Friday, November 4, 2011
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
Monday, July 11, 2011
-People are starting to talk about our team, so we need a name, I say as Marco takes another shot.
The ball goes sailing over the goal and toward the creek. Ivan puts on his socks on the sideline.
-Los Immigrants, Adrian suggests.
-How 'bout HB-87s? Alan jokes.
-No. I got it. USA. It's simple, Omar says, looking around for any dissent. Heads nod around the circle of players as it forms. Like that, we become USA.
This takes place on a Tuesday. We are fresh off a win against a team that beat us twice before I took over coaching. While we gather around, kicking soccer balls, joking in Spanglish, getting ready to do our sprints, the feeling is that we can make this little neighborhood team into something good.
I'm still reeling from the fact that I'm even here. Guys on this team have made fun of us, written obscenities on our door, picked on kids in our afterschool program, and generally avoided us for peer pressure reasons.
Then, one night while they watched a police officer grill some of the neighbors on something, I asked Ivan and Bon Bon what was going on. They shrugged, then asked, Hey, you wanna coach our soccer team?
I showed up at the first practice, not sure how things were gonna go. Then Omar, the other coach, who supposedly couldn't coach anymore because of a job at QT, showed up too.
It's been a bit messy ever since. Our players go back to Mexico, get distracted when their parents go to prison, show up to practice under the influence, and sometimes burst into tears. There are alliances and insecurities and everyone has to watch his back most of the time.
But we've started playing like a team. We're learning to build each other up. We're taking some pride in who we are, and where we come from.
For the first three years in this neighborhood, I prayed that God would give me a way to connect with the middle and high school guys. They are at risk right now for gang involvement, drug use, incarceration, gun violence and deportation. It's a good time to show them love.
Now, living out God's answer as their coach is a confusing, turbulent, hilarious adventure. It demands about ten hours a week in addition to my writing and ministry work. But the time, sweat, and pain are well worth it, to be involved in the turnaround we're seeing, to get to play during scrimmages, and to see the development of pride they've taken in who we are together, as team USA.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
And to those who read and to those who follow, I must give thanks. Without you, this is a clanging gong. It's a waste apart from you. So here are a few thanks I offer:
To Uncle Tim, who made this whole project possible. By loving us, inviting us, placing us here, and showing us how to make neighborhood ministries work.
To Dad, who tells me that he sees God's hand leading my life, which makes me tear up, but I keep cool for the sake of the conversation. To Mom, who loves patiently and hears the truth in the mess of the things I write here. To Lisa, Eric, and Gina. I'm proud to be a part of this wild clan.
To Adam Fites, who walks before me into the corners of man's mind, past those corners to the glory beyond.
To David Park, who fought for me, beside me, who gives to the Father's work in our life and in our neighborhood. To Josh, who has mastered at least three art forms (music, design, and bike mechanics), and still pretends like he's no big deal. To Jonathan and Kelly, who live more boldly than I ever could. And to Tim Isaacson, who inspires and leads us through the mess of life here in Chamblee.
To Eric Beach, for giving my writing a home back in the Brew days, and for the things you've said about it ever since.
To Kacie, an old friend with the courage to listen, read, think, and speak, all at the right times. To Ernesto, whose writing and reading led to the birth of this whole messy project, and whose work leaves me trembling, breathless. To Keith Evers, who supported us, housed us, and showed us what faithful friendship looks like.
To Jeremy, the brother of my heart. I know you read this stuff. You are, and have been, the best friend I could have hoped for.
Okay, I had about ten more, but this is starting to feel pretty sappy, so maybe I'll do another one of these later. To those listed here, and to the rest of you who follow, I feel that you are reading. I read your comments carefully, and they move me. Thank you.
Friday, June 24, 2011
We are sending some of our best friends, Jonathan and Kelly Nolte, off to Rwanda in the next few weeks, so tonight we gathered to watch a movie about the genocide that happened there called Beyond the Gates. As you can imagine, it wasn't a very cheery movie. In fact, during the first hour, I was thinking, why doesn't God just blow this world up and start over?
One of the main characters in the film is a Catholic priest. As a horde of Hutus are about to rape and butcher their Tutsi neighbors, a young man asks the priest where God is.
"He's right here, suffering with these people" the priest replies, declining a ride that would take him from the massacre to safety.
That line rattled around in my head for a while. Not in the "it reminded me of a nice idea that I forgot" kind of way, but because it didn't sit well with me. At some point, I have to wonder how much it really hurts him, because he could stop it if he wanted to.
Rwanda isn't the only place that makes me feel this way. I see irreperable scars in my neighborhood. Kids get abused, raped, and abandoned. They build defenses against love. I do some writing for a nonprofit that works with women who are victims of sex trafficking, short-term marriages, slavery, starvation, neglect, and destitution. At some point, if it really bothers God all that much, why doesn't he just stop the awful stuff from happening?
I thought about Rwanda, then I thought about how the Canaanites probably felt when the Israelites came in with divine orders to wipe out every man, woman, child,and cow . Then I thought about friends who died young, and all the scars that their leaving formed in my heart, and I thought that there had to be something about God to be learned, if I was to believe in him at all.
Since it is all we have, human life seems to us the thing of highest value. But, based on biblical tales and the chaos I see around me, it's not the most important thing to God. He seems very little concerned with our comfort or individual survival.
I believe in a God who mourns with those who suffer. Who hates violence. Who grieves when we grieve. But all this has me thinking that the suffering is worthwhile to God because he has a higher value somewhere.
