Thursday, December 27, 2007

My neighbors are aliens [Cody, UHW staff]

In some recent reading I have been doing on a "Christian perspective" on the US Immigration issues, I have come upon this very crystal-clear passage, and in light of new events in my neighborhood, it takes on equally crystalline implications:

“The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).”

You see, my new neighbors are "aliens." In fact, aliens are transforming my block.

Thanks to one of the top 10 or so snowiest December's on record, I got to meet the newest addition to our little "United Nations" block in south Minneapolis. After the most recent fluffy deluge, I was outside shoveling my walk, and I saw my newest neighbors attempting to clear off their sidewalks. I say "attempting" because they were trying to shovel 6" of snowfall with a spade shovel, which is all they had. And as a native Minnesotan, I am sort of a snow shovel savant , so I had to step in (any seasoned shoveler would have done it). And that is how I met Ali and Hayat, the Somali family that now lives two doors down.

The house they moved into is more than just the new neighbors house. It represents a lot microcosmically about certain 'issues' that are impacting our country:

-The last people to own the house were a Mexican family [issue: immigrants, documented and undocumented most likely].

-They lost the house due to both immigration paperwork issues (the father was deported) AND the resulting inability of the now abandoned mother-of-three to pay her escalating mortgage payment on their adjustable rate mortgage they got talked into by some modern day carpet-bagger [issue: foreclosure epidemic].

-The house sat vacant for over a year. The copper was stolen [issue: globalization. One of the reasons copper prices have escalated is due to the massive amount of copper needed for construction projects in China, India, and South America]. Eventually it was boarded up.

-Then signs of new life! Hammers a-pounding! I went to over one day to see who was building, and try to get a little inside information. The construction crew were all Ecuadorian workers, led by a Mexican guy who had great control of the English language [issue: immigration, again].

-The house was completed, and Ali, Hayat, and their brood moved in [issue: refugee/immigration, again. And in this case, if you know the reason Somali's got to MN in the first place: US Foreign Policy, East African national and ethnic tensions].

So, now I have new neighbors, and I look forward to seeing how our paths will cross again. And if I ever wonder what attitude I am to take concerning these 'aliens' who are my neighbors, I think that passage in Leviticus makes it pretty clear: I am supposed to love them as much as I love myself (which is an awful lot, I must admit) and to treat them as "native-born." Welcome to the neighborhood, Ali and Hayat.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Come Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest [Oakland Avenue house]

“Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and turn this food from damned to blessed." -Thanksgiving Prayer, Latarra age 11

Gratitude, credit, merit, appreciation. So many words exist to express thankfulness. Yet I have a hard time describing the feelings that overtook me last Wednesday. Let me explain. A while back my roommates and I decided to throw a community Thanksgiving meal. It started small; the family downstairs (we live in a UH duplex), maybe a significant other, and ourselves. But I think more than one of us has the spiritual gift of hospitality. For when we tallied the final guest list we realized 25 adults, 4 babies, and a pre-schooler were coming for dinner!! I’ll also note at least 5 people were invited but couldn’t come.

So before all the tryptophan lulls me to sleep, I will indeed count my blessings instead of sheep and share with you all the experience that has left such a big impact on my gut . . . and my soul.

Blessing #1: Generosity of others.
The idea for this meal came when Youthworks, a partner ministry of Urban Homeworks, offered to provide Thanksgiving meals for urban neighbors wanting to invite over those placed in the “have not” category of life.

Blessing #2: Increased generosity of others.
When some folks working at Bethel Seminary got wind of the meal, they chipped in and made homemade pies and side dishes for the feast.

Blessing #3: Beauty
We were very intentional to create a beautiful environment for our guests: white table cloths, candles, fresh cut flowers, and place cards adorned our tables. Beauty spread from the table to the faces of our guests. When you are valued enough to be invited to a beautiful banquet, it says that YOU must be beautiful to have deserved the invite in the first place.

Blessing #4: Diversity
Our guests were a mixed group of Section 8 families, poor high school students, lonely neighbors, and friends.

Blessing #5: Love
There was nothing in the Wassail, but by the end of the night we were jolly enough to clink glasses with our neighbors and embrace one another. Babies were passed around the room, numbers were exchanged between possible mentors and mentees, and a spirit of service and sacrifice led many to stay for hours to help clean. Relationships were formed and strengthened, and God’s Spirit of Love was present.

As I said earlier, words don’t do justice to the true emotion of the night. I remember reflecting on it all as I drove my students home. It was more than a magical Disney feeling, more than just a good time. I know God blesses those who take care of his poor. So maybe the feeling is blessing #6. If so, it’s the best one. It’s been the longest lasting. I don’t have all the right words to describe it, but here are a few: grace, fortitude, peace, hope.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

In Transit

Last Friday was the day my thoughts burst. I had walked to the coffee shop after work to get some fresh air. Soon it just got cold so I boarded the bus and the realized I didn't have correct change so when we stopped I told the driver that I'd get off and walk the rest of the way since it wasn't super far. The driver told me to just put in whatever I had, so I turned around to get it all together and a woman (who I guess had overheard) handed me a dollar as she walked past and said, "I guess its your lucky day."
I was really grateful. It felt strange and humbling to be on the receiving end of generosity... there I sat with my $3.61 chai, humbled by the fact that I had both needed and gotten a "hand-out".
That got me thinking about how much I like riding the bus; I enjoy that feeling of being a part of the City and I also feel that I have become one of "them". That led to thinking about the difference in Christ's eyes between me and them, and I started feeling crummy. There is no difference! I feel like somehow its been ingrained in me to see people in classes, like I have left some other-world to stoop down and move to St. Paul and teach them all how to live a better life. "All you need is Jesus" (And middle-class white folk). Like I'm here to save lives or something.
This story hasn't resolved; its still a journey being played out daily, but I think that with this comes a freedom to learn and grow more to be who God is calling me to be here and now.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Thanks be to Honey - [Cody, UHW staff]

I had a blast from the past today, and it rocked me.

