On Living in Akron

10 years ago I was a high school senior. I had visited a Christian college in Indiana and was convinced it was God's will for me to go there. I was going to be a Youth Pastor. My mother coerced me to apply to the University of Akron as a back-up plan.

10 years ago I did not want to attend the University of Akron. I did not want to have anything to do with Akron. I wanted to leave this city for something newer, bigger, and better.

That was not the case. The Christian college I had been accepted into proved to be too expensive and I was granted a good scholarship to Akron. My back-up plan was now my life plan.

I cannot tell you when it happened, but my attitude changed as Akron's landscape changed. It wasn't necessarily the construction of a new Student Union, Honors Complex, or the Recreation and Wellness Center. It was necessarily the improvements to downtown: Lockview and Lock 3, Musica, and the other new restaurants that were somehow all new to me. Sometime between changing my major, working at summer camps, and volunteering throughout the city, I fell in love with the city of Akron.

By the end of my collegiate years, I was an avid Akronite. I championed the city whenever possible, recommending the University of Akron to aspiring seniors, promoting local restaurants, and sharing secret Akron locations that I had discovered. Subconsciously, I knew that if I wanted to grow as a leader in the city, I would have to leave it for a time.

So I did. I ventured to Philadelphia, volunteered there, partnered with community organizations, learned about urban theology, wrestled with simplicity in a complex world, and returned to Akron ready to put into practice the many things I had learned. I didn't know it, but God had brought me back to South Street Ministries.

10 years ago, I completed my Eagle Scout project at South Street Ministries. My project helped start South Street's bike shop. I completed my project and sequestered myself at the University of Akron and collegiate life. However after college and after Philly, there I was again at bike shop, now volunteering with the program twice a week to help kids assemble bikes. It was the fruition of my Eagle Scout project years after the project itself.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in Jeremiah 29. The most popular verse in Jeremiah is Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. But that verse isn't my favorite. (actually that verse is often taken out of context – it is a word of hope to a people entering a 70 year period of exile, of being refugees in a land not their own, not simply a kitsch verse to put on graduation cards)

No, my favorite verse in Jeremiah is Jeremiah 29:7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."

This verse has guided my work as an urban developer and advocate at South Street. It has guided my decision to marry and stay in the city. The call to seek the shalom (the peace) and prosperity of Akron has become a dominant theme of my life.

I recently visited the new Bridgestone Firestone site on Main Street. When its construction started I was resentful; the park where I had spent my youth watching fireworks and local parades was becoming an industry site. Upon its completion (and grand opening April 14th) I have a different understanding. I understand the jobs and stability a company bring to the city. I understand the legacy of Firestone in Akron and the importance of its continued presence in the city. I understand urban partnerships, corporate philanthropy, and community development.

I never went to that Christian college, nor did I receive a degree to be a Youth Pastor. However, the city has served as my classroom, seminary, and youth group. And I am a better man for it.

Front Porch Blessings and Woes

We went to the same high school. (Garfield!)

When I was a senior, he was a freshman. I asked if he knew my sisters, but he couldn't recollect them. That doesn't surprise me. I imagine we were on two very different tracks. I took honors courses in preparation for college, he wrestled with anger and most likely spent more time suspended than active in school.

He's still working on his GED.

But today he's working at the Front Porch. The plumbing has backed up and we needed some extra help with deconstruction to access some pipes.

He confided in me yesterday that he was stressed. He had a meeting with his Parole Officer, and was worried he would be sent to a half-way house if his present living situation was found…unsatisfactory.

Two things, stirred within me: compassion and heroism. I felt compassionate for this young man who was striving to do right yet had few venues to succeed. I felt the need to do something good and validate myself as well. A dangerous combination.

In the past, this combination may have resulted in an invitation: come live with me. Move into Bachtel Avenue and we can help you out, but I no longer live on Bachtel. I have moved out in preparation for my wedding and no longer have the right to simply invite transient neighbors into that house. (And my new house was a non-option).

So I prayed.

And prayer was the sum of what I could do. I do recognize that in the grande scheme South Street has pastored, served, esteemed, and connected this young man, however I know that ultimately God changes his life and course. And whether I am able to house this young man or not, God will see him through.

In my quest for validation, prayer becomes secondary. However, God will limit our capacity (or reveal our inadequacy) at times to force us to rely on His power, His hand, His faith.

The same is true of our 15 Year Anniversary on March 9th. Bob Lupton, a 35 year seasoned urban developer. Duane Crabbs, founder of South Street 15 years ago. Ward Councilman. Graphic designers. PR Representatives. Seasoned Neighbors. Akron businessmen and women…

And me. Among so many professionals, veterans, or neighborhood heads, my inadequacies become apparent. My limited capacity revealed. So I pray.

