Reconciliation & the Depth of God’s Love

Written By Eric Harmon

If you are like a lot of urban ministers you have probably have an interesting group of people you call friends; former addicts, Nepali refugees, prostitutes, Chinese businessmen, etc… Some of these people are gentle and easy to love and some have their challenges. Often our gatherings are composed of a motley crew all in pursuit of Jesus. This is one of the things I love about being with my South Street family — you can never surprise them with the guest you bring to Thanksgiving dinner!

I have known a guy named Butch for years. He is like a lot of guys I know on the street, sometimes he is homeless, often he is addicted, and usually he is pleasant. Some years ago he was lucid and made an effort to fight his demons. Butch is an unlikely poet with a beautiful voice for singing. But, recently it seems that his mental illness has taken over and he no longer writes or sings. He disappears often, but in time reemerges, he tries to sell me something, I usually decline, and we talk for a while. I hope he starts to write again. Butch was known for his work as a sub-contractor for “Hells Angels” and did a significant amount of time for a series of robberies, one of which where a police officer was killed. He can be a challenge to love and he is my friend.

Reconciliation is a transformative process that is often messy and is a core Christian Community Development Association value. As I have heard John Perkins say before “Reconciliation is much more than getting together singing one another’s songs and eating the other’s food!” But as most of us know reconciliation comes from one on one hard heart work. That takes time, trust, and a reciprocal relationship that is open and vulnerable or what we know as a friendship. Reconciliation is not something one takes on alone. It is certainly impossible to be reconciled to “your neighbor” on your own, improbable “to God”, and difficult “to yourself.” There is a wise African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Reconciliation is a long journey and a friend is a partner in this transformative process.

Thomas Merton, a modern contemplative speaks of the “false self” and the “true self”. The “false self” being the identity of the individual the world has formed within them; addict, murder, loser, loner, etc.   The “true self” being the created self that God intended; beautiful, humble, valued, a child of God. The Body of Christ, a friend, is a guide in overcoming the obstacle of the “false self” embedded within all of us and an aide to rediscover the “true self.” It is messy, ugly, long and truly liberating process to separate what one has done and even who one has become, from who I truly am and who God created me to be. It is a painful process I had to undergo after a tour of duty in Iraq and a two year prison stint, to reveal the red-headed kid from the suburbs who has an impulsive sense of adventure not meant to be used for warfare and crime, but for bringing service in the love of God to some unstable places to some challenging people who were not so unlike myself.

There is an odd verse in Ephesians Chapter four where Paul describes Jesus’ ascension and descention. He ascended that he might also descend and took “captivity itself a captive” and “gave gifts to his people.” I am sure there is some commentary on this that presents a different meaning however, I take this to mean that after the cross even captivity is under the dominion of Christ, so that even the captors (the traditional enemies of God and the oppressed) now have the opportunity to be set free from that which captivates them. This is of course not just for their own redemption, but so that they may participate in liberating others held in bondage (gifts). These gifts are for us, the Body of Christ, the friends of “sinners”, to guide us in the process of reconciliation. It is here we empowered with the audacity to love and hope for some truly challenging people.

This sounds like some nice stuff to give some hope to some challenging people, so maybe they will feel a little better and move along. I wouldn’t believe it myself, however I have seen it work. I have seen the sex offender reconcile, get a job, a house, a nice wife, and become a respected member of the church and his community. I have seen the negligent mom lose her kids for good and after years of transformation in process have the courts grant her custody of children that needed a mom. I have seen the violent offender reconcile, overcome that which disturbed him and once healed, turn around and dedicate his service to justice. I don’t see it as often as I like, but by the grace of God I see it enough to have hope for the next guy.

A Day in the Life

“Do you have a rice cooker you could bring over?” I’m on the phone with my 15-year-old neighbor Julie as I walk through the aisles of the grocery store looking for curry powder.

“Yeah we do. I’ll check with my mom and see if it’s okay!” she replies.

I grab the curry powder. It’s $4.99—unexpectedly high.

“Sweet. If not it’s totally cool it would just be a huge help tonight. I’ll be home in 15 minutes; come on over then!”