I saw a kid (young man) standing down the hall from our office at the Youth Enterprise office door looking for staff (office was closed). I went out to help him find who he was looking for...and then we had one of those unspoken "Hey, I know you" moments of recognition. It took me a minute to place him, because the last time I saw him he was about 10 years old.

"Hey, Cody." He placed me first. I was still playing through my mental list of neighborhood kids I had met over the years, but my "search function" is awfully slow. Then it was Johnny.

Johnny was the kid who lived downstairs when I first moved into south Minneapolis as an Urban Neighbor in an Urban Homeworks house. He was one of the first kids that went from being a "statistic" to being a living, breathing example of "a poor black kid." His mother, "Honey," was a hardworking single mom, had 5 kids (all from the same dad) ages 5 to 15. I remember the mornings when she would have to take a taxi at 5:30 AM to the 'burbs for her job. She asked if we (the clueless 4 white guys and 1 not-quite-as-clueless Asian guy) could check in on them in the morning, to make sure they got out the door for school. So we did. Usually Johnny and his little brother, "Q", would be up and at it already at 7 AM, eating their breakfast. Johnny would be ironing he and Q's school uniform. Feeding his brother, ironing his clothes, getting ready to go to elementary school, at age 8. Meanwhile, his mom was 15 miles away, trying to concentrate on her telemarketing job:
"Did the boys get off to school, with food in their tummys?"
"Did they remember to iron their clothes? I don't want my boys looking shabby."
(Because she was so exhausted each night that it sometimes didn't get done).
"Did they turned off that iron so that the house is still standing when they get back from school ? (She'd still be at work).

What a clash of realities. When I was an 8 year old kid, growing up in the sheltered lap of middle-class white America, my mom's biggest existential concerns [God bless her] were whether or not it was safe for me to ride my bike to school because the road shoulder was not ideal in width, or if I'd crack my head open jumping my BMX bike off of homemade jumps (I'll give her that one).

After Johnny and I chit-chatted a bit, caught up on the "what's so-and-so been up to" stuff, we parted ways. Then it hit me. When I got back to my office, I felt a stirring…an excitement, a joy to see Johnny again and even more so because he is involved with something really good (Youth Enterprise's mission is "equipping youth living in urban communities with relevant life and business skills grounded in the hope of Christ"). But entwined with the warm-fuzzies was a deeper hard-to-describe , odd feeling. Not a whole lot different than that stuff that churns around in you when you run into an “ex”...when you know there was/is a shared history or connection in which you both shared some really good stuff. And some really NOT so good stuff. Things did NOT end well with his mother and the family.

Urban Homeworks (we) had to ask her to leave because she had relatives dealing drugs out of the house and would not (or could not most likely) put an end to it. We tried to do everything "right": she was served an eviction notice, with ample time and options. Yet, when it came down to the midnight hour (literally), the last minute of the last hour of her tenancy, our staff had to go to her house with a police escort because Honey had made quite a few threatening statements prior that. And we knew her well enough to know that she was not bluffing. And I don't blame her. She was the mama bear and we were kicking her and her cubs out of their den, regardless of whether or not we were "right" in doing so.

I cut my “urban teeth” on those first few years in that Urban Homeworks house, and I can’t separate it from that family. I hope I didn’t leave too many bite-marks in the process. Those years kicked my butt in many ways…but for the better. And I have a feeling it might have kicked their butts too…but I dread that perhaps it wasn’t for the better. Those years, and that family, lit the fire under the cauldron of my own racial attitudes, white privilege stuff, arrogant classist assumptions, etc. Since then, this white-boy's cauldron has reached the boiling point. The dross is slowly rising to the surface, I am refining. And in many ways I am NOT the same Cody I as an Urban Neighbor. Thanks be to God…and thanks be to Honey.

I got Johnny and Honey's number. I really want to call Honey, to tell her how much I have grown because of her, through her. But I can't help but wonder...was my growth was probably at her expense? And thats why when I think about doing it...the stirring inside begins again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

One Semester of Spanish - A Love Song

Census Bureau researchers found that by 2050 the Latino population of the United States will triple, and one in every four Americans will be Hispanic. Better start practicing your Spanish, my friends.

Check out this link for your first "Spanglish" lesson. It'll make you laugh...

Sins of my Skin [Siri N., Urban Neighbor alum]

I grew up in a small town in southern Iowa, where pigs out numbered the population. I was blessed to be surrounded by hard working, blue collar, family orientated people. Though the reality of my home life went more like an after school special, full of yelling, hitting and confusion. I grew up with few friends but being a poor white kid I was able to feel comfort with the few kids in my school that believed different than the town-wide Catholic God, or those who lived across the track in the projects. And yes, as the stereotypes say most of the kids in our projects were kids of color. But for me the Lord had placed on my heart at a very young age the understanding that Jesus died for everyone no matter the so-economic standing, religious beliefs or color of skin.

