URGENT MESSAGE FROM BRUCE MAIN
In 32 years of leading UrbanPromise I have never experienced anything like the past 21 days.
Our people have worked around the clock adapting to the new normal—helping teens and children grieve the loss of a daily routine, calming fears, innovating new approaches to teaching and reaching out to our families and children daily. Counseling services and access to emergency food is being provided. We have adapted quickly to our changing landscape.
As of today, not one of our workers has been laid off. While our nation’s unemployment numbers skyrocket, our board and leadership have decided that UrbanPromise needs to press forward, stand in the gap, and come out stronger when this crisis passes.
I’m convinced that double-digit unemployment and social dislocation will devastate a community like Camden. Non-profits will vanish, local businesses will shutter, parents will lose jobs and essential services will be overtaxed.
At its core, UrbanPromise is people. It’s not buildings. Not great technology. Not even cool and unique programs. UrbanPromise is a community of Christians who daily exercise their faith through sacrificially loving and caring for people of Camden in Jesus’ name.
This kind of commitment and community cannot be purchased; I can’t hire these kinds of dedicated people off Craigslist or CareerBuilder. This kind of community takes years to develop and cultivate.
That’s why I am asking you to make sure UrbanPromise survives and thrives during this current crisis.
As we enter the last quarter of our fiscal year (April 1 - June 30, 2020) our financial picture has changed dramatically:
1. Our biggest fundraising events—Taste of Promise, Pedal for Promise, and our Golf Tournament—typically generate $425,000. They have all been cancelled or postponed. Regular giving has been radically impacted by the distraction of the virus and the flagging economy.
2. Prior to this crisis, UrbanPromise was in a strong financial position and plans were being laid to create a fiscal safety net to carry us securely into the future. The pandemic has not only halted that campaign but has put our current staff and programs in jeopardy.
3. We were recently approved for a loan as part of the CARES Act passed by Congress to aid organizations impacted by COVID-19. We are praising God for this quick approval and the expectation of much needed funds to offset some of our expenses.
You’ve walked with us through the good times and the challenging times and I know I can count on you. A gift of any size will help.
God’s courage and peace—
P.S. If you would like to call me to discuss a large gift, I’d love to speak with you and share more details about what we are facing. You can reach me at (856) 313-4106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Why this waste?” – Matthew 26:9
The reporter held the microphone close to the retiring bishop’s mouth.
“If you were to boil it down to a few words,” he curiously inquired, “what should define Christian behavior?”
The aged cleric stroked his scrappy beard. After decades of ecclesiastical service—baptisms, funerals, communions, weddings—he was in no rush to answer the impatient young journalist. Silence lingered for a few painful seconds.
“Christians,” he finally replied, “Christians....are people who love with waste. We are called to be wasteful lovers.”
These words created some dissonance for me as a young seminarian, having never put love and waste in the same sentence. Growing up in a household that frowned on throwing anything away, I developed an early aversion to waste. My lunch bag was a recycled Oreo bag—with an old mayonnaise jar doubling as a thermos for my powdered milk. I was even expected to bring them home every day from school...so they could be used again and again! “Waste not, want not”: a mantra seared into my consciousness. I still have problems throwing away a Starbucks cup.
But here was a retiring man of the cloth saying the essence of Christian behavior is to love wastefully? Shouldn’t love be invested like a good mutual fund? You know, sprinkle it around, minimizing risk, making sure we get the best return on our investment? And what about stewardship? Why would a clergy propose to “waste” anything—especially love?
The Easter story is really a story about wasteful love. It begins with an unknown woman sharing her most valued possession and ends with a man laying down his life for others. Scholars actually suggest that the first authentic Christian in scripture is the anonymous woman in Matthew’s gospel account called The Anointing at Bethany. She’s the only one who understands what’s really going on, generously surrendering her expensive perfume and preparing Jesus for what’s coming next: his death and burial.
“Why this waste?” protest the disciples with righteous indignation as she anoints Jesus. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
To everyone’s surprise, Jesus doesn’t agree with his buddies. He doesn’t throw the woman under the proverbial bus or dismiss her gesture as foolish sentimentality. Jesus actually elevates her action, offering a less than subtle rebuke: “She has done a beautiful thing for me...and her story will be told forever.”