We hang up and I fumble through the remaining aisles finding the ingredients that I couldn’t get in the grocery store in our Summit Lake neighborhood. Standing in line, I’m hit with a wave of fatigue—what a day to be battling a sinus infection. The rest of the day I had been taking it easy, but it seems like now I’d have to kick the adrenaline up a notch. Our South Street Ministries AfterSchool volunteer celebration dinner is less than two hours away and I’m hosting at the Long Street house. This is no time to be consumed by fatigue.

I’m finally pulling into my driveway and Julie is coming around the porch with a rice cooker nestled in her arm. Though I’m tired, I find myself genuinely smiling at her. I’m excited to spend time cooking together. We walk in and find a handful of kids hanging around the common spaces—they needed help with their homework and didn’t realize AfterSchool was over for the holidays so they came to our house. I giggle as I haul the grocery bags to the kitchen; something about that strikes me as beautiful. I can’t quite name it in the moment.

Julie and I look at the recipes to get started for the AfterSchool volunteer celebration dinner. She asks me what is on the menu, and I just laugh—the menu was a typical Amber moment. In my stubbornness to constantly immerse myself (and others) into new cultural experiences, we ended up with a Fijian/Hawaiian/Chinese/Southern/potentially Indian infused cuisine experience. I didn’t realize until all the ingredients were on the table that the menu in all ways looked and felt entirely ridiculous and random. We were in for an eclectic and delightful meal celebration.

“This is how you tell if you have enough water for the rice without using the cup.” Julie shows me how to measure with my finger, and I nod and take note. As I’m listening to her the kids are filling the common spaces with drums and percussion instruments, pianos and laughter. I giggle and my heart is full. I am in my home, cooking a feast alongside my neighbor and friend, and kids are doing homework and playing the drums, and my heart is full.

Soon Z comes into the kitchen and wants to help. I look at her face, so curious and eager to learn. I set her up in helping create the salad by cutting lettuce, celery, carrots. Young Shawn wants to help, too, so we set him up in peeling carrots. They both go to AfterSchool, and deep inside I find beauty in how they’re helping make the meal that will be served to volunteers who have extended their time to serve them. They’re so excited to be of help, Shawn asking if he’s shredding the carrots right and Z is chopping lettuce confident and sure on the counter top.

Ava’s head pops into the kitchen: “Can I help in any way?” I glance at the clock and see that we’ve got five minutes until the event starts and soon set her up with dicing cilantro and scallions. I had been adamant that AfterSchool volunteers not help but only receive during this celebration, but with five minutes to go I throw that rule out of the window and welcome any help. Many hands enter during this time—volunteers, kids, staff—as everyone pulls together the final preparations for the meal.

We’re standing in a circle, kids, staff members, and volunteers alike, and we pray to open the feast of celebration and thanksgiving. Upon hearing the “Amen,” I raise my eyes to the small group. “So…we’ve got quite the meal ahead of us. We’ve got edamame with Thai sweet chili sauce as an appetizer, or pupu. There’s gifted bread from Panera, and a light Chinese salad with rice noodles. We’ve got rice as a base, and glazed chicken curry and Fijian beef stew as main courses. Betsy has gifted a cheesecake dessert. We’ve got sparkling white and red grape juices to drink, and water with sliced oranges. Eat up, friends. Let’s celebrate.”

* * *

An hour later, I find myself standing in the corner at the end of the night, taking it all in. I find myself thinking about our eclectic, culturally sporadic meal, and how it didn’t make much sense together, but it was good. Looking around at the laughing faces and conversation, I come to a realization that this was the perfect kind meal for this group—a group that is sporadic, coming from many different places, but comes together and it is good.

“Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday dear Bob

Happy Birthday to you.”

We’re laughing because the ceiling fan blew out the candles but Bob is rolling with the punches and is laughing, red in the face and caught so off guard. We’re celebrating one another, we’re celebrating Bob, we’re celebrating the kids, we’re celebrating a semester of AfterSchool—we’re just celebrating. After a semester of AfterSchool that during some days was difficult, to celebrate together was a gift.

Sometimes I’m struck with the richness of life. Today was one of those days. On the outside it was so simple—a cooked meal, a shared meal. But on the inside it was a day full of rich moments, of borrowed rice cookers and little hands helping, of hospitality and thanks, of an improv birthday cake and a jacket gifted. On days like these I experience the lines and edges blurring with the reality of the life I’ve chosen, where neighbor is friend, where volunteers become companions, where kids are helpers and leaders, where housemates and co-workers are family—we are all in active community with one another. We really are a rag tag bunch of unlikely partners—volunteers and kids, neighbors and staff—but we are partners in community nevertheless.

