“....I am also pretty sure that the words social justice are not in the Bible,” revealed the email. “And therefore it’s not biblical.”
When I read my friend's words this past week, it reminded me of a story I heard years ago by an urban ministry pioneer named Ray Bakke. Ray was speaking at a suburban church outside of Chicago, sharing about his work with inner-city youth—job training, tutoring, athletic programs. After he spoke, a gentleman approached him: “Rev Bakke, it sounds like you’re committed to promoting a social gospel,” he questioned with a slight tone of judgment. “How does the true Gospel fit into your mission?”
Pastor Bakke paused for a minute. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” replied the man.
“I’m curious, where do you and your family live?”
The gentleman named an affluent, tree-lined street in a suburban town outside Chicago.
“Why do you live there?” continued Bakke.
“Great schools,” volunteered the man. “I travel a lot for work, so I feel my wife and children are safe. A terrific public library. The parks are beautiful as well.”
“I find it fascinating,” replied Bakke. “And I’m not judging you for selecting your neighborhood. But the reasons you’ve cited for living in your community are all social—education, safety, public services. You spend the bulk of your resources and life energy maintaining these social supports. At the risk of being blunt, I really think you’re the one committed to a social gospel."
I forget how the story ends. The two men may have continued to argue into the wee hours of the morning. Or maybe the gentleman became a regular donor to Bakke’s ministry. To me, the conversation reveals the stark differences between ministry in more affluent communities andministry in under-resourced communities. In affluent settings many of the social needs of people—good schools, sports leagues, community safety, jobs, nice parks—are provided, which allow churches to focus exclusively on “spiritual issues.” In under-resourced communities, these social supports simply don’t exist. Since humans are not one-dimensional spiritual beings, social issues must be considered if ministry is to be transformative.
My friend who questioned whether the term social justice is biblical, was ultimately concerned that UrbanPromise is teaching a “social justice” class to our teens this summer. I’m glad he raised the question. I’m also glad he didn’t walk away from our ministry. A conversation was requested. I complied. We had a lively and informative exchange.
In my experience we Christians tend to gravitate towards different “camps”—like-minded groups of people whose theology and politics align with others who hold similar beliefs. One camp of Christians may feel their primary job is to get people saved so they can enjoy eternal life with God in heaven. “Jesus is the only thing that matters,” I hear frequently—implying that the social conditions in which people live are of secondary concern to the eternal glory awaiting beyond the grave. Harsh realities of daily life are to be endured because we’re “just passing through”. Jesus is Savior only—not a man who lived, taught, spoke truth to power and cared for the physical lives of real people. This group might argue that it’s important to be charitable, but challenging systems that create adverse conditions is not in the Jesus play book.
Another “camp” of Christians feel that the social conditions in which humans live their lives, and the systems that create them—poverty, violence, racism, systemic injustices—need to be challenged and made more just. After all, Christians are agents of God’s Kingdom and need to play an active role in advancing this realm of peace and justice on earth “as it is in heaven.” Humans are made in the imagio dei—the image of God. Anything that damages or hurts this “image” needs to be confronted and changed. Life on earth matters. God wants human beings to flourish now—body, mind....and spirit.
So where does that leave us? Should we be teaching our kids about social justice, or should a Christian ministry be focusing simply on the spiritual dimensions of life?
I find myself returning to the Bible during these conversations, fully acknowledging that my interpretation of scripture is biased and influenced by my history, education and the context in which I read it. But even with my biases it’s hard to overlook the two thousand references to justice and poverty in the Bible. Digging deeper into these verses reveals a startling truth: many verses pertain to the “social” conditions of human beings. The book of Leviticus is all about the law—right and fair living between people. Scripture speaks out against “corrupt scales” in the market place (commerce), exploiting the poor by charging exorbitant interest rates (usury), acquiring multiple properties at the expense of the poor (unjust housing), exploiting widows and orphans (misuse of power), welcoming aliens and treating them well (immigration) paying day laborers fairly and quickly (good management) ...It’s there! God seems to care about the nitty-gritty details of human life. So if the Bible is true, social realities are a concern to God.
And what about Jesus? Was he concerned only with the spiritual dimensions of people’s life or was he concerned about the social and physical dimensions as well? Jesus healed people (health), he fed people (physical well being), he embraced the outcast and crossed racial/ethnic barriers (advocacy) and he defended women and children in a culture where it was not popular. Jesus also spoke harshly against those who hid behind their religious practices while they “...neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.” It appears that Jesus practiced the social dimensions of justice.
