“When you look back on your time at UrbanPromise,” I asked, “what’s your most memorable moment?”
Fourteen years have passed since Jeanine attended our high school. Now married to Kyrus, (her high school sweetheart), for thirteen years, a mother of two beautiful children, a Master’s Degree in criminal justice and a successful career within the NJ court system as the Assistant Criminal Division Manager, Jeanine responded with little hesitation.
“I got pregnant my junior year of high school,” she reminisced. “I thought my life was essentially over. I lost confidence. I felt shame. I was ready to drop out.”
At that critical moment something significant happened. One day the director of our experiential learning program, Mr. Cummings, asked Jeanine to stop by his office.
“I wasn’t sure why I was being called to his office,” she continued. “But here’s what I remember: Mr ‘C’ told me that I had tremendous potential, that God loves me, my life aspirations could still be attained and that I would graduate from high school and go into college. Those words changed my life.”
Fascinating. Fourteen long years since leaving UrbanPromise, Jeanine’s memorable moment did not revolve around a well-planned teaching module, an exciting UrbanTrekker trip, a Bible study or even a summer job.
Her memorable moment occurred in the middle of an unplanned crisis—a moment of real, painful, soul-shaking adversity.
Life happens. Sure, programs are vital and essential. But often it’s a crisis that can define our lives. Jeanine’s life was spiraling downward, when an UrbanPromise staff worker showed up with the right words—words that gave her the courage to persevere.
I’ll be candid. The potential long-term impact of this pandemic on the social, emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological well-being of our children is keeping me up at night. My staff remind me daily that this is a crisis.
For many of our young people, this crisis will define their lives. The right adults, with the right words, at the right moment will make the difference.
- Our staff must be available for emergency phone calls and texts.
- Our teachers must be available for extra online tutoring.
- Our Food Co-Op must be open to meet the increased demands of our families.
- Our counselors must be available for kids dealing with anxiety and depression.
- Our Trekkers team must be available for coordinating safe, outdoor activities so kids can get out of their homes.
UrbanPromise needs to remain vital.
The final days of 2020 will decide whether many non-profit organizations, like UrbanPromise, make it through the spring of 2021.
With regular spring fundraising events cancelled and economic forecasts unclear, there’s a lot of uncertainty. December needs to be a strong giving month.
Fortunately seven of our concerned donors have pooled their year-end gifts to offer a dollar-for-dollar match to the first $175,000.
Yes, the first $175,000 cash or stock gift or pledge (monthly or quarterly) will be DOUBLED between now and December 31st, 2020.
Like you, these generous friends want the UrbanPromise community to keep showing up for young people like Jeanine—children and teens who need our staff.
I look forward to hearing from you in the next few weeks. In advance I’m grateful for your generosity.
A wonderful Christmas to you and your family.
Founder & President
“Real religion...is this. Look after orphans and widows in their distress...” – James 1:27
“At this stage I think I’d rather die from COVID-19 than loneliness,” shared the 88-year-old voice on the other end of the phone. “I’ve not seen my family in 7 months. I’m just so...so tired of being alone.” I was uncertain how to respond.
The past few weeks I’ve been returning voicemails left on my mother’s answering machine. News got out that she’s recovering in the hospital from a recent fall, and her friends are checking for updates on her recovery. It’s heartwarming to experience the concern of companions who span decades.
As someone spending 90% of his life thinking about issues impacting children and teens, I’ve found myself unexpectedly thrust into the world of octogenarians—female octogenarians more specifically. Allow me to make an observation—completely anecdotal—based on my recent conversations with Louise, Vernie, Pat, Nancy, Sheila, Marg, and Dorris. All widows. All living alone. All in their 80’s and 90’s.
Besides the fact that this pandemic is disproportionately impacting the health of our elderly citizens, there is an additional casualty: loneliness and social isolation. It’s a problem. It’s growing. Especially as we move into this holiday season.
My octogenarian sensitization is pushing me to see beyond my normal social sphere of younger colleagues, active 50-something-year-old peers and the friends of my young adult children. It’s opened my eyes to the painstakingly long, empty days our seniors experience who live alone...shut off from social contact with family or friends. Regular routines of socialization disrupted: church online, assisted-living dining rooms closed, bingo nights cancelled, book clubs on hold and the local Curves studios shuttered for mid-morning Pilates. “We’re just lonely.” That’s the cry bubbling to the surface.