I'm going to propose my little view, which is that God does indeed hurt, but that he values a relational connection, he values the redemptive narrative, and he values the human struggle more than he values the mere fact of human life, and especially more than he values our neat little ethical systems.
So to survive where I live, where suffering abounds and lives are cut short all the time, I have to believe that the God who presides is telling us a story far bigger than our own lives, and he asks me to worship as he unfolds it before me.
This is going to sound weird coming from a guy who believes that Jesus wants us to care about physical needs and poverty (which I do believe, quite fervently), but I don't think God is out to cure every ailment and alleviate every pain.
If we learn anything from suffering, it's that God's priorities and ours are different. We have a choice. We can accept his values and move further into worship, or we can seek safety and avoid the pain that comes with knowing a God who can bear the weight of our suffering for the sake of something higher, which we can't quite grasp in our current state.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
I recently started a new job as a marketing and communications specialist for She is Safe, a nonprofit serving women in the toughest places on Earth. During my first week at that job, my sister called with the news that her small group wanted to install new flooring in our apartment. Ruthie and I had been praying for new flooring for a while, so we jumped at the opportunity.
In addition to that, a short story I recently wrote for Red Rock Review, a literary journal in Nevada, was noticed by someone who I would hope would notice it, prompting me to launch into editing and expansion of a novel I had been picking away at for a while.
As all these good things crashed into my life, a typo by GEICO resulted in the suspension of my driver's license, leaving me dependent upon the grace of Ruthie to get around.
On Thursday, as I hauled scraps of carpet from our disheveled apartment to a rented UHAUL, I saw some of the high school guys who had written and peed on our door, and I asked them if they knew why a police cruiser was parked nearby. They shrugged, we started talking, and the conversation moved to their soccer team, which they asked me to coach.
So now, I have a new job, a new floor, a new opportunity with the guys in the neighborhood, a chance at getting my weird little novel in front of some helpful readers, and no wheels.
The complicated, unprecedented levels of blessing and difficulty often overwhelm me, but I know that these opportunities come to me from a gracious hand, and I trust that hand to move the story forward in a good direction.
If you are a praying person, please keep us in your prayers. We are caught in a flood of blessings, trying to breathe, love and pray while God's story swirls around and over us.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
Do not trust the gods of the air of Kathmandu.
The thought flashes through my head as our taxi speeds toward Pashupati temple. Jeremy sits beside me, and we watch the city slide by in lurid color, its shacks bearing the stamps of Coca-Cola and Pepsi on bold, hand-painted plywood signs.
Street kids run through alleys bearing paper bags, which they place over their mouths and breathe deeply when their play slows. Western wear and saris dance and weave across sidewalks, shoes and sandals stir the dust of the streets, and we climb the last hill before the temple.
As we hop out of the cab, I see skeletal cows, rooting through piles of garbage like stray dogs.
Don't trust the hamburgers either, I think.
My friend Jeremy, clad in jeans and a soccer jersey, leads the way to the temple complex. He has lived in Kathmandu for a short time, and arranged this trip for me. Since we have one day in the city before beginning our trek to Mount Everest, he wants me to see this temple and get an idea of what kind of power rules this city.
"The kingdom is in us," I say as we approach the guard shack, where westerners are required to purchase tickets before entering. The statement is meant to identify conviction, but it's really a question, the central question of my journey from the outskirts of Atlanta to the base of the world's tallest mountain. I want to know if this kingdom that defines my life to is a real power. I need to know that it moves through cultures and across oceans, and into the temples of foreign gods.
Two weeks before leaving Atlanta, I visited a Hindu temple to open a conversation. After describing the various statues and telling me their stories, emphasizing the commonalities between his faith and mine, the priest took my hand, held it, and pointed to a string of Christmas lights that lined the ceiling tiles. "Many lights, one electric," he told me. I looked at the lights. "Many lights, one power," he said. I held his hand for a moment, watched a wealthy Indian couple approach the gods, then quietly left the room.
Now we walk past boxes filled with powdered dyes, oranges and yellows and reds, for some ceremonial purpose I don't understand. We mill past stalls, past shadus, the holy men with long beards, robes, round bellies, and painted faces. Jeremy tells me not to take photos of them lest they pursue us for money.
Ahead, I see a group of tourists standing on the concrete riverbank, cameras in hand, snapping photos. I turn to see their subject, and on the other side of the river are small gazebos with rectangular fires crackling and scorching. Near to the fires rest human forms, under fabric shrouds. In clusters standing by walls beyond the pyres stand Nepalis, milling around, chatting, watching the flames. Their dead are burning before us, and their possessions, now poisoned by mortality, are hurled into the grimy river below.
I gape at the shrouded bodies, feeling a tension over the ceremony before us. I come from a land where death is hidden from society's eyes, tucked away in nursing homes, and sanitized in funerals. Here it is, final, grotesque, and public.
A body goes onto the lumber. Men in tank tops uncover a face, light the head on fire, and the next funeral begins.
We mill on through the complex, where we see dozens of shrines, each with a phallic sculpture at its center. Explicit carvings outside the shrines depict horrific gods presiding over complex orgies. Nepalis mill around us, some seeking profit from the tourists, some seeking favor from the spirits, some to give themselves to worship of the gods.
Several buildings say, "Hindus only" on the outside, barring westerners from seeing inside. I ask Jeremy what goes on behind these walls. He shrugs and tells me we're in a fertility temple, so one can imagine, but he hasn't been inside.
We find a long set of stairs climbing up to a hill overlooking the city, and begin to walk. Here, moving away from the vivid altars to mortality and sexuality, I try to process what I am seeing. I am an alien here, so I am bound to feel confused by the native forms of worship, but there is a seething force in the air which troubles me.