So why have the words “social justice” become so politicized and divisive for Christians? A memorable quote by Archbishop Dom Helder Camara highlights our divergent perspectives:
“When I feed the poor, they call me a Saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry they call me a communist.”
As Christians, we tend to be much more comfortable with the concept of charity than justice, probably because our solutions of fixing injustice look so different for each of us. Research does reveal that Christians are some of most generous people—hands down. But discussing injustice can make us uncomfortable—perhaps because addressing root causes can demand more than writing a check and, at times, reveal our own complicity in an injustice...calling us to do some soul searching.
I’ve always seen UrbanPromise as an organization that doesn’t avoid root causes that keep youth and families in cycles of perpetual poverty. I believe we need to be equipping young people to live the “abundant” lives that Jesus promised. Charity has its place, just as an emergency room is critical at a hospital. But long term health calls us to look at factors making unhealthy people. To get to this place, Christians must move beyond political and doctrinal differences and stay focus on what really matters—preparing the whole child to live into the fullness of who God created them to be.
So my friend is actually correct. He wins the argument. The literal words “social justice” do not appear in the Bible (at least I can’t find them). But the biblical commands to be “doers of justice” and “minister justice to the poor and needy” certainly compels me to understanding, confronting and acting out their social implications. In some circles our different perspectives might signal the end of our relationship. United as brothers in Christ, I’m hoping the journey of creating a better world is just beginning.
Founder & President
“My mind was blown,” revealed the email. “How could people I didn’t know be willing to cover my entire trip?”
I love these serendipitous surprises. It’s the best part of my job. A former student, unexpectedly and unannounced, reaches out to me and—with a deep sense of gratitude—reflects positively on the impact UrbanPromise has on their lives.
Fifteen years have evaporated since a 16-year-old Vernon Mincey traveled to South Africa for a Habitat for Humanity service project with our program. He remembers as if it happened yesterday—precise, clear and defining.
“I was exposed to a world I didn’t know existed,” he wrote. “I remember returning to my south Camden neighborhood with a sense of duty....constantly reminding younger kids that they didn’t have to become a product of their environment....and challenging them to do better and better.”
Vernon now works as a Field Technician with Maser Consulting, an engineering firm specializing in municipal building projects throughout the Delaware Valley. Every fourth Friday the company collects money for a local charity. This past month, Vernon nominated UrbanPromise with a compelling and heartfelt letter to the CEO, sharing the impact UrbanPromise had on his life growing up in Camden.
“With your contributions on this charitable donation Friday,” implored Vernon, “I am hoping to help give another inner city child an opportunity to have their heart and eyes opened.” UrbanPromise was selected. Last Friday, $1,500 was collected from the employees at Maser.
This gift—and the story behind it—is a wonderful encouragement to my soul in the middle of a long and tiring pandemic. But beyond the gift, a deeper question is elevated—why do some people feel compelled to “give back” to the people (and organizations, schools, churches, camps) who impact their lives, whereas others do not?
According to organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, the world is full of what he calls “givers” and “takers.” Givers are those living their lives for others—always exploring ways to improve and develop people around them. Givers live beyond self interest. According to Grant’s research, “givers” are the people you want on your teams and in your companies. Their presence leads to greater creativity, greater trust, sharing of knowledge and greater efficiencies—even at the cost of their personal advancement.
“Takers,” on the other hand, are those advancing their own agenda, striving to get “one up” on their colleagues and protecting their self interest. They can rise quickly in their careers, but on teams they thwart productivity, diminish creativity and create cultures of low trust. Grant argues that many of us fall somewhere between. He calls these folk “Matchers”—matching one good deed of altruism against a deed of self interest. So here’s the question I want to answer: are people born as givers? Or takers? Or Matchers?
Kurt Hahn—the German educator of Jewish origin who taught at the prestigious Salem Castle boarding school in the 1930s and refused to sign a loyalty pledge to Hitler—believed “givers” can be nurtured. As Nazism rose to prominence, Hahn fled for his life and landed at the Gordonstown School in Scotland. There he converted to Christianity, renounced his German citizenship, and found his educational imagination illuminated by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Hahn developed the theory and practice of “experiential learning”,* believing that knowledge, in and of itself, is insufficient for flourishing lives.
