Best story I’ve read in a long time…

3 05 2012

From Fast Company magazine comes the unlikely story of gang members, felons, bakers, and businessmen … and a Catholic priest who lives by the motto “You are so much more than the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

Please. Go read it now. You won’t regret it. 🙂

Mission “Because”: Cause vs. People

10 03 2012

I recently came across a letter written by Kelly Finlaw in response to the 2011 BuildABridge Institute:

i have come to the conclusion that there are typically two types of organizations in the social justice world … one type of organization does whatever they do “for” a cause.  in my head i label the “for” people as the legalists and associate them with very hurtful things.  things that i want nothing to do with.  there is an agenda and right and wrong and black and white and not much room for anything but their own ideas.  if you disagree with whatever they are selling then it is an attack on the “for” and consequently, an attack on them.  one brief example – one of the presenters through buildabridge told her story of using music as therapy with palestinian children inside the separation wall in bethlehem.  her research was phenomenal and fascinating.  but when she was done and came home and began to tell her story she encountered people that didn’t understand why she went to the middle east and worked with palestinian children instead of israelis.  i put the people that questioned her in the “for” category.

then there is “because” type of organization.  they do things “because” of the need that they see and the love within them.  they live in the middle with open hands.  anyone can come and join and serve the need.  anyone can agree or disagree and it’s not offensive.  no agenda.  just service to the needy “because” love spills out of them.

There are probably other ways to describe this dichotomy, but semantics aside, Kelly’s distinction is an important one to make.  When we do things for a cause, we constantly must wonder if we have picked a worthy enough cause.  When we do things because of people, there’s no need to wonder.  People are always worthy of love.

Don’t get me wrong: causes can be both important and effective. They can put the stories of individual people into a larger context. They can help us ask hard questions. They can point out systemic injustices. And sometimes they can give us the social impetus to move forward.

But if our justice work is not rooted in real relationships, then we often find ourselves chasing a lost cause.

One of my friends has worked in an African orphanage; another advocated to save the Argentinian rainforest; another is helping free sex slaves in Thailand; several others work for Teach for America/Americorps…and the list goes on.  And when you’re stuck in a “cause” mindset, it’s easy to play the comparison game: is my cause good enough?  are my efforts as noble?  am i really making a difference?  is it worth it?

But then I remember each one of the kids that has wormed their way into my heart over the past two years (right here in the very same city where I grew up!) and I remember why I do what I do.  It’s because of them.

And because he first loved us.

Of course, there’s always more work to do. And I think it’s vitally important to educate ourselves about global — and local — issues of social justice, and to be involved on both a global and local level.  I’m just saying, don’t pick your ’cause’ because of someone else’s ‘people.’   And don’t denigrate anyone else’s efforts (or your own!) because they seem small.  As Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

And as Jesus himself once said, “And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.”

Planting Seeds

3 10 2011

Last fall, our youth group began an after-school ministry for middle school students who live in the neighborhood around our church.  I am long overdue for a post about the challenges and successes of this ministry, but on the whole, I believe the program has been a wonderful thing for everyone involved: the students, the volunteers, and the congregation.

From the beginning, we have involved high school students as volunteers for the program.  Last night after youth group, I ended up talking to one of our high school seniors about the impact of this program.  He wondered aloud what good we were doing, and whether our relationship with the kids will have any effect on their lives.

I said, “We see small successes all the time, but we won’t know the long-term effect for many years, if ever.  I think we have to hope that we’re planting seeds…that these kids will have a positive impression of the church, that they might one day remember their mentors or something we’ve said, or maybe they’ll be inspired to do something different with their lives.”

“There’s a parable about seeds, isn’t there?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“And in the parable,” he continued, “some of the seeds fall on rocky soil and thorns, right?  So even if we plant the seeds … if a kid goes home and his parents are abusive or addicted to drugs or whatever … then it’s like the seed falling on the thorns, and it will never grow.”

I was completely taken aback by this profound insight and the implications it has for ministry and education as a whole.  Teachers, of course, can only do so much; a child’s learning is dependent on many other factors outside the classroom.  And along the way, we plant many seeds that will end up being eaten, choked by thorns, or prohibited from taking root.

But we still plant seeds, and we never stop planting seeds… because we believe that every once a while, we’ll land on good soil.  And when that happens, it will produce a harvest beyond our wildest dreams.


11 03 2011

This Tuesday, I began volunteer training to become a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate).  I knew from the beginning that it would be a tough process: CASAs are appointed to represent the best interests of children in foster care, typically those who have been badly abused.  I’ve quickly learned that “the best interests” of these children doesn’t mean that we will find a happy, fix-all solution for any of them.  The stories are convoluted and sad; and the best solution, obviously, would be to go back in time and prevent any of the abuse from ever happening.  It is overwhelming to try and wrap your mind around how many kids — just in our city! — who have lived with abuse and neglect as their norm.