This is my first day in Nepal, so I pass the sights quietly, waiting to understand, hoping that in the mess and mystery of this journey, as it runs through this complex, the city of Kathmandu, and the great mountains beyond, the kingdom of Christ will take on skin and offer hope. For the moment, it remains hidden in my heart, a small alien light in a noisy temple to local gods.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
My phone rings late on Sunday afternoon as I trudge through dense undergrowth somewhere on the Near West Side of Atlanta. Jonathan and Kelly Nolte have invited me to join them in the search for a massive, hidden quarry that they saw in a TV show, but all we've found so far are vines, thorns, and barbed wire fences.
I pull the phone from my pocket just as it stops ringing. The caller ID tells me that I missed a call from Steven Finn. He and his wife, Rebecca, have been giving Susan and Astry rides to and from church for over a year.
I pocket the phone, deciding to focus on escaping the woods alive. A few minutes later, I get a text from Steven asking if I can call him when I get a chance.
We emerge from the forest into a rundown neighborhood and find our way back to the Noltes' car. I sit in the passenger seat, pull a few thorns out of my legs, check for ticks, and then call Steven. He has the beginning of a miracle on his hands here, and he tells me about it as we race North on I-85.
Susan and her family, in the face of poor wages, stood to lose their small apartment, and were planning to go stay with family until they could find more work. They decided to ask Steven if there was any way he could help.
A few days ago someone anonymously gave Steven $600 for youth ministry in the neighborhood around Open Table Community. So now Steven's wondering if God didn't do that to provide for this very situation. I encourage him to call Susan back and find out a) what the long term plan is, and b) exactly how much money Susan's family needs.
After I hang up, I discuss the Situation with Jonathan.
-Yeah, he tells me, we can either use that money to buy cookies and lemonade or to actually help the youth stay in the neighborhood.
That night, Steven calls me and lets me know what he found out. Susan's family needs exactly $600 to finish out their lease, and the money would buy the family time to look for new work, finish out the school year, and prepare for a proper move. And it would give us just a little more time with two of our favorite kids.
-They need exactly $600? That's exactly how much you have, right?
-Well, this sounds like a no-brainer.
We talk about logistics, and we rave a little bit back and forth about how God seems to be showing his hand here. Susan accepts the grace of Jesus one week, then receives the love of his church, then God provides for her family's material needs. We really can't wrap our heads around this series of events.The next day, when Steven goes to the gas station to buy the money order to pay for their rent, he only brings the $600. Because he doesn't have any other money with him, the staff just gives him the order for free, making sure that this kindness just passes through Steven from one place to another.
When he gives the money order to the family, he asks Susan to translate for him, and tells them that God provided the right amount of money just for this situation.
When I hear this, I spend the next couple of hours giving thanks and wondering exactly what the Father is trying to build into our character through this miracle.
He placed us here to show His love, provided the resources, and then opened a door for us to care for a family on every level, from spiritual to economic. Maybe he's trying to show us that it's all one thing, that the Gospel, when accepted and lived, encompasses all of who we are, and the kingdom we have been given passes through our fingers in tangible ways to the world around us.
What this teaches us, and how this truth resonates through God's work in the months ahead, remains to be seen. We wait with eyes open. One miracle opens the door for many more, and we expect to believe in them and be changed.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
-Dude, Susan's leaving, John Ibsen told me.
I stood in a small cluster with my friends John, Jake Warren, and David Park before the service on Sunday morning.
-Wait. What? When? I looked around to see if anyone was smirking, hoping maybe it was a joke. The faces reflected shock and pain back to me.
-She just came up to me and was like, 'Goodbye. My family's moving to Alabama,'
While I reeled from the news, John told me that Susan and Astry were going to have to leave town and move in with family in Alabama. Economic pressure and unjust wages had squeezed their finances dry, and rent was due.
The sisters were some of the first from our neighborhood to attend Open Table Community, and Susan was one of two youth who decided to trust Jesus the week before. We had been working with them for a few years, and they had changed the tone of the children's and youth programs with their unguarded enthusiasm and energetic presence. Several of us had rich relationships with them.
With the service starting, we quickly determined that an offering would not help at this point, and that, although we wanted to help, there was little we could do in the way of permanent solutions. We took our seats, stunned, feeling helpless.
As Peter, our music pastor, led us in a prayer for the poor early in the service, I felt restless. I felt a need to cry out to God, to say goodbye to Susan, to show her that she is loved and to send her off with hope. This service can't end without a proper goodbye, The Spirit seemed to be telling me. I crept over to David and asked him if we could do anything. He suggested that I talk with Peter.
David Park began to speak on the twin biblical themes of justice and compassion. Peter and I searched for ways to respond to Susan's crisis. As we all did the tasks we had been given, a sense of God's timing whispered through. The Father had given David a powerful message and had given all of us an opportunity to see its incarnation.
As the sermon ended, Peter handed me a microphone and went to bring the youth in. A wave of sorrow went through me. I lost control the moment it was my time to speak, choking out the short story of Susan's coming departure. As she and the youth entered the sanctuary, her friends in the church came forward as well. We told stories about her, giving testimony to the blessing she and Astry had been to us. We named her as our missionary to wherever God was taking her next, then the whole congregation gathered around to pray for her.
Susan and many of us were weeping as the prayer time ended. We had responded to the message of love and the prompting of the Holy Spirit to express God's love to Susan. Our time together on Sunday seemed like a beautiful ending to a sad story, but the turmoil and farewell only opened the door for the miracle God was about to work.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Deal is expected to sign or veto this weekend, so he will be listening with special care to the concerns of Georgians tomorrow and Friday. If you are willing to speak out on behalf of our immigrant neighbors, send Deal a note or give him a call. You can use an online form or dial his office. All the contact info is here.
