Blog: May 2020
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.