As I grew up my heart for the city and my desire to explore new cultures grew. So I moved to Minneapolis to attend college, though the first college I picked I found that the culture I had been brought up in just followed me up to the college. So I still felt a large hunger in my heart to be around ‘All of God’s people’ and that is when the blessing of youth fell into my lap. I was able to volunteer for a youth group in St. Paul full of kids that skin color had no similarities to mine. I began to see that it was in voices of these children's experiences and realities that laid the true work of Christ. At this time I was just a youth worker who loved kids and camp, race was not as apparent. But as time went on and as I experienced my current job, God began to show me the very subtle, destructive divide between the white and blacks in our country, in our state, in our city; actually on every block in North Minneapolis, "Jesus prayed that believers might be brought to complete unity—a process of which we are a part of (John 17:20-23)"

I moved to north Minneapolis about seven months ago and have worked at my current job for almost two years in that time I have been blessed to see the world from the eyes of the beautiful children of North Minneapolis. Their stories entail drug abuse, poverty, physical abuse, hunger, stress and racism. They also entail strength, insight, love, compassion and an understanding of the world many of us will never have. Through their lives God began to show me that "Love for God and others is a continuing ‘debt’ we spend our whole lives paying off (Rom. 13:8)." I cannot fix the sin of those before them but I have begun to see that I can apologize for the sin of my skin. There are chains on the ankles of these children and on mine because of the sins of my forefathers and with the Love of Christ I have begun to see that no amount of ignoring, money or programs will break these chains that are holding us all down.

I grew up a poor white girl in southern Iowa, and I have been able to get a great education, get any job I have needed or wanted and have lived in many unseen privileges. I was able to change my background through an education and a good job, but for the children in the North Minneapolis they will never be able to change the history of oppression and prejudice that has plagued their skin just by getting a better job or nicer things. Their skin color and all that lives with it will follow them every day. That is why I believe as a white American I must acknowledge my privilege, ask forgiveness for the cost it has had on my fellow brothers and sisters and continue to speak the truth through Christ Jesus. I believe that one day through the grace of God the children of the North Side will have a chance to step out into a world that no longer defines them by their race but rather by the image God made them in.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Where have all the old people gone? - [Kristin, Urban Neighbor alum]

I am an Urban Homework Alum, I used to live in the house on 29th St. and Bryant Ave. in North Minneapolis. I got married in July, and my husband Caleb and I moved into one of the Urban Homeworks Cedar 28 condos shortly afterward. Yesterday, we decided to take a walk down Cedar to get to know the area on foot a little better. We ate at a place called Matt's Bar, a fixture in Minneapolis, famous for it's "Juicy Lucy" hamburgers, that have molten hot cheese in the middle. Then, we walked down to a new ice cream shop and each got a scoop.

On the way back we met an 88 year-old Japanese man on the street named Sam. We had seen him when we were on the way down to the ice cream shop, and it concerned us that he was still pacing the same area 45-minutes later. So we went up to him and asked him if he needed any help. (Actually, I'm embarrassed to admit, that we first tried to call 3-1-1, because we assumed the man didn't speak English. We thought it best to have a Minneapolis cop come and address the situation, but 3-1-1 was closed for the evening.) Turns out, Sam didn't need help, the house he was pacing in front of was his, and he was "just passing time". But he was desperate for conversation, and kept us engaged for a good 30 minutes as he leaned on his cane and told us story after story.

He spoke perfect English, even though a few of his words were swallowed when he would accidentally breathe in his gray mustache hairs, and his barren gums would get stuck on them. He was a strange looking man, like a older Mr. Miagi from the Karate Kid - small and thin with long gray hair and a long gray mustache and beard, overgrown eyebrows and nose hairs, no teeth, long, unclipped finger nails, a blue long-sleeved polo shirt with multi-colored stains in the center of his chest, long navy-blue polyester pants, and flannel slippers.

He told us about his time in the military during World War II, and how valuable he had been to the armed forces because he was fluent in Japanese, English and German. He told us of his childhood in Ojai, California, and of his older brothers, who were the first non-white boys to be accepted into the Boy Scouts, who have now long since passed. He told us of how he came to Minnesota, and how his Japanese-ness was seen as such a novelty in the midst of the pure-bred Minnesotan Scandinavians of the 1950s. Many of his facts contradicted each other, but he seemed so desperate for human contact that Caleb and I didn't correct him. We continued to ask him of various ways we might be able to help him - Can we call your family? Do you live alone? - but he just wanted to talk.

It made me sad to think of how many elderly people must be so lonely that all they need is someone who will listen, and how anyone - ANYONE - could take the time to listen, but we rarely do. It made me think about how they say that you can tell the moral character of a society based on how they treat the people least valuable to them - the elderly, the disabled and children. Americans are often are more willing to put money into programs for children because we see them as "our future", and we want to make sure it's bright. But what incentive is there to invest in the elderly? They have already given us their best years. They already fought our wars, developed our programs and businesses, and passed them onto us.

I thought about how special this man must have felt over the course of his lifetime, being Japanese by heritage, but American by birth - one of the first second-generation Asian immigrants to live the American dream. And then I thought about how much better off he would probably be at this stage of life, had he returned to Japan, where every September, every Japanese citizen gets a day off for "Respect the Elderly Day" and there are over 32,000 people over the age of 100.

I worry about Sam, and others like him, who are so vulnerable. There he was, shuffling in front of his house on Cedar Ave. in Minneapolis in his slippers, unaware of any danger that may come to him. How many countless Sams must exist in Minneapolis, and yet, we don't know or hear their stories. What are we, as a nation, doing for people like him? Doesn't he deserve more after how much he did for us? It's a dilemma of Urban Ministry that is rarely addressed by young, optimistic revolutionaries like us, and definitely a dilemma I need to think about more. Where have all the old people gone? How are they being valued and loved? I don't know the answers to these questions, and I should. We all should. How did they get forgotten?

Thursday, August 2, 2007

"Dear Mr. President..." - letters to our President from the kids at the Bryant Ave. tutoring house

[This year a group of Urban Neighbor' s organized a weekly tutoring night for neighborhood kids in an Urban Homeworks house in north Minneapolis. Thank you Kristin, Katy, Matt, Jessica, and Stacy for your amazing efforts, dedication, and inspiration!].