Here's the letter I sent him. Please feel free to copy, paste, or borrow from it as you see fit. Please keep your tone respectful and hopeful. Deal has a tough decision to make, and he needs to know that we care:
Dear Governor Deal:
I write this letter to urge you to veto House Bill 87. I am a missionary for the Southern Baptist denomination. I partner with many local churches to care for immigrants and refugees in the Atlanta area.
I am concerned about this law for three reasons: First and foremost, it tells the followers of Jesus that loving their immigrant neighbors is a crime. Will the state criminalize us for giving our neighbors rides to church, helping with homework, and feeding and clothing the hungry? I would urge you to do the opposite and seek ways to empower Georgians to care for and show hospitality to aliens in our land.
The second reason I am concerned is because of the impact this legislation will have on children, many of them citizens. Under HB 87, the parents of many of the young Americans we work with can be detained, and the children will go hungry and will suffer tremendously. Those whose parents aren't directly punished will grow up in fear of the very country they live in. I would suggest that you reject this legislation and instead work with Georgians to create a constructive environment for the children of immigrants. These young Americans deserve a chance to love and give back to the country they were raised in.
My third concern affects all Georgians, not just immigrants and those who care for them. I believe that on an economic level this bill can do nothing but hurt Georgia and its residents. I understand that there is strong support for this bill within our state, but I believe that it will bring us under boycotts, inflation, and a severe labor shortage. It will hurt businesses that receive large amounts of revenue from immigrant laborers, and the prices of many basic services and goods will skyrocket. For the sake of all Georgians, please seek a better way to put people to work.
I have no doubt that the pressures of making such decisions must weigh heavily on you and your staff. But as your constituent, I wanted to make sure to express my opinion to you in hopes of informing the conversation from a Christian perspective.
Thank you for your service to our state and for your attention to our concerns.
Ian A. North
MSC Missionary, North American Mission Board
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
S and A charged into our apartment with arms wide open. This was their way.
They lived at the back of the complex. At first, they came to our home quietly and disappeared into the afterschool program. After a few days, they burst into the apartment with shouts, and ran to us for hugs whenever we saw them on the playground or running around the parking lot.
Other kids watched their enthusiasm and followed suite. When the sisters arrived, love and noise rose around them.
S, the older of the two, wore glasses and tempered her energy with respect. She was imaginative, boisterous, and funny without crossing lines.
A, her sidekick and younger sister, lived with equal volume and far less restraint. She spoke full-throttle about Justin Bieber, her own ambitions for pop stardom, neighborhood feuds, pets, and the quality of our volunteers.
We slowly built Rapport with their family, and when we asked them if they would like to ride with us to a local church on Sundays, they cheered and danced.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Jenny stands against the wall opposite our door, leaning on the splintering wood, speaking quietly.
She saw a ghost, and she recounts the experience for us in low tones, recounting the hunched form, the pale surface of the spirit. She couldn't breathe. She called for help, but couldn't make the sound come out for minutes. And when her mother finally heard her and walked into the room, the form evaporated.
Ruthie and I stand across from her, listening for clues, reaching for good things to say.
This comes in the middle of a troubling week. The windows of a building across the parking lot lie in splinters after a prostitution-related battle. Graffiti adorns the walls of our building, some of it directed at us. And I am not one to make a big deal out of the warfare side of what we do, but it seems to be breaking down doors throughout the neighborhood.
And here now is one of our leaders, a high-school-aged girl, telling us that her whole family has been seeing the same ghost.
Miguel, a young Christian who watches a lot of horror movies, saunters into the hallway and makes a few jokes, then tells us he doesn't believe in ghosts. Then Susannah finds us and tells Miguel to shut up and listen to what we have to say. It comes around to us, and in front of this small group of our favorite youth, we need to know how to respond to this ghost story.
"I don't know exactly what you're seeing," I tell Jenny, "and there are a lot of ways to explain it, a lot of theories. Miguel thinks it's a dream. Maybe. If it's a spirit, there are a lot of different things people say about what it really is and how to deal with it. I don't know. There's a lot of hocus-pocus out there, but I don't think we can know for sure. You need to connect with someone who knows what's going on and has the power to deal with it."
She nods, listening, as I urge her to dive deeper into her relationship with Jesus, to explore Him and to call on His power to overcome her fear. I say, "when He comes alive in you, you have God's power working from inside you."
After I have said my little piece, she lights up, and says her mom has been telling her to read her Bible more and to pray, and that she needs to do that. We encourage her to find the peace that Jesus offers.
After dark, though a good moment has come and gone, I lie awake all night. I pray for Jenny's family, feeling the weight of the violence and fear that swim through the lives around us. When the light of a new day brightens our curtain, I feel weary, tiny, and ready to follow my own advice. Only through Jesus can Ruthie and I keep going. It's only through knowing Him that we find hope. His spirit guides us forward, and reveals in small ways that the madness around us will end in redemption.
Thank you for being a part of God's work in this neighborhood. Ruthie and I are weak to face the enemies that rage around us. But we trust that God is at work through us. Please keep praying, donating, and volunteering as we seek God's Kingdom in this neighborhood.
Your partners in Ministry,
Ian and Ruthie North
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Nathan Deal, the Governor of Georgia, has stated that he will sign HB 87 into effect. The bill is an adapted version of the Arizona laws, and is designed to make it impossible for undocumented immigrants to work to feed their families and go about life here in the United States.
