Posts tagged ‘urban ministry’

World Refugee Day – Staying attentive

Yesterday was World Refugee Day, an internationally designated remembrance of the story of forcefully displaced people around the globe. In 2001, UNHCR set aside June 20th to help us reframe the conversation and take time out to reflect. Yesterday, cultural dances, songs, and bazaars filled city centers around the US as people took time to remember the journey of those who have been resettled and millions still stuck in limbo.
I didn’t go to any of the big celebrations this year but I found my way into an unassuming 6 unit apartment building where my family hung out with a Bhutanese-Nepali family who has been in the country just shy of 3 years. It is only the second time I had been in their home but I found everyone there to be most welcoming. Uncle opened the door and we had never met. He was deaf and unable to speak so the blind guy talking to the deaf guy was miraculous to say the least. Why do these things constantly happen to me? I had Charity get out the phone and show him some pictures and uncle had a grand time playing with Amos throughout our visit.
I have been teaching the eldest son in the family English for about a year now and know him well. Because of that foundation, the relatives were pretty cool with entertaining us yesterday. The father of the home eventually got home and we began discussing life, America, and our past journeys. He was speaking broken English with me and I was encouraging him to speak when his wife walked into the room and said in Nepali, “What are you doing? He knows Nepali.” I interjected and said this was a good opportunity for him to practice his English. Laughter followed.
As we chatted, father became much more comfortable with me and his thoughts went back to Bhutan. Without any prodding or encouragement, he began to share about Bhutan and his siblings that remained there. They somehow stayed during the ousting and remain there to this day. Father said he was 26 when he left and we discussed the farming lifestyle that is true for most people in the country, contrasting that with the urban life he has come to know in Pittsburgh. At one point father said, “We left and we had nothing. No citizenship. No green card. Nothing.” I said in disgust, “They only gave you a red card.” Now the conversation was fully in Nepali as father was very comfortable with me. “Well once we got to the camp in Nepal, we got a rice card. Maybe the rice card was the good card we had.” We both about fell over laughing as one of the only things you can do when reflecting on the crazy situation is to reflect and chuckle at the pain.
By the end of the conversation, I learned that the man sitting across from me was extremely sharp. He spoke broken English as we first started the conversation and to some it would have been assumed that he may not have a good handle on what is going on in our country or the world. Quite the contrary, he knew the political situations of Bhutan, Nepal, and the United States very well. This guy has had to navigate three very different systems in three countries. Three countries. Three systems. Three lives. He knew them all. He knew what was fair and what was not in the US. His last day at his first job in the country will be today and he will start another job on Friday that will hopefully be a step up.
I asked father about how safe he felt in his apartment complex and he did not give me real strong affirmation in that direction. He simply said, “We have to stay busy and mind our own business and we will be fine.” Again, cultural knowledge that is completely contradictory of all he has known has been learned an applied.
“We have to stay busy and mind our own business and we will be fine.” What a sobering testimony. I was likely the first American that father was able to tell his story to. We find, over and over again, that for anyone who grew up in Bhutan, they simply want to reflect. They simply want someone, anyone really, who could possibly understand. And maybe that person may never understand but the generation of former Bhutanese refugees who clearly remember their exit from Bhutan 27 years ago simply want their story to be heard. Their kids have often grown weary from listening and can’t relate. So on World Refugee Day, I can’t think of a better thing than to sit. To listen. To reflect. And the whole rice card comment was definitely worth the visit.
The story of Jesus undoubtedly intersects with this story. Jesus was a refugee. He was unwanted. In His humility though, He laid His life down, served, and gave His life so all would live again. I can’t help but to think that God the Spirit too longs for His story to be heard – a story of grace, acceptance, and redemption. I’m eager in the coming days to tell this story with father and his family.