"In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it." ~ Marianne Williamson

Over the summer, the face of our make-shift tutoring program at the 2902 Bryant House shifted and changed a bit in order to accommodate the fact that the kids wouldn't be in school, and thus, wouldn't have homework to bring to tutoring. Although we love planning fun outside activities, we decided to do something academic (but fun) each week to impress upon the kids that "learning never ends". However, the kids were not as keen to our idea. They caught on quickly that we were trying to "trick" them into working during their precious time-off from the pressures and stresses of grade school. Week after week, we cajoled, bribed and weaseled the kids into writing an imaginative story, doing "fun" math worksheets or playing trivia games. It was becoming quite frustrating for both us and the kids.

The week after the Fourth of July, someone had the idea to have them write letters to the President of the United States. It seemed like a good patriotic activity to engage in with the kids, but as Wednesday night tutoring approached, we all expected to go through our regular routine of begging and pleading to get them to write to Mr. George W. Bush. And, as usual, there were a handful of kids who simply would not have it. We let them draw pictures instead. But, to the surprise of everyone, there were two girls who took this activity on as a way of expressing their frustration with their circumstances. The two girls came from different backgrounds. One was African-American, and one was Native American - but they ended up with letters that were strikingly similar - a plea to the President to help their families out of poverty.

I had the pleasure of staying with these three girls after "writing time" had run out. They willingly missed playtime, to come up stairs with me to finish their letters. At the end, as they read their letters out loud to me, I felt a strange sensation - a mix of beaming pride, righteous anger, upper-class guilt, and heart-felt empathy. Kameja's* letter was filled with humor and wit, with sentences like, "Hello Mr. George Bush, I almost wrote George Washington, but that would have been a mistake, you ain't as good as him" and "There are too many baby's momma's still living with their own mommas. They need help getting their own houses for their babies." The other girl, P.J.* let me copy down her letter to share with you all. Here's what she wrote:

Dear Mr. President,
How are you doing? My name is PJ. I live in Minnesota. I am 10 and I am from the Mille Lacs tribe. I speak Ojibwe and English. I used to live on the reservation but now I live in Minneapolis. Here in Minneapolis I have less friends than on the reservation. I was 8 when I moved to Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, it's harder to get from place to place, one time I had to walk over 4 miles. I walked from my mom's boyfriend's house to my aunt's house. I'm tired of going place to place to place. My mom has no house and she is very busy. She has to watch kids all the time. Can you please make prices lower and give my family $1 million dollars so my mom can buy a house and a car? I said please. Sincerely,PJ

This one experience with PJ and Kameja made up for all of the Wednesdays when the kids left tutoring, and we were left standing in the ruins, with growling bellies, dull head aches and surrounded by a stunned silence.

It made up for the many snacks I have prepared that the kids complained were "too healthy" and "didn't have enough sugar".

It made up for the dirty fingerprints that line our hallways, and the beads and glitter from Christmas crafts that we are still sweeping up.

This is why I came here. To empower.

And if it takes week after week of stressful, loud Wednesday evenings of crazy crafts and vaguely controlled chaos to get results like these - I'd do it again in a heart beat. Because it was through those weeks that we were able to build relationships with these kids - relationships strong enough that two of them would trust us to help them write down some of the deepest most painful issues of their life, and demand that things change.

We helped the kids address their own envelopes, and sent all of the letters and pictures the kids made to the President of the United States, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500. What a powerful lesson in citizenship, and what a better way to reinforce the meaning of our country and its founding. For as Marianne Williamson said in The Healing of America, " ... the inherent goodness of the average citizen [is] the crown jewel of American democracy."

* Names have been changed to protect the far too innocent.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The city heats up in the summer...

Things get a little "hotter" in the city in the summer...but don't believe everything you see on the evening news because most of what happens in the city is good, clean fun! These pictures say enough...

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Marcela and the Tunnel [Sarah R., Urban Neighbor alum]

[Sarah, an 2005-06 Urban Neighbor alum, is currently working with street kids in Chihuahua, Mexico.]

Her name is Marcela or Marcelita. She is 14 years old. She lives in an underground tunnel on the streets of Chihuahua with her 15 year old husband Nacho. I do not know her face, but I know her cry. As I walk in the dirty smelly streets I come across her home: the tunnel.

Dark and long, she lives all the way in the back where the light cannot reach. She cries as Nacho beats her. He comes out. We are there to feed them. She is still crying. I take a plate and walk into the tunnel. I hear her crying. I am hunched over as the tunnel is about 3 feet high. I walk and walk and walk. I can no longer see the hand in front of my face. Who knows if there are rats on the ground. The darkness is so thick and I am so scared. But she is still crying. I tell her I am here to give her food and she need not be afraid. I continue to walk, how long is this freaking tunnel? I am so afraid as the darkness seems to enter my soul and envelopes me into its greatness. I stop for a second and just sit there afraid.

This intimate moment with Marcelita is powerful. I have entered into her darkness. I can see a small light behind me where I came from and I cannot walk any further. I am too afraid and she stops crying and she is too far back there and Moi (my leader at the home) tells me to come back. Nacho is happy and smiling. I only want to beat the living day lights out of him, but I pray God shows me how to love him (my enemy). Moi says there is nothing we can do but pray as the Mexican government is not like the US. They do not go and stop domestic abuse. She is addicted to her drugs and the abuse and she does not want to leave. He says all we can do is pray and God does answer those who cry out to him. I am praying for her and by faith I know God will rescue her. This is why I am here. To sit along side Marcela and tell her she is loved and I am here to listen to her story and am here to be her friend and help her beat her addiction and know real love...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Birthday Blessings [Leah, south Minneapolis]

I never knew what a simple game of kickball would bring about...