A few years ago a friend shared a heartening story of his mother. She kept a list of names and numbers by her phone. Her husband of 60 years recently passed, so she’d often find herself a little melancholy at certain times of the day. “When I’m feeling a little blue,” she confessed, “I pick up the phone, call someone who is worse off than me and try to encourage them. It makes me feel a little better.” Her story surfaced in my memory this week.
“Fundamentally we are social creatures and part of what brings meaning to our lives is to maintain and foster those social connections,” Lisbeth Nielsen, from the Institute of Aging, reminds us. “Loneliness is the sense of suffering from being disconnected from other people.”
This holiday season approaches after many difficult and isolating months, with every indication that things are getting worse before they get better. Perhaps a special opportunity presents itself for those of us who own a phone.
What if each of us makes a list of people we know who live alone—individuals whose social connections have been disrupted, who are immune compromised, or in an assisted living facility on lockdown? Once we’ve compiled our list, let’s make a few phone calls and say hello, ask a few questions, express a word of gratitude or even say a prayer. Our listening ear and audible voice will be a welcomed gift.
The apostle Paul, when writing to the church of Galatia, says: “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the Law of Christ.”
At this moment in history, loneliness certainly qualifies as a burden. Those of us blessed with the love of family and friends can carry a little burden for those whose wavering hearts pine for days of crowded kitchens and laughter around the supper table. A short phone call can fulfill the Law of Christ—and put a little Thanksgiving joy in someone’s heart.
“Please send me a copy of your paper,” I asked with a genuine sense of curiosity. “I really want to read it.”
“Come on Dad,” was the less-than-enthusiastic reply. “You know you’ll just critique it.”
My youngest daughter Madeline started a Master’s of Divinity program last month. Admittedly, I’m a little excited and find myself vicariously reliving my seminary days through her—asking about the books she’s reading, discussing lectures...and wanting to read her papers.
“I won’t critique it,” I promised. “Just want to see what you’re writing.” Wink. Wink.
So the paper arrived. Voraciously I began to read her epistle—something about pastoral counseling and the act of listening.Halfway into second page I noticed a couple of lines about a family dinner tradition.
“My father would bring out the ‘Gratitude Journal’ no matter who was at the dinner table.” She then described how everyone was required to share something for which they were grateful. “In my younger years it was boring and awkward,” she confessed. “Especially when we had friends over.”
Now a 26-year-old graduate student reflecting more deeply on her life, Madeline concluded: “Engaging in the Gratitude Journal made us more attentive, accepting where we were at that moment, and more observant of our thoughts and feelings.” I paused to reread those words. Wait...what? My rebellious youngest child remembered the Gratitude Journal.
For those who have experienced the blessing (and trials) of raising children, I’m sure you can relate. Despite the demands on our time, financial pressures, aging parents for whom we must care, marriages that need nurturing, and civic commitments requiring our duty—we tried our best, hoped and prayed that a few of the good things we did for our children stuck. The Gratitude Journal ritual took root!
I say ritual because the “Journal” found its way to the dinner table regardless of the current circumstances. Gratitude was part of our nightly rhythm. A bad day at school? We journaled. An argument with my wife about a credit card bill 5 minutes before dinner? We journaled. A tough loss on the soccer pitch? A crisis at UrbanPromise...we stopped, reflected, looked for the good and journaled together.
Robert Emmons, who studies gratitude at UC Davis, makes a similar argument. “And this is what grateful people do. They have learned to transform adversity into opportunity no matter what happens, to see existence itself as a gift.” The late Catholic theologian Henri Nouwan said it another way, “Gratitude rarely comes without real effort. The more we choose gratitude in the ordinary places of our day, the easier it becomes.”
Despite the incredible challenges of this historical moment, I still believe there’s an opportunity to “pull out” the “gratitude journal” —especially as we enter this Thanksgiving season. Let’s choose to discover things for which we can be grateful. In no way am I asking you to sugar coat life. There is real grief, real pain, real disappointment. But let’s push a little deeper and be intentional about seeing the good, pausing and thanking God.
