Blog: March 2013
Standing next to Michelangelo’s statue of David is awe-inspiring.
Meticulously carved from marble, the 17-foot-tall statue solidifies its place as a premier piece of Renaissance art. Where as previous generations of artists were ashamed of the human body, Michelangelo celebrates the beauty and sheer physicality of David. Every year millions of people flock to Florence, Italy to gaze at his iconic figure.
A little known fact about Michelangelo’s statue: The 17-foot chunk of marble used to carve David was passed over by numerous artists. For 25 years it sat in a junkyard outside of Florence. One artist attempted to carve something, ended up damaging the stone, and eventually aborted the project. Artist after artist walked by and ignored the large piece of rock.
But when Michelangelo visited the junkyard, he observed something different. He saw the marble’s potential--not its imperfections--and went on to call forth greatness. Multiple sculptors examined the same rock; only one man saw something different.
I share this story because it describes what our staff, interns, and volunteers are doing in Camden: They’re calling forth greatness in a place that has been abandoned, discarded, and written off as a failed city. Day after day, dedicated UrbanPromise workers look beyond the imperfections and labels attributed to Camden youth and articulate a vision of greatness for every child who walks through our doors. And our children begin to live that vision.
Adrian, a senior at our UrbanPromise Academy high school, walked into my office yesterday. He’d like me to write a college recommendation for him. His heart is set on attending Eastern University this fall.
Three years ago the young man was in a very different place. He was on the fast track to dropping out of public school--and dropping out of life. “I wasn’t going to class,” he confessed. “I was being a knuckle head.” In a last ditch effort his mother enrolled him at the Academy.
Adrian reminds me of Michelangelo’s “imperfect stone.”
His self-esteem was basically nonexistent, his motivation dormant, and his academic levels far below grade level. He was a follower, not a leader.
Then Adrian took a class with our English teacher Michael Lovaglio, who believed the young man could learn to write. Adrian is now an avid journaler. He met our director of experiential learning, Jim Cummings, who believed Adrian could learn to lead. He’s since taken on several leadership roles both in and outside of the classroom. Adrian met our Academy principal, Demetrius Marlowe, who believed he could learn to be a man of faith and principles--that’s exactly what Adrian has become.
And that’s why UrbanPromise sees 93% of alumni go on to college--in a city where fewer than 20% of graduates ever attend an institution of higher education. That’s why our young people are becoming teachers, ministers, social workers, and entrepreneurs, and returning to Camden to make a difference.
But in order for our staff to continue calling forth greatness, they need your help. UrbanPromise’s academic and college prep programs can’t function without your generosity.
As our seniors finalize college essays and send off their last few applications, the support and encouragement offered within our educational programming is more important than ever.
Help our students get one step closer to making their dreams of attending colleges like Eastern University come true.
Just $30 covers a college visit; $50 pays for an SAT or ACT test. Donate $100 to provide FAFSA (financial aid) parents’ night. Or consider giving $300 to provide college essay and application assistance to our teens.
Our students are counting on you.
Dr. Bruce Main
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Acts 4:13
It’s safe to say that it’s hard to be “with” Jesus and not be changed. All those who spend time “with” Jesus seem to leave a little different than when they arrived. So the question becomes: What does it mean to be “with” Jesus? I think being with Jesus involves traveling where Jesus traveled, meeting those whom Jesus met, seeing those whom Jesus saw, receiving words that Jesus spoke, and putting ourselves in situations that Jesus placed himself in. I guess what it really means is to “follow” Jesus—not just believe in him. (The Promise Effect, p.77)
How can you be "with” Jesus? Think about that today, and plan the following “imagination exercise” for later in the week. Day 1: Try to go through a day imagining Jesus at your side. Do your work, meet your friends, enjoy your family—all with the sense of Jesus right next to you. As you go through the day, ask him what he thinks. (And you don’t need to assume he’ll be judging you all the time. He might really enjoy your friends. He might compliment you on your hard work.)
Day 2: Give Jesus more say. He’s not just coming with you; you’re going with him. Certainly there are responsibilities with work and family that he would want you to fulfill, but are there people he’d like to hang out with? Are there activities he’d like to try? Try to live “with” Jesus on this day, and see how it goes.
Lord, help me to do more than just believe in you. Guide my feet so I might follow. As I physically age, help my spirit to stay young and hopeful.
“If God is a God of justice, what’s God doing about the injustice in the world?” Good question, isn’t it? “What’s God’s plan to make it believable to the world that God is good?” (Haugen; The Promise Effect, p.145)
We are the plan! Our decisions matter. Our lives matter. I believe we have all been given a “royal position"--especially in North America. Our education, our access to resources, and our social networks all put us in a place where we can significantly alter the course of history. The question becomes: Will we act courageously when we are called to make a choice?
Think about “someday.” Many people have great, godly plans for “someday.” Someday I will volunteer for that ministry. Someday I will sell my sports car and give the proceeds to the poor. Someday I will develop a dormant talent and offer it to the Lord. You can fill in your own details, but you probably have a someday plan. If you are truly “God’s plan to make it believable to the world that God is good,” then how will that plan take shape in the next few months, weeks, or days? What can you do this week to take a significant step toward someday?