I pray that God blesses South Street for another 15 years and enables me to serve as a leader there.

I pray for South Akron and Summit Lake, that renewal and development (coupled with justice and mercy) will happen here.

I pray for young men like the one above, that God (through His people) will make away for them to work, live, and thrive despite past mistakes.

I pray, and God hears.

Grace and peace

Giving, Receiving, and the space between

HOMELESS ANYTHING WILL HELP GOD BLESS

Excuse me sir, could you lend me $2.85 for a bus ride to Barberton? I got no way to get out there and I gotta pick up this check.

I hate to ask, but could you loan me $10. I get paid this Friday, but I'm out of gas today.

Good evening _________, this is Joe Tucker calling on behalf of South Street Ministries. Thank you for your past donation. We are calling all of our donors at the _____level and asking if they would consider increasing their support to _________.

  • Strategic Goals:
  • 100% giving from non-profit Board of Directors, executive director, and key staff (92% giving was achieved in previous FY)

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

In the past two weeks, I have heard, contemplated, or read the above phrases. In some cases I have been solicited, in others I have contemplated asking others for funding for South Street Ministries as we approach our 15 Year Anniversary (for more information, visit our website www.southstreetministries.org, shameless plug, I know).

It strikes me. The differences and similarities of it all. Men on corners begging for change. Non-profit directors planning strategic funding campaigns (theoretically so we can help the above man on the corner!). I'm also struck by the frequent occurrences wherein Jesus talks about money. The Gospels are full of moneylenders and debtors, stewards and turned tables, perfume purchases, parables, and the poor.

And here am I in the mix of it all. Lending $10 for gas. Writing operational budgets for a growing organization. Hiring men from the neighborhood to open and close the Front Porch. Paying payroll taxes and insurance for South Street. Passing and recognizing the man on the corner, knowing his name, yet giving him nothing.

And therein lies my concern. Money is duplicitous. Is that man really homeless? Does your organization actually help the people you claim to serve? How does that corporation actually use its profits?

Perhaps that is my concern: being known. Moreover, being known and found insufficient:

  • If you actually knew how much I had or spent would you condemn me for being too luxurious and not generous enough?
  • Would I really give to you, if you weren't homeless, but prone to drinking? (Would I give even if you really were homeless without a drinking problem?)
  • Would people give to South Street if our results weren't that quantitatively impressive but we tried our best to love deeply?

I feel like Adam in the Garden of Eden. Only instead of using fig leaves to hide my shame and selfishness, I have a billfold.

Please don't misinterpret this. I fully believe in the work we do at South Street. I try to live selflessly most of the time. But there are (often) times when my selfishness eclipses my generosity. There are times when our ministry walks through more 'failures' than 'successes.'

And I refuse to paint a different picture in order to garner your support.

Over the next month, I will post, plan, pray, and promote our 15 Year Anniversary for South Street Ministries. And the temptation I face is to present the perfect picture of need and performance. To quantify in such a way the work of our ministry so that you are inclined to support us.

It is a temptation I avoid through honesty. I honestly believe in our work. And our work is more about faithfulness than effectiveness. We desire effect, but often times it is not present. Often times men and women relapse, the breadth of the street wins over the narrowness of the Way, volunteer enjoy momentary interactions over lasting relationships.

And the only work we can point to is the quantitatively impossible love. We still love even when the success of redevelopment, recovery, or conversion doesn't take root. We still love when relationships crumble, worshippers argue, and transiency transports our friends to new neighborhoods. We still love even when we don't feel like it anymore.

And I know that this is what Christ ultimately calls us to.

Perhaps we will not be found insufficient after all.

Grace and peace (admist the mess)

Devices and Disguises

"We all have our devices, yours make you look terrible, mine make me look good."

My words as we discussed the Beatitudes at South Street's Sunday fellowship. We were discussing the backwards nature of the Kingdom of God. As we entered into conversation, I knew the place of my own heart: distant and stale. A spiritually lazy week had yielded a short-tempered, selfish version of myself that I knew how to properly disguise.

My disguise of productivity. Before South Street gathered I was working. I cleared the snow off the van and picked up friends and neighbors to come to worship with us. When I arrived at the Front Porch, I set up the sound system, changed the trash bags, set out pastries, made a fresh pot of coffee, and bought Styrofoam cups (so that I wouldn't have to do dishes as well I suppose).

