Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas in the Neighborhood

Merry Christmas from the neighborhood, Friend.

A few weeks ago, eight of the youth from our neighborhood sat around our dining room table. Over tacos and cokes, we listened to a pregnant seventeen year old tell us about the father of her baby, who had been arrested and deported. He was trying to get back into the country to take care of his child.
She last heard from him during a garbled phone call. He claimed to be in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Texas. He sounded like he was crying. She searched for his name in an online database of ICE detainees, and she couldn't find it. 
She thinks maybe a gang caught him and let him call her. Her baby is due in January, and it will be born into an uncertain future. Will its father be in the country? What will its mother do for work? Will deportation, illness, or violence break this home apart?
(Photograph by David Park)

This has been a heavy season for us. The youth here have made choices that we find troubling. Conflict has damaged a few friendships. Three teen girls are expecting. A climate of uncertainty hangs over lives here.
But it does us good to remember that all of the hope and peace and joy of Christmas came through a teen mother, unwelcome in Bethlehem, giving birth in dangerous, unsanitary circumstances, with a government set on wiping them out. In light of this story, we're in the right place to experience incarnation.

There is hope in Christ. His love meets us in our deepest need. He will make something beautiful in uncertain lives. His kingdom takes root in lives and blooms in the Father's time. We pray and work daily in this hope, and we invite you to join us in the days leading up to Christmas.
In 2014, we developed a team of local youth to run the after-school program. We formed an advisory team of seven wise women to help us seek God's direction in the coming years. Ruthie graduated from Lead Institute Atlanta equipped with vision and tools for growth. Ian joined staff full-time as Director of Communications. Jack got born!
The pieces are in place. We invite you to join us in seeing how God will work in the coming year. Here is a list of current opportunities to support the work:
  • We would like to be able to pay local leaders $500 per month to help the children with homework, feed meals, and run the after-school program.
  • Ruthie and I are still about $1,000 per month shy of meeting our monthly needs. Last year, we were able to raise a buffer for my job transition, but that will run out in January.
  • We need speaking opportunities to help connect us with churches and individuals who can support our work.
To make a tax-deductible donation securely via PayPal, please click here. To donate over the phone, please call Betty at FCS at (404) 627-4304.

Please contact us at to discuss speaking opportunities or to learn more about how you can volunteer with Refugee Beads. We'd love to have you on the team that brings God's love to life in a neighborhood of immigrants and refugees!
Merry Christmas,

Ian, Ruthie, and Jack

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ground Your Speech: Immigration, Politics, and Neighborly Thinking

Ruthie and I watched the president's speech last night with tears in our eyes. His appeal to scripture resonated deeply with our beliefs about God's posture toward "strangers," "sojourners," or "immigrants." His tactics might not do anything to heal a partisan divide, but they'll probably either force a move by congress on immigration or showcase congressional obstructionism.

After the speech was over, I popped over to Facebook to see a ground-level response. I speculated with one of our advisors and friends, Barbara, about the looming backlash and praised the compassion communicated in the speech. I looked around for more specific policy notes from my friends who work in the legal arena.

But my mood changed from cautious optimism to concern when my friend and soccer teammate Luis Zarate posted this comment on his facebook page:
As I scroll down and read comments on a post regarding Obama offering legal statuses, it amazes me the amount of cruel and racist Americans wanting us out. 
Zarate has been here most of his life. He graduated from a local high school. He works on cars, and is saving for college. He's engaged to his high school sweetheart.

In speculating about partisan responses and motives, I had forgotten to think about an important aspect of this political conversation. It's that every time a move is made, for better or worse, thousands of people who are remote from the issue make comments without regard for how they affect the real people and neighborhoods affected.

Americans post these statements on an issue that is remote and political to them, but deeply personal to my neighbors.

The tone of the national conversation was a reason I avoided politics entirely for most of my twenties. It was also a reason to avoid theological exploration. Both arenas seemed rife with the sort of impersonal rhetoric and cold logic that neglects or bulldozes lives caught in their teeth.

Until I moved into a neighborhood where politics and theology had a profound impact on daily life, there was no life in either conversation for me.

So in the time it took me to read and respond to Zarate's post, my thinking turned from political chess to the real lives around me. I told him that most Americans wanted him here, and that the unkind people just spoke the loudest online.

