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.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Violence and Place

At the park next to our home, about three years ago, I stood on the sidelines as a coach and saw a fight develop between my team and the other. 

Like most fights, it overshadowed its first cause. I can't remember who said what to get it going. I know that David, a striker who also plays American football for his school, was at the center of most of our fights that year.

But teams lined up according to the colors of their jerseys, shouted, and advanced toward one another across the small, dusty field. The referee shook his head and watched. I ran to the middle, demanding that my players calm down, waving the other team off, making eye contact with David. 

Probably because no one really wanted a fight, the lines dissolved, we gathered our gear, and everyone headed home.

Three years later, most of that team has graduated from high school. Two of them are in jail. Others have drifted to other teams. Some have stopped playing soccer for the sake of raising kids or working. The few who stayed together have formed a men's team, and I play with them every Sunday night.

David hasn't gotten into a single fight since I've been playing in this league. A large part of it, I'm sure, is the fact that he's been growing in character. I'd like to think that I helped set a tone of togetherness that helped remove violence from within the team during the years that I coached, but there were so many other factors that it's hard to make any claims.

I'm often the only white man on the field, and I feel my strangeness whenever I stop to think about it. But generally, we're out there playing together and yelling at one another and working together to win. I've earned the right to sink into the fabric of the place a little bit.

This morning I read in Genesis where God decided to release a flood on the earth. There's a lot about the wickedness of man and general rebellion, but when God finally identifies a specific behavior that exasperates him, it's violence. This comes on the heels of the story of Cain and Abel.

Violence is a dominant force in our neighborhood. Police use it to identify and contain my neighbors, fathers teach it to their children, alcohol and drugs exacerbate it, and kids nurture and practice it among themselves on the soccer fields, at school, and in their homes.

I think that in the modest arena of our soccer team, we've seen progress. And while Ruthie and I really can't claim credit for it, we can say that we've become part of the spread of peace by becoming part of the neighborhood.

I've been reading responses to violence in Gaza, Missouri and Iraq online. Someone did something to someone else, and someone got violent and did harm, and the other saw violence as a necessary response, and violence multiplied and claimed families then regions, and it seems to be ruling the world and claiming nations as its servants these days.

Bloodshed is being applied recklessly and out of scale with the problems it's supposed to be solving.

I can only add to this conversation a modest truth that I've learned in the few years that I've been living as a white person in a neighborhood peopled by those who our nation's system of violence has pursued, oppressed, and defined. 

Christlike love for neighbor is an antidote to violence which is available to any person willing to practice it. Christlike in the sense of entering into the neighborhood, encountering violence in its arena, and fostering grace there. 

This leaves those who claim to desire peace with an uncomfortable first step to take. To love neighbors out of the nightmare of violence, we have to be neighbors first. We have to step onto the field where the fight is brewing.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

12 Years in the Past and Looking Forward

This picture is from 12 years ago, when Ian and I first became friends doing ministry in an under-resourced neighborhood of Atlanta. I was only 16 at the time. Now we are hoping to both work full-time, together, as a married couple with a new born baby here is Atlanta's Chamblee neighborhood! We need your help to make that a reality!! Will you partner with us and join our story? Learn more and Donate here:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Gladness and Need in the Neighborhood

"Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need." - Frederick Buechner

All of my life, I felt a desire to tell the stories of how love survives in overlooked people and places. But in recent months, God's hand has taken that desire and made it into a living opportunity.

One week ago, our Hispanic neighbors, the artisans of Refugee Beads, and our other family and friends gathered under two tents on the lawn by the leasing office of our apartment complex. They were joining us to celebrate the coming birth of our son, Jack Lawrence North.

Miguel was there, along with Guzman, La La, Georgie, and David, all of whom played on a soccer team I used to coach. Several moms from the neighborhood also came out, eager to show their love and support. Our friends from Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan joined us, playing games and sharing a meal.

Five years ago, when we moved into this neighborhood, we did so with the idea of finding and nurturing God's love. I did part-time work to support our ministry, driving an armored van for a year before joining She Is Safe as Director of Communications. The whole time, I balanced the emotional and mental demands of outside jobs with my deep concern for the lives of immigrants and refugees in our neighborhood.

With the recent outpouring of love from our neighborhood, a growing interest among the youth in spiritual matters, and the growth of our little family, Ruthie and I feel a need for me to focus on doing the work that I love among the people I care about.

That's why we're working to bring me on to the Refugee Beads team as a full-time Communications Director. The birth of a child seems like a weird time to make a major transition, but we feel a need to ride this wave of opportunities to grow Refugee Beads, deepen our relationships with our neighbors, and better tell the story of what God is doing here.

Please join us in praying for this move. If you would like to contribute financially to this work, please donate to our GoFundMe Campaign here. We need to reach our goal of $10,000 before we can make this transition.

Thank you so much for your prayers, friendship, and financial support. We can't wait to write you with the good news about what God does with our growing family in the coming months!