Lord, it’s easy for me to look to someone else “to be the plan.” It’s easy to stick my head in the sand and wait for another day to act. I pray that you will reveal your plan today.
Hear Bruce talk about “the plan” to help Ernest attend college! http://thepromiseeffectbook.com/videos
Urban BoatWorks whale boat build at the Sea Port Museum in Philadelphia.
This week we used putty to fill in the seams of the boat. We also used a mix of beeswax and rosin powder to fill in all the screw holes. We accomplished a lot by our strong effort of teamwork. I had a blast! :)
We learned about caulking the seams of boats with cotton and how to tie a bowline knot to help tie down boats or to tie a rescue knot.
"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect." (Anais Nin )
I walked into the front office to retrieve my mail. Most of the staff had left for the day. It was Friday and nearly six o' clock.
"Mr Main," came a familiar voice from behind. "Do you want to see my report card?"
I turned to see Precious Stevens--a parent of two of our CamdenForward School students.
Precious pulled out her report card and showed each magnificent advancement. Every category--reading, writing, math--displayed significant improvement. She'd been working with tutors and taking night classes the past few years.
"I'll be taking my GED exam soon!" she pronounced after I finished my thorough review.
I assured Precious that we'd throw a party when she received her high school degree. I gave her a high five and headed to the front door to start my weekend. Later that night I found myself in front of the television watching Brian Williams of NBC. His news program Rock Center featured an expose on Camden about the crime and violence that plagued the city this past year. Far from an encouraging report, Williams highlighted the record number of violent deaths, a disintegrating police department, and a drug trade that is out of control. Then I remembered Precious and my encounter that afternoon.
Five years earlier, journalist Diane Sawyer had done a similar story on Camden. In that program Sawyer featured a young, homeless, illiterate woman struggling to provide shelter for her two young boys on the streets of Camden. Her name was Precious.
The outpouring of love and compassion generated from the show was overwhelming. UrbanPromise was able to help Precious find an apartment and a job, enroll her boys at our school, and assist with her education. Perhaps the city had not changed dramatically over the past five years, but Precious' life had.
I turned off the television, closed my eyes, and reflected on my late afternoon encounter with the same Precious. I pondered that moment again, remembering her smile, excitement, pride, and joy. And then it dawned on me. This encounter was not an interruption to my workday. It was not an inconvenience at the end of a busy week. This encounter was a gift, given by the one who is faithful and good.
Anais Nin once wrote that writers are people who "taste life twice." I've always liked that quote. I think the same is true for Christians who take the time to reflect and recognize the gifts God gives in the ordinary moments of each day. When we stop to ponder, reflect, and meditate we place ourselves in a position to "taste" the miracle of life--both as it happens and in retrospect. God is always present, enveloping us in a shroud of sacredness. We just need to pause long enough to notice.
Dr. Bruce Main
President & Founder, UrbanPromise
“Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” Proverbs 3:3
The coupling of these two virtues, kindness and truth, is no accident. Like any great partnership, they complete one another. Oxygen by itself can be deadly, as can hydrogen. Put them together in the right combination and you create the substance that gives humans life. How many of us have met kind people, but they lack the courage to be truthful? In fact, their kindness enables unhealthy behavior. Conversely, how many of us have met blunt, direct, obtuse people whose words wound and injure? Kindness and truth, bound together, written side by side on our hearts, can create a balance that brings healing and wholeness.
We live in a world of lies. Politicians lie to get elected, executives lie to employees to get better profits, accountants manipulate balance sheets to deceive shareholders, advertisers lie to consumers to get their money, and we lie to ourselves...for all kinds of reasons. We become masters at justifying our choices, convincing ourselves that it’s someone else’s job to speak the truth. Our world desperately needs people who will bring truth, in the spirit of kindness, to their places of work, their relationships, and to their churches.
Is there someone you have wronged? Have you set it right? Is there a moral failing you’ve been hiding? First, talk this over with God in brutal honesty. Then, open up to one other person—a trusted counselor, pastor, or fellow believer. Take the courageous action of confessing. (The Promise Effect, p. 52)
Lord, build me up on both sides: truth and love. Give me the courage to speak the truth. Give me the compassion to do so in kindness.
Faith Kroma, a sophomore at UrbanPromise Academy and active participant in UrbanTrekkers, told the story of her personal connection to the Cooper River at the New Jersey Land Conservation Rally this past weekend. Her story exemplifies the senses of belonging and ownership that many students feel as they paddle the urban rivers that run through their own neighborhoods in Camden. Stories like Faith’s lead the way in advocating for access to nature for Camden’s residents.
Growing up, my favorite thing to do in the whole wide world was going to the zoo. I remember every first Sunday of the month, my father and I, along with my sister, would wake up reaaaaallly early, eat breakfast, pack a picnic and drive over the Ben Franklin Bridge to the Philadelphia Zoo. Oddly, my favorite part of those Sunday morning trips was not seeing those exotic, outlandish animals at the zoo.