Once again the disciples miss the point. They fail to see the heart behind the act. It’s easy to do. As the leader of a non-profit, who spends much of his life asking for donations, I can identify with the disciples. Sell the perfume on eBay. Get the cash. Make a significant donation to your local food bank. That’s practical. But I miss the point. I miss the heart.
I meet a lot of amazing Christians in my travels. In general we do a pretty good job of loving. But often our love is a practical, appropriate, boundary-abiding, a get-something-in-return kind of love. It’s love, but often safe and calculated.
Jesus is different. He’s a threat to those in power. Why? I argue that he can’t follow the rules of those who determined who should and shouldn’t be loved. His heart was too big. His love knew no boundaries. His love could not be contained by religious, social, ethnic and geographical barriers of his day. So he made enemies. It cost him his life.
And this is part of Easter’s life-giving message of Hope. We invite this resurrection power to enter our sometimes small, crusty, fear-filled, boundary-abiding hearts and liberate us to love—wastefully.
....the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ – Matthew 21:10
One of the most dramatic and overlooked aspects of the Easter story is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Jesus enters the city from the east. Scholars tell us of another procession coming from the west: the port city of Caesarea.
During Passover the city of Jerusalem swelled from 40,000 to 200,000. For an insecure, Rome-appointed political leader—whose charge was to keep his Jewish subjects "in check"—Pontius Pilate sent a Roman garrison of soldiers to fortify the troops permanently stationed in the holy city. Civil unrest would jeopardize Pilate’s appointment.
This parade from the west was visibly stunning: pageantry, swords, spears, shiny helmets, protruding chests, emotionless faces. Pilate, sitting proudly on his battle-trained stallion.
The parade from the east was markedly different. Instead of spears...palm leaves. Instead of well-groomed soldiers...poorly dressed peasants. Instead of order and precision...chaos. Instead of military cadence...shouts of Hosanna in the Highest. And Jesus, the man leading the procession, rides a humble donkey.
The vivid contrast between the two parades was more than simple pageantry. It was also a contrast of world views, of vision, of mission.
The parade from the west was guided by imperial power and theology. Rome was more than just a city--it was a belief system. Its message was simple: Might makes right! The first shall be first! Intimidate! Consolidate power. Use the poor to your advantage. To the onlooker, Rome seemed invincible. Secure.
In stark contrast, the Jesus parade was guided by a vision laid out in his earlier teachings: greatness is found in humility, true life is found in surrender, love your neighbor, care for the poor, share, be agents of healing, peace and grace....
It's no accident that these two parades arrive at the city at the same time. Nothing is accidental with Jesus. Jesus wants you and me to make a choice between two conflicting parades. And following the Jesus parade takes faith—especially in times of fear and uncertainty.
This is an extraordinary moment in our history. We enter Holy Week with our world literally turned upside down, our heads spinning in disbelief and our feet looking for a stable place to stand. I’m sure the disciples had similar feelings as they followed their donkey-riding leader to the cross.
The Good News of Palm Sunday is we know our parade is the real deal—it’s the parade that endures and lives generationally in those who follow Jesus. Yes, it gets darker before it gets better, there is pain, betrayal, and moments when the light seems to disappear. Hang on. Keep walking. Keep living the vision. We know how our parade ends. It’s the parade that continues to change lives and change our world.
God’s courage and peace as you journey this week.
One of the great philosophical minds of the 19th century, Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard, writes a poignant meditation on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the story well.
One day three men walked down an ordinary, dusty, Middle Eastern dirt road. All were on the same road. Presumably the same day. Nothing special about the road. Yet one man stops and responds in a way that displays the heart of God. That’s the man Jesus elevates and calls our attention towards.
“It’s not the road you travel,” insightfully captures Kierkegaard, “It’s how you travel the road.”
