Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Short Goodbye (pt 3)

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

A Short Goodbye (Pt 2)

-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

An Opportunity to Act

Many of our partners and supporters ask us how they can help us. For those of you who are willing, I have an idea. The new HB 87, currently on Governor Nathan Deal's desk, threatens our ministry by scaring the people we work with out of the state and barring us from doing many helpful things for them (see section 7).

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.

Sincerely yours,

Ian A. North
MSC Missionary, North American Mission Board

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Short Goodbye (Pt. 1)

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


For those who don't yet get our newsletter (also known as "primitives," languishing in the pre-North family ministry update dark ages), fear not! Here is the text of our latest:

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