One day as I got home from work our neighbors below were grilling out. We organized a little game of kickball and made everyone line up according to who had the closest birthday. As the kids told me their birthdays, Sha'Liece ended up having the closest birthday- May 20.. This happens to also be my birthday. As she found out that we shared the same birthday, her face instantly lit up. In our four plex there are 3 other families all with younger kids. This particular family had just moved in 2 months ago. I work at an Elementary school, and some days I come home from school absolutely exhausted, wanting just to take a LONG nap. Yet, these kids continually want to play "ships across the ocean", freeze tag", "kickball", or whatever other game they come up with.

Everyday after that glorious game of kickball Sha'Liece would let me know that there were "22 days until our birthday", 17 days until our birthday", "7 days until our birthday." She reminded me of the anticipation we have as children of these events in our lives.
I decided to organize a little party for this girl who was soon to be 7. I talked it over with her Mom, and made sure all of the girls would be able to come. I sent an e-mail to a group of friends telling them to bring games, books, and toys for Sha'Liece and her 3 sisters. I bought a pinata and was looking forward to celebrating with this family and having friends get to know them. Well, the big day rolled around and I didn't hear much activity in the home below. This was quite surprising since music/yelling are typically constant in their house.I knocked on the door and found out Sha'Liece was gone and wouldn't be home until alter on in the evening. Friends were coming over at 1 o'clock. People ended up arriving with all kinds of gifts-books, hula hoops, sidewalk chalk, bubbles, coloring books and more. I felt so grateful for the outpouring of love by the community of friends I have. Yet, I was feeling bummed out that I thought the family below and I had clearly communicated about the party.

My friends came and went, still with no Sha'Liece and her sisters, to break open the pinata with. Later that night I got home form a family celebration and the girls came up and knocked on the door. My roommate Krista and I had all the girls up, as well as their uncle and Sha'Liece got to open her presents. The look on her face was absolutely priceless. She had gotten some money earlier in the day from a relative for her birthday. She told me a family member had already taken the money to buy gas. These were the only gifts she got. I had my apprehensions of what it would look like for a bunch of my friends to get her gifts, but it ended up being a truly beautiful moment.

The next day all of the kids in the four-plex were outside playing. It was a gorgeous day. I told the kids that when my roommates Krista & Marissa got home from work we could open the pinata. Some of the adults in the building came out as well. We had such a great time. People ranging in age from 2-50 were taking turns at the pinata, laughing and uniting over a 7 year olds birthday. There have been many experiences this year that have struck me- some bringing deep pain, and some bringing immense amounts of joy. Monday was such a beautiful day of celebration and joy on our little corner in the central neighborhood of South Minneapolis.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Just Let Me Give

Reflections from the weekend "Fast from the Middle Class"


            I met a black man, or rather he met me when he invited me out of my chair to meet his friend, a staff worker.  He was homeless with only a white t-shirt and basket ball shorts to cover his back.  Fastened around his waist he wore a black back-support, the kind stockers wear at the grocery store.

            He said he wanted to talk to me because of the clearness of my eyes and a countenance about me he had not seen in a long time.  This is one of many reminders I received that weekend that it is impossible for me to cover up my blessed background and stable life situation.  Right now, it is just who I am and so deeply ingrained that I cannot simply turn it off, and I do not need to.

            His structure was two of me.  His eyes were the color of coffee.  He had picked out a tan trench coat from the tables downstairs before breakfast trying to hide his shoulders which hung like leaves off his trunk-like body.  Occasional lone tears slipped from his eyes as he shared his story.  What could make a forty-two year old black man cry freely in front of a five-foot-four, twenty-six year old white woman., especially one who did not trust white people until he left the south and moved north.

            "For six days I have not eaten.  I have given up, and I have been drunk and stoned under that bridge over there.  I am tired; not just today, but of life.  I dreamt for those six days of killing myself and ending it all.  I am tired of fighting, really fighting.  I do not know what brought me here today for breakfast.  The food in my stomach is so foreign to my body that it is being rejected.  I feel like throwing it up.  I am not even sure I want to make it through today."  All I could do was listen.  He wanted no answers, just question.

            "Do you know where I have been?"

            "No, I have no idea," I said.

            "I am from a nice family.  My mom prays for me every day.  There is a family in the suburbs who takes care of me.  I cannot keep taking from them.  I cannot keep receiving their charity."

            "Why not?"

            "I do not deserve it.  I have done nothing to help them in return.  I have nothing to give back.  They do not ask anything of me, but how can I keep receiving that?  My mom still prays for me every day, but you know what really struck me that she said," he asked.

            "No, I don't."

            "'I pray for you every day,' she tells me, 'but when will you start praying for you,' she asked me.  I had no answer.  I know God's love is sufficient for me.  I know his grace is complete.  I have read the Bible over and over again.  I know what it says; I know what it teachers.  I can repeat it back to you.  I have lost my Bible three times and it always comes back to me, somehow.  I know God loves me."

            "Can God be trusted," I asked him.


            "Why can you not trust him with yourself.  You do not have to be clean.  That is God's job.  You do not have to be worthy because none of us are worthy.  Jesus came for people like you who see your dirtiness and need for a savior.  Trust Him with yourself since you know He, alone, is enough."

            "I cannot do that.  I am too dirty.  I cannot let that go.  Did you know I have been in jail?  I have been in prison for years.  I have seen so much death; more than anyone should see in a lifetime.  I cannot stand it anymore!  I am so broken and full of junk!  Did you know that I have not been hugged, truly and honestly in years.  I have sold my body to men and women alike for drugs, but nobody has hugged me.  Do you know what I really want?"

            "No, what do you want?"

            "I want to be really held.  I want to feel love again.  I want someone to wrap their arms around me.  Is that so hard?"

            "I don't know.  I really don't," I responded.

            "Do you know what I want to be," he asked me.

            "A preacher?"

            "Yeah," he laughs.  "I want to be a preacher.  I want to tell people about God.  I want to teach them the truth!  I am an artist, too.  Did you know that?"