“How do we help children become Good Samaritans?” asked Hahn. He believed the parable embodied everything for which a human should aspire—courage, faith, generosity, compassion, attentiveness, tribal transcendence.... Yes, Hahn believed in the rigors of good academics. But Nazism reminded him that intelligent people can do horrific things. Young people need to develop virtue, bravery, self-reliance and compassion. For Hahn the Good Samaritan was an aspirational story with potential to inspire students to transcend the limitations of race, ideology and indifference. A new generation of Good Samaritans—he believed—could protect the world from descending into madness.
Realizing the Good Samaritan is just a story—a parable told by Jesus—its enduring power is that we can all find ourselves somewhere in the narrative. Each of us can certainly relate to walking past situations inviting a response. I can certainly identify with the priest who rushes to his next appointment, missing the opportunity in his path....or the legal scholar who can rationalize away his ambivalence.
But the Samaritan intrigues us....why does he act so differently? Where does he learn courage, compassion, hospitality? Maybe from a caring mother, a courageous grandparent, an unassuming compassionate neighbor? Perhaps the Samaritan, as a child, received an unexpected generous gift...a trip paid for by an anonymous donor? Like Vernon.
Jesus obviously believed we could nurture Samaritan-like habits. Otherwise why share the story? If we can’t change, can’t grow, can’t become more giving people....why tell this parable? By telling the story, Jesus gives us humans a tremendous compliment. Jesus is basically saying: “I believe anyone can become an extraordinary giver.”
“So much of history is made up of small moves,” wrote Seyward Darby. “Hope, too, dwells in increments.” Vernon now lives his life as a giver—a young man who wants to pay it forward. That’s hopeful. That’s incremental. And if enough of us do it together, we’ll change the world.
PS. Check out this interview with Vernon. He recalls his time at UrbanPromise: https://vimeo.com/442065188
*As many of you already know, “experiential” learning is a major focus at UrbanPromise.
“I think we need to do a parade for our students,” suggested Siomara Wedderburn, the Director of our Wellness program. “We want our graduates to know they are loved and appreciated.”
On one level it seemed like an odd request, coming at the end of a very difficult week for our nation, our city, our youth and our staff. Collectively we had witnessed police brutality, peaceful demonstrations, rioting, calls for justice and reform. Collectively we had waited for verdicts, reactions from political and civic leaders and the memorial service of George Floyd. There was a heaviness of heart. Was this really a time for a parade?
“I’ll be honest,” confided Ms. Ford, our 6th grade teacher. “I didn’t want to do the parade. But within 5 minutes I had a change of heart. There’s something wonderful about putting aside my feelings and just loving kids.”
Despite the collective mood of the moment, our team decided it was critical not to forget the accomplishments of our students. Despite the unprecedented challenges of teaching remotely, our teachers rose to the occasion. Every 8th grader passed. Every 12th grader has completed high school. Time to celebrate.
Friday morning a convoy of 20 decorated vehicles left the parking lot of UrbanPromise, and began a three hour pilgrimage through the streets of Camden—honking horns, passing out goodie bags and making a big deal of our students. The parade stopped in front of every 8th and 12th grade student’s home. We created traffic jams and we vigorously honked our horns. To our surprise, city residents came out of their houses to applaud and take pictures. Momentum grew with each turn—a beautiful and memorable moment for our students and our city was created.
“I was surprised how big the parade was,” gushed Angel, a 12th grader on his way to culinary school in the fall. Angel and his family eagerly stood on their front steps in East Camden and watched the procession. “It made me feel pretty important.”
Two months ago I appealed to you for financial help in an emergency situation—help we needed to keep our teachers employed and our staff engaged during a time of decreasing revenue and uncertainty.
You responded with amazing generosity. Without your help our teachers would not have continued teaching, and our students would not have graduated. Simply put: You saved the academic year! I’m grateful, as are our parents, teachers and students. You allowed the UrbanPromise team to get our students across the finish line.
But UrbanPromise needed to cross another finish line as well—we need to raise $582,000 to close our June 30th, 2020 fiscal year.
The great news is an unprecedented $522,747 has been generated since April.
Only $59,253 is needed in the next two weeks to reach our GOAL. The finish line is in sight. I know we can do it!