Now, the next morning, after the words were said and things settle a little, I think that's a good thing to think on. Our politics and theology need to move from sound concepts into the mess of our communities. And until they have run through that filter, they'll be empty frames, and we'll be clanging gongs or resounding cymbals.

Let us ground our thoughts and speech in love. When we speak in and from neighborly relationships, good ideas become real things, and other noise washes away. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Huntington Creek Halloween

On October 31st, a gust of wind rustled the fallen leaves. A stray cat scampered across the edge of the vacant playground, glancing around in terror. Dark clouds gathered in the distance. None of us knew what this night would hold...

Turned out, it mainly held a really fun time. And thanks to our team of student leaders, the kids in our neighborhood had a great evening involving time on the playground, face paint, candy, and the joy of celebrating with their community.

I know Halloween gets a lot of criticism for the fear it seems to celebrate and its dark history, but we're of the opinion that the holiday itself is just a skeleton. With our focus, attitude, and way of celebrating, we round it out and place the metaphorical meat of meaning on it.

So each year, we work with local leaders to make it Halloween about neighborhood, creativity, hospitality, and generosity. And it's always a great chance to pull the neighborhood together. I think Spider Woman and the rest of the kids got the idea.

Each week, we are amazed at how rich this neighborhood is in life, love, and community. We're so thankful for Miguel, Susana, Vanesa, Vanessa, Guzman, Wanda, and all the youth who work to make life better for the kids who live here.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Past the Watchman: Reading Kafka in the Neighborhood

In my monthly "Neighborhood Readings" Column, I plan to reckon with a difficult literary piece and a tension we face in our work, hopefully finding a worthwhile connection between the two.

While my wife had her early contractions, then later in the postpartum recovery room, I read a novel about a family whose father's ideology led them to participate in an experiment that divided and ruined them, and it got me thinking about Kafka.

Maybe it should have gotten me thinking about the neighborhood my newborn son, Jack, would meet when we returned home, with its crime and school and language complications, but my mind was blasting through the experience on a wave of adrenaline, so it took a few turns to get home. 

Ruthie and I would bring Jack into an unconventional life. We left careers in Chicago to move into a neighborhood of immigrants and refugees here in Atlanta, and we run an after-school program in partnership with young people who live here. 

Of course, we left all that to get to the hospital so that Jack could be born, and I brought a book with me to distract me when I needed distraction. The novel was Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The family at the center of the book adopts a chimp, ostensibly for scientific progress, although any progress made would certainly help the father's academic career.

I'm not giving much away by saying that bringing the lab chimp home makes an experiment of the whole family, and things go wrong. The aftermath is where the narrator begins.

Each part of the book begins with an epigram from Kafka's story "A Report for an Academy." The story is one of Kafka's funniest, most cutting pieces, a speech by an ape who, in captivity, cultivates a mastery of human speech and high culture, and finds himself alienated from his past by the journey.

Fowler's use of Kafka's story is, like many things Kafka touches, both flawlessly flat on the surface and inexpressibly deep and complicated.

I've always had trouble talking about Kafka because this is what he's like. There is a perfectly clean surface. A chimp is placed in a human world. But the connective tissue that forms between Fowler's and Kafka's stories would be almost impossible to map, and it would involve language, art, evolution, religion, and identity. Drawn as a web, it would look like a trapdoor spider's dense, conical lair.

We brought Jack home at the liveliest time of day, right as the sun was falling, when the kids were all out at the playground. Exhausted from sleepless nights at the hospital, feeling the drop of adrenaline that accompanied the relief of coming home, we wanted to sneak our baby inside and sleep.

They spotted us. Maria, Rogelio, Chicho, Leslie, and ten or twelve other kids ran to our car as we parked. Ruthie pulled the cover over the car seat. By the time we opened our doors to make the short walk to our apartment, they were clamoring to see him.

"Is that your baby?" "Can we see him?" "Can we hold him?"

"No. We need to get him inside so he can rest," I said, releasing the lock on his car seat and lifting it out. We rushed to our apartment door and collapsed inside. At the door, the kids shouted and knocked for a few minutes before returning to their soccer game. I waited until the hallway was clear, then crept back to the car to bring our bags in.

That evening, I pulled Kafka and a few commentators off the shelf. I went back to Kafka in the slivers of time between feedings, dishes, laundry, and work. I read several short stories, including "A Report for an Academy." I re-read David Foster Wallace's essay "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed," where I first encountered the idea of Kafka's writing as soulful. I read Thomas Mann's homage to Kafka, where he asserts that God is the subject of Kafka's work in what seems to me a bit of a stretch.