            "No, I did not.  Do you know what I see in you," I asked him.  "I see a man being chased after and sought by God.  You have the truth.  You just need to trust it.  You lost your Bible and God keeps bringing it back to you to remind you of Himself.  I believe God is in you and working.  He is the one that makes you worth anything, only him, not yourself."
            "You really think so?"

            "Yes, I do.  It's like this.  Think of a piece of art.  This piece of art does not search for the artist, right?  It is a creation of a creator.  We are the art.  God created us, but we cannot seek him.  We are his creation.  He must reveal himself to us.  So, the fact that you know he exists and understand so many of these truths are evidence that He has revealed Himself to you.  Otherwise you would not know he existed.  He loves you!  He is hanging on to you and is not letting go.  When are you going to hang on to him?"

            "It seems so simple, but I just don't think I can do it.  I wish it was that simple."

            "I know."

            "Did you know I have HIV?  I have told everyone I have been intimate with.  Some appreciated it and others were angry with me.  I did not do it on purpose?  How can they be mad at me?  I would not have been intimate with them if I had known.  How can they say it is my fault?  Some now recoil at my presence and nobody touches me anymore even though that is not how you get it."

            "They are just ignorant."

            "I wish I could give.  Nobody lets me give anymore.  Everyone gives to the homeless, but nobody ever lets me give back to them.  I have so much to give!  But, nobody lets the homeless give from who they are.  They have taken our identity and made us feel useless by not letting us share who we are.  I just want to give of who I am and what I have.  Someday I am going to write a book, a bibliography of my life."

            "I hope you do because I think you have a lot to give," I said.

            This man would have kept my ear all day.  I thanked him for "giving" me his story and encouraged him to give it to other people.  There was nothing else to say.  I prayed all day that he would make it through today, tomorrow, next week and continue to see the truth, eventually being relieved from his despair.  I shook his hand as I left.  I knew I could not hug him, but I wanted to leave him with one good, honest touch.  He never once asked me for anything but my ear to listen.  That is all he wanted, a chance to give.  The desire for love, identity and a chance to give is what makes a large black man cry in front of a girl.  He knew life was too short to hold back.

We don't love by chance; rather, we make room for the ones we choose to love.

Download Messenger. Start an i'm conversation. Support a cause. Join Now!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lucky Pennies for a Dollar [Rachel, south Minneapolis]

A man with a painted expression of apathy stood just within the archway of an alley in downtown Minneapolis. He wore a sky blue, nylon, 80s jacket with a faded baseball cap. I could not pass the pennies up for long. I turned back after a few steps to take a second look. On top of the suitcase filled with his life belongings and an umbrella handle protruding through the zipper sat an old cardboard pizza box with a few handfuls of pennies inside. Although he appeared to be passively watching the business world flurry by, I am sure he took in every pause or second flicker of an eye in his direction.

Looking at him through his goggle-like glasses, I asked if he was really selling pennies for a dollar. He nodded back without emotion. I shuffled through the pennies wondering what my odds were of finding a penny actually worth a dollar. I asked him where all his wheat pennies were. Through his scruffy beard, he quickly told me he kept them in his pocket. I laughed out loud at his quick wit. I chose a shiny penny from the bunch and began to dig out a dollar bill. While handing him the dollar bill, I asked for permission to trade the dollar for a picture of him and his corner business.

Even though it seems foolish to “buy” a penny, the picture of this successful entrepreneur beside his business is priceless. He sells pennies for a dollar and calls them lucky. A man in a dark, professional suit sells his ideas for thousands of dollars a year and calls it a career. The penny man appears to be the fool on the street with such a ridiculous venture, yet who is the bigger fool – he who is selling, or the cooperate world who pauses to buy, keeping him in business? What if we quit buying his pennies? What if we quit buying someone else’s ideas for the prices they demand? Which example of business is the more true consequence of corrupt consumerism?

I want to find him again someday to trade his penny for a cup of coffee. What is his story? What has been his life journey? How many times has he been trodden over by life?

Caroline and Chloe [Rachel, south Minneapolis]

Caroline is a homeless woman who sits in front of the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis. Her two year old daughter, Chloe, has spent some of her most developmental years understanding this life as the norm. Her sense of trust and security (from Erickson’s Eight Stages of Social-Emotional Development) is based on the constant motion and transient society of the street community. Where is her source of hope? What can she trust? As she is asserting herself as an individual, who is she defining herself to be? What is she learning to become? How often does she face shame or doubt instead of assurance?

I met this small family two weeks ago when God interrupted my life by their presence as I was searching for the lucky penny man I had met only days earlier. I paused moments up the street to watch this mother care for her child. Most of the world passed by, but occasional schedules would break momentarily to “bestow good will” upon the impoverished family. Yet the human connection made in those moments was so minute. It lasted but a second with barely a spark lit between their eyes.

I awkwardly approached her and asked what kind of help she was waiting for. She said any help was good; a job would be wonderful. I wanted to help, yet I know that “bestowing good will” only places her socially bellow me.

She says she is from Philly and is a bartender. She is waiting for benefits to come through county social services, which is so commonly a hardship of all stories of life on the street. She has repeatedly been denied. She only has two weeks left in her house before she must relocate.

We agreed to meet for lunch the next day to trade a shared meal for her life story. Unfortunately, the weather turned bitter and she kept her daughter inside. Not coincidentally, I have run into her a few times since then. Today, she was at her wits end dealing with housing and benefit issues. She does not want to have lunch today because she’ll miss the “gifts” others drop in her hand. She wants so badly to be self-sufficient, but the world has degraded her to accepting hand-me-downs. I wonder what keeps getting in the way. Could she make better choices? How many times does one fall before they quit trying to get back up?

