“Let the little children come to me...” - Matthew 19:14
So I was intrigued when Reverend Hedgis walked into my office—wearing her clerical collar—to share her desire to volunteer. I’d known Sarah tangentially through friends. This was our first official meeting.
After the normal introductory musings, I asked her about her faith journey—and how she decided to become a priest. I was curious.
“We were raised Methodist,” she began.
“That’s odd,” I chuckled. “How did you end up an Episcopalian?”
“We grew up in North Carolina and attended a very large church,” she continued. “Generations of my family were members. We even had a pew with a plaque on it.”
One day her father announced that he had taken a job in a little town 5 hours away from the city. Population 400. The local Methodist Church had only 20 members—on a good Sunday. Overnight Sarah went from a community that knew and loved her—a place where she was an insider—to a place where nobody knew her.
“I heard my first sermon when I was nine,” she reminisced. “At our new church there was no youth program, no Sunday school. We just sat through the whole service. I claimed the front pew.”
During the service Sarah took notes on the back of the church bulletin. While most children draw and play tic-tac-toe—as I did during my childhood—Sarah really listened.
“I remember thinking it was so cool to see someone stand in a pulpit, talk about God and have people listen.”
So Sarah jotted notes every week: “Pretty boring sermon today.” “I didn’t know the Bible said that....” “Doesn’t that contradict what Pastor said last week?” “This is really confusing?” “Swallowed by a whale, really?” After service Sarah discarded her comments on the pew.
What Sarah did not realize is the pastor’s wife collected her notes, accumulating a small pile. One day she delivered the pile to her husband.
“Sarah,” beckoned Pastor McNeil Sunday after service. “Can we talk for a moment?”
“Now Pastor McNeil was a towering figure,” recollected Sarah. “He really seemed like a giant. I couldn’t imagine why he’d want to speak to me.”
For the next hour Pastor McNeil flipped through the stack of old bulletins and Sarah’s comments. Intently he listened, even asked more questions and took notes himself.
“Would you be interested in critiquing my sermons after church each Sunday?” he asked as they concluded their initial conversation. "Your feedback is helpful to me.”
And so for the next few years Sarah scribbled notes and shared them with Pastor McNeil. If he missed the point, she told him. If the message really connected, she affirmed him. If she had questions or doubts, she confided.
“There were a lot of voices in my community claiming that women had no place as pastors,” reminisced Sarah. “I could have easily listened to those voices. Had I listened, I would have never studied religion. Never become a priest.”
And so Sarah’s calling and vocation is birthed by an alternative voice: a pastor who took the questions and comments of a nine-year-old girl seriously. In an era of megachurches, social media, and pastors who keep their professional distance from those they lead—time to take the unfiltered truth of a child seriously seems...rare.
In his listening this pastor did what pastors are actually supposed to do: help people identify their God-given passions and gifts. Help people find their voice. By simply listening and validating Sarah’s questions, he awakened a thirst to dig deeper into those questions. It’s made her an amazing preacher and teacher today. It’s helped her become a priest who listens and discerns God’s path for others' lives.
I believe that the meaning of certain words are best understood with the context of human action. We often call those actions stories. A word like “mercy” can be debated, parsed and defined. But when we see merciful behavior displayed by attentiveness to a child’s scribbles and opinions, there’s something to notice.
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy,” writes James.
I think James may have been describing Pastor McNeil.
“I remember an event called Double Dare,” reminisced Albert Vega. “I might have been seven years old.”
Albert continued to describe the competition with memorable details.
“It was crazy fun. We had to eat as many bananas as possible in a short amount of time,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I won the competition, but couldn’t get all the banana out of my mouth. One of the counselors helped me.”
That was 28 years ago. Albert vividly remembers the exhilarating competitions, the safe place to go after school and the summer counselors. (Full disclosure: UrbanPromise did eliminate the banana-eating competition in subsequent years).
Albert’s twin brother Tony also remembers the impact of our programs as a child. “I loved the spring break trips, the Martin Luther King Speech Contest, Math Dare and my summer job as a StreetLeader. UrbanPromise has been there every step of the way, even helping me get through university.”
Finding two people more passionate about UrbanPromise is difficult. These young men have lived the UrbanPromise story and embody our mission of developing leaders from within the community—leaders who return to serve their city.
That’s why it’s an honor for me to make a very significant announcement:
This month Tony and Albert were hired to fill two senior management positions within UrbanPromise—Tony as director of our StreetLeader Department and Albert the Director of our Children’s Ministry Department.
These are influential leadership roles—a responsibility to shape our programming for the next generation of children and teens in our city.
“I’m looking forward to being on the creating end of these programs,” added Albert. “My priority is to build and mentor a younger team of front-line workers.”
Like any new position, the first 100 days are critical—especially during this season of COVID. Albert and Tony have exciting plans to capitalize on this window of time.