His point is direct and clear. The actual road is NOT of critical concern. It’s actually inconsequential. What’s consequential is how the road is traveled. Three men. Same road. Two men are inattentive and blind to the moment. One man travels with an open heart, turning an ordinary walk into an opportunity to reflect the love and compassion of God. It’s not the road.
I find Christians often getting caught up in what I call “the other road syndrome”— always looking for another, better, easier, grass-is-greener kind of road. It’s our nature. “One day,” we lament, “when I get on the right road, the better road, the more secure road....then I’ll begin traveling with the attentiveness and goodness of the Samaritan.” It’s not the road.
Currently, most of us are on a road we would never choose to travel—it’s a road unimaginable two weeks ago. Given the choice, we’d exit this current road and take the nearest off-ramp. We’re separated from our kids, worried about our parents in their retirement homes, watching our 401ks plummet, wondering if we’ll have a job next month, cautious about doorknobs...... Who would choose this road? It’s a difficult road we’re on. I do not want to make light of our current reality.
But this is our road...for the moment. So let’s engage like the Samaritan. Let’s travel differently.
The apostle Paul reminds us that the reason Christians travel differently is because of our unique wardrobe. We have been given a different set of clothes. Our travel bags possess a special set of garments.
“As God’s chosen people...clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." Colossians 3:12
This is our clothing: God’s grace and courage, as you transform your difficult road this week into a display of God’s transformative power.
- Have you decided to accept this road you are on, or are you still focused on the “other” road?
- What would it look like in your life to be the Good Samaritan during this time?
- If you’d like, share a story with us about how you or someone else is walking this road with compassion, kindness and patience. We would love to hear about it! Email Bruce your story »
Building wooden boats at UrbanPromise involves a lot of sanding—wood, fiberglass and epoxy. For the kids, it’s their least favorite part of the build. Tedious, time consuming and dusty. Tiny, harmful irritating particles fill the air.
So every student in the shop must wear a high quality, industrial N95 face mask to protect their lungs—the same kind of masks needed by our front line healthcare workers dealing with the coronavirus.
“We had 160 brand new masks in our storage closest,” revealed Tommy Calisterio, our BoatWorks Director. “I contacted a friend at Cooper Hospital. They desperately needed masks for their front line workers.”
Wait a minute? A small, grassroots, community-based non-profit that has literally lived hand to mouth for 32 years—made a donation to a local hospital with hundreds of millions in assets? Yes! Tuesday to be exact. Cases of brand new masks were delivered. They will save lives.
“What is in your hands?” asks the Lord of Moses.
You remember Moses? He was that reluctant leader in Exodus who never feels worthy of the challenge to which God has called him. A flawed man, full of self-doubt and excuses—gladly passing off responsibility to the next guy in line.
Moses looks down at his hands. He sees nothing at first glance. Just some blistered fingers and calloused palms belonging to a fugitive shepherd. But he looks again. An old worn stick? That can’t be of any significance!
“Throw it on the ground,” says the Lord. A decision confronts Moses. Is he hallucinating? Does he respond? Walk away? Ignore? Laugh?
Moses obeys and throws it to the ground. To his utter surprise the stick becomes a snake. And this stick—now in the hands of a man who opens his heart to the possibilities and direction of God—becomes an instrument used to liberate a burdened and oppressed people.
My fellow urban minister Bob Lupton writes: “And so it has been down through history—God using the ordinary assets of ordinary men and women to accomplish divine purposes.” Bob is spot on. It’s the boy with the fish and the loaves. The widow with a few coins...
What is in your hands? A stick? An N95 mask? A skill you’ve forgotten about? A spiritual gift? A cell phone?
This past week I’ve challenged the UrbanPromise community to ask this very question. For many of us it’s been a week of re-inventing, re-tooling, re-purposing. Two weeks ago we had lots of assets in our hands—clearly defined job descriptions, physical classrooms, chemistry equipment, child care, transportation, sold out fundraising events. Many of these assets are now gone.
Should our team just pack it in? Give up? Lament about the good old days? I don’t believe so. It’s not God’s way. God is always about doing a new thing.