My favorite part was passing this canal called the Schuylkill River. I can just remember having my two centimeters from the car window trying to catch a gaze at the beautiful boat houses with tiny Christmas lights outlining their structure. I remember cheering on the boat racers as they flew across the river like the speed of light and seeing people playing and jogging around the river.
And I couldn’t forget me thinking that that place just over the bridge HAD to have been the best place on earth. That river was my first real intimate relationship with a piece of nature.
The community I grew up in didn’t have a place that came CLOSE to the beauty of that river. But when I came to Camden, and I enrolled at Urban Promise, I started taking these paddle trips on the Cooper River. The Cooper River is literally a block away from house. The first time I paddled on this river, I mentally rolled my eyes at the comparison to the Schuylkill River. There was just so much trash and debris and abandonment to the Cooper River, and it made me just want to give up on it. However, the more I paddled on the Cooper River, the more potential I saw in it.
Now, I don’t see the Cooper River as just a body of moving water, I see it as a friend. And my friend Cooper here is having some really bad problems right now and needs a buddy like me to stick up for him.
“Immediately they left their nets and followed...” Matthew 4:20
There is something impulsive about these fishermen leaving their nets and following Jesus. No reference checks. No strategic plan as to how this huge decision will impact their careers. No consultation or “let me go home and pray about it.” Immediately they left. Their decision is visceral, instinctive, and intuitive. With time to think, they probably would have stayed home and missed their opportunity to change the world. Had these novice disciples weighed the pros and cons, they would have missed the chance to become a real part of the most significant movement in history. It all starts with a rather quick decision. Immediately. So what role does rational, calculated, strategic thinking play in the spiritual life? Does it have a place? I think it can. But I also believe that our head can get in the way of our heart. More often than not, I see the filter of reason squelch the prompting of the Spirit. We never take the first step. We never get out of the starting blocks. Sometimes we just need to drop what we are doing and act . . . immediately. Stop making excuses and deliver the message . . . immediately. These fishermen had a hunch that following the call of Jesus was the right thing to do. I’m glad they followed. It changed their lives. It changed mine. (The Promise Effect, p. 69)
Listen to your sub-conscience, listen to your inner voice, listen for the whisper of God. Whatever you call it, listen…then act.
Lord, thanks for the gift of reason. Thanks for years of education. I celebrate these gifts. But help me not to hide behind them. Help me not to be immobilized by analysis. Give me courage to trust my intuition, my subconscious, and my gut. I embrace the truth that you move in mysterious ways.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3
If there is one thing Jesus focuses on in the Sermon on the Mount, it is congruity between what we say and what we do. Jesus abhors hypocrisy, especially when we hide behind the veil of religion and spirituality. In this verse, Jesus calls us to look inward and make an honest assessment of our faults, our motivations, and our judgments. This verse reminds the listener that there is usually interior work to be done before we can ever do interior work on another person.
Sadly, most of us do not want to look within ourselves to examine our own faults and prejudices. It’s much easier to point out the flaws of others than to hold the light up to our own. Craig Barnes insightfully notes that most of us prefer to “rearrange” external things than do the hard work of exploring our own souls. Next time we feel inclined to complain, let’s pause and ask if our complaint is really just diverting our attention from some much needed interior work.
Let’s do some of this “interior work.” Jot down five of your main complaints—about your community, your church, your country, your family, whatever. Now take each of them before the Lord and ask for help to turn the focus back on you. Where does this complaint come from? What does it say about you, your expectations, your fears, your loves, your trust? Is there something you can do to improve the situation or change your perspective? Let this be an insightful, creative, and courageous time of discovery between you and the Lord. (The Promise Effect, p. 120)
We know, Lord, that you are intimately concerned with our interior lives. Give us the courage to look inward with honesty. Protect us from our need to deflect and make excuses.
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." James 5:16
In this intriguing verse, James makes a direct connection between confession and healing. Many of us are comfortable confessing our sins to God, but confessing our sins to another human being requires vulnerability. In the act of confession we expose our imperfections, our faults, and our humanity to another person. It takes courage to confess. But there is something liberating in that act. In that moment of public confession we trust God that it’s okay not to be perfect. Religious folk especially struggle with the need to be perfect. We like to act as if we have our lives together, especially among our friends at church. I think vulnerability is hard for most Christians. Participation and acceptance at our churches often depends on our ability to “act Christian,” to project a certain image. But that’s not the biblical approach. “Confess your sins,” says James. Find safe relationships where you can be vulnerable and begin to heal.
Think through the “frozen” relationships in your life, the situations that need “thawing.” Is there a situation in which you can be the first to say sorry, the first to give an unrequested gift, the first to display vulnerability? Mull it over, pray about it, muster your courage, and take a chance on vulnerability. (The Promise Effect, p. 180)
Lord, teach me how to say, "I’m sorry.”
Visit our Wellness Center blog! Rebecca Bryan, the director of our Wellness Center, is helping our children and teens heal the hurts in their lives through understanding, love, and forgiveness.