There are plenty of political and economic downsides to this bill that I won't go into here. The real kicker is that the law would get so much support from "Christians" in Georgia.
In the Bible, God repeatedly, under every covenant, tells his people to care for the aliens in their land. It's a top priority.
So to the Church in Georgia: Our God gave us a job to do. He brought aliens to our doorsteps. He gave us the resources to care for them. They came hungry and thirsty, and we rationalized a way to blame them for their own suffering, then turned them away.
God is a redeeming God. His church can repent and turn to love. But we need to do it quickly, before our fear and greed do more damage to the cause of Christ and to the lives of those He loves.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
In the line for check-in, a balding man in a cowboy hat shouted complaints about everything. My one prayer for my boarding pass was that it place me as far away from that grumpy old fart as possible.
So far, so good. We are an hour into an eight-hour flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt. The heavyset (Iranian? Romanian? German?) passenger next to me carries the weight of a fairly interesting conversation.
He discusses his kids, kayaking, travel, and the lessons he has learned at his job as a VIP tech support guy. His thesis seems to be, "take care of yourself first, and your family will follow."
I hope he's right, although as I nod and mumble assent, I think of the 40-plus kids at our afterschool program, and I know that they can't follow me on this adventure. Sometimes you need to have a go at The Mountain without any thought to who will follow, and why.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
I say goodbye to Ruthie first at the door.
We embraced through the morning leading up to this farewell, the silver hands on the red clock inching toward departure. Here a hug. There a hug. As Jarrett sipped his coffee. Passing one another in the hallway. An arm reached out, my kiss on her hair, her head nestled in my shoulder.
I feel guilty for leaving, but the trip to Everest has been paid for, and Ruthie agrees that it is the thing to do.
She walks out the door prepared, and I wonder if I should follow her to the car, but I stand instead smiling and waving in the living room as she pulls the door into its frame with a thud.
I run to the patio door, but the key to the two-sided lock hangs in our bedroom. Too far to grab and return. I pound on the glass. She hears, sees, and waves.
We installed the lock to slow down the smash-and-grabbers who struck last time we weren't home. It occurs to me as I watch her pull away that this is the first time the threat of violence has seperated us instead of drawing us together.
When I was a kid, my parents said during one of our hundreds of departures for boarding school that it is easier to leave than to watch someone else leave. Since her cost on my adventure is high, I watch her drive out of the parking lot as a small form of penance, thankful for a chance to be the one who is left, if only to make it a little easier on her.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Saturday, March 19, 2011
In fact, if I were to pick a theme song for everything I have done and seen since moving into Atlanta's International village, it would be Kingdom. Here are the words:
I’ve seen your glory in the gutters
I’ve seen your blood upon the street
I’ve seen hand upon the widow
And your fire upon the meek
And the aliens, though strangers
Hold your kingdom on their tongues
And the children, when we shush them
Hold your cries within their lungs
Oh Redeemer can you help me
To believe that you can
Keep your kingdom here within me
Just as you have with these
My love I’m prone to sell it
To the gods of Babylon
My heart and my frail body
Will be broken and soon gone
And the aliens, though strangers
Hold your kingdom on their tongues
And the children, when we shush them
Hold your cries within their lungs
Oh Redeemer can you help me
To believe that you can
Keep your kingdom here within me
Just as you have with these
And when your crow comes
And life rattles from my bones
And my flesh falls from my spirit
May your kingdom take me home
Oh Redeemer can you help me
To believe that you can
Keep your kingdom here within me
Just as you have with these
At one point, I mentioned that I wouldn't wish our life on anyone. This was true in its own way, but it bears some explaining.
I spend a lot of time talking and writing about the beauty of living a life defined by the love of Jesus. We have made a serious gamble on the idea that we were created for love, and that our lives are best invested in loving God and our neighbors.
I believe that this is true. But what I was thinking about when I said this, is that apart from God's activity, and His faithfulness in bringing fruit out of the chaos around us, our life is stupid.
We live as aliens in our own country. It is hard to know our neighbors, and knowing them, it is hard to trust them. Someone broke into our house when we were gone. Another kid we invited into our home keeps stealing from us. One kid writes on our door. We are always on call for the neighborhood, and we carry burdens much larger than our shoulders were made to bear.
But the fruit of a life like this has been good because God brought us here and wrote a rich story from our struggles. Apart from that, we're a sinking ship.
So while I can't go back to a comfortable life, and while, knowing what I know, I wouldn't want to, I wouldn't wish the circumstances that I face on anyone else. I'd hope that everyone I know can find fulfilling, moderately challenging jobs and make piles of money. Sincerely.
Of course, God calls us to where he wants us, and I wouldn't wish a life outside his will on anyone, either, so it's hard to know what I would wish upon anyone.
This whole post is getting rather confusing, even for me. Basically, readers, may God guide you to the life that he wants for you. But before you dive into ministry of any kind, count the cost. And the cost is high.
Expect to be molded into the kind of person who would put her/himself on the cross for her/his neighbor. And the kind of pain it takes to train us to love that much is great. I've only seen its fringes, and it's already almost too much to bear.
Monday, March 14, 2011
If any of the above language offends you, just try finding it on your door, directed at you, written in the hand of a student who you have invited into your home, taken to a local bike co-op, played soccer with, and generally treated with as much care as if he were your own.
These are the things a teenager in our neighborhood has been writing on our door about us in sharpie, on and off, since we asked him to apologize for calling a younger kid a prostitute.