As I’m involved in work where I’m actively stepping towards pain, lament, and brokenness, Advent is the longing in my soul that aches for the becoming of a world such as this—a world of wholeness, of healing, of harmony. It is in days like these where I taste the Messiah, Jesus, who knows the pain of all intimately, and in compassion and incredible power makes all things Well—both in our individual lives and on a collective, societal scale.

Sangiam stopped in at the end of the night and in excitement brought up the idea of a house gift exchange between her family and ours at Long Street.

A gift exchange, neighbor to neighbor. The thought was so delightful that joy escaped me in a boisterous laugh.

The celebration continues.

A Life Remembered

A South Street volunteer passed away this month. I received an e-mail with his obituary from his wife, now widow.

George Cull, 84, was a Christ Community Chapel member who, along with his wife Sandy, would open up their Peninsula home and pool to the youth of South Street every other Friday throughout the summer. The kids called him Gramps and his family embodied a deep ministry of hospitality.  The Culls made our kids feel welcomed, made sure they had swimsuits and towels, paid for a lifeguard to be present, and made lunch for our swimmers.

George passed in his sleep this past week. His wife inquired about donating his clothes to South Street and insisted that the kids still come to swimming today (Friday July 17th) because “that is what George would have wanted.” His calling hours are tomorrow from 10 to 1.

A few staff and friends of South Street will attend the calling hours tomorrow. The Culls modeled a powerful ministry of hospitality that the Church can celebrate and learn from. Many volunteers come to South Street for a season — a much smaller group invites the world of South Street into their homes.

As our kids make cards to encourage the family, the love of Christ that was shared through this family is evidenced. Gramps will be missed, but his was a life filled with the love of God.

A love that invited neighbors and friends into his home.

 

 

Walking Humbly

“It takes a long time to get right,” she said as their prayer meeting concluded. She spoke of her past, of alcoholism and abuse. She spoke today from a place of strength, but the hard realities of the past still brought tears to her eyes as she shared.

And she’s right. It DOES take a long time to get right. Growing up evangelical, I learned that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). As a child at my church and young in my faith, I understood sin to be bad things I did and death to be essentially death and hell.

Now as an adult, I see sin and it’s respective wages more broadly. Sin still is the bad things I do, but also the wrong thoughts I entertain, the brokenness I hold into within myself, the broken systems I (we) adhere to, and the fallenness of the world around us.

With such a broad scope, it does take a long time to get right. I think of friends who strive to walk rightly now, but carry in their bodies the physical ailments of years of drugs usage. I think of restored citizens, coming out of prison systems and having paid for their crimes, but not sure how to actually use an e-mail; missing that technology during their incarceration. I think of brothers and sisters in faith paying child support for children that are now adults.

There are lots of wages for walking foolishly.

And yet how honorable is it to see men and women strive to do what’s right! One of the deepest joys of the South Street family is seeing people walk rightly, seeing them become their fullest selves in Christ!

One such person is our Youth Director Bob IIMG_1137rwin. Bob is the first in his family to graduate high school. He has helped lead our After School and Summer Camp programs for over 5 years. He is quick to volunteer his time and in simple yet consistent ways seeks out God’s good in his life.

In Bob’s time at South Street he has ran his first 5k, fasted from pop/soda, and recently posted this on facebook:

Running for me has been an incredible journey. It has been a journey that many of you have been on with me. And like most journeys it has felt like a roller coaster ride. With ups and downs, twist and turns, and maybe even a loopy loop or two thrown in there. God first started me on this ride by simply going on a hike last summer with a friend at the gorge here in Akron. A place that until then i have never been to before. I lived most my adult life here in Akron but never been there before then. To make a long story short, when i first started running i hated it and hated life! Then i kind of started to enjoy it! My back still hurts but i kind of liked it. I ran a couple 5ks and a 4 mile and a 10k. And i have a 8k this saturday that i am going to attempt with a big goal of a half marathon in September. I am right mow climbing out of the valley the low point with running i haven’t done it at all since may 31st. Granted thats not forever ago but i lose stuff very fast with this. My point in sharing this was to tell you all about the intimacy with God that i have found by running and pushing myself past what i think i can do. Now to be honest am i going to immediately put down the burger and pick up a tofu burger? HECKS NAW!!! But i have to remember whats is the goal? Is it really to drop some LBS? Or is it to be as close to God as possible? If i do shed a few thats great! But i have to remember God is the most important relationships ever! And so if but doing something as crazy as running or whatever gets you as intimate with God thats what we have to do no matter how foolish we may look or anything. And as with me and running there will be good times and bad times times we feel we can fly and times we feel we are going to drown! Just remember whatever we do do it for God glory!