Like you, I want to ensure that Tony and Albert launch successfully. So let’s send an affirming message by supporting their “First 100 Day” initiatives.
Founder & President
PS. Meet Albert and Tony in this short interview. You’ll see and hear their passion.
Years ago, my friend and long-time Camden priest, Father Michael Doyle, asked me a question I’ve not forgotten.
"What’s the greatest compliment Jesus gave humanity?"
I confess I was stumped—never pondering the thought. Jesus shared amazing parables and taught with wise, pithy truisms...healed the sick ....performed some incredible miracles...but compliments?
"I'm stumped Father," I deflected, trying to disguise my biblical ignorance.
The aging Irish priest looked at me with his deep penetrating eyes and then responded with his mirthful chuckle, "Love your enemies!"
"That’s not a compliment," I countered with a hint of vindication, thinking this Baptist boy had just outsmarted a veteran Catholic priest. "Sounds more like a command to me.”
After all, who would interpret ‘love your enemy’ as a compliment? A near impossible command, maybe. A radical counter-cultural teaching, absolutely. But a compliment? I was feeling pretty good about my reply.
"It was a compliment," assured my friend with unwavering gentleness. "You see, Jesus believed humans could do something incredibly extraordinary and difficult. And that’s a great compliment.”
Father Doyle had a point. After an undergraduate degree in theology and a few years in seminary, never had I viewed "love thy enemy" as a compliment. It was one of those verses you’d rather erase from the Bible, pretending it was never written—an inconvenient truth. But reflecting more deeply, it made sense.
Jesus is always calling us to a higher place, seeing greater capacity and potential in ourselves than we can even begin to imagine.
And that’s an aspirational truth we need these days. The current gravitational force of our culture seems to be pulling us toward our lowest selves and base instincts—not a higher vision of what it means to be fully human and made in God’s image. Social media baits us, feeding our insatiable appetite for reasons to distrust those outside our camps and tribes. Jesus believes we have the capacity to do better.
You’ve probably noticed a little word getting the limelight this past week. Unity. It’s found its way into speeches, songs, poems, talk shows. When shared it’s often associated with acts of healing, putting aside differences, starting fresh. All sounds great, but ask 100 people what unity means—you’ll get 100 different answers. Ask 300 million people the same question...you guessed it. Unity is complicated. Easy to speak about, much harder to implement. So what can we do?
This past week I asked our leadership team what unity means to them—especially in the wake of a very contentious, highly partisan, low-trust, violent, and divisive moment in our nation’s history. Some shared Bible verses, others more theoretical definitions. One shared a personal story.
“There’s a former staff worker who’s been posting a lot on Facebook recently,” began my colleague. “I vehemently disagree with his views. My first inclination was to join the group opposing his positions, pointing out why he is so wrong. But I decided to not pile on the criticism.”
He continued: “Instead I sent a personal email, telling him I missed him and loved him. I thought it might be a way to preserve the relationship, opening a door to one day have a deeper conversation.” Preserving a relationship rather than trying to win an argument....is that unity?
Some might say my colleague’s response was a cop out. The duty to speak his true convictions was neglected. Yet if we’re honest, building unity with political foes using terse Facebook postings is a low probability proposition. Behavioral data agrees, suggesting “conversion” rates through arguing with adversaries seldom happens. True unity ultimately needs relational roots.
Community might be a more accurate description of what our country needs.
Community calls us to work out differences within the context of geographical and social arrangements—neighborhoods, churches, workplaces and civic organizations. Derived from the Latin ‘communitas’ (fellowship), the prefix “com” signifies “with, together, in conjunction.” So true unity is built in conjunction with others—not in the anonymity of cyberspace.
I wish this stuff was easy. It’s not. Difficult days are still ahead. But I’m hopeful. For the past 35 years I’ve had a front row seat watching an eclectic group of God’s people unify across political, theological, racial, economic and social differences to create UrbanPromise—a community where Christ’s love and hope is shared and lived each day. It’s possible. We just need to believe the compliment.
Founder and President
Caroline Mitchell coordinates and directs the UrbanPromise Food Co-Op—a program that engages our community in creative ways to alleviate food scarcity, while empowering local citizens to share food and resources with their neighbors. Under Caroline’s leadership, Food Co-Op membership has grown from 100 to 400 registered families.
Recently Caroline was selected by the YWCA of Princeton, New Jersey for The Tribute to Women Award—a prestigious award honoring women who have demonstrated sustained leadership and exceptional talent and who have made significant contributions to their professions.
Caroline shared, “Getting this Award has special meaning for me because I connect deeply with and believe in the mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.”
At UrbanPromise Caroline is known for her kindness, humility and servant leadership. Our Chief People Officer, Pam Foxx says, “Caroline's level of expertise and empathy for those in need of care and support is nothing short of amazing."