Our teachers did what needed to be done for our students. Now I’m asking you to ensure we cross the financial finish line as well.
I’m confident you will help.
PS. Please watch this parade video. It’ll lift your spirits and remind you why you give to UrbanPromise.
Sixty years ago, on April 5th, 1959, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, at the age of 30, delivered a sermon called Shattered Dreams to his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. I still marvel at its depth and enduring significance.
That particular Sunday morning King preached from an obscure verse of scripture in the book of Romans: “When I take my journey into Spain, I will come unto you.” (15:14). I love when preachers thoughtfully amplify scripture and make application to their current realities.
King reminded his congregation that the Apostle Paul dreamed of traveling to Spain to share the Gospel. As he would make that long arduous trip from the Middle East across the Mediterranean, Paul promised to stop in Rome to visit a small and vital community of Christian believers—a community of people he deeply loved. This was Paul’s dream—his destiny. Yet the dream is never fulfilled. Paul never made it to Spain and only arrived in Rome as a fugitive to be confined to a small jail cell.
“Very few, if any, of us are able to see all our hopes fulfilled,” emphasized the young preacher. “Paul’s life was the tragic story of a shattered dream and blasted hope.”
At this point in the sermon King brilliantly pivots and asks his congregation the million dollar question: “What does one do under such circumstances?” Or to put it more directly: how do we deal with our shattered dreams?
According to King, people tend to deal with disappointment, shattered dreams and unfulfilled hopes in three ways. The first is bitterness and resentment. It’s a “coldness of heart” and the development of “hatred for life itself.” King adds that we take our anger and bitterness out on those closest to us—children, spouses and our neighbor. These kinds of people “love nobody and they demand no love.”
The second way people deal with their shattered dreams is withdrawal. They detach themselves from what is going on around them. At the cost of self-induced psychological and physiological damage caused by repression, reminded King, “they attempt to escape the disappointments of life by lifting their minds to the transcendent realm of cold indifference.”
The third way is fatalism. King believed this was particularly dangerous for religious folk. People resolve that everything is foreordained and inescapable. They believe that people have no freedom. “Everything is God’s will, however evil it happens to be.” King admits that in order to preserve human freedom, God does permit evil. But there is a difference between permitting something and ordaining something. It’s a dangerous mindset, according to King, to just throw up one’s hands and surrender one’s disappointments and call it “the will of God.”
So what then is the answer?
Honestly confront your shattered dreams and believe that almost anything that happens to us can be woven into the bigger purposes of God. “On the one hand we must accept the finite disappointment,” King concludes. “But in spite of this we must maintain the infinite hope. This is the only way that we will be able to live without the fatigue of bitterness and the drain of resentment.”
That “infinite hope”—in the face of very real disappointments—led this pastor (without a national stage at the time) to act on a local level by organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott in a church basement, an event that propelled the civil rights movement forward. King did not resolve to bitterness, neither did he ignore the injustices in his city, nor did he resolve that segregation was simply God’s will. For months on end a handful of his congregants met, prayed, hoped and planned how best to act as God’s people...in that moment.
For many, the events of the last few weeks and months may represent a shattered dream of sorts. Your hope has been “blasted”. For some of us who grew up in the 1960’s, we hoped for a world where people would not be judged by the “the color of their skin, but the content of their character”*—that dream has been shattered. For many who witnessed the protests and riots in the early 1990’s around the Rodney King beating, we believed that comprehensive police reform would take root and make our communities safer for all people—that dream has been shattered. And for our young people today, who imagine a world of equality, decency and respect for human life for their friends and brothers and sisters of color—their dreams have been shattered these past weeks.
On another level, some of you may be dealing with other kinds of shattered dreams as well—the loss of a career due to the coronavirus, a closing of a business you spent years building, a dissolved marriage, a wayward child, a scandal in your church....all real disappointments. All asking for a response.
So we have a choice. Bitterness and resentment. Indifference. Fatalism. Or infinite hope in the face of disappointment—a hope that forces us to engage our disappointment and propels us to act in ways that reflect the heart of God.
Fortunately we have examples of those who went before us. St Paul and Dr. King Jr. neither resolved to bitterness, to cold indifference or to a toxic fatalism. They faced their disappointments, dug deeper into their faith, looked for God’s deeper purpose and continued to act as followers of Jesus. We must do likewise.