So our teachers and staff are discovering new assets in their hands—and are witnessing God using these overlooked, forgotten assets to feed our community, educate our children, and connect with our families in deeply purposeful ways.
How about you? What’s in your hand needing to be discovered and released for God’s purpose this week.....
Forward in hope—
Author AJ Jacobs describes himself as “petty and annoyed”. He’s forgetful of the 300 things that go right everyday and focuses on the 3 things that go wrong. This self-avowed curmudgeon decided he wanted to become a better person—to learn to be more content and grateful. But how? He decides to take a “gratitude journey.”
This gratitude journey began by thanking everyone involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. Everyone! You see, the act of noticing is the first act of gratitude.
So Jacobs intentionally thanks the barista who rings him up at his local shop, finds the guy who roasts the beans...and thanks him. He calls an artist in Seattle who designed the lid for his cup. Thank You! He tracks down truck drivers and the warehouse workers, the people who pick the beans in Columbia, and the customs workers who guard the borders. Thank You!
Of course the workers are bewildered. They’ve never been thanked. Jacobs even drives out of New York City to the Catskill Mountains and thanks those who guard the watershed. 99.9 % of our coffee is water after all. Every Thank You on his journey turns into a story. New relationships are formed. A deeper appreciation is developed for each person’s role in his coffee supply chain.
By the time Jacob finishes his “gratitude tour”, 1000 people have been thanked. Crazy to consider: A thousand people involved in creating his morning cup of coffee! In retrospect he finds himself embarrassed for complaining about paying $2.57 a cup.
Years before AJ Jacobs ever thought about gratitude, the Apostle Paul was eloquently suggesting that he had discovered a “secret”—a secret possessing the power to transform a life.
“I have learned the secret of being content in EVERY and ANY situation,” he wrote.
Some of us might have reacted defensively to Paul’s claim. “Wait a minute,” we refute. “Paul doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s an ivory tower theologian who is detached from reality.”
Not so. Paul writes these words from a Roman jail—a rather hideous place. Literally holes in the ground where one’s family had to provide food to stay alive.
So from this hellish place, Paul writes to ordinary, working class folk with no health care or 401ks. He has learned an important secret: Contentment. An audacious claim isn’t it?
Paul challenges us to consider a truth: contentment is a state of being independent from our possessions and circumstances.
Deep down most of us know this to be true. We have met people living in bitter poverty...yet they are full of joy. We’ve known people who have suffered tremendously, yet still forgive and love. We know people who give the shirt off their back, because their needs are secondary to others. History is sprinkled with people who transcend their circumstances to discover the secret of contentment.
We don’t know the full economic implications of this pandemic yet, but many of us are already living with less—less food choices, less mobility, less accessibility to service, less savings, less toilet paper.....
As we move into this unknown territory of “less”, the question for each of us is—will we rise to the spiritual challenge Paul places before us? Contentment is liberating. It’s a gift. It’s a secret worth discovering.
- What lessons are you learning during this time of living with "less"?
- What would contentment "look" like for you in this season?
Above all else, protect your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
– Proverbs 4:23
I love to tell a story to our UrbanPromise kids about a young boy who was always getting into trouble.
He couldn’t help himself. His desire to do the right thing was there, but when it came time to act—he’d always go the wrong way.
So his mother sent him to visit Grandpa. He was a pretty wise guy. He’d been around the block a few times and had made a few mistakes in his day.
“I’m just always getting in trouble, Grandpa,” lamented the young boy over a glass of ice tea. “I want to do what’s right, but I always get pulled in another direction. What should I do?”
So Grandpa paused, scratched his day old beard, and tenderly replied:
“Ya know son, in your heart there are two dogs. One is good. One is bad. And they are constantly fighting one another.”
His grandson nodded: the metaphor clicked. It was a perfect picture of his inner turmoil. Two dogs, constantly fighting one another, one good and one bad.
“Grandpa, I’m curious,” queried the boy with a sense of urgency, “which dog ends up winning?”
Again, the old man paused, gazed into the eyes of his grandson:
“The dog who wins? It’s the dog you feed the most....you need to feed the good dog!”