Whenever my soul comes under pressure, it seems like Kafka intersects me with a story that is both difficult to understand and a perfect statement of the tension. 

I've thought of Kafka's The Castle in relation to bureaucracy that we faced visiting undocumented neighbors in county and federal detention centers. I've thought of Gregor Samsa when I felt alienated from my family due to a mental illness and a temporary departure from their faith.

Now I have a son, and he's sleeping in room in an apartment in a complex known for drug activity and prostitutes and johns, where kids often grow up to go to jail. My friends have mostly moved to neighborhoods based on the quality of education their kids can have, the freedom from crime, the status that place lends to people who live there. We are living in a place based mostly on the throng of kids who are waiting for Jack to join them on the run-down playground outside.

No one has recommended that we move or give up our work. Most people have been supportive and, when unsure of our reasoning, roundabout with their worries. In a conversation about raising Jack in this neighborhood, a friend asked me what would happen if my son got a girl pregnant. A concerned supporter from a particularly Republican part of Florida sent us this recommendation, "Be flexible concerning your child but I encourage you to always do what is best for the child to  help him/her to grow up being a responsible, independent child.   When I say 'independent' I mean that the child will learn to depend only on Jesus Christ and not others or the government."

Generally, we seem to be getting away with it, and no one's come to revoke our living license and haul us back to the suburbs or Careerland.

Still, I ask myself what I imagine others want to ask me. And, while I'm thinking about this, I'm reading Kafka. And in the introduction to the 1993 Everyman's Library edition of Kafka's Collected Stories, editor Gabriel Josipovici quotes this fragment, which Max Brod didn’t deem worth of publication in any collection:

I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: 'I ran through here while you were looking the other way.' The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. 'I suppose I really oughtn't to have done it,' I said. The watchman still said nothing. 'Does your silence indicate permission to pass?'  

This is exactly how it feels to be who I am and have a son in my neighborhood.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

In the Middle of the Mess

This post is about our experience of this year's CCDA conference, which had very little to do with the quality of the sessions, organizers or speakers. For a rich interaction with the central theme of the conference, you might want to visit the blog of our friend Marc Nettleton. His reflection is compelling and beautiful.

Here's how I experienced the conference:

When we first attended the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference four years ago, Ruthie and I felt like we had discovered our tribe.

With these people, we didn't have to explain how the Good News of Jesus Christ and the work of loving our neighbors fit together. We didn't have to defend the idea of resisting an unjust political and cultural power structure. And the pains and joys of loving our community in faithful, unsexy ways every day were shared by so many everywhere we went.

So despite having a newborn baby and some significant financial concerns, we decided to make the trip and to bring four young leaders from the neighborhood along.

Everything turned out to be even harder than expected. One hour out of Raleigh, with an SUV full of youth and a restless baby in our backseat, we learned that our reservation at a hotel within walking distance of the conference had been inexplicably canceled. Priceline "resolved" this problem by re-booking us at a hotel that was a 20-minute drive away. So I spent a good chunk of the conference shuttling people from the hotel to the convention center and back.

We also had to figure out how to take care of Jack and keep him as close to his feeding and sleeping schedule as possible. Which meant less-than-perfect nights of sleep and logistical juggling during the days. When excited CCDA friends asked us which sessions we planned to attend, we had to shrug. I was able to go to one of the evening plenaries. Ruthie went to two. Jack was mercifully well-behaved, cooing and snoring his way through them.

Those plenaries were great, though. Our pain at violence and injustice was named, and through lament, it was woven into the fabric of a hopeful story. We heard about reconciliation and compassion, and genuine community transformation.

And, after the conference ended, we had a great time with the youth at a cheap theme park in Raleigh, where we played mini-golf (I won), laser tag (we all lost to the only people playing as a team, a group of thirty-something men who in camouflage who ran a diamond formation to beat the middle-schoolers and high-schoolers running around, which didn't do much to dispel some of our ideas about culture in North Carolina) and go-carts (we all climbed the rankings and had a great time).

On our last morning in Raleigh, we gathered with Miguel, Guzman, Susana, Vanesa, and Ryan to talk about the conference. We all named it as a high point of our year. Ruthie, Ryan, and I expressed how the highlight for us had been the time with the youth.