Founder & President
Three retired women looked up from shelving books in our colorful library—faces covered with masks, eyes dancing with life.
“Hey Dr. Main!” calls one. “Hope you’re having a good day!” I nod, unable to show the big grin beneath my mask.
For a split second things seemed almost normal, forgetting momentarily that these amazing volunteers put themselves at risk to keep our little library beautiful and book-ready for our students.
Across the hall, Ms Cooper enthusiastically teaches American history to a small cohort of 6th graders. Our partitioned, “converted” sanctuary is now transformed into a makeshift classroom providing the needed 6 feet of spacing between each student’s desk.
It seems kind of normal, but then I remember Ms Cooper volunteers to place herself on the front lines each day, increasing health risks because she passionately believes in giving students vital human contact. Not to mention her four children at home who are learning remotely and a husband who is an essential worker.
Outside on the patio, sitting a table length apart, our Wellness counselor Shawna converses in a deeply personal way with a 9th grader whose body language suggests a “bad day.”
The moment suggests normal...but then I remember Shawna chooses to do in-person—rather than virtual—individual therapeutic sessions for 20 of our students every week, plus group meetings and Developmental Skills classes. More kids, more interaction, more exposure to harmful contagions.
This is our “new normal”....so far our team has done a remarkable job of keeping everyone safe.
They are the courageous, essential workers showing up every day and creating a sense of normalcy for our children. And our young people desperately need “normal” right now—normal routines, normal contact with adults, normal accountability, normal diets, normal amounts of encouragement and attention. Creating “normal” is critical.
That’s why we’re NOT canceling our annual Thanksgiving Dinners this year—a 33-year-old tradition at UrbanPromise. Celebrating Thanksgiving creates more normal.
No, we won’t have large gatherings and long buffet lines like previous years or multiple people handling serving utensils. But we will still gather and break bread together.
This year our Thanksgiving dinners will be smaller and held outside under a tent. Volunteers will pre-package individual delicious meals of turkey, gravy, collard greens, mash potatoes and macaroni and cheese. Our families, youth and staff will share a meal together.
We hope our modified Thanksgiving creates a sense of “normal” for our families and children—creating a moment to stop, celebrate and reflect on God’s goodness.
Despite the challenges 2020 has brought to our doorstep, we continue to be thankful for all that God has done. If you have much to be thankful for, would you bless our kids?
I need 100 supporters to underwrite a Thanksgiving meal for $10, and if you’re feeling generous consider making an extra gift of thanksgiving to help us continue to care for children this fall - $25, $50, $140, $490, $990.
- $25 helps us keep our library up to date for our elementary school children
- $50 creates more hands on opportunities for our middles school science program
- $140 supports our Wellness Center that is meeting a whole new range of needs right now
- $490 helps Ms. Cooper and our other teachers manage last minute shifts as we accommodate this new learning atmosphere
- $990 supports the tech in our classrooms that is difficult to stay on top of but more important than ever right now
A meaningful tradition that takes place around Thanksgiving dinner tables across the country is joining hands and sharing what you are thankful for. Would you share what you are thankful for? We’d love to hear from you. This year, more than ever, we need your help.
Thankful this year...especially for normal—
Founder & President
Not every day a son gets to buy his mother lunch on her 88th birthday. So I was all in—especially after traveling 3,000 miles to be there—-even making sure my credit card hadn’t exceeded its limit. After all, she might pick the Four Seasons. Maybe Ruth’s Chris Steak House. No worries. I was ready to splurge.
“Could we get a cheeseburger,” she demurred softly. “McDonalds okay?”
At this stage I’ve learned not to argue with my mother about issues that make no rational sense—this was one of those moments. No attempt would be made to upgrade to Olive Garden or even Denny’s. If mom wanted a cheeseburger at McDonalds....it’s the Golden Arches.
Noticing the “dining room” closed due to COVID-19, I pulled into the drive thru lane. Rats! No plastic seats and sticky tables this year. “Can I take your order?” crackled the voice through the loud speaker. Words almost out of my mouth, I felt a tug on my sleeve.
“Could I get a vanilla shake as well?” she giggled with childlike excitement.