In Christ's love,

Ian and Ruthie 
Our neighborhood is full of stories worth telling. I have teamed up with a group of artists from Open Table Community to explore and share the life of our neighborhood. We're calling the collective "Storyboard." Our first video project features our Afterschool Program Director, Miguel Martinez, and his mom. Click this link to watch it.

Ignacia's Story - Mother's Day 2014
Watch the Video
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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

House for Sale

This house just went up for sale in our neighborhood. It is nothing glamorous, but is the most well kept piece of property with-in a square mile of us. Of course we could never afford it, but I was shocked that not even a small part of me desired it. It is close by, we could still minister to the  neighborhood, it would be "more" to share.

But I have learned that the things we own require something of us; our time, our resources, and our attention. It is very easy for those of us who have resources to acquire more and more stuff or better and better opportunities for ourselves or our kids, until we have no choice but to serve the money that makes it all possible. And somehow the more we have, the more we need. We become trapped. I fear this trap. 

 "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Luke 16:13

We just emptied out our storage unit  from when we moved to Atlanta 5 years ago. We "needed" it because all the "stuff" we thought important enough to move from Chicago to Atlanta wouldn't fit our apartment. After not touching most of it for 5 years and paying $50 a month, we finally made the time to go empty it out, and give or throw things away. Yuck! What a waste, right? That stuff took our time and energy to move, not only once, but twice, and then also cost us financially. 

So I see the value of living in a small place where we are constantly reminded to live simply. I like living somewhere that requires little upkeep. This gives us more opportunities to care for people rather then maintaining stuff.  

Believe me, I like nice stuff. I love to decorate, and I love shopping : )  But all those things are so much more fun and meaningful if they have purpose and if they are actually used to love others. 

(Newly decorated shared room in our apartment for Baby North and After School Program kids)

Maybe one day a house would help us in loving God and loving others better, but for now, it would only be a distraction, something robbing us of the rich blessings we currently enjoy. 

We have so many opportunities to share God's love here. So we live with a joy that this world can not offer. God has lavished us with his goodness. Everything we have, we can see is from his hand. 

Is it often hard, scary and discouraging? Yes. But that's what makes the beautiful moments, small victories and met needs all the more sweet and satisfying! It's what gives us perspective and what keeps us turning to God and not ourselves. 

I don't share this to say how good we are. Because we are not. Only God is good (Mark 10:18). But I share it to testify of God's faithfulness to his promises, and inspire you to live differently in light of who God is and what he cares about. 

We need Christians who make choices that reflect the Christ they follow.

When we trust God with our lives and our children's lives, as we go about his work of loving those in need,  God will do far greater for us then we ever could have done for ourselves!

"For if you give, you will get! Your gift will return to you in full and overflowing measure, pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, and running over. Whatever measure you use to give--large or small--will be used to measure what is given back to you."
Luke 6:39

"For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope."
Jeremiah 29:11

"But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint."

Isaiah 40:31

"And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 4:19

“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid."
John 14:27

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"I Don't Believe in God"

Yesterday was the first day of summer club for the kids in our neighborhood. So we spent our Memorial Day weekend preparing a new space for the kids and baby North to eventually share.  Come Wednesday at 3:30, everything was ready to welcome the 20 or so kids that would enter our two-bedroom apartment. 

In the couple minutes before opening our doors, I shared with our program leader, Miguel, and volunteers, Evangelina, Sarahi and Autumn, a quote by Maya Angelou. I asked the volunteers to remember this quote as they interacted with kids....

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 
― Maya Angelou

"So the most important thing we can do here today, is make the kids feel loved, okay?" I said. They all gave a sincere nod. 


There were two things that stood out to me during our afternoon together. 

The first was during our initial activity for the day. The kids were to fill out a questionnaire, giving their name, address, grade and then tell or draw a picture of what they would like to do for the summer. You know, give us some ideas. There was very little enthusiasm to fill out the paper in the first place, let alone give us any suggestions. So I told them they HAD to fill one out in order to come to the program. Suddenly, they were all asking for something to write with. So at least I knew they wanted to participate in whatever it was we would do. 

As their little hands began to shove their papers into mine, I looked through their answers, or lack there of, one by one. They had nothing or surprisingly little to offer us.

So I realized something. I think the kids in our neighborhood are used to just sitting back and taking life as it comes crashing into them. They deal with so many heavy burdens, ones I never had to bare as a child. "Where will my next meal come from?" "How will I cope the next time Dad becomes violent?" "Will I ever be at peace with who I am?" "Will I ever belong anywhere?" These are the questions our kids face. My guess is that those kind of daily challenges are exhausting.  The kids are not good decision makers. I pray we can help with this. I want to teach them that they have a voice and that their voice matters, to God, to me and Ian and to those who care about them. I want to inspire them to THINK for themselves, to know what they want and pursue it! This is going to take some work, and I believe over many years. 