On Tuesday night, after training, I opened up my Bible in search of some Scripture that might possibly speak to this 21st-century reality.  And I ended up in the 9th chapter of Ezra.  At this point in the story, Ezra has just returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to oversee the rebuilding of the Temple.  He’s probably dreamed of this moment all his life.  He is returning to his people’s homeland…to the most holy place in all of Judaism. But shortly after he arrives, he learns that the returned exiles have disobeyed God yet again.  Here is his reaction:

“When I heard this, I tore my clothing, pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat down utterly shocked.  Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel came and sat with me because of this unfaithfulness of his people.  And I sat there utterly appalled until the time of the evening sacrifice.  At the time of the sacrifice, I stood up from where I had sat in mourning with my clothes torn.  I fell to my knees, lifted my hands to the Lord my God.  I prayed, “O my God, I am utterly ashamed.  I blush to lift my face to you.  For our sins are piled higher than our heads, and our guilt has reached to the heavens.  Our whole history has been one of great sin…and now, O our God, what can we say after all of this?  For once again we have ignored your commands!” (Ezra 9:5-7a, 10, NLT)

Of course we sin.  Of course we fall short.  It’s in our very nature, and it is written across every page of human history.  But there are moments when we catch a glimpse of just how broken we really are, and we can’t help but become overwhelmed by it.  At this point in the story, Ezra might as well be a visitor; he’s new to Jerusalem, and he certainly hasn’t had the chance to get married yet!  But instead of placing himself on a pedestal, he feels the burden of his people and takes on their guilt before God.

Ezra’s prayer is a one of brokenness, of communal confession, of compassion in the truest sense of the word, and of repentance.  As we enter into the season of Lent, I hope and pray that I would keep his words close to my heart.

Night Light

17 09 2009

This afternoon after work, I walked in the pouring-down rain to volunteer an organization called Night Light International.  Night Light, a ministry which works to combat sex trafficking through prevention and intervention efforts, has operations both in Los Angeles and Atlanta.  Today, I worked with a program called “Infusion,” an after-school Bible club for at-risk kids in south Atlanta.

As I waited in the lobby for the rest of the volunteers to arrive, I chatted with the organization’s director, Courtney.  She gave me an information sheet about the afternoon schedule, and I thought I noticed something about “outdoor recreation.”

“Wait a sec.  This is going to be outside??” I asked.

“Yep,” said Courtney, glancing out the window.  “Pray that the weather clears up quickly!”

Before we left, we gathered in a circle for a mini-orientation.  Among other things, Courtney casually mentioned that the group had twice been held up at gunpoint while in this neighborhood.

What had I gotten myself into?

The afternoon was loud, crazy, chaotic, rambunctious.  Not to mention fun.  Word quickly spread around the neighborhood that we had arrived, and about 20 or 30 kids began showing up.  The crafts were cheesy, the Bible study was probably less than effective … but I could also tell that the kids had come to really expect the group’s presence there and looked forward to playing with their “big kid” friends.

And I met a lot of great other people who were also volunteering.  One guy, upon finding out that I was a violinist, invited Jordan and me to a house church/musical jam next Tuesday night.  Who knows?  We might take him up on the offer.

I haven’t decided whether or not I will return next week, but all things considered, I am glad that I went today!

Justice and Pie

28 08 2009

“These are a few of my favorite things…”
– The Sound of Music

“I just figured, if I was going to change the world, I’d do it with cookies.”
– Stranger than Fiction

Check out the Justice Pie Project, an initiative put together by a family in Barrio, Ontario.  They have spent the summer compiling pie recipes and statistics on slavery and trafficking.  And last week, they had a celebration of Justice Pie Day.  In spite of a power outage, they baked 18 pies, raised $300 for the International Justice Mission, and educated their neighbors about slavery.  And along the way they enjoyed fellowship, community, games, and a potluck dinner.

a strawberry rhubarb pie baked for the Justice Pie Project

a strawberry rhubarb pie baked for the Justice Pie Project

What an inspiring (and delicious) example of what the church can be!

I am a Modern-Day Abolitionist…

27 08 2009

Or at least, I’m trying to be. Here’s how I got started:

During my first semester of college, I took a life-changing and perspective-transforming class called “Political Science 47H: Ethics, Morality, Individual, Liberty, and the Law.” The class had the best reading list of any I’ve ever taken: Mountains Beyond Mountains, Blink, Life on the Color Line, Hiroshima, and Disposable People. The last book — Disposable People by Kevin Bales — combines facts and statistics with moving stories to paint a picture of modern-day slavery across the globe.

Up until that point, I — like most people, I imagine — thought of slavery as something in the past: a great injustice but one which had disappeared more than a century ago. But reading the book, I thought: “This must end. What can I do?”

The first step, as any anti-slavery site will tell you, is to educate yourself. Read the facts. Learn the statistics. For this issue especially, which all too often exists as an ugly truth hidden behind everyday life, knowledge really is power.

The next step, for me, came when we moved to Atlanta last month. Unfortunately, slavery is not something that happens “over there.” It’s here. It’s a horrendous problem — and it’s all around us. According to Street GRACE, between 200 and 300 young girls are trafficked each month in Georgia alone. The average age of child sexual exploitation appears to be 14, but girls as young as 10 and 11 have been exploited.

So what to do with these facts? I’ve been educating myself, making inquiries about how I can volunteer, and will keep you posted with any opportunities that arise. For starters, here is a brief compilation of resources that I have discovered thus far (I’ll try to add more as I hear of them):

Resources, Facts, Articles, Documentaries:
Disposable People by Kevin Bales
Stolen Childhoods
Hidden in Plain View: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Girls in Atlanta
Not for Sale
Slavery Map
Safe House: an article from Creative Loafing
National Human Trafficking Resource Center
At the End of Slavery

Organizations (Atlanta):
Innocence Atlanta
Juvenile Justice Fund
Street GRACE
Wellspring Living
Circle of Friends

Organizations (National/International):
Free the Slaves
Anti-Slavery International
International Justice Mission
Not for Sale Campaign
Free 2 Work
Shared Hope International
Stop the Traffik
Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking
Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking: Los Angeles
Children of the Night

Do you twitter?
Innocence Atlanta
Not For Sale
International Justice Mission

What about Facebook?
Street GRACE
Innocence Atlanta
PAST Atlanta
International Justice Mission