I gave her my phone number since she has no phone to call her at. She has promised to call me soon to share her story and a meal. I offered to share my life with her as well, knowing relationships are a two-way journey. I debated in my mind whether or not to buy food at the market for her, just a simple bag of apples would do. Would I only break our connection giving myself a social boost? I made the offer but she said lunch was enough. She would rather I shared moments in life with her than bestow upon her a good deed. I smiled as I left wondering how often she truly felt human friendship. Chloe is maybe the only one who truly knows her, and Chloe is only two. I touched her arm as I left. She reached out to me as well, but did not dare get close enough to quite brush my sleeve.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Doorbell Agendas

There are some nuns, the Visitation Sisters (or the "Nuns in the 'Hood" as many call them) that live in north Minneapolis. They are by far one of the clearest examples of the incarnation of Jesus Christ that I have yet to experience. They have "lived Jesus" (their words) in a notorious part of north Minneapolis for 17 years. They have fed their hungry neighbors, handed out bus tokens when they had them, provided curbside death-knell prayers to dying gang members, taught English, taught Spanish, taught music, and taught God's love.

They are artisans of God's grace and His manifest mercy and justice. And like the humblest of artisans, they can't even see their own brilliance. But it is unmistakable. Being around such radiant lovers of the "least of these" always provides yet more inspiring but almost-impossible challenges to how I "live Jesus." The latest challenge to my overly-scheduled life: doorbell agendas.

A doorbell agenda is NOT a strategic plan, a formula, a ministry method. It is a way of life that they model. It is waking up in the morning and humbly kneeling before the Father and saying, ""Morning Lord. I have things on my calendar today, things I want to do, things I need to do. But I submit to Your will, and when that doorbell rings and someone is standing outside my door with a need or hurt, give me the strength to be Jesus to them."

A doorbell agenda really threatens my efficiency and productivity paradigms, my plans, MY agenda. Living Jesus really is a threat to living ME.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Lawless

"Lawless." For me the word conjures up wild west images of grizzled outlaws, gunslingers, riding furiously through canyon lands trying to evade "the good guys." Guns blaze, but to no avail. The good guys always get their man.

Then another image of a lawless man is flipping the script for me on what "lawless" might be all about. Check out this passage in Luke 22, Jesus reciting a prophecy (from the prophet Isaiah) about himself: "For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was counted among the lawless'; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.'" (v. 37, NRSV). The translators of the NRSV chose to use the word "lawless" (other translations say "transgressors" or "rebels"). Ten verses later we find a posse of the "good guys" armed with swords and clubs (see Matthew 26) hunting down our Lawless Lord under the cover of darkness, led by one of his own, Judas. Within a day or two the Lawless Turner of Temple Tables was hung to die between two other Lawless thugs.

Jesus the Law Abiding Citizen...where do we get THAT image? They killed him because He was a threat to the profits and security of the elite, status yielded by the adulterous relations between Temple and State (Rome), NOT because He was a good citizen.

Two other lawless "thugs" made the news last week: Eugene and Lorenzo were shot dead, their bodies were found in the basement of their place in north Minneapolis. The news reported (or implied) the all-too-usual incriminating stuff: "A significant amount of cocaine was found at the crime scene, and several witnesses had drugs on them. The reason for the killings has yet to be determined, but police don't believe it was random." A drug deal gone wrong? Payback?We may never know. You got to admit...the evidence of ciminal apptitudes definitely tempers any swells of compassion. "Justice" or "just desserts"? I can't speak for you, but my heart of darkness whispers these questions...
But I hear other whispers, too: "Jesus was counted among the lawless. What do you do with that?" Jesus, Eugene, and Lorenzo. The criminal element, enemies of the state. I have a hard time reconciling the Lord Jesus with the lawlessness of Eugene and Lorenzo. But in the end, Jesus died like a criminal, like a thug, between two other thugs. Jesus laying on the floor of a dingy basement with a bullet-hole in His head. NOT how I picture the Lord. Maybe seeing their friend on the Roman wood was as shocking and vulgar to Jesus' followers?

So, what would it mean for us, as Followers of the Lawless One, to be "counted among the lawless?" And would be our demise?

Friday, March 9, 2007

"Walk in my shoes for a mile or two and you'll see...." [Benjamin W., Phillips neighborhood]

A few weeks ago, out of the blue, I saw a poster up on the street for the Dakota Commemorative March. It said that many Dakota American Indians would be re-walking the 150 mile stretch where their relatives were force-marched by the US military in 1862 - many of them to their deaths. I felt this would be a great opportunity to literally "walk in their shoes" and spend prolonged time in their company to hear their stories. I didn't know if any other white people would be there, but I decided to go anyway.

Late on the evening of November 9th, a friend dropped me off in the small farming town of Mankota in southwestern Minnesota. I cautiously entered the church where the walkers were supposed to be staying. All I saw in the darkened church basement were masses of dark forms strewn all over the floor and couches, and the faint sound of snoring. I quietly laid out my sleeping bag and tried to sleep, unsure of what to expect the next morning!

At 5:00am the lights were flipped on and a booming voice shouted cheerfully for everyone to wake up. The whole floor of the basement started moving. People of every age and size started to rise and prepare to walk for another 20 miles before dinner - from young children to elderly men and women. I tried to follow the crowd and get a feel for what I was supposed to do. At some point someone yelled and everyone ran to the windows - 5 inches of fresh snow lay on the ground and it was still falling fast. "Looks like we'll have to walk in the snow - anyone need an extra pair of socks?" someone said. A makeshift medical station was set up where people's bruised and blistered feet were treated with ointment and moleskine to help the pain. (At the point where I joined them, they had already been walking almost 20 miles a day for three days.) After a quick prayer and song in Dakota and a light breakfast of dried meat, dried fruit, and hard boiled eggs, we began to walk.