PS. My summary does not do Dr. King’s sermon justice. You can read in its entirety here and be challenged and encouraged by its fullness: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/draft-chapter-x...
*Quote from MLKing Jr, “I have a Dream” Speech, August 28, 1963
Twice a month the UrbanPromise staff gather (by Zoom recently) to share, laugh, pray, celebrate accomplishments and encourage one another. We see ourselves as a community—more than a program, more than a service provider, and more than an educational institution. The vibrancy of our programs flow from our unity as a community.
Our community is rooted in what Christians call the body of Christ. And I believe, by extension, you who read these words—donors, volunteers, alumni, parents, board members, interns —are part of this mystical body as well. I know your connection to our ministry is deeper than simply sending a check, playing in a golf outing or attending a banquet. Even if some don’t ascribe our belief system, you keep supporting us and volunteer because there is something unique and authentic about this place—you sense a powerful bond between our team and our youth. You witness lives transformed.
So I think the words of the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth are particularly relevant to all of us connected to the UrbanPromise community...especially this week in light of our country’s tragic events:
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
Paul eloquently casts a vision of the burden and joy of being part of this sacred community that transcends race, geography, time, economics and ethnicity. Paul is not describing a country club membership, a college fraternity or a monolithic group of people connected for reasons of self-interest. St. Paul is describing a different kind community—a group of people connected to one another by faith and love in Christ. This is the commitment we make. We voluntarily move into the lives and worlds of those we may not know, or with whom we have very few things in common, or even disagree and share radically different histories. Our capacity to suffer expands because of our union....as does our capacity for joy.
That’s why I need to invite you into our staff meeting of this past Friday afternoon. I want you to hear the voices of our community as they process the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
“I was watching an innocent children’s program on Channel 3 with my 8 year old son,” shared one of my female colleagues, voice heavy with emotion. “Part way through the program it switched to a “Breaking News Update” and there was George Floyd with an officer’s knee on his neck in my living room. My son was visibly shaken. At that moment I knew I had to have 'The Talk'.”
Some in our group needed to be schooled on what “The Talk” means. So we listened intently as our colleague described what it’s like to be an African American mother, having to discuss the realities of race in America with a curious and rambunctious boy. “It’s not a conversation I want to have,” she lamented. “I see stuff like this and I’m terrified for my child.” We listened and tried to honor her fear and pain.
“As a white male,” shared another colleague, “the only talk I’ll have with my kids is a conversation about safe sex. I’ll be candid, I never really think about the safety of my kids walking through our neighborhood. I’m sorry you have to have these conversations.”
“You know,” added another, his face buried deep in his hands. “I was a student at UCLA during the Watts riots...I just can’t believe we are still dealing with these forms of racism 30 years later. It’s like we’re moving backwards.”
One of the more senior women in the group jumped into the conversation. “You know my father was chased 3 times by the KKK,” she recounted from her days growing up in the South. “I’ve raised 3 sons. I know what it’s like to worry.”
“The saddest part of having our schools closed,” concluded another, “is we can’t have these kinds of discussions to help our students process this moment and strategize solutions.” As a group we continued to listen, trying our best to honor the varied experiences of our group.
Over the past three decades UrbanPromise has tried to build an intentionally diverse community. We’ve tried to build something reflecting and celebrating the breadth and width of God’s human creation. It has not always been easy, and often feels quite fragile. But I believe diverse communities create opportunities for us to grow bigger as people—our lives expand because we welcome the experiences and perspectives of others. And in this moment, when parts of our community hurt, we have all been given the privilege of “...bearing one another’s burdens” and so fulfilling “the law of Christ.” It’s critical we stay together and don’t fragment.
As a Christian leader, the husband of 32 years of an African American woman, and the father of three adult children trying to make sense of their racial identity in our world, I keep returning to Jesus as my source of hope and inspiration during this difficult time. As this man—fully human—suffers a painful, inhumane and unjust death on a cross, he continues to extend forgiveness to those who suffer beside him. Even in his pain Jesus blesses others. And even until his last breath, Jesus extends an invitation to become part of a realm called the kingdom of God—a place of justice, a place of peace, a place of love and a place of forgiveness. We must do likewise.