“I have thought a lot about my advocacy work over the years and the people I have worked and served with to bring about change in our community." Caroline adds, "I stay committed to the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
UrbanPromise President Bruce Main adds, “It’s exciting to see Caroline get recognized for her decades of community service. Her compassion, commitment and vision to make a difference in our world is inspiring. It’s an honor to have Caroline as part of the UrbanPromise community.”
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant...” Mark 10:43
I’ve been part of a few contentious staff meetings over the years—you know the kind. Walk into the conference room: arms are crossed, no laughter, no engagement, no eye contact between the participants. Anger can’t be measured or seen, but it’s in the room. Thick. Palpable. Trust has calcified, losing its limbering quality of loosening social relations. And then there’s the pit in your stomach. Uninvited anxiety enters your system. Adrenaline and cortisol flow. Deep breath. You’re the leader. Your job—bring the team back from the brink of collapse.
To be a fly on the wall at Jesus’ Monday morning staff meeting—the meeting after 10 of his disciples discover their two social climbing colleagues, James and John, secretly lobbied Jesus for prominent cabinet posts in the new regime—would have been fascinating. “Indignant” (10:41) is the adjective used by the writer Mark to describe the feelings of the angered 10. Egos apparently bruised, trust broken, emotions running high. Jesus, it’s time to watch a TED talk on “How to Have Tough Conversations.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about this very moment in one of his lesser-known sermons called, The Drum Major Instinct—delivered at his home church Ebenezer Baptist on February 4th, 1968. For those who appreciate homiletics as an art form, it’s an oratorical masterpiece. The antiquated pre-digital recording (with disruptions, crackling static, parishioners commenting, babies crying) only adds to the drama and authenticity. Oh, and 53 years later, the content is still relevant. Truth never seems to go out of style.
King notes that Jesus doesn’t judge James and John harshly for their selfish request. He acknowledges that we all battle the same impulse—our primal need to be recognized, appreciated, “first in line”.... It’s the “Drum Major Instinct”, says King, which beckons us to lead the parade. Deep down we all secretly yearn for attention, approval and status. Psychotherapist Alfred Adler argues it’s the dominant impulse of the human condition.
The Drum Major Instinct, however, is only problematic if not controlled—becoming destructive not only to ourselves, but those around us. “It’s vitamin A to our ego,” shares King with his congregation. “It’s what advertisers tap into, compelling us to buy products that elevate our social position, while dragging us into personal debt by living beyond our means.” Unchecked, The Drum Major Instinct leads to “snobbish exclusion, classism, racism”—why else would we put others down so we can elevate our self-importance?
So how does Jesus facilitate his contentious Monday morning staff meeting? Brilliantly. According to King, Jesus doesn’t condemn John and James or even call them selfish. He doesn’t belittle them for raising their ego-driven question. Instead Jesus seems to say: “You want to be great? Wonderful! You want to be important? Fantastic! You want to be significant? Terrific!” It might surprise you, but the “Drum Major Instinct” is NOT condemned. Jesus simply reorders priorities and redirects our energy.
You want to be first? Be first in love! You want to be significant? Be significant in generosity! You want to be great? Be great in humility and service! Jesus provides a whole new definition of greatness—a definition counterintuitive to the human condition. And this leads to one of my favorite lines in King’s sermon—words so appropriate for this moment in history.
“Everybody can be great...because everyone can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
As King reaches the climax of his sermon, he reflects on his own mortality. Not in a morbid way, but in a way that calls his listeners to reflect on their own brief lives. King shares how he’d like to be eulogized at his funeral:
“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody...tried to be right on the war question ...tried to feed the hungry....tried to clothe those who were naked...tried to love and served humanity....”
Eerily the recording goes silent midsentence during King’s crescendo—it just cuts off, serendipitously leaving a silent pause long enough for the listeners to place themselves in the eulogy.
And that’s a good space to place ourselves on this important and commemorative day. A space to reflect on our lives. A space to reflect on the meaning of true greatness. A space to ask ourselves, are we using our Drum Major Instinct for the right things -- like justice, righteousness, peace, humility and service.
Find joy in your service today—
PS. Here’s a link to the original sermon. You might enjoy listening.
2020 was a crazy year; there is no doubt about it. But difficult circumstances are often the moments God uses to show up and makes things good, despite our very human concerns that we will never be able to survive.
Did UrbanPromise survive 2020? You bet we did!
Today, we offer up an enormous THANK YOU to all of you who believe in us, believe in what God is doing here in Camden. To all of you who donated in 2020 and those of you who dug extra deep in December to help us reach our match goal - you did it! We did it!
We hit our goal in 2020 despite a crazy global pandemic. What a faith-building moment for us. Today we begin the work of fundraising for 2021 and we do so joyfully knowing that God is bigger than our circumstances and that all of you are on this journey with us.