The second was during story time. We finally got the kids settled down and Miguel began with a visual demonstration. He asked for a volunteer. Willing hands flew up in the air. Davey was selected and Miguel asked him to squeeze ALL the toothpaste out of a brand new tube on a piece of brown paper. Of course this looked incredibly fun, so Miguel quickly had a captive audience, as all the kids gathered around to watch. When he was done, Miguel said "Okay Great! Now, put it ALL back in there." Davey was dumbfounded. He re-positioned his hands many times, thinking, scheming as the kids shouted out suggestions. Miguel patiently listened for a good while as they tried to figure it out. Finally, after a couple attempts to redeem the flattened toothpaste tube, they gave up. Miguel explained that our words are like that toothpaste, once they are out, we can't take them back. "Our words can be used for good or bad and God has a lot to say about that in the Bible", Miguel stated.  He shared this verse: 

"Don't use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them." Ephesians 4:29

It was then time to pray before we served the kids a hot meal of chicken, rice and corn, prepared in a large 30 cup rice cooker. I asked the kids to be quite and respectful because we were talking to God.

A eager hand frantically shot up in the air and waved around. The middle school girl said, " Ruthie, I really have to tell you something and it CAN'T wait." I said, "Okay, what is it?" She said, "I don't believe in God." A little startled, I told her that was okay,  that she was welcome to come even if she didn't believe in God. Then I asked her if she could still be respectful as we prayed even if she didn't want to join in. She agreed. 

She stayed to help clean, and I will add, did a great job! She gave me a hug as she left with a smile. I think we succeeded in making her feel loved and welcomed, even after her open confession.

This was the second moment of the afternoon that stuck out to me, even hours after the kids left. Why did she feel such a strong need to tell me that? I am not sure. But I do know, for some reason she was confronted by that very important question: "Do I believe in God or not?" I hope that our presence in this neighborhood will confront many of our neighbors in this same way. I am excited that she is thinking. I pray we can be a consistent light and example of God's love in her life. God knows her heart. He loves her desperately. And that is what we have to do, love her, continue in the work of showing and sharing what God has to offer her. We know from experience that God's relentless love is hard to resist for long!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Privilege, Is It All It's Cracked Up to Be?

Do I want privilege for the kids in our neighborhood? It's not a simple question for me to answer. I desire to bring clarity to this very important question.

Is our goal to help these kids become better educated, graduate college, get a job making good money, and to get out of this this neighborhood? Is a our hope for them to live in a safer, more comfortable place?

I have determined my answer is no. That is not the goal.

If it was, why would we ourselves decide to give up good paying jobs to move in to a needy neighborhood. Our whole life would be sending them an opposite message.

I have had some friends recently ask me what my hopes and dreams were for the kids in our neighborhood. It's a very simple question, whose answer should instruct the very nature of our work. Of course I want good things for the kids, and for the neighborhood. I want them to have options, to not become stuck. I hope they become all God has made them to be and that their gifts and talents are encouraged and used for good.

But the world's idea of success is very different from God's.  After all God does not call us to be citizens of this world but sojourners passing through, living as followers of Christ in his kingdom established for us before we were even born, an eternal home (Ephesians 2:17-19). He has given us life and freedom that the world can not give(Galatians 5 :1). Privilege itself is often a hindrance from finding this life and freedom. We who find privilege in the world often turn to own abilities and desires, we loose sight of community because we no longer have a need for it. We begin to believe the lies of this world that say more is better and comfort is the best way.

I desire for every kids in our program be treated with dignity, to understand their worth in God's eyes, and to live out that knowledge in showing love and generosity to those around them.  The hope we have in this work, that keeps us going, is that we know however broken and unfair the systems of this world may be, God offers them all they need.

God  is powerful and can change people! We want our neighbors to know God's love and how to live out that love in their own lives. So when one of our young leaders decides to stay here and become a neighborhood mechanic or a young lady makes a mistake and becomes pregnant and never goes to college, or a teenager decides to do nothing more then to stay here and invest in the younger kids in the after school program, and they bare the fruits of the spirit in their lives, we find joy, and praise our heavenly father (Galatians 5:22-25). Because we know our work has been honoring to him. We can celebrate those kids as much as we can the ones who go off to college and make good money. Because to us the most important thing is that they know Jesus and that he has changed them.

The beauty of the kingdom of God is that we are all different and have unique things to offer in showing love to one another (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). God uses the rich and the poor. We are not all called to be rich and we all not all called to be poor. The important thing is that wherever we find ourselves we never forgot God's love for us, and that like Jesus, we live by that love and for that love. Loving God and loving others should be our motivator not worldly power and success (Mark 12:28-34).

Let's work together to bring restoration to broken systems and justice for those who are oppressed! But we must not hold ourselves, or OTHERS, to the worlds standards of success. For God is still at work and his spirit can still make a person whole no matter where they find themselves or end up! For God can use his children in powerful ways, whether they are in a jail cell or in a law office, whether they are rich or poor, whether they are documented or undocumented! This is why we don't give up.  This is why we continue to visit Nico in prison. This is why we are proud and inspired by Miguel and his work in the neighborhood. This why we celebrate Laura, being the first in her family to go to college, and her desire to help others through her degree.  This is why we have hope.