“Doesn’t the Bible say, ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat’ (2 Thes. 3:10) and ‘Do not love sleep or you will grow poor.’ (Prov. 20: 13)?”

But all these defenses miss the point. Jesus chose to live in poverty among the poor. He called his 12 disciples to leave their livelihoods and join him in poverty. In truth, Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry engaging with people on the margins of society… lepers, the handicapped, the infirm, women, children, Samaritans, prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors. He identified with the poor and the excluded, and he poured himself out for them.

And in the most profound way possible, Jesus tells us to do likewise. In Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus says that every time we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, invite in a stranger, care for the sick or visit those in jail, it is exactly as if we have done it for him. And what’s more, every time we fail to do these things, we are neglecting Jesus himself: “What I’m about to tell you is true. Anything you didn’t do for one of the least important of these, you didn’t do for me” (Matt. 25:45).

I titled this post, “Why Minister on the Margins,” so let me get to my point. I know there are many varied reasons why individuals leave their comfort zones to join hands with people on the margins of society. Guilt. A compulsion to “change the world for the better.” A thirst for novelty and adventure. A desire to feel important or needed. A (possibly unconscious) attempt to earn God’s love.

Let me share with you my reason: I love God.

Over a decade ago I read a book by Chuck Colson called Loving God (everyone should read it!) that radically transformed my paradigms about service and obedience. I had always followed all the rules, striving to be “obedient” and “good” because, as a Christian, “it was the right thing to do.” But Colson helped me to understand the link between obedience and service and my own love of God.

My heart changed. No longer was “doing the right thing,” my driving motivation. Obedience and service to others became a tangible expression of my love for my holy, gracious God—a way to worship him and a way to connect with him.

It was incredibly freeing. Instead of bearing the weight of trying to live up to a certain standard, every act of obedience became an act of love. Instead of focusing on how God was (or seemingly wasn’t) expressing his love for me, I began to focus on loving him well. And service became a joy. And God began to show himself around every corner. And I began to experience the reality of the truth that loving others is loving God.

And God began to talk to me and to show me ways to love him. And then he sent me to El Crucero.

I wish that was the end of the story, but this is real life and I have gotten off track. Life is busy and stressful and full of temptations to live for myself. I have forgotten my first love. But, you know what? Every week when I go to El Crucero and connect with one of the children, I find God. Every time.

God doesn’t send us “rich Christians” to the margins because he loves “them” more. He sends us because he loves us all, and it is through our interdependence on each other that He teaches us what it means to love and be loved by HIM.

 

The day I almost met Mother Teresa and the day I did meet Dr. John M. Perkins

IMG_2713 (2)Once, when I was 10 years old, I had an opportunity to meet Mother Teresa. My family and I were living on an army base in Japan at the time, and I belonged to a small children’s church choir that had been invited to sing for Mother Teresa during her visit to Camp Zama. We were going to sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth”–a song that I loved, a song that had filled me with rapture from the first moment I heard it.

But I didn’t go. When it was time to leave for the event, I simply decided to stay home.

At that time, I didn’t have a very clear idea of who Mother Teresa was, only that she was famous for being good. My ears always pricked up after that, though, whenever I would hear news of her; and slowly over the years I developed a fascination for the work she was doing in India (and for the life she had left behind). I often regretted that I had so flippantly thrown away my chance to cross paths with her.

I am grateful I didn’t make the same mistake this summer when I was invited to rub elbows for a whole weekend with another of Jesus’ powerful champions for the poor and one of my personal “heroes of the faith,” Dr. John M. Perkins.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ve probably heard me talk about Dr. Perkins before. I stumbled upon him through his book, Beyond Charity, which lays out both the theology and some of the practices of Christian community development–a concept that Perkins developed over a lifetime of ministering inside poor, marginalized neighborhoods. I was immediately struck by his intelligence, sincerity and humility and found his unique perspective on race and poverty in the U.S. to be both eye-opening and timely (even though the book was written more than 20 years ago).