With love and gratitude,
The UrbanPromise faculty and staff
“She placed the child in the basket and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.” Exodus 2:3
“Really nice car,” I complimented. The young man in the driver’s seat smiled.
“I own it,” he echoed with a sense of pride. “I bought it with money generated from my business.”
I was heading to the airport after visiting some of our ministries in Malawi—a small subsaharan country in east Africa. One of our directors arranged my transportation. A young man named Peter—evidently in his early 20’s—picked me up in a shiny, new Toyota hatch back. I was intrigued. With so few jobs in the country—especially for young people—and 62% of the country living in less than $2 a day, curiosity got the best of me.
“What kind of business?”
“I raise chickens and sell them to local restaurants,” he added.
“How’d you get started?”
Keeping his eyes on the road, Peter shared his remarkable story. “One day I visited a small restaurant in the city of Zomba,” he began. “I ordered chicken and chips.”
Peter chuckled. “Ten minutes later the waiter comes back to me and asks if I wanted a thigh, leg or breast with my chips.”
A thigh was his request. Ten minutes passed—the waiter returned. “Do you want your chicken fried, baked or charbroiled?”
Peter, now getting hungry and a little annoyed, replied with a hint of impatience, “Fried is just fine.” But to his surprise the waiter returned a third time. “Excuse me. One last question. Do want the chips and chicken served together or separately?” Peter gave the waiter a surprised glance, “Together would be nice.”
At this point I wasn’t sure how the story connected to my initial question—but being a captive audience listened intently. “So the waiter comes back a fourth time,” concluded Peter, “He tells me they have NO chicken—but he’d be willing to drive 45 minutes to the city of Blantyre and get my chicken.” Peter politely declined, paid for his soda and left the restaurant.
“I decided to do a little research,” continued my new friend as he navigated the bumpy road. “I started asking restaurant owners in Zomba how they acquired their chickens. You believe it? They all drove 45 minutes to Blantyre to make their purchases.”
So Peter decided to seize the opportunity. One small problem. Having recently graduated from college, he had no money. “I was broke. No job. No prospects,” he recalled. “I only owned the cell phone my father gave me as a graduation gift.”
Peter then made a difficult decision—especially for a twenty year old. “I asked myself, ‘Why do I need a cell phone if I have no job and no money?” His new phone was sold for $30 US dollars and he bought his first 100 chicks. Three years later Peter owns a thriving chicken business in Zomba—making enough to buy a car, support himself, payroll a small staff and run a small non-profit ministry teaching entrepreneurial classes to men coming out of Malawian prisons. “God’s using my story to inspire these young men.”
It intrigues me how people respond to adversity. Many would walk out of that restaurant, utter a few complaints and post a negative review on Yelp. Yet Peter sells his cell phone to seed a business venture. One person has a horrible dining experience. Another sees opportunity.
One of the reasons I’m drawn to the Bible is it’s filled with people like Peter—people who look at bleak, desperate and hopeless situations and see another path forward. Faith inspires their imagination.
Case in point, Moses’ mother in the book of Exodus. She’s one of the great improvisers of the Old Testament. You may remember her story. Egypt’s top political leader, Pharaoh, issued an edict to murder all the Hebrew male babies. Pharaoh, threatened by a growing population of outsiders in his country, creates a policy of infanticide to thwart any threats to his power.
But Moses’ mother isn’t allowing this dark and hideous situation to negate action. Even as a slave to Egyptian masters, her faith preserves and informs her quest to save her son.
Much like my new friend Peter, Moses’ mother takes inventory of what was happening around her...and conceives a brilliant plan. You see, Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the Nile each day. Pharaoh’s daughter interacts with her helpers, thus revealing her character and personality. Moses’ mother watches—her instincts are informed. So her baby Moses is placed in a woven basket, floated to an appropriate position on the river and Moses’ sister Miriam stands in a strategic position. Nothing is left to chance. A hopeful outcome is imagined—and ultimately achieved. “Pharaoh’s daughter took him as her son and named him Moses, meaning, ‘I drew him out of the water.’ A baby’s life is spared. The tragic consequences of losing a future leader averted.
Exodus reminds me that we are not the first people in history to suffer, to be caught in the crosshairs of political upheaval and live in a moment riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. These stories teach me about courageous people whose faith nurtures improvisation and ignites dreams of redemptive solutions to seemingly intractable and impossible problems.
Yet...sacrificing a cell phone leads to a thriving chicken business and a spin-off ministry. An ancient mother’s vision and a few sticks woven into a floating basket liberates a community of oppressed people to flourish. It’s the very best of God’s people on display.
This is the kind of holy improvisation needed right now, friends. Don’t give up. Keep dreaming. Keep scheming of ways to overcome evil with good. Remember Paul’s words: “Let’s not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9
Onward in 2021—