At that moment I would have “super sized” her meal for an extra 59 cents. But I didn’t want her eating warmed over French fries the rest the week—she would insist on taking leftovers home. A small cheeseburger, a milkshake, and a Hertz rental car would be the ambianic ingredients for this celebratory meal. We drove off to find a quiet space.
“Tell me about a memorable birthday?” I queried with curiosity as we nibbled on fries and watched the seagulls scavenge across the parking lot for their noonday meal. And Mom, being Mom, reminded me about growing up in the shadows of the Great Depression, the scarcity of resources and the fond memory that a really good birthday meant getting a bottle of Fanta and a nickel to buy some penny candy at the local Five and Dime. Something beautifully simple about it all—a reminder Chucky Cheese-themed parties aren’t really needed to create rich and lasting memories.
This past week our staff discussed the theme of healthy life foundations. After watching horrific images of people losing their homes on the Gulf Coast, and feeling the turbulent winds of our current reality relentlessly beating against the retaining walls of our daily norms, a conversation around foundations seemed like a relevant topic. Many feel their foundations are being shaken.
A question surfaced: what kind of foundation does a person really need to weather the storms of life and flourish as human beings made in the image of God? A second: And how do we create these foundations for ourselves and the children we serve?
As a community we talked about our parents’ contribution to our foundations—a powerful conversation revealing the connection between what our parents modeled and its lasting impact on our faith, our sense of family, our desire to serve and our desire to leave the world a better place. I’m grateful for my mother’s faith and frugality (my wife not so grateful for the second f-word)—a frugality allowing her to share generously with those in need.
And for those in our community who’ve spent years healing from dysfunctional and broken families, they shared their challenges rebuilding life foundations, how following God has helped and how they’re living differently for their own children.
Of course Jesus was mentioned in our conversations. After his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares a timeless parable about wise and foolish builders. Wise builders, he argues, “hear my words” and “put them into practice.” Conversely, foolish builders hear the words but never take the time to do the hard work of implementation. Foolish builders take shortcuts. Foundation building always involves intentionality and the practice of behaviors the public seldom sees.
So what are these “words” that Jesus wants us to hear and practice for foundation building? Let me share “a few good bricks” from Matthew’s gospel: “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy...” (6:19) Essentially invest in things that matter—things possessing eternal value. “Do not worry about tomorrow...each day has enough trouble of its own.”(6:34) Be present to the moment. Don’t dwell in the past, don’t fear the future. Be attentive to the now. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you...”. (7:12) No explanation really needed. Think of 100 ways you can implement the Golden Rule each day.
Add these good bricks to your life foundation and let the winds howl. When the storm passes you’ll still be standing and have a testimony to share.
Founder and President
“Do you have a minute?”
I was in full stride to my next meeting, focused and completely oblivious to the woman quickly approaching me on the right and trying to get my attention.
A few feet from colliding, I noticed a blurred movement in my peripheral, and turned my head to see a familiar smiling face.
“Hey Dolores,” I called. “How you doing?”
“I just want to thank you,” she gushed. “For giving me the best Thanksgiving ever.”
“But I haven’t seen you since the break?” I volleyed. “I don’t think I can take any credit for your Thanksgiving.”
“Sure you can,” she replied “You and your team have given me a chance to share what I love to do—teach piano to children. For that I’m eternally thankful.”
And teach she did. Week in. Week out. Dolores set up shop in the only unused space on campus during the 3pm-6pm hours—the busy hallway outside our afterschool program area. We’d roll out the piano from storage every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and our children lined up for their 20-minute private lesson with Ms Dolores.
A beautiful image. Pandemonium and noise swirling around the makeshift studio—Dolores and her eager student focused and oblivious to anything but the black and white keys in front of them. Notes and chords were taught, finger-work modeled, and rudimentary forms of sight reading introduced. Humble teaching conditions didn’t matter. Dolores just loved to share her gift. And that made her 2019 Thanksgiving “the best.”
Sadly that was Dolores’ last Thanksgiving. She passed away a few months ago from an unexpected and swift battle with cancer. One of Dolores’ last conscious acts was listening to a recording of our April all-staff meeting. Collectively our community prayed and thanked her for the joy she brought so many of our children. It makes me smile to think she slipped out of consciousness and into eternity being praised for her generous spirit.