For me walking humbly is meeting men like Bob, and the woman who shared of her brokenness where they are at, celebrating God’s love in their lives, and then watching the transformation over time as the wages of sin are exchanged for the gift of life, today and forever.

Simply

 

Bikes, Cops, & Kids


For me, summer means one thing: Bike Shop at South Street Ministries. Bike Shop was my first step into south Street Ministries over a decade ago through my Eagle Scout Project. (South Street has had a long and treasured connection to the Boy Scouts). Years later, when I returned to Akron, Bike Shop was the first program I began to volunteer with, and when I started on staff with South Street, I found that the Bike Shop program was (and still is) grant-writing gold.

The model is simple enough, South Street receives donated bikes. The Bikes are repaired by the neighborhood kids alongside caring, Christian, adult volunteers. The kids receive their bikes when they complete a set number of hours based on their age. So kids learn how to fix and maintain their own bikes AND earn a bike in the process.

At least that is the theory. The reality of Bike Shop follows the above model, with the appearance of organized chaos, 25+ kids working on bike simultaneously asking for help, and the occasional theft or fight. I remember one stressful night a few years ago when a neighborhood skirmish passed through the bike shop. We had to close the program early and call the police. By the time they arrived the squabble had moved elsewhere, but quite a few kids were upset that the few ruined the night for the many.

We had the police at Bike Shop last night too. Although they arrived on time and came to help with the program. Three Akron Police Department Officers in uniform spent their Monday night fixing chains, repairing flat-tires, and talking with kids. Generally at Bike Shop, kids come to me with concerns and repairs, I then have to direct them to one of the other adults present for help. A young girl (13) asked me for help with her chain and I pointed her to one of the officers who had a moment of downtime, she paused, so I walked over and introduced her, and they proceeded to repair her bike together.

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I write the above narrative very aware of the black and blue dynamic in our country. I am not simplistically absolving the heinous acts of some officers of the law in light of the good done by many. Nor am I writing a fluff piece to puff up the perception of the APD. I write to share a witness to what God is doing at South Street and why I value it deeply:

  • Unlikely Partners — Within South Street’s mission is the idea of Unlikely Partners people from different worlds coming together to work towards advancing God’s Kingdom. Last night at Bike Shop represented that dynamic to me. There was a myriad of community leaders coming together to help kids repair bikes and talk with them throughout their time together.
  • Akron’s Finest — Remember that term? As I have talked with police officers about some of the nation-wide dynamics around policing and #blacklivesmatter, one of the consistent themes I hear from them is the lament over the loss of the prestige of the position. ‘Being a cop used to mean something…’ I hear them say. I saw Akron’s finest last night. Three were cops. Two were neighborhood mothers checking out a new program. 4 0r 5 were South Street volunteers from around the greater Akron area. 2 were neighborhood kids stepping into leadership at South Street for the summer. And 25 were some of the finest, funniest, best kids I know.
  • Walking Humbly — There are needed conversations in this country — How and why and who we police? What a return to community policing looks like? The definitions of protecting and serving? All centered around dynamics of race and class. I am not submitting this blog as one of those conversations, but I will say this — what I appreciated about the officers at Bike Shop last night was their service. They came and fixed bikes. They didn’t patrol the site to make sure kids weren’t stealing. They left discipline issues to be handled by the staff. They were humble in their presence at Bike Shop. The verse Micah 6:8 has become a tagline for many churches concerning issues of justice. I would encourage folks to learn from the last stanza ‘walking humbly with your God.’  Humility has served me very well as I approach these very conversations with neighbors, leaders, friends, civic officials, and others.

Grace & Peace