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” prays our Lord. In the words of theologian Nicholas Waltersdorf, God’s people are “aching visionaries.” We long for God’s Kingdom on earth and our hearts ache when we experience situations, events and systems that contradict this vision. Racism, violence and poverty are not part of God’s vision. They have no place and must be resisted on all levels.
My prayer is that each of us will continue to “ache” for the things that break the heart of God—and that our aching will lead to sustained, enduring action. My prayer is that we will not grow weary of doing the hard, tedious, intentional and courageous work of making our neighborhoods more just, more safe and more hospitable to all her people.
Even though you don’t attend our weekly meetings, I am grateful you are part of our community and willing to journey with our team through this difficult time—sharing both our pain and joys. We need you now more than ever.
This past Sunday the pastor introduced his sermon by asking the congregation if they remembered a date when they had a significant spiritual experience. It got me thinking.
Friday, April 3rd, 2020 popped into my mind.
It’s a day I’ll not forget—perhaps my most significant spiritual moment of this pandemic.
At 1pm that day I had the privilege of telling the UrbanPromise staff during a Zoom meeting that we would not lay off anyone, we would continue to show up for our children and we would plan and prepare for a post-coronavirus Camden. In short—I told the team we were staying together and staying the course. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous leading up to the moment. Once I shared those words, I knew there was no turning back. Verbally making a promise to support the livelihood of 60+ staff and their families was daunting. Yet once the words were uttered there was also a sense of liberation. Commitments works that way. This commitment would define the future of UrbanPromise.
Making this promise may not seem like a big deal to you, but let me share some context. Our accountant closed March with a 50% shortfall in revenue, we had 3 weeks of cash in the bank, the stock market was in a free fall and our three fourth quarter fundraisers needed to be cancelled—events that typically generate a significant percentage of our annual budget. Economically vulnerable would accurately describe our organizational situation.
Some might argue it was irresponsible to make this kind of announcement to our staff. And looking through a certain lens you’re absolutely correct. If we based our decision on cash flow projections, the stock market, unemployment numbers and an uncertain economic forecast you would win the argument. Hands down.
UrbanPromise calls itself a “faith-based” organization. I often remind our team that “faith-based” has less to do with our doctrine and more to do with how we act as God’s people.
Actions speak louder than words—so what does it mean to act in faith in those moments when common sense and a shaky economic forecast suggest a more conservative path forward? At this particular moment being “faith-based” meant taking the proverbial leap of faith. Or as the late theologian William Sloan Coffin used to quip: “Jump first, then grow wings.”
I’ve come to believe that taking a leap of faith is often a critical first step in creating conditions for the miraculous to happen. It’s hard to put into words. But faith is more than an intellectual ascent to a set of propositional truths. Faith is action. Faith is committing beyond our human capabilities and placing ourselves in a vulnerable space....and hoping that God shows up.
Speaking of God and faith, I have a favorite quote I’ve returned to over the years—somewhat reluctantly at times, I’ll admit. The source slips my mind, but the words I’ve not forgotten: “Faith is putting ourselves in situations where, if God doesn’t show up, we’re in trouble.”
For those familiar with the scriptures, you’ll probably agree that this quote is rooted in an observable and repeated pattern. Page after page the Bible records stories about ordinary people who put themselves in situations where....if God doesn’t show up....they’re in trouble.
There’s Moses. Waist deep in the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army closing in.....God needs to show up. There’s this young boy David up against a rather large giant named Goliath....God needs to show up. There’s Gideon. Joseph in the Egyptian jail. The young men who take a stand against an egotistical king name Nebuchadnezzar and find themselves in a fiery furnace. The widow who gives all her resources. The disciples who respond to the simple words, “Follow me.” An active faith places these characters in situations where God needs to show up...or they are in trouble.
Seven weeks have passed since I first made the announcement to the staff. As a community we have truly experienced the miraculous. God has shown up. We’ve made payroll every week. Our donors and partners have responded with humbling generosity and sacrifice. For the first time in 32 years our organization received assistance through a federal government program called the CARES Act.
Programs have continued—although taking new forms. Most importantly the faith of our people has been deepened as we’ve supported, encouraged and ministered to one another, our youth and our families. Something powerful is happening.
When the dust settles from this pandemic, my hope is that we can all point to a defining moment—a memorable moment when we experienced the miraculous because we took a leap of faith. Einstein put it best: “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” I’m choosing the latter.