These are the heroes who drift through our campus each week. They ask for nothing, don’t desire headlines and would be embarrassed to be publicly recognized. They pay for their own gas, ask for no reimbursements and sacrifice their most precious commodity: time. Sharing what they have to give—their hearts, their talents and their love to children—with kids they don’t really know. Humble, sincere, authentic and selfless are words that come to my mind.
Their volunteerism is often an extension of their faith—faith in God, faith in the potential of children, faith in the power of love. I’m convinced it’s the Doloreses of the world who make our country great. They’re the glue who hold us together. As the barkers bark, the dividers divide and the hurters hurt, the Doloreses quietly move beneath the tumultuous surface of our society mending hurts, calming fears and sowing seeds of peace and beauty. These are the true patriots who live and breathe “liberty and justice for all” through their words and deeds.
We find these characters in scripture as well. They are the unsung heroes who show up when everyone else has moved on. They are the people who keep the God story moving in the right direction, despite the overwhelming odds. Like Mary at the tomb—grief stricken because the body of her friend has vanished—she ends up transforming a moment of despair into the greatest message of hope the world has ever heard. “I have seen the Lord,” becomes Mary’s first sermon as the first preacher of the Christian movement—and she’s still quoted today.
“When all the other disciples are fleeing, Mary Magdalene stands firm,” notices theologian Cynthia Bourgeault. “She does not run; she does not betray or lie about her commitment; she witnesses. Hers is clearly a demonstration of either the deepest human love or the highest spiritual understanding of what Jesus was teaching, perhaps both.”
“We must also keep our eyes open for the saints of our own culture,” adds the Episcopalian priest Charles Hoffacker. “Their witness will be close enough to our concerns, or what should be our concerns, to leave us uncomfortable with our spiritual compromises.” And that’s why we must notice the Doloreses who float in and out of our lives. They call us to become our better selves.
So rest in peace my friend. Thanks for being a living reminder of what it means to serve with joy. May your heavenly music studio have a well-tuned Steinway and be filled with the laughter of children discovering their first sonata.
I never liked the game “Chutes and Ladders” as a kid. Do you remember playing?
You roll the dice, you advance six spaces. You’re three spaces from winning the game, feeling good about beating your older siblings. You roll a two, land on the chute and slide back to the bottom of the board. Ugh! Your siblings snicker. You’re demoralized.
This game came to mind recently while planning to open our schools this fall. The plan we
developed two weeks ago is now irrelevant...but don’t throw it away....we might need it next month.
Six steps forward, 10 steps backwards. Seven forward. It’s pretty crazy.
Come September, will education be in person, virtual or a hybrid combination? Can we put 10 children on a school bus, 24, or 55? If we put plexiglass dividers between the desks, can we increase the numbers in the classroom?
The CDC says one thing. The governor another. The school district another.
Regardless of contradictory messages and ever-shifting landscape, one thing is certain....our kids need QUALITY education this fall.
We can’t mess this up!
“The COVID-19 pandemic will take existing academic achievement differences between middle-class and low-income students and explode them,” writes educational theorist Richard Rothstein. The Brookings Institution comments, “...the loss of learning during the extraordinary systemic crisis of World War II still had a negative impact on former students’ lives some 40 years later.” I believe the coming academic year will define the lives of our children.
This is serious business.
Here’s the good news: our size, our values, our teachers, our Christian faith, our commitment to experiential learning and our integrated approach to wellness all position UrbanPromise to provide the kind of exceptional education needed during this national crisis. We’ve got a world class team who are “here to stay” and ready to teach.
But I need your help preparing for this unique opening. There’s lots of preparation.
Attached is a list of some of the items our team needs to accomplish over the next few weeks—and the cost associated with each item. I’ve put it in a game form—like Chutes and Ladders.
I hope you’ll commit to at least one item—maybe two. Your support will help us open strong.
In advance, thanks for rallying around our children. You’re an amazing gift to our city.
President & Founder
Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses. There were seminars called, “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell” and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Acorns.” There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.
One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped ‘out of the blue’ by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he said, “We.....are....that!”