This past week I’ve thought a lot about this little parable. It causes me to ask the question—which dog am I feeding? You and I know there’s a lot out there to fill our hearts—fear, anxiety, negativity, worst-case scenarios, panic....lot’s of unhealthy food.
And to a large degree, what ends up filling our hearts profoundly influences the way we lead and respond to this current crisis. What’s in our heart impacts the way we treat people, make decisions and think about the future.
The writer of Proverbs speaks to me because he understood the intimate connection between our heart and our actions. That’s why he penned these words centuries ago—words still relevant for this moment:
“Above all else, protect your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
Everything flows from the heart. Everything. We need to protect it.
So our challenge this week is not to simply play defense with our hearts. Our challenge is to proactively feed our hearts with good food—the healthy, non-toxic, spiritually enhanced, no preservatives kind of food.
For a helpful menu we need look no further than the Apostle Paul.....
"Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—dwell, meditate and focus on these things."
Practicing these truths will fill our hearts with the right kind of food.
None of us know what’s coming our way this week. We can’t control what’s happening. The one thing we can control is being selective about what enters our hearts.
Feed the Good Dog—
- What does it look like in your life when you feed the "bad dog"?
- What does it look like in your life when you feed the "good dog"?
- Is there someone you can share your habits with who will hold you accountable to practicing habits that will feed your soul rather than your fears?
Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world. If your heart’s full of hope, you can be persistent when you can’t be optimistic. – William Sloan Coffin
I find myself in an interesting state of mind—I’m sure you do as well.
Our current reality is sobering. Nobody really knows the potential long term impact of this current crisis. We know it will get worse. We know people will suffer. We know that the worst of humanity will rear its ugly head. We know that the path forward is full of ambiguity and potential chaos. This is our reality.
One of the reasons I remain committed to my Christian faith is that Christianity is not afraid to stare reality in the face—with all its warts and uncertainty. Karl Marx got it wrong when he said “religion is the opiate of the people.”
Authentic biblical faith is no opiate. It’s no crutch. It’s not about denying the harsh realities of the human condition. It’s not about irrational scapegoating to avoid looking into our own hearts. It’s not about blaming and shaming.
Faith calls us to stare into the darkness, to hold our gaze on the unpleasant, to not be surprised at selfishness and human depravity. Little has changed since biblical writers reminded people that life is fragile, people are irrational, and life can take difficult unexpected turns.
But here’s the difference.
As Christians, we possess the hope to embrace the sobering reality of our circumstances. How? Because we believe, with a kind of stubborn tenacity, in God’s ability to transform the most despairing and difficult of circumstances. We are Easter people.
It's been my experience. My truth.
Thirty-plus years ago a community of Christians stared into the most dangerous, violent city in America. We didn’t run. We didn’t pretend there were no problems. We didn’t blame people for their circumstances. We refused to let fear guide our vision.
As a community of faith we acknowledged the brokenness we saw in our neighborhoods, we held the pain in our hearts and we called upon our faith to provide practical ways to change this despairing reality.
God showed up. There’s no other way to explain it. Again and again and again. People surrendered their lives to service. People sacrificially shared their resources. People joined hands across racial and political lines. Kids were loved. Miracles happened. Hope took root in one of society's forgotten gardens....and blossomed.
I believe this same God, who has faithfully provided and guided us for 33 years, continues to infuse each of us with wisdom, patience, love and hope.
We nervously step forward into the unknown—with a bar of soap in our hands, common sense in our pockets, grace in hearts, courage running through our spine...and the tenacious hope that God will show up repeatedly and unexpectedly.
That’s a promise I’m counting on...an urban promise.
- Reflect on a time in your life when fear was replaced with hope? What allowed for the shift?
- What is an action you can take today to cultivate hope for yourself and/or a loved one?
Here’s my end of year confession: In 8th grade I wasn’t really interested in the things of God.
But Sunday School attendance was required in the Main household, so I would dutifully change into my Sunday best, jump in the Chevy Impala and get my “father-driven-Uber-shuttle” to the front steps of our Baptist church.