No one was the wiser. My productivity disguise doesn't just blend into most Christian cultures, it thrives there. I answered questions and addressed concerns. I ran the sound for the service. However as Duane began to paraphrase the Beatitudes, discussing the 'goodness' of mourning, or being cursed, or being poor, my productivity facade began to chaff the spirit within.

I sat with friends, some my age, one significantly older who is quite straightforward and has a silver tongue (that is no stranger to the baser words of our discourse). He quickly connected with the Beatitudes. He knew mourning, poverty, and hardship far better than I. He knew times of walking with God and times when his devices mad him far worse off.

"We all have our devices, yours make you look terrible, mine make me look good." I responded. The discussion continued, but the disguise continued. I set up a video to play, drove some folks home, and proceeded home to get some work done.

And I did. And the rush was validating. I finished a flier for South Street's 15 Year anniversary (March 9th!!) and revised the website. For some reason, I decided to visit the Chapel's new service, the Gathering. I had perfected my disguise at the Chapel. I had authentic days and false days, but few were aware. Throughout the hard days I was not blessed, I was disguised.

The service was well attended and youthful. My reputation proceeded me and I was greeted by old and new friends. We worshiped and I sang loudly. I love the sound of my voice.

I stopped singing. My falsehood was intolerable, and the inner spirit once again chaffed against the disguise. The sermon spoke well to my condition and after a good deal of socializing I went out with an old friend and his wife. I had walked with this couple through a great many hardships and their Beatitude blessing was apparent to me.

"We all have our devices, yours make you look terrible, mine make me look good." I thought again.

I headed home, tired from a long day of doing, with little essence of being. My disguise sat on the floor of my truck, stripped off through conversation, conviction, and exhaustion. The hardship with a productivity disguise is that eventually the burden of performance is too much to bare.

I was blessed that day. I was blessed to talk at South Street, to accept a word from friends and neighbors who had no pretense of productivity. I was blessed to worship at the Chapel and recognize the vanity of my own soul. I was blessed to sit at Luigi's and listen to the genuine hardships and pain of friends.

And I am blessed to be rid of that wretched disguise. I am blessed to ask for help instead of always give it. I am blessed to be still and rest.

I Need This

I really hope this post sees the light of day.

I am in a season of incoming. There are lots of things (lots of stuff) that I am acquiring. Over the course of the next year, I will buy and furnish a house. I will receive many gifts from friends who love me dearly. I am in a season of incoming.

And because I am a Christ-follower and because I live in a 'needy' neighborhood, this season has taxed my spirit. There is an unconscious accumulation of stuff that just happens as middle-class Americans. We buy things and receive gifts, and things amass in our basements and attics.

My grandfather passed some time ago and some of his things were passed on to me. My parents recently moved and I inherited their surplus. My birthday is coming up, and friends will buy me stuff. And a season of incoming can easily turn into a long season of having, a lifetime of owning, a culture of needing.

And it is to that sentiment that I now turn: need.

My cell phone does not work that well. It often freezes and has some programming glitches. I recently said, "I need a new cell phone." That is not true. I want a new cell phone, but I do not need a new one. I am quite reckless with that word, as we all are.

Because when I need something it seems all the more justifiable. To need a new (and thus reliable) car, a consistently functional phone, a set of matching plates, or a comfortable couch makes the acquisition of such items all the more palatable and justifiable.

But were I to say the more truthful, but less noble 'want,' my character may be called to question. My selfishness possibly exposed. I want a new cell phone. I want a truck that doesn't have problems with power steering. I want nice cutlery and comfortable furniture.

I have 22 hats in my closet. Twenty-two. At South Street today I wore my 23rd hat and one of the kids who attends took it from my head and put it on. This is an infuriating game the children play for two reasons: one- it leaves my balding head cold, and two- without fail the inner city youth I work with and love inevitably look cooler than me in my own hats.

And when the service ended, the child asked if they could keep my hat.

I need this. Not my 23rd hat, but a consistent presence in my life that reminds of my propensity to acquire and my reluctance to give. I need the twinge of selfishness (because I like that hat) to remind me just how petty and selfish I can be. And I need a community where sharing is normative, where giving and receiving is a beautiful two-way street.

I often receive accolades for my work at South Street. I do not deserve them. I need this ministry, because it ministers to my selfish heart. My neighbors, brothers, and sisters (many with legitimate needs, many others with far more reasonable wants than my own) lead my heart to freedom by taking things off my head.

I am in a season of incoming. But there is a season for everything.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

LORD, grant me the wisdom to know the difference.

Grace & Peace