Each time these things have appeared on our door, we've cleaned them off, wrestled with our anger, forgiven, and reached out to the guy.
I realize that it seems petty, but this is what we have given our lives to, and it's been rejected by one we care about.
Then, tonight, when we think all this stupid rage has died down, we find the following:
I've been guilty of writing complex, inconclusive stories on this blog, but here's this one, straightforward and simple: Every time this kid writes on our door, I feel hurt, hated, and enraged. And I want to forgive, and I want to be like Jesus, but it gets harder every time.
Friday, March 4, 2011
For those who haven't yet read my friend Tim Isaacson's thoughtful response to my last post, here's what he said:
Have you had any conflicting thoughts about the experience? It doesn't sound like you do - which is totally fine. I'm trying to figure my inner-turmoil out and having a difficult time doing so. I mean, the up-side was huge. I'm trying to figure out what was off-putting for me. Or, rather, what was off-about-me that had me excited about some parts and wary of others. Any thoughts?
Actually, Tim, yes.
In fact, in the days following the post, I did a lot of re-thinking. I'm going to walk through my current thinking on this and see if it gets me anywhere. It's going to sound more like an argument against a current bill, but it's moving toward a response to your question.
The Georgia House's vote in support of HB 87, while invisible to most Georgians, was felt very clearly among the kids in our neighborhood. Many of them are aware of it, and it's quite possible that whoever wrote "Fuck you, white crackers" on our door today did so partly in response to that law.
When I think about the law, I realize something: It will probably never make it to the enforcement level. The federal government will probably sue Georgia, the state will get locked up in costly litigation, and even if they win, working down to enforcement will be a massive, expensive task.
Then there's the fact that the economic forecast for a state that passes and enforces such a law is pretty bleak. Labor costs go up, raising the prices on pretty much everything, businesses shut down, tourism wanes, and a huge chunk of the populace who don't pay income tax but still pay sales tax, rent, and grocery bills, will disappear quickly. The jobs that open up are difficult jobs that pay little money.
So, practically speaking, there will probably be no economic upside to this bill, although it will cost GA millions on almost every front.
If that is so (and it pretty clearly is), then why would the politicos vote for it?
The republicans voted for this to look courageous to their constituents. And this is where this law got me to re-think my interest in engaging immigration on a political level. Politics are a big, crooked machine, far detached from the individual lives they affect.
Being one who believes in the power of the kingdom, I have become wary of throwing my shoulder into the work of a system that is corrupt to begin with, that see-saws in its decisions, and that rarely, if ever, has any space for love in its workings. Government is the exact opposite of the kingdom I claim.
Then I thought about what we do. Introducing these immigrants to the host culture. Building good will. Showing love. Defying stereotypes. Feeding the hungry. Nurturing. Treating aliens with the dignity that the kingdom demands. These are all things that have a powerful impact in the lives they touch.
So it may be that one who loves in small ways will be inclined to care about the national stuff, but working with the government and its laws is murky and can be dreadfully distracting for ground-level guys like us.
Perhaps it is good to speak when issues arise, but I for one am prone to let the grand arena of politics and ideas distract me from the work I am specifically called and equipped to do: loving my neighbor.
So I still hope to be a radical, but my focus must remain squarely on the neighborhood work. On living and loving alongside immigrants. If I do speak to the political issues of the day (an aggravating, exhausting process), I must do so out of conscience and I must quickly turn back to my neighbor, lest I lose focus on love.
I have no idea if this is what bothered Tim, but it bothers me. My thinking is like a pendulum on this issue of faith, hope, love and politics.
Any of my readers want to question or add to this conversation? I could use your help here.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
I realized yesterday, as I sat in on a meeting of Georgia Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (GIRRC), that somewhere over the course of the last year, I have started to transform into a radical.
When I moved into this neighborhood over two years ago, I did so out of spiritual convictions, not political ones. I did not have an opinion on what should happen or what should not happen as far as immigration law. I only knew that I had been called by Jesus to care for the needy, and so I went to a neighborhood where I could do so.
Upon arriving and immersing myself in the neighborhood, I heard some disturbing stories. These immigrants are truly refugees. Life under threat from the ongoing drug war back home is untenable. The poverty, violence, and corruption that these immigrants have fled is equivalent to the situations in Bhutan and Burma.
Upon arrival in America, these survivors find themselves hatefully unwelcome. I see families with whom we work for years suddenly torn apart and left without income because a father or mother or aunt is pulled over and doesn't have proper documentation. America has internment camps for these immigrants which have worse-than-prison conditions, where women and children are held captive. I learned of these camps when people we knew were taken there.
Searching for a way to speak on behalf of these immigrants, out of love for the young people who would gain hope through the DREAM Act, I wrote a concerned letter to two of my congressmen, only to learn that they were committed to making life as hard as possible for my international neighbors. As if they hadn't already suffered enough.
So I still do the same basic work of caring for those in need and discovering with them what the Lord's love can do in our lives. But I have become actively concerned with the way we as a nation treat these people. In fact, I think of it as the deciding moral issue for our country in this generation.
It is my hope that our nation will follow the Lord's heart- I would love to see them work out His love for the aliens in our land, and to invite them to contribute to and partake in the American Dream. While I have little hope in our partisan political system, I still believe that if I love, I must use what resources I can to care for these kids and their families. So from here on out, my votes, my hands, and my speech will be offered in love for the Ends of the Earth who have come to our doorstep.
And while I cringe to count the cost, I will be as radical as I need to be in pursuit of seeing this love realized on a national level as well as in the lives in our little neighborhood.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Ruthie and I spent the weekend at the Reach Your World youth conference in Dacula, GA. We received several extra tickets when we signed up for a Refugee Beads booth, so we brought along two of our student leaders, Miguel and Jennifer.