“Delusional,” laughed one acorn. Another mockingly queried, “So tell us, how would we become that tree?”
“Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground....and cracking open the shell.”
“That’s insane,” chorused the group in full throttled unison. “Totally morbid!” “If we did that,” scoffed another, “We wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”*
The acorn story isn’t original. Like many preachers, I’m a scavenger...always looking for a good story, a powerful metaphor or an example that leads to a deeper truth. So I took a few liberties and modified this old parable—and I think it’s a jewel. Like any good parable it lands a different meaning on each of us. You’ve probably made your determination. Here’s mine:
I’ve always believed that authentic faith should lead people to become better and more complete versions of themselves. Each of us is a unique masterpiece, made in the image of God. For numerous reasons this image gets lost and fades. God’s great promise and gift is our restoration—bringing vibrancy, radiance and aliveness to our divine imprint. An early church father, Irenaeus of Lyon, captured it beautifully: “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” Our “fully” aliveness as human beings can be metaphorically imagined in the process of an acorn becoming an oak tree. Acorns are wonderful—but God’s vision for our lives is so much fuller.
Yet there’s a problem. This journey to fullness can’t be purchased like a seven-day, all-expense Disney cruise. And sadly we can’t just read our way to this place, retreat our way to this place, pray our way to this place, or even church our way to this place. As the chipped and broken acorn audaciously suggests, “It has something to do with going into the ground.” And that idea is a little morbid—especially in a culture that increasingly builds its identity, vision and values around the promotion of self.
But for those who desire to begin this journey of transformation, the word often used is ...surrender. Surrender begins by letting go of our little selves: those primal needs to control, to win, and to dominate. Surrender means letting go of our norms and our preferences and even beliefs that limit transformation. Surrender means releasing those thoughts and ideas that bind us as acorns for a lifetime.
Jesus said it this way.: “Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whoever shall lose his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24) It’s a little counter, isn’t it? Or how about this zinger: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” (John 12:24). Jesus modeled and taught surrender. Even the apostle Paul noticed that Jesus “emptied himself and took on the form of a servant.” Self-emptying births a fuller life. Less of me means more of God.
So I might argue that this current historical moment offers a unique gift. Our lives are currently being disrupted, disturbed and disoriented. Old ways of thinking are being challenged. Routines broken. Assumptions dismantled. But here’s the truth: there’s an opportunity to let go of some old baggage and be filled with something new. Yes, the path can be uncomfortable. Deep change has a cost.
Theologian Cynthia Bourgeault says it this way: “...in any situation in life, confronted by an outer threat or opportunity, you can notice yourself responding inwardly in one or two ways. Either you will brace, harden, and resist, or you will soften, open, and yield.”
She continues by saying, “If you go with your former gesture, you will be catapulted immediately into your smaller self, with its animal instincts and survival responses. If you stay with the latter regardless of the outer conditions, you will remain in alignment with your innermost being, and through it...” God can reach you.
“Soften, open and yield,” are the words challenging me today. If I find myself bracing, hardening and resisting....I need to ask why? I need to take inventory. I need to reflect and go deeper. And hopefully I’ll find myself praying: “Dear Lord, help me surrender and trust your mysterious work which always wants to reorder my life in ways I can’t begin to imagine.”
I’ve met an Oak or two in my day. Special people for sure—humble, graceful, compassionate, wise, generous, joyful, kind and....fully alive. They’ve all taken the journey—a journey marked with surrender, a journey that “cracked the shell”, took them “into the ground” and brought them back to us as a magnificent examples of what it means to be fully human. As beautiful Oaks in our midst, they continually remind us: “we...are...that.”
President & Founder
*The Acorn Parable was originally created by Maurice Nicoll in the 1950s.
The automatic glass doors of the convalescent home flew open. A delightful blast of cool air—which those who reside in the northeast during August fully appreciate—sent a welcome shiver through my body. Hands moist with perspiration, I feebly gripped the slippery pen and signed my name at the front desk.
Down the hallway in room 106 I would find my 93-year-old friend Mable Smith. For those of you wondering how I visited a rehabilitation center during COVID, please take comfort that my visit happened 7 years ago.... remember those days when we were allowed to visit our loved ones needing medical care?