My 8th grade Sunday school class was comprised of a ragtag group of 10 boys from different parts of the city. Besides Kevin—the one kid who could recite all the right prayers, always won the Bible trivia, and always made us feel spiritually inferior—the rest of us were little rebels who did everything to make life miserable for our volunteer teachers.
That 8th grade year, seven (yes, seven!) of our Sunday School teachers resigned—a church record still holding strong today! Special elder and prayer meetings were held, all trying to solve the problem of the boys' 8th grade Sunday school class.
Then Al Klatt showed up—a twenty-six year old, retired, semi-pro hockey player. Al had learned of the notorious 8th grade class, but wasn’t deterred from a challenge. Six years in the rough and tumble minor hockey leagues was more than enough preparation for our little class of preadolescent rebels.
“Here’s the deal, “ began Al at our first meeting, “Sunday School lasts for an hour. We’ll play 50 minutes of floor hockey. But the last 10 minutes you’ll have to listen to me.”
By far, this was the best offer we’d ever been given. Fifty minutes of floor hockey in the church gym—and just 10 minutes of Bible study! Unanimously we consented—except, of course, Kevin. He thought it appalling to use “the Lord’s” time for such frivolous activities.
And Al lasted as our teacher. Through our high school years he guided us, kept us out of trouble and taught us about the things of faith. He cheered for us at our high school games, let us paint our Sunday School classroom with psychedelic colors and bought Kentucky Fried Chicken to accompany the Super Bowl Party he hosted at his apartment.
Forty years passed between visits with Al. A year ago we reconnected. He’s aged a bit and now battles early Parkinson’s disease. He shared how he had followed my career and was encouraged by what I had done with my life. I got to thank him for his influence on me.
Without a doubt, my life has been impacted by many people. But Al Klatt, intervening at a critical time, made a big impact and influenced my life’s vocation. I’ve never forgotten.
This is why I’m still so passionate about UrbanPromise. We find caring adults, who connect with kids, and ask them to shepherd, guide and love young people through their turbulent years. And it still works!
So as this year comes to a close, please think of those who impacted your life—and help the UrbanPromise team continue this vital work.
A wonderful 2020!
Founder & President
PS. Was there a person who made a difference in your life? I’d love to hear about it. Perhaps you can call and thank them!
PSS. Better still, consider giving a gift in their honor. That would be meaningful!
“Courage unparalleled, opened her utterly.”
-Denise Levertov, ‘Annunciation’
“When you told me about this reality,” shared my friend Colin, “I just had to do something.”
Two years ago I was invited to a speaking engagement in Toronto, Canada. The church put my wife and I up at a local hotel for a couple of nights. The first morning we noticed 20-30 children streaming off the elevators and shuttled into a back room. Curious, I followed the group, only to discover that the hotel was hosting about 100 refugee families from numerous African countries—some had been living in the hotel for over 6 months. Evidently the children were bored and didn’t have much to do.
I shared my observation with a dear friend from Toronto named Colin McArtney. Colin decided to act by mobilizing a handful of young Christian leaders to care for these forgotten kids.
“I’m now doing youth programs for refugees in various hotels around the city,” he continued. “We just hosted a series of Christmas parties for over 800 children. Look what you started!”
What Colin is doing was actually started long before me.....
At the heart of the Christmas story is a young woman—named Mary—who said "Yes" to God. In the words of poet Denise Levertov, Mary displayed “unparalleled courage” which allowed her to say yes to a journey of faith for which she did not know the ending.
Regardless of the uncertainty and potential pain, by saying "Yes" Mary ignited a chain of events which literally birthed God’s mysterious work into the world—that new, creative, beautiful and redemptive work found in the person of Jesus. It all started with a peasant girl opening her heart—utterly—to the spirit of God.
By saying yes to the promptings of God, my friends in Toronto are living the essence of Christmas—and they’re bringing hope and joy to dislocated refugee children trying to find their way in a new and foreign land.
My prayer, for us all, is to be those Christmas people who find the courage to “utterly” open ourselves to God’s spirit—becoming the hands, feet and heart of Christ to those who thirst for hope.
Founder & President