I’ve been to lots of birthday parties over the years—very few match the one I attended recently. First, it was held in this fancy space called “Zoom”, with people attending from all across the country. Second, the “birthday boy” turned 100 years old. After perfunctory introductions and the celebratory This is Your Life online slide show, the man of the hour was given the microphone.
“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done,” reverberated the baritone voice through cyberspace. “On earth as it is in heaven.” The long-retired pastor paused, caught his breath, and then delivered a 3-minute homily that would rival any preacher in their prime. “We need to be about the business of building God’s kingdom of justice, peace and compassion on this earth,” he crescendoed. “That’s our mission. Our purpose.”
One hundred years old.....and he still possesses the passion, vision and hope to make the world a better place. I find it remarkable.
I first met Dr. Charles Sayre 30-plus years ago when I arrived in Camden. I was a young whippersnapper learning the ropes of urban ministry, trying to figure out which way was up. I had heard about this legendary pastor at Haddonfield United Methodist Church who believed the division between suburban and urban communities was not God’s plan, and that the great commandment was to love our neighbors—and not just the one on the other side of our manicured hedge. He walked the walk...literally to Camden.
Over the decades, Dr. Sayre helped birth dynamic and impactful Camden-based non-profits. Respond Inc. was one—impacting the city through job creation and affordable housing. For years he chaired the Fellowship House in South Camden, a youth ministry organization (which was recently donated to UrbanPromise to continue its legacy) that served our city for 50 years. Despite his credentials and academic pedigree, he always served with humility. A unifier of people, always kind, he believed UrbanPromise was the best thing since sliced bread and he was always generous with his praise. You can understand why I like him.
This week I asked Dr. Sayre the secret to his longevity. With his quick and disarming sense of humor he quipped, “Lack of stress,” and chuckled. Naturally averse to the spotlight, he’s always deflected attention from himself. I conclude that his vitality is deeply connected to a faith that drives his unwavering sense of moral purpose. Whatever age, whatever stage of his career, this man always uses his influence and power to move people of different backgrounds towards building a world that mirrors God’s heart.
The two most important days of your life: the day you were born and the day you discovered why. –Mark Twain
Finding the “why” for our lives is critical. And trust me....clergy alone don’t have the corner on the purpose market. Every week I meet people discovering the “why” for their existence: business owners leveraging their influence for the greater good, retirees re-purposing their talents to build stronger non-profits, doctors and dentists volunteering their weekends and vacations to help heal our under-resourced communities....the list goes on. Show me a person who has discovered the why of their existence and I’ll show you someone with purpose, passion and joy.
Jesus preached that humans need more than just “bread” and clothing to have full and robust lives. Yes, food is important—and clothes are essential—but each of us needs a larger life vision to feed the deeper hunger of our soul. “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” encourages Jesus. “And all these things will be added unto you.” If our priorities are ordered correctly, the rest will fall into place. It’s worked for Dr. Sayre.
Not all of us will live to celebrate our hundredth birthday, but I guarantee a life with deep purpose will take us on a journey we’ll never regret.
“I just remember being scooped onto a white bus, warm pancakes and love,” posted the young woman on FaceBook, “I have no doubt we stressed you guys out. Personally, I appreciated all the effort.”
Twenty five years have passed since this seven year old girl first walked through the doors of an UrbanPromise program in Camden, and what does she remember? An old white bus...warm pancakes...and...Love. Pretty simple. Isn’t it fascinating what kids remember—a poignant reminder of what really matters.
Four days ago a former UrbanPromise intern formed a Facebook group called, ”Old Promises” for “old” UP missionaries and students. A few photographs were initially posted between the four alumni. As of this morning, close to 300 people are posting and commenting—it’s growing daily. Former UrbanPromise kids and interns are sharing favorite memories, favorite camp songs, current occupations, stories of faith and...reconnecting. During this season of social distancing and uncertainty, there seems to be a growing hunger to connect...especially to those with whom we’ve shared experiences and history. As I read the comments being posted, I was amazed at the important role this ministry has played in the development of so many lives.
I personally remember the first time that little wisp of a girl was “scooped” onto our old white school bus. It was Sunday morning. She was picked up with her older sister Yolanda for Sunday school at Rosedale Baptist Church on 27th and Westfield Ave. Her name was Summer Tatum.