We discussed where each of us were on our faith journey. Some of us felt like we got closer to intimacy with God, then retreated. Some of us felt like we couldn't believe in God. We encouraged each other to keep the conversation open, presented the Gospel, and agreed to continue walking together through our questions.

So I didn't get what I was supposed to get from the conference. I didn't learn a single helpful theory of community development, didn't get much quality time with other practitioners, and didn't feel recharged at the end.

But, in the middle of the mess of running a booth, getting everyone where they were supposed to be, and staying caffeinated enough to deal with the sleep deprivation, something good happened: I grew in love for my neighbors, and we grew together in our vision for the work. That's good enough reason to keep going.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Loves in Balance

We brought Jack home at the liveliest time of day, right as the sun was falling, when the kids were all out at the playground. Exhausted from sleepless nights at the hospital, feeling the drop of adrenaline that accompanied the relief of coming home, we wanted to sneak our baby inside and sleep.

They spotted us. Maria, her brothers, Chicho, Leslie, and ten or twelve other kids ran to our car as we parked. Ruthie pulled the cover over the car seat. By the time we opened our doors to make the short walk to our apartment, they were clamoring to see him.

"Is that your baby?" "Can we see him?" "Can we hold him?"

"No. We need to get him inside so he can rest," I said, releasing the lock on his car seat and lifting it out. We rushed to our apartment door and collapsed inside. At the door, the kids shouted and knocked for a few minutes before returning to their soccer game. I waited until the hallway was clear, then crept back to the car to bring our bags in.

We closed the afterschool program for a week while we adjusted to Jack's arrival and the odd sleeping hours it entailed. During the same week we took off, we avoided discussing crises that kids we work with are facing. We didn't feel like we had the strength to face them.

When we decided to move into the neighborhood to share life with these kids, we knew that it would mean choosing to open our doors. But every good idea has its limits and balancing ideas. Certain doors need to stay closed at certain times if we're going to care well for the love out of which we work.

I didn't imagine myself becoming more private after moving in to this neighborhood, but during this chapter of my life, especially with Jack here, I've been keeping stricter boundaries around time slotted for rest and reflection. The result has been a greater relational and mental life to share with my neighbors.

On Tuesday, after a week of rest and adjustment, we re-opened the after-school program. The rest was good. Jack was healthy, and we were eager to invite these kids to meet our son. After the elementary-aged students finished their homework, we brought Jack out for brief introduction. Here's how it went:

Please keep us in your prayers as we seek to balance our love for our neighbors, our love for God, and our love for our growing little family. If we keep these three loves in wise balance, they support, feed, and enrich each other.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Back in the Neighborhood

Yesterday, Miguel and I led a team of neighborhood volunteers, and every kid who came to our apartment for help with homework got specific attention and finished her or his assignments. It was noisy. Hands shot up. Kids shouted out questions. We kept order and held mental lists of requests in our head, moving from kid to kid, deciding how best to help them.

After two hours, we sent the elementary and middle school students home, bought hot wings for the leaders and sat with them around the living room table talking about soccer, Ferguson, the new baby, music, and the lives that come through our apartment.

We're at the tail end of an exciting week. Our ministry newsletter is being printed and shipped. After praying, writing letters, and sharing a petition, we saw an immigrant father released from detention and reunited with his family. We received requests to share the story of this ministry in nearby churches. We spent time with mentors and co-workers.

This morning, I spent time reading the book of Exodus and studying Spanish. After writing this blog entry, I'll clean up the last traces of the chaos of our after-school program. This rhythm of hard neighborhood work punctuated by time to learn, write, and reflect is something we've been praying for since we moved into this neighborhood nearly six years ago.

Thank you to everyone who gave to make this transition possible. We're thankful for your generosity, and we're working to put together gifts which will be headed your way soon.

Here are a few of the other good things that we can look forward to as we continue to grow:
  • Renaming: The jewelry work will keep the "Refugee Beads" name, but we're planning to name our afterschool program and youth mentoring work. This will allow us to tell their stories better and open more doors for them to grow. 
  • Storytelling: In collaboration with Storyboard, the artist's collective of Open Table Community, I plan to tell more neighborhood stories in print, video, and song. Look for more updates on our blog and facebook page as well. 
  • Teaching: I'm excited to gather some of the interested young men in the neighborhood to talk about their spiritual journeys and share the good news of God's love for them. 

Whether you've prayed for us, supported us, walked with us, or read our story with interest, thank you for your part in placing us here and sustaining us in this good work.