Phone calls on your day off reframe things

I just got off the phone with a dear friend who has been doing urban work for nearly three decades. For both of us, it was our off day and we were sitting around the house sipping coffee, unwinding from pretty busy weekends of ministry. I called to ask Nancy a bit about developing ministry in the city and the tension that I’ve been feeling between building relationships versus starting ministry programs. Three or four days a week, Charity and I end up visiting families in the neighborhood, deepening trust and friendship. Many of those days visitors pop in at our house at random times keeping us pretty well surrounded by continuous relationship building.
During our call I was venting a bit on how to best establish collaborative ministry amongst different groups, how to get people to work well together, how long to wait to pull the trigger on larger ministry projects and Nancy reminded me that sometimes sitting on the porch and chatting with neighbors is the most strategic and necessary thing we could possibly be doing with our time. We have all seen ministries that charge ahead with program after program but in the end are left wondering how deep-rooted relationships slipped from their grasp. The tension of walking between both of those worlds is real.
My weekends find me teaching four different groups of students with initiatives ranging from Sunday school, to youth group, to conversational English. We have some very big projects in the planning phase and these are the sorts of things donors and people on the outside get excited about. But man, it is really us showing up at neighbors houses in the evening and staying for 2-3 hours at a time that brings the most joy, encouragement, and energy to our neighbors. Sometimes the best thing we can do in ministry is to block out all the noise, block out the need to be recognized by those from the outside, block out the buzz that comes from the intoxication of power and ministry success evidenced by big donations and fancy programs. Thinking through what those all around us really need or want are questions I never want to pass over.
We’ve planted churches, started community centers, run ESL programs – all of those are extremely necessary in urban work. I’m not against those things, especially the establishment of local multiplying churches. But, our neighborhoods will probably survive without those programs. I’m not sure our neighborhood will survive though without friendship rooted in the beauty of the Gospel. Without relationships, there is simply no foundation for anything else we say or do.
I’m wondering today if start-up ministries and churches should advise a much more extensive requirement on building relationships before rushing into anything else they do in ministry. The complaints I have often heard are that mission donors and churches are expecting results, more bang for their buck so we need to start initiatives quickly. I can’t say how representative that is or if that pressure is real but if relational focus is short-circuited, what will really come in the long run?
So today I rest. I rest in Jesus and His friendship in my life. I will start afresh tomorrow to again continue to deepen trust and relationship with those around me. Sometimes a phone call on your off day reframes things and the pieces come together. Thankful for this Monday of rest.