Three weeks prior Mable suffered a mild stroke on her way to church. Now recovering, she would be sent home soon when her sense of balance was regained and her vitals stable.
I peeked into the room. The bed empty. I thought the worst.
“She’s in the dining hall,” called the orderly across the hallway, with military-like authority. “Keep walking until the end, make a left and you’ll see the entrance.”
Now Mable was a true character. Feisty. Opinionated. Life-long Presbyterian. A little eccentric. She spent her career as a Navy secretary and shared with me, on an earlier visit, her harrowing firsthand account of being in Pearl Harbor during the bombing. “Lucky to be alive,” she quipped, describing the pandemonium of that 1941 Sunday morning.
“Hi Mable,” I gushed, entering the room and giving her a hug as lowered myself into an empty chair next to her. “Who’s your friend?”
Across the table sat an aged woman, slowly spooning tapioca pudding into her mouth with a high level of intentionality. She hardly noticed my entrance.
“This is Chi..yo..ko,” mouthed Mable slowly and phonetically, making sure I understood. “She was born in Japan. Survived the bombing of Nagasaki.”
I stretched my hand across the table. The woman abruptly and respectfully stopped her methodical motion, placed her spoon on the tray, clutched my fingers and smiled. “Chiyoko,” she muttered softly. “Hello.”
“We figured we wouldn’t be friends if we met in 1942,” quipped Mable. “We were supposed to hate each other back then. Look at us now!”
For the next few minutes I listened to the story. Somehow Chiyoko survived the blast as a teenager, navigated the horrific aftermath and scraped together a few piecemeal jobs to put food in her stomach. Eventually she met a US serviceman stationed at a base in Japan, learned English, married him and moved to the United States. A widow for over a decade, no children and outliving her friends, she was essentially alone in the world—except for her new friend Mable.
For whatever reason, I’ve never forgotten that meal (certainly not the food). Perhaps this week, after reading articles recalling the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it triggered my memory. So without wading into the history and politics as to why those bombs were dropped, I think there’s a lesson to learn from a couple of elderly widows who survived a very dark period of our world’s history.
Maybe the lesson is how the prevailing forces of our historical moment seek to define us as people: influencing our relationships, shaping our values, dictating our behaviors. Perspectives and attitudes toward people—people we don’t even personally know—are consciously and unconsciously shaped by those with loudest and most convincing voices. As social animals, we even mimic the behavior of others in our quest for identity and belonging.
Then 75 years pass..... The cultural, social and geo-political winds change. New enemies are found and created. New wars need to be fought. New people groups need to be feared. But in the end, the lie of our suspicion and fear is exposed by the serendipitous encounter of two convalescing women eating puréed spinach and Gorton’s fish sticks together—in (of all places) Cinnaminson, New Jersey. The futility of hate is unveiled by life’s brevity and our deepest needs for intimacy.
These things we know to be true: Our loved ones will pass on, our workplace colleagues disperse, our children will go their different ways and our political parties will be voted in and out of office. And, if we are the last one standing, we’ll desire only a few elemental things: companionship and love. Ironically—as in the lives of Mable and Chiyoko—both may appear in the form of those we were once told to hate and fear.
James Baldwin wrote, “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated.”
Jesus put it another way: Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. Why? I always believed Jesus made these outrageous commands because it might lead to more peace, fewer wars and better relations with my neighbor who lets his dog do his business on my lawn. And that can certainly be true.
Now I’m thinking Jesus was a few steps ahead of what Baldwin and others would later learn from their firsthand experience of witnessing the corrosive effects of hate—not only on its recipients but on its givers as well. Perhaps Jesus’s commands are really a love letter to you and me from someone who wants to see us flourish and live into the fullness of what we were created to be. The commands are not simply given to win over our enemies...they’re actually for our benefit, regardless of the outcome. Creating identities around hate and suspicion produces little people. And Jesus is always about bigger people. Bigger hearts, bigger lives, bigger visions.
So why wait until the day we’re eating tapioca pudding and fish sticks to expand the companions around our dinner table? Let’s rise above the noise of today and tune into the frequency of God’s heart. Life’s really too short to waste time.
President & Founder
“....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