Blog: December 2015

Monday, December 21

"But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart..."   
—Luke 2:19

Tony Vega found himself in a very uncomfortable situation last week. Having just dropped off a bus load of children, Tony returned to lock up our Fairview facility for the night. As he walked up the church steps, a group of tough teens surrounded him, wanting to fight. "Guys," he pleaded, "I really don't want any trouble."  They weren't interested in negotiations. In a provocative gesture, one blew smoke in his face.

Now Tony is no novice to urban ministry.  He grew up in Camden. But this was making him nervous. And there was no one around to help.

Then, out of nowhere, came a shout from down the block. "Tony! Tony! Is that you?  Is that really you?"  Within seconds, a young woman bounded up the stairs and embraced Tony like a long lost friend. "You know this guy?" she said, turning to the group, who she obviously knew. "This is my old counselor. He's the greatest guy in the world. I used to be in his AfterSchool program." Within seconds, the tension dissolved, and the teens apologized and moved on down the street. "Molika saved me," confessed Tony in a later conversation.  "She dissolved a potentially violent situation, just because she knew me and knew those guys. She made peace."

A pastor recently described the Advent season as a trip to the gym to work on our spiritual attentiveness.  Once a year, he reminded the congregation, we need to wake up, start paying attention, and stop sleepwalking through our lives. He challenged us to pay attention to what God is doing in our midst. So how do I prepare for Christmas?  How can I really take advantage of this special season of Advent that calls me to a greater awareness?

One way is to ponder some of the key themes of the season—joy, peace, generosity, and wonder—and then intentionally look for expressions of these realities throughout the day. Perhaps these are the gifts God really wants to give me this season.  So I find myself looking for expressions of joy, moments of peace, acts of generosity, and bursts of wonder. And when I see these often-overlooked expressions of the season, I try to receive them as a gift. Like any treasured gift, I slowly unwrap it, hold it, look at it from different angles, and maybe even write down how the gift makes me feel.  

Tony's experience was an early gift, certainly to him but also to me. It reminds me that peace is possible, even in potentially volatile situations. It reminds me that God sometimes shows up in the most unusual places. We just need to be ready to recognize His gifts.

 Have you seen an expression of peace, joy, generosity today?  What would it mean to receive it as a gift?

Sunday, December 20

Everyone sat still, eyes riveted on the two teenage girls at the front of the room.


I wrote this letter because I needed to forgive my older sister," confessed the first teenager. "She used to tell me that I was ugly, that I was a mistake, and that I would never amount to anything. My anger towards my sister was destroying me."

And then this brave teen began to read her heart-felt letter of forgiveness.  She talked about the pain her sister caused, her consequent feelings of worthlessness, their troubled relationship, and that she wanted to forgive her. "I forgive you," she ended. "I don't want hate to live in me."

These teenage girls are part of a girls’ group that meets once a week under the direction of our StreetLeader coordinator, Aleisha. The purpose of the group is to create a safe place where young women can bare their souls, a place where they can find healing and learn to forgive.

"I just noticed that there were all these girls with broken relationships," recalls Aleisha. "In order to move ahead with their lives, they needed to forgive. Some girls have written 10 letters to the same person. Forgiveness, I'm learning, is a process."

Listening to our teens read their letters of forgiveness reminded me of the courage it takes to really bring peace into the world. Peace takes work, because peace begins with our own lives. We can't be instruments of peace if we're not committed to healing the unrest in our own lives first. Peace begins with us.

Advent is a time to reflect on the Prince of Peace coming into the world. In the coming days, we will sing songs about peace, pray for peace, and recite verses about peace. Let us find inspiration from these young women, who model for us the courage to forgive, so we can find peace in our own lives and the share it with the world.

Sunday, December 13

In 2014, UrbanPromise celebrated the completion of their new cafeteria and full-service kitchen along with finalizing their participation in the National School Lunch Program which provides reimbursements for breakfast and lunch programs through the USDA.