17 Years of Marriage and Mission Together 

Today marks the day 17 years ago when Charity walked down an aisle at a small South Dakotan church and agreed to marry me. What on earth was she thinking? We both knew we were kind of signing up for a life of unknowns and we took things in stride. A missionary call. A college education to finish. Failing eyesight that would lead to blindness. Zero experience in marriage, ministry, or education. We bit the bullet and went for it.
These last 17 years have taken us to Savannah, GA, the Philippines, Northern Mariana Islands, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nepal, and Pittsburgh. Some transitions were planned. Most were not. The strand that runs through all of these years is God’s faithfulness to us and our attempts to really hear His voice and follow Him wherever He leads us. As we have gotten older pioneering new ministry and starting over in each context gets a little tougher. There are days we sort of wish we were not pioneers and God would ask us to roll into town with a nice and tidy established ministry where we wouldn’t have to make things up as we go. To date, we have never been given that assignment so we did our heels in the ground and do the best with what we have been given.
Charity has taught me what it really means to thrive in situations that are less than ideal. I remember several years ago when we lived in Minneapolis and she went to a library alone. We lived in a rough patch and some guy started yelling at her and chasing her as she approached her car. She jumped in the driver’s seat and sped away. Once she found out she was pregnant in Nepal, it was never a question of whether she would have Amos in Nepal under Nepali doctor supervision. She has watched me go full circle with my eyesight. We met and I was extremely independent, showing few signs that my vision was fading fast. The disease sucked my sight away and Charity got the brunt of my frustration, demands to complete tasks, and a bantering of excuses on why I couldn’t do things. She never suggested I get help, go to blindness training school, or anything of the sort. From independence, to dependence back to independence again – she has never complained once as I’ve made those adaptations to sight loss. She continues to thrive in less than good circumstances.
Somehow, this marriage though, has produced something in us that pushes us to do things that we would not be capable of without each other. Christ plus each other allows us to play at a level that seems impossible at times. So I go to blindness training school and obtain the independence I need. We transition in ministry and start over. We learn Nepali or move into dangerous neighborhoods because it is the most Kingdom-centered thing to do. We apologize to each other all the time. We tell each other how much we love one another every day. And man, sometimes it still doesn’t feel like that is enough. You question if you are normal, if you’ve made the right decision. . . . you even question if you drive your spouse absolutely crazy or if he/she could do better. This is the vicious cycle and tension of loving and living together in marriage in an urban ministry context.
So here we are today, 17 years in, starting afresh. We have both learned so much and are thankful for the sacrifices that we try to make for one another. This girl’s laugh is contagious. Her smile lights up the room. Her smart and sarcastic comments are way funnier than mine because they are so infrequent. Her insecurities and struggles – all of these things have made the last 17 years the most Godward journey I could have ever imagined. Often not easy, sometimes not fun, occasionally downright painful. But day in and day out Charity shows me what it means to love. She shows me what it means to serve Christ in the city. She teaches me how to raise this boy in the midst of people’s lives changing dramatically all around us.
So if you have someone out there who has lived in 4 different countries, walked with their spouse through blindness, learned another language, lived in pretty dangerous places for the sake of Christ, opened up their home night and day, taken the back seat to allow others to have more prominent roles in ministry, constantly been questioned on her devotion to ministry or Nepali language skills because she is not as charismatic as me, always sending text or encouragement to those going through tough times, is stunningly beautiful, can throw everyone off by her sarcastic humor, or surprise you by her unexpected tenacity. . . . if you find someone like that, you better not mess anything up.
Cheers to these 17 years of marriage and mission. We be having a party today! Good food, time together, and grandpa to take the boy for a while. Thanks for being part of the journey with us.