As I was running the booth, several thoughts occurred to me:
- We set up next to a ministry called "Project AK-47," a ministry to rescue and rehabilitate child soldiers. While we avoid using terms like, "Social Justice" and "Community Development," they describe concepts we love. We felt thrilled to see that two out of five booths at the conference represented ministries dedicated to bringing the kingdom to bear among the poor and oppressed.
- Jennifer and Miguel are two gifts from God to us. They are honest, funny, straightforward, relational, and helpful. Ruthie and I couldn't do what we do if these two weren't there with us, impacting the kids around them.
- While "Christian Illusionist" Brock Gill did his show, which was pretty impressive, I had to wonder, "Would you be wise to accept the gospel as presented by a guy who just spent 30 minutes tricking you?"
- I grew up in the Philippines, and the American Christian Youth subculture often baffles and embarrasses me, with all the lights and sound and money and politics that flood it. However, Seeing Jennifer and Miguel enjoy it helped me see it in a more positive light. Or at least open up to seeing it in a more positive light.
- Finally, I thought about the future of Refugee Beads. This concept, and the women who are involved in it, are headed in great directions. Seeing the way the youth connected with the message, approach, and products of Refugee Beads made me excited about the future.
We arrived home exhausted, thankful, and optimistic about this conference, our student leaders, and the direction the Church seems to be heading.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
That's a record for our little apartment, and it only went smoothly because of the excellent help. So today's blog post is dedicated to Sharon, Cliff, Jarrett, and Mr. Bob.
We have a few kids with special needs, and our volunteers adapted well to the situation. Sharon was able to walk Julissa through some of her worksheets:
Jarrett is our resident math expert. Here he is trying to focus on helping Bryan while Cliff does some posing:
Kids who finish their homework get to do puzzles until the lesson begins. Asberry and Natalia worked on one together today:
Ruthie rounded the kids up and warmed them up for lesson time:
Sharon and Cliff had prepared a lesson on the Ten Commandments. They taught them all from the perspective of LOVE, which is the central message and the driving force of the whole afterschool program. It's great how these things line up sometimes:
And, to demonstrate love to all the hungry kids, Mr. Bob ran the kitchen. He made enough chicken noodle soup to feed all the kids and the volunteers:
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
The end is always the most fun, where we pick the more mature kids and allow them to stay late and help with clean up. It gives us some more focused time with the older kids, and we don't have to work as hard to keep order, so we can relax, joke around, initiate meaningful conversations, and learn more about their lives.
We had a new eighth grader with us today named Susanna. She volunteered to help clean up, and took charge of the dishes from the meal we fed the kids:
While Susanna washed the dishes, Maritza and some of the other girls brought some fresh greens and carrots out to our rabbit, Leonard:
Karina, who is usually diligent during clean-up time, roamed the apartment harrassing the other helpers. Here, she snagged Vanessa's power cord. It took Vanessa a while to figure out what was going on:
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Purna has three children and she is far along in her pregnancy with a fourth. Purna's husband, Santi, has stopped paying the bills for Purna and her kids, and has decided at this most inopportune time to seek a divorce.
So now Purna has no help with her kids, no heat, no hot water, and a baby about to be born. Obviously, a divorce would probably work in Purna's favor from a legal and financial perspective, but in the meantime, she's about to have a baby in extremely stressful and dangerous conditions.
We will be working with her and with some of our other ministry partners to figure out some options, but the whole situation would warrant as much prayer as our readers can muster.
Below are a few pictures of Ruthie's time with Purna and her two daughters, Susan and Selena:
The party gave us a context to express love to our neighbors, allowed us to initiate new relationships, and resulted in four kids coming to church the next day. Behold:
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
-Don't worry. We'll just swap it out and get a voucher from the manufacturer.
I tore the fabric of the coat on a car door handle. I brought it to the store on Sunday, after that sermon on Acts, before seeing the cop run down the homeless guy, and they refused to exchange it.
So, while there were plenty of big issues to be upset about, I was already predisposed to think of the world as a cruel place. Sometimes my big distresses come from embarrassingly small incidents.
The morning after the nightmares and the writing of the preceding post, not having slept more than an hour, I picked up Nivin for a Refugee Beads event. Ruthie had to leave early, so I gave Nivin a ride to the school where they were speaking, and she asked how I was.
I told her a little bit, mainly the part about not sleeping, wondering about the disconnect between our ministry and the ministry done in the Bible. Saying it seemed to me like broken things stay broken.
She said, basically, that I just don't see the results yet. That God uses us in ways we don't understand.
I wish I had recorded it. I have very little memory of the exact words, since my mind was somewhat disengaged at that point, but I remember watching the road, listening, thinking about the kids and what we hope for them, and knowing that whether or not we turn the city or neighborhood or even one family upside down, that Love is doing a small, good thing here.
That evening, I walked up to my door to find the words "FUCK IAN" written in sharpie on the wall by our door. I know who wrote it. I had asked him to apologize for calling a third-grade girl a whore, and he stormed out instead.
I kicked a chair over when we got inside. I fumed around the room. I was just barely hanging on.
Ruthie's sister told us to try nailpolish remover. It took about two minutes to clean the graffiti off. I didn't know what to do about the kid who wrote it. He wasn't talking to me apart from the writing on my wall.
Today, my friend Jarrett called the store about my coat. I asked him to act on my behalf since I'm non-confrontational. He told them the situation, asked what could be done, and, upon hanging up, announced that corporate had e-mailed the store, and that I could get my coat back.