With a focus on the healthy development of Camden’s children and teens, UrbanPromise was prepared to follow rigorous USDA nutrition standards. The kids, however, were not as prepared for the low-sodium, healthy menu items.  “Working with a limited budget and keeping to USDA standards, our early meals frequently offered raw vegetables and were limited in variety from week-to-week. We soon realized that the kids were unhappy with the meals and the amount of waste we saw in our cafeteria trash cans was simply unacceptable. We needed to find a better solution,” shared Rebecca Bryan, Director of UrbanPromise’sWellness Center.

UrbanPromise launched a series of taste tests, which have been shown to motivate young people to try new foods and increase overall consumption. They are inviting students to rate new recipes by their look, taste, and smell. Young children can circle the emoticon that best represents what they think (frown, straight faced, or smile) while older students rate the foods from “extreme dislike” to “like a lot.” 

The first taste test of Porcupine Sliders, an award winning USDA recipe including ground turkey, chopped spinach, cranberries, and spices, received rave reviews with 88% of students providing favorable ratings on taste. The second taste test, featuring broccoli salad, was met with more resistance and only one quarter of students recommended adding it to the cafeteria’s menu. One particularly dissatisfied student commented that it was “the worst thing in the world.” Based on student feedback, UrbanPromise will not add broccoli salad to their menu, but staff still have hope for the unpopular green vegetable. They will introduce a Chic’ Penne at this month’s taste test (Nov 19th) to see if integrating cooked broccoli will elicit more positive reviews.

Taste testing is part of a multi-faceted project at UrbanPromise called “Eat Well, Move Well, Be Well”, which is supported by a $30,000 grant from The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey and focuses on increasing healthy food consumption and physical activity among youth and local residents. Since the start of the school year and the receipt of this grant, UrbanPromise has provided training for teachers on integrating physical activity in the classroom, is engaging a Nutrition Educator to work with cafeteria chefs and students to increase healthy food consumption (including taste testing), is implementing a series of cooking classes in partnership with the Vetri Foundation and their My Daughter’s Kitchen initiative, and is providing more fresh produce at their weekly food co-op in partnership with Farmers Against Hunger. The grant will also allow UrbanPromise to engage students in gardening and garden-to-table cooking classes, shift classroom reward and discipline systems to support wellness goals, and increase nutrition education for students, program participants and food co-op members.

Sunday, December 13

Which house will you choose? 

"He...will guide our feet into the path of peace.” Luke 1:79

There is a lot of fear going around these days. Peaceful Parisians are gunned down while dining with friends. A plane of unsuspecting tourists explodes in the air. A Christmas party for coworkers ends in carnage. Fear is real, and it's easy to let it control us.

The late Catholic writer Henri Nouwan once wrote that there are two houses in which people can dwell: the house of fear or the house of love. This metaphor can guide for our decision making and thinking: Will our decisions be based on fear or love? According to Nouwan, we need to continually challenge our fears, not allowing them to define and control us. We need to live in the house of love.

When founding UrbanPromise 28 years ago with a small group of college volunteers, people asked me: "Aren't you afraid? Camden is the most dangerous city in America!" At that moment, our little community had to choose the house in which we were going to dwell. Sure, there were fears, but would those fears define us? Would we face the negative statistics, the stereotypes, the economic outlook through a lens of fear, or a lens of love? We chose love, because love ultimately brings life, healing, unity, and peace. And that's exactly what we've seen over the years at UrbanPromise.

Within the Christian tradition, Advent is a time to prepare to meet God's greatest gift of love to the world. A gift that promises peace. Jesus came into a real world—a world where fear was rampant. Yet Jesus, the Prince of Peace, chose to dwell in the house of love. It shaped the way he saw people, where he traveled, and ultimately, the way he responded to those who feared him. His path was and is always the way of love.

We might ponder these questions during this Advent season:

  • How do my fears limit me?
  • Am I living in the house of fear or the house of love?
  • What is one way I can challenge my fears today?
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