Raising and Educating Your Kids in the City 

Charity and I have been involved in cross-cultural ministry for about 13 ½ years now. We have lived in the city, a rural village, and on a tropical island. We have lived in places where it is so cold that your spit freezes as soon as it hits the ground and we have worn tank tops, sandals, and shorts year ‘round. Seeing the world from several angles and worldviews gives you a perspective that can never be taken away. Some neighborhoods where we’ve lived were dominantly Muslim, others dominantly Hindu, while another was Catholic mixed with a lot of spiritism. We are all different and everyone around the world chooses a certain pathway for their family and often they have the best intentions; they are leading out of the worldview and values they hold most important to them.
Most of our adult life has been in the city. Charity was once chased into a car by a guy demanding her to stop (he was calling from about half a block away) wherein she sped away and quickly got the heck out of there. She still really doesn’t know what that guy wanted but she wasn’t going to stay around long enough to find out. I’ve been pick-pocketed a couple times (very nice criminals indeed as I was in a huge crowd in Baguio, Philippines). I’ve had dudes try to start fights with me for accidentally bumping into them as my eyesight faded. One neighborhood we lived in was on Cops one night and I sort of held my head in disgust as one of the notorious high-crime intersections was just a few blocks from our apartment. I could tell you so many more stories of bizarre encounters, bus riding chaos, and danger as life in the city brings so many people together from all walks of life. Public transport and foot travel are much more prevalent and you rub shoulders a lot. 
Contrary to what many may think however that is our family has never really felt scared or threatened or anything of the sort. As we have lived in the city, these places have become our home. We have loved city living far more than most and as we enter into city living yet again in Pittsburgh the feeling is no different. It has been pretty honoring and respectful to have neighbors or cars roll down the window at intersections telling me it is safe to cross. People are looking out for the blind guy most of the time.
This time around though there is a new criticism that has been thrown our way. What about Amos? What about your son? It is usually asked diplomatically but the gist of it is, “Don’t you know you should be thinking about your son? Aren’t you worried about his education? Aren’t you afraid to see him grow up here?” Ironically, our neighborhood is not the inner-city. It is urban but nowhere near as dangerous as some of the other spots where we’ve lived. I also realize that we’re not a target as much as many of my Nepali friends. New immigrants don’t know the laws so well, can’t communicate in English fluently, and are often afraid to go to authorities. So naturally my friend’s perspective around here is altogether different from mine.
But yeah, I get asked these sort of questions at least every 2 or 3 weeks. Most of the time these questions come from Christians who know full well our commitment to serving Jesus in spots that aren’t soccer moms first choice to live. I get asked these questions from friends who don’t share our missionary convictions as well. Interestingly I often feel in the moment that I need to defend myself as a parent as if I’ve made some horrible decision putting my family in the very spot to which God has called us. I don’t feel like the people asking the questions of my decisions often need to defend their choice of neighborhood. Nor should I.
But what about you? Nevermind the people you are trying to help. You have to start thinking about you. You have a family now. Hmmm. 
Charity has been an educator for years. I have a graduate level education and like to think that I’m pretty smart. This boy is being exposed to more culture, global awareness, and difference than we ever were at his age. How many missionary kids have we all met whose education was crap? I am scratching my head to think of too many kids of missionaries who dropped out of high school, got involved in a life of gangs and drugs, or performed in the lower 10 percentile on standardized test. I’m sure there is someone out there but I haven’t met them. So many folks living and working in situations like us have an extremely deep value of education and development but the incubator for that to happen is altogether different from others. Perhaps by living in the city, growing up speaking 2 languages, understanding 2 of everything our kids actually start to get a better education? Perhaps what Amos will learn in growing up in a low-income urban neighborhood far outweighs the best academy up the road? Perhaps his discipleship will blossom as he is surrounded by need and opportunity. My goal here is not to hate on suburban living or anything of the sort but I’m wondering if we can have some respect for one another as parents as we choose to live in neighborhoods that are very different from each other. 
Again, I go back to my assumption that most parents are trying to give their kids what is best for them based upon their worldview and core values. So yeah, our core values happen to be that the city is better than anywhere else. I didn’t say that it is wrong or stupid to live outside the city but we live here because we think it is the best place. I guess we all make decisions that way. I sure hope you don’t live where you live because it was like the third best option. And our family has this crazy value that Christ wants His Kingdom to come to our little neighborhood in south Pittsburgh as it is in heaven. He wants to see Nepalis engaged in our lives and Jesus wants to make himself known in a clear, beautiful way. So we live here. We live with two houses almost touching ours and we walk everywhere. This is the city to which God has called us.
But what about safety? What about education? Aren’t the public schools bad there? I had a Nepali high school senior talk to me about the next neighborhood over (a borough/suburb). He said the public schools here have metal detectors and that the school district there does not. He said they will never, ever need metal detectors because nothing bad will ever happen there. Really? That is quite a claim. That high school is about 10 minutes or less from my house. Somewhere along the way my community has surrounded around this young Nepali Christian and told him that the next borough over is bliss and where he lives is a pile of something something. Our kid is not even 2 years old and we’ll make decisions about education as they come. We’re not going to raise a son who thinks that the schools and teachers in his neighborhood are a bunch of losers who don’t care about anything or anyone. 
There are so many ramifications that produce good and bad education; a lot of them center around money and power. Surprise, surprise. As for safety, I’m just not sure that is a value that we put at the top of our list. Comfort and safety are all things we long for our family to have but I’m just not seeing them bleed out of the pages of Scripture.
So here we are, trying to start this new life in Pittsburgh. Dozens of families already know who we are as we walk around. There is a real sense of community living so close. Maybe before we judge parents decisions we can assume the best in them. What values and worldview do they have? Maybe there are bigger life circumstances or reasons they do what they do. We walk and live out the Gospel and let the chips fall where they may.
If you are living in the city, the suburbs, raising your kid in a village on the mission field, just sent your kid to international boarding school – I choose to see the best in you. I know you want what is best for your kid and have made decisions accordingly. Life is too short to point the finger and expect everyone to be just like us. But just for the record, city living is pretty great. You should move to our block; we’d love to have you over.