Sunday mornings alway began with a pancake breakfast for kids like Summer. Volunteers griddled up plates of hot cakes. If it was a good week for donations, a little bacon might end up on a plate—sausages if we hit the lottery. A glass of powdered Tang was always available to wash the syrup down. The quality of the food was certainly questionable, but the weekly ritual of eating a warm meal was never forgotten.
“I’m now serving in the US Army, stationed in Washington, DC,” continued Summer on her Facebook post. “I’m a CBRNE soldier, so I ensure soldiers are trained and prepared for any type of chemical, biological or nuclear attack.”
What? That little girl, who liked to gobble up pancakes, is now protecting our country against chemical, biological and nuclear attacks—how does that happen? I believe it happens when caring adults do the hard work of faithfully showing up and generously planting seeds of love, attention, and faith into the hearts and minds of hurting kids.
“UrbanPromise definitely provided a safe, loving space where I was introduced to Christ,” she concluded. “That foundation is something that I personally feel most children miss out on today.”
When I think of the trajectory of Summer’s life, and who she has become, I’m reminded of a very simple truth shared to the church of Corinth by the Apostle Paul. St. Paul reminds ordinary people that we can choose to live our lives in a variety of ways. There’s no judgment in the verse—just simple logic and a promise. Paul is offering an opportunity for a bigger, richer, more blessed life.
“Sow sparingly, and you’ll reap sparingly,” he wisely offers. “Sow generously and you’ll reap generously.”
This past week I experienced the truth of Paul’s teaching in a very real way. It’s hard to explain in words, but let me try. For the past three decades a community of God’s people—staff, volunteers, donors, churches, board members, StreetLeaders—have sown generously into the lives of Camden’s children through UrbanPromise. Summer’s story is an example of generous sowing.
Despite all the hardship and despair in our world, these past few days i witnessed an unusual bounty of transformational stories, donations, and words of affirmation. I truly experienced the gift of faithful people who sow generously. It’s a gift our world needs right now. Circumstances might beckon us to retreat and play defense. Let’s resist and continue to sow generously.
"Wake Up." –Matthew 26:46
A good friend of mine is having trouble sleeping. In the middle of the night he wakes up thinking about the potential implications of the pandemic. Even in the best of circumstances he’s hardwired to worry—something which makes him brilliant in his line of work. But being alone in his active brain, in the middle of the night, produces abnormal levels of anxiety.
“Instead of worrying,” he shared with me this Sunday morning. “I decided to use the time to write a letter to my children.”
“I know I’m sounding a little morbid,” he confessed. “I don’t think I’ll die from the coronavirus, but I decided to write down everything I’ve wanted to share with them. You can’t necessarily predict the circumstances around your death.”
And so he wrote a beautiful, thoughtful, father-endearing two page email to his four adult children. He encouraged them, confessed some of his failures as a father, shared his favorite memory with each child growing up, expressed his reason for believing in God and gave them some fatherly advice about living in a post-coronavirus world. At 3am, he pressed the send button.
“You need to do it,” he challenged me. “I was surprised by the responses of my kids—and their spouses. It’s been really encouraging and enlightening.”
My friend got me thinking about the importance of last words...and how I can better use this unusual moment to share what I’ve never had time to share.
Years ago I heard a memorable interview on NPR with an aging Holocaust survivor. I forget many details, but my memory has never released her main point. As a preteen girl, she recalled being herded onto a train with other Jewish children. “I was with my younger brother,” she remembered. “He lost one of his shoes in the scuffle. I scolded him.”
A few minutes later brother and sister were separated and sent to different concentration camps, never seeing one another again. “It’s the biggest regret of my life. My last words to my little brother....I reprimanded him over something as inconsequential as a lost shoe.” She concluded, “I’ve tried to live the remainder of my life carefully choosing the words I speak to people—just in case they are my last.” That’s a life lesson.
Do you remember the last words Jesus shared with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Wake Up.” He repeated them twice because his disciples slept through the moment. I’ll concede it was a difficult and confusing moment. I would have done the same. But they missed what was happening. In the words of Jean-Pierre de Caussade, they failed to appreciate “...the sacrament of the moment.” Blaise Pascal echoes those sentiments when he called the disciples' performance the “Gethsemane Sleep”.
I’ve got some homework to do this week. I need to stay awake to the moment, reflect thoughtfully on words I need to share and write a few letters. When completed, I hope to have the courage to press...SEND.