The procession was always led by a medicine woman out in front carrying the traditional medicine bag. A few paces behind her were the relatives of the Dakotas that marched in 1862 carrying large decorated staffs to represent their different bands. Behind them came all the rest of the walkers including myself, followed by a long trail of support cars crawling along at walking speed. The lead car had a loudspeaker that played traditional Dakota drum and chant music. The caboose for this crazy, yet somber parade was a heated trailer with restrooms. At each mile post marker on the highway we would stop and pound in a wooden stake with two of the family names of the origional walkers on it. Then we each took turns sprinkling tobacco on it as a way of remembering and honoring their legacy.By 11:00am, my feet hurt, my calves hurt, my butt hurt, and my back hurt. Then I looked at the 50 year old man marching beside me with a smile on his face and kept going. A man called Bear kept reminding everyone, saying "many of our ancestors didn't have shoes when they marched, and they didn't even get to sleep! Remeber that when your feet start to hurt." Wise words.

A young single mother let me push her daughter's stroller the last 4 miles of the day when the side of the road became muddy and almost impossible to push the stroller through. As I labored to keep up with the rest of the group with my new burden, I was struck by the irony and the beauty of what was happening – it was as if this woman had given me the opportunity to share in her trouble, and in a way, to share in the trouble of her people. I pushed that stroller with all the might and care that I could, as if baby Jesus himself were riding in it.

We arrive at Henderson, MN (pop. 910) at about 4:00pm to end the day's march. It was the wierdest feeling to walk down main street and see the locals peering through shutters of shop windows and standing in doorways, all staring in silence as this crazy band of American Indians proudly marched through their town to the beat of drums. It felt eerily unwelcoming, as if the townspeople at that moment were stuffing down the realization that their land used to rightfully belong to these marchers. The man walking next to me whispered unmenacingly to himself as if to respond to their silence, "that's right, we're still here."

The local charter school floor was to be our home for the night, and the staff was very welcoming. I ended up having to leave that night to come back to Minneapolis for orientation at my new job, but I later found out that the marchers had been badly harrassed at the school that night by some townspeople, and some of the leaders had to be taken to the police station for protective measures. That made me very, very sad.

All in all, I feel I am a very lucky man to have joined these people in their march of rememberance. I was blessed by their willingness to let me share in their suffering, and to consider me one of their own as we marched. I have experienced in a very small way what it means to be a native in this modern world, and it breaks my heart.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Full house @ 2902 Tutoring! [Katy R., Hawthorne neighborhood]

Two weeks ago, we had quite the blow. We had kids who refused to participate and, as hard as it was, we stuck to the rules. we had 5-6 kids go home instead of participating in a writing exercise. i was very very sad. After they left, I was helping one of our kindergarteners, Jaytwana. As she sloooooowly wrote her name on the top of the page i just put my head down. She asked if i was tired and i told her no, i was just sad that so many kids had left. in her cute little 6 year old voice she told me that she was sad too but she was still here. melt my heart! Everyone told me they would come back but it was just hard.
In light of this not so fun night we decided to make a few changes. We instituted a call&response for when we need everyone's attention right away. Krisitin allowed the kids to pick their own and, after voting, we settled on "North" followed by "Side". they love it. we are still working on the silence after the call but it'll come. We also got a white board to write the night's schedule on. This way the kids know the different rewards and activities that follow the dreaded homework time and how long everything will last.

Yesterday was a whole different ball game. We had SO many kids, 11 but it felt like sooo many more. Thankfully, Stacy's roomie, Amber, got her trial-by-fire last night. She was great and jumped right in where we needed her. The posted schedule helped keep the kids on task and things seemed to go pretty well. At the very end Kristin asked one boy to leave for pushing another kid. All the kids were just floored and i think it drove home the point that there are standards for conduct at tutoring. He's a great (and i do mean great) kid and i know he will be back next week.

The way tutoring looks is changing dramatically from how it was this fall. We have more kids, a wider age spectrum, and more kids who lack the perfect manners of our first students. We continue to teak 2902 Tutoring as we need it. One of our biggest needs right now is more space. We have been doing homework at our dinning room table and our living room coffee table. With almost everyone crammed around the table it can get quite loud. We need another place to put our little homework-doers. Kristin believes she will be able to get a fold out table from her parents' house. However, we are wondering if Urban Homeworks has any connections we could use to get some free folding chairs that we can pull out as needed! I think another table will really help to keep a lid on things and allow the tutors to be more effective!

Welcome to Our Whirled

There are seemingly parallel existences in our society, worlds that pass close to each other, but don't always intersect.

The people in One World sojourn on I-35 and I-94 and other causeways, strapped into their rides as they rocket by and above the Other world, destined for somewhere important. On time, ordered, mobile, and seeking even more upward mobility. The good life is predictable, clean, scheduled, self-reliant. Cash is king. The Good Life is having. iLife. One World is middle America.

The Other World is different, it is the Other America. Chaos sabotages predictability. Hand-me-down cars, hand-me-down schools, too many stores selling hand-me-down One World clothes. People renting hand-me-down homes, owned by The Landlord (who lives somewhere in One World). Survival is king. The Good Life is making ends meet. Other world is poor America.

And then there is Our Whirled. It is not as much a place as it something that is happening to us. Our Whirled is where we One Worlders end up when the King of Kings invites us to a Least of These Party with His friends Montrey, Homeless Larry, and Candy the Single Mom Sometimes Hooker. One World is our roots, it runs deep in our blood, but it feels more like a funeral than a Party. Less of a departure than an arrival. New Other World friends introduce us to their people: Harsh Reality, Keepin' On, and Laughter. We are confused, mystified, and...changed. Other World is not entirely Home, but no longer is One World either.

Welcome to Our Whirled...