This past weekend I had the great honor of attending the InnerCHANGE 2016 conference as a guest. Dr. Perkins was one of the primary speakers for the weekend, and I had several opportunities to not only hear him speak, but to chat with him and his lovely daughter, Priscilla.

Now in his 80’s, Dr. Perkins is a beautiful example of someone who has “fought the good fight” and “kept the faith.” He is still speaking with passion and integrity about what it means to walk with and teach others about our BIG God. He is still speaking about racial reconcilition in our country and our church. He is still calling on his fellow Christians to live with compassion–which he defines as “sharing pain with others” as we go through life together.

On the last night of the conference, 2 of my children participated in the talent show. Dr. Perkins watched my 5 year old play “Go Tell It On the Mountain” on the piano–a song he had coincidentally sung snippets of in his talk the night before. The next morning, as the weekend was drawing to a close, he told my daughter how well she had done and how brave she was to play in front of that big crowd. I was touched that he took the time to connect with her and my other children.

In a way, I feel like the missed opportunity of my own childhood has come full circle and been rectified. Ten, twenty years hence, I hope my children’s ears will prick when they hear Dr. Perkins’ name, and they’ll say, “Hey! I met John Perkins when I was a kid.” I pray they learn from his message and his example, as I have. Even more, I pray they help carry his legacy forward into the next generation.

Watch the music video Switchfoot made in honor of John M. Perkins:

 

Tales of “Incarnational Ministry”

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Almost daily we hear of individuals giving up their lives for the cause of hate, death and destruction. In contrast, I’d like to shine a light on some of those who are pouring their lives out for the sake of love, life and redemption: individuals and families who have left behind their comfortable middle-class lives to take up residence among the poor and marginalized and to be a living embodiment of good news to their new neighbors.

These “incarnational missionaries” have chosen to be God’s hands and feet where many of us least want to go…in corners of our country (and world) where drugs and violence dominate, where hopelessness abounds and one pained generation bleeds into and births the next.

I am inspired by their great love and believe you will be, too.

The following 8 books (and 8 blogs) tell the stories of just such individuals. The first 3 books are my favorites. I challenge you to pick one of them and read it this week. (Then call me and we’ll discuss it over tea.)

Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development, by John M. Perkins. I have put Perkins book first, because, out of everything I’ve read, I consider it to be the most comprehensive guide to living incarnationally among the poor. Published in 1993—long before the other books on my list—Beyond Charity is the byproduct of a lifetime of experience and is drenched with both biblical and functional wisdom. I deeply admire Perkins’ discernment, humility and example and consider him one of the ultimate authorities on this subject. If you are looking for a “how-to” book, I think this is your best starting place.

(I’ve blogged a bit more about this book in the post: 9 Lessons I’ve Learned from Christian Community Development.)

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, by Shane Claiborne. In this powerful (and oft-quoted) manifesto, Claiborne offers a profound call to “red letter Christianity.” Even after a year of reading books and blogs by those living incarnationally, I found Claiborne’s perspective to be surprisingly challenging and paradigm-changing. I am particularly drawn to his ideas of new monasticism and of downward mobility; and I love his explanation of how Jesus calls us to engage our culture and each other with holy imagination and a disarming grace. (The Amish for Homeland Security, anyone?)

(On a side note, Claiborne and John Perkins co-wrote a book in 2009 called Follow Me to Freedom. I need to get myself a copy!)

Kisses from Katie, by Katie Davis. In this gem of a book, young Katie Davis tells how she chose Uganda over college and how she became the mother to 13 orphans before reaching the ripe old age of 20. I guarantee this is a story unlike any you’ve heard before. Chronologically, this was the first book on this list that I read…and it absolutely BROKE me. I cried straight through. Katie’s willingness to enter into the hard places and pour out Jesus’ love with abandon and humility is more than inspiring: It is a living example of what, down in my deepest depths, I always thought following Jesus should look like.

Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World. Service, Justice and Contemplation Among the World’s Poor, by John B. Hayes.  In its introduction, Hayes describes Sub-merge as “a prophetic call to join what God is doing among poor and marginalized communities.” The book combines parts of John’s own story with the stories of many others as he lays out the ideologies and practices that undergird InnerCHANGE, the Christian order among the poor which he founded in the mid-1980s.

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Gregory Boyle. Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, is a Catholic priest who has spent more than 20 years ministering to gang members in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. His stories are both hysterically funny and heart-wrenching, offering a unique picture of what life is like for youth growing up in the world of gang-banging. (My post Prichard, Alabama was inspired by this book.)

From the Sanctuary to the Streets: How the Dreams of One City’s Homeless Sparked a Faith Revolution that Transformed a Community, by Wendy McCaig. As do so many other authors on my list, McCaig tells the story of her own journey into ministry to (and ultimately life among) the poor and marginalized in concert with the stories of those she’s met along the way. Her tale is centered in Richmond, Virginia and details how her organization, Embrace Richmond, came to be.

Where the Cross Meets the Street: What Happens to the Neighborhood When God is at the Center, by Noel Castellanos. As the current CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, Castellanos has a great deal of authority when talking about “incarnational ministry.” I have only just begun this book, but am particularly enjoying hearing the perspective of a Mexican American.

Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, & Faithfulness in a Broken World, by Craig Greenfield. Hot off the presses, Greenfield’s book just released this past April. It is sitting in my soon-to-be-read pile. You can read more about this one in my friend Lindsy’s post: Subversive Jesus [A Book Review].

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In addition to these 8 books, I’ve also found a number of blogs written by women living purposefully incarnational lives in communities all across America:

In Atlanta:

The Stanley Clan. In 2010, Rebecca Stanley and her husband moved into a troubled neighborhood in Atlanta. For the past 6 years, Rebecca Stanley has beautifully expressed her family’s struggles and joys, growth and changes as they live life in the margins. Some of my favorite posts by her include “FAQ: But Why Do You Have to Actually Live There? ,” “An Undivided Life,”  and “Reframing.”

In Miami:

Light Breaks Forth. Lindsy Wallace, along with her husband and 5 children, moved into the distressed (and dangerous) neighborhood of West Coconut Grove this past year as missionaries with InnerCHANGE. Lindsy chronicles their new life with honesty and passion. Try starting with What We Ought to Believe and then follow some of her other links to get more of her story.

Esther in Miami. Esther is another member of the InnerCHANGE’s Miami team. She has been blogging about her life in West Coconut Grove since January 2015. I highly recommend her post, Agents of Hope.

In Rocky Mount, North Carolina:

Lori Harris, and this is grace. I recommend reading Lori’s post: “Our New Normal” to get a peak into her life.

In Goshen, Indiana:

Shannon Martin Writes (formerly known as Flower Patch Farm Girl). Shannon’s book, Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted, comes out in Sept. 2016.

In Austin, Texas:

Wisdom’s Workshop. Bethany and her husband live in an RV inside Community First! Village, “a master-planned community for the chronically homeless.” A friend of mine just introduced me to Bethany’s beautiful blog. I love the honesty of her post: On (Not) Hating Home.

In Lancaster, South Carolina:

Amor For Him. Shanda Mackey has lived in Countryside Mobile Home Park since January 2016. Recommended post: “My Safe Little Bubble.”

In Portland, Oregon:

D. L. Mayfield, Living in the Upside Down Kingdom.  Mayfield, a frequent contributor to Christianity Today, has been very honest about her struggles after immersing herself into “life on the margins.” For a bit of insight into her current life,  I recommend her post: “An Update on Downward Mobility.”  Her book (which I have preordered) comes out in August: Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith.

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Overseas:

Nepal

…a journey of compassion. Mary and her husband, Richard, have been living in Nepal for 6 years. They began by volunteering at a shelter for women and now run a small garment business. My 2 favorite posts are “The Poor’s Purchasing Power” and “Why Business?

*** I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list as I encounter more “tales of incarnational ministry.” Please leave your recommendations below. I’d love to hear from you!

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

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.

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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!