When we went to the store to make the exchange, we found that the coat was now on sale for $70 less than I bought it for. So I got a new coat and $70 back from the purchase.
It was hard not to feel elated leaving the store. If the store had accepted my first attempt to exchange it, I wouldn't have made the extra $70.
Inevitably, as we drove away from the store, I thought about all the other, more significant injustices that were wearing on me.
At first, I felt stupid for feeling happy about the coat. Then later, I wondered if somehow I couldn't read this as a sign of greater things to come. If this little working out could precipitate bigger workings out, or at least it could show me how limited my perspective is.
Which was the whole point of my first post. That there is too much I can't see. That I experience and respond to this tiny sliver of what's really, actually going on.
The difference is whether I feel hope or despair in response to that fact. That's a question of Faith, and mine is admittedly weak. Sometimes a coat can make or break it.
Today, a new tag appeared on the wall. In the same handwriting, "Ian is Gay."
I took about 30 seconds to clean it off the wall with nail polish remover. My new goal is to spend less time removing the graffiti than this angry teenager spends making it.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
The first one I remember with clarity had me suffocating under my sheets as they ballooned around me. I watched shapeless shadows play across the translucent fabric. I knew if I could reach Ruthie, I would wake up, but I was paralyzed.
In the final dream, I prayed for God to open my eyes to His truth, and the room flashed before me violently like a caught reel of film, on and off, meaningless and horrifying with the silhouetted outlines of pines and empty branches clawing at the walls. I couldn't breathe. Then I woke with one bright flash into a dark room.
When I came out of the dream, I went to the book of Acts, where I have been reading sporadically. It seemed like the thing to do.
The story goes that when Jesus was here on earth in skin, he did his own work and teaching. Then when he had died and risen, and it came time for him to get sucked back up into the sky, he promised that something better was around the corner.
No one knew what to expect, especially his followers.
Then, in a rush of fire, they found out what had been promised. That the kingdom, the power, and the glory that Jesus had held in his person was now loosed in them. And that through them it would overturn the world.
And when they went out and preached, their message was some variant of this: The Kingdom is here.
On Sunday after we heard a sermon on Acts, a police officer nearly ran Ruthie over in his haste to bully a homeless man for blowing bubbles in a parking lot. We saw the policeman slam on his brakes mere inches away from the homeless man, get out of the car, and charge over to establish his kingdom in that parking lot.
It was an injustice like all the others I witnessed during the week. I have been worn down by the laws which guarantee that kids we love will never be able to find legal work in this country. I am oppressed by the collapse of families all around me. The damage done by physical and sexual abuse to the kids and adults we work with will not go away. And despite all our hopeful stories, money pretty much tells us what we can and can't do.
Everything that I see suggests that what is broken must remain so, and that everything is broken.
And the church nowadays seems mainly interested in getting people zapped up to Heaven instead of announcing that The Kingdom of Heaven is here. It seems like they've admitted that Jesus, while He can do some pretty cool things in the unseen forever, is pretty much impotent for now.
I'm sitting in front of the computer now at 2:28 AM, contemplating my nightmares, trying to understand how they fit with the distress I feel.
Are they my mind's way of grieving and letting go of a false faith? Some physiological result of the Indian food I had for dinner? Are they God's Spirit, awakening me to know his power? Are they demons, come to torment me so I will be impotent for the Kingdom work?
As I write this, the answer is out of my reach. I feel though that writing this entry is the task before me. I stare at what I have written. I wonder how it will be read. With no conclusion to draw, I commit the final words to my readers and place the period that ends this moment in the story.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
The Apple and the Pear
There was an apple named Ian, and this apple was always picking on a pear named Ruthy.
"You are long and wierd shaped hahaha."
"Stop making fun of me," said Ruthy.
"No, I won't, you freak," said Ian
The next day a big storm came with winds going at 200 mph, and the fruits started running like crazy. OH NO HIDE OR IT'S THE END!
But Ian was going for a hat trick and locked the tree house doors.
All the fruits banged and banged to no prevail. The wind came took all the fruits away. When he opened the door they were all gone.
"Like OMG this is so cool," said pear (Ruthy) and the rest they were being made into food while the apple Ian stayed alone and rotted without being eaten.
Oh yeah Ian had a twin bro named Ian and got married with Ruthy and started a bully awareness club. The end.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Below are a few photos from today's program. Brian and his pre-K posse usually get out the blocks and claim a corner of our hallway:
Those who have a pretty good idea of how to do their homework tend to start first and work the most quickly:
Today, one of our student leaders wrote and delivered an original story for the "lesson time." It was a hilarious tale of an apple named "Ian" and a pear named "Ruthy" who fell in love during a storm. In the end, they started a bullying awareness club to teach others how bullying was bad.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
While the whole thing is challenging and rewarding, the highlight is at the end, where our leaders stay after the other kids leave and help us get the apartment back in order. Everyone grabs a cleaning implement (broom, sponge, vaccuum, spray bottle, rag) and gets to work.
Usually, we get about halfway through the cleanup before those with shorter attention spans start sparring, joking, and telling stories. The rest of us push through, and we usually take ten to fifteen minutes after cleanup to hang with the leaders. Sometimes we play games, and other times we talk about whatever comes up.
Yesterday, we addressed sports, the DREAM Act, and linear equations.
Every time the kids come back after some time away, it feels like our home takes on new meaning and our lives take on new and rich stories which are way bigger than we are.
Here's a picture from yesterday's clean-up time. I had to lean in at the last minute to make it into the frame: