Beyond Volunteering: Holy Friendships


Summer is here and we need helpers at South Street. We need servants to help repair and build bikes. We need friends to garden with children. We need leaders to serve at Summer Camp. We need neighbors and friends committed to mentoring, Christ-centered relationships with neighborhood youths.

Every committed partner at South Street has tales of the blessings and hardships of relationships. Stories of kids that have fallen away, then returned. Testimonies of children who grow into Christ-seeking young men and women. Lamentations over the hardships that some teenagers face on a daily basis. This relational closeness is blessing; it becomes friendship. It is the core of why we do what we do at South Street.

Jesus told it to his disciples on the night of the Last Supper, "I call you friends." That is the end-goal of bike shop, gardens, and summer camp: Holy Friendships. And friendships take time.

There is a dangerous trend amongst Christian groups (youth, college, and adult): it is the 'Volunteer Experience.' Groups come for a day or a week to serve. This service trip is stated as serving the kids or organization, but truly is for the benefit of the visiting group. Groups come to fulfill volunteer hours, to experience life differently, to feel good about themselves, or because their pastors tell them to.

They are friendly, but not friends.

And this is my upbringing. I am the product of mission trips, volunteer hours, and days of service. And at South Street we are implicit in this system at times, because everyone starts from some degree of selfish motivations. But as Christ welcomes us into friendship, we have to grow roots. We have to commit to people. We have to be known.

This will take more than a week. That is one of the reasons why I ask our servants and friends to commit to being present at South Street over the summer. Relationships take time. Community development requires commitment and presence.

We all start from somewhere, but as we grow as Christians, we must move towards Holy Friendships. You're invited this summer into a friendship. Come to South Street and help build bikes, tend gardens, and teach kids. Continue at South Street as an unlikely partner and friend working together to welcome in God's Coming Kingdom, this Beloved Community full of Holy Friendships.

A Third Grader Cries at After School

I have made many kids cry at South Street's after school program: a snack withheld, a punishment given, or kids from broken homes having a hard day. This time was different.

A group of students from the University of Akron was hosting a career day for some of our kids, a great opportunity for our kids to experience a college setting and to inspire them to believe in their futures. To facilitate the event, we opted to take a select group of third, fourth, and fifth graders.

I passed out permission slips to the selected children. One young third grader asked if her second grade sister could go as well. I told her no, to be fair (and to not have a crazy field trip) I was only taking 3rd-5th graders. She began to cry. She wanted to go, but she wanted her sister to come too.

She wasn't doing a power-play or being manipulative. She hadn't done anything wrong that I was punishing her for. She was crying because she genuinely loved her sister. She was a child processing a challenging emotion.

What was striking about this incident was how it moved me. Jesus often talks about how the Kingdom of God comes through children. He reminds his disciples to become like children. After 10 weeks of After-School, a stressful season of fundraising for the Front Porch, violence and shootings in Akron, the normal toils of life and work in ministry, and explosions at the Boston Marathon, this girl's simple love for her sister moved me. It reminded me of the pure love of God. It reminded me why we do the work we do.

In my adult world of grants and community development strategies, it is easy to lose focus, to consume myself with the details of ministry and lose the heart of God. I was reminded of something I tell my volunteers often: Be consistent in ethic and consistent in love. My ethic had been consistent (only 3rd -5th graders…experience has taught me to adhere to these guidelines), but my love had waned. I had forgotten to do all things with the love of Christ.

This 3rd grade girl reminded me. Her sister still is not able to come to our field trip (otherwise I have to let all of the 2nd graders go!), but I am able to take these children with a renewed sense of hope and love.

A Prayer, a cane, and a crutch

There is a way to read the Bible that makes the words come alive: it is a disciplined walk of focused reading coupled with a life of ministry. This way is not always enjoyable, at times the deep depression and discouragement of David's Psalms are felt and embodied. Other times, Paul's apostle hardships and sufferings are experienced and enacted in the most unlikeliest of situations. At South Street Ministries the joys and hardships of Scripture are rewritten on the lives of our ministers and neighbors. Here are a few fresh stories of faith and word:

Crutches, Canes, & Prayers

There is a woman who attends the South Street fellowship that has four legs. Her two hobbled natural legs are bent and malformed, so she walks with a crutch and a cane. Every Sunday she hobbles into church to help with the few children who attend Sunday School. I believe she is the embodiment of the I Timothy widow:

No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord's people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds." (I Tim. 5: 9-10)

This woman cares so deeply and prays so often. There was one girl who attended for a time, a pre-teen on the cusp of adolescence with a fiery attitude and resilient spirit. She signed up to be a Girl Scout. The girl's home life was unstable and she was no longer able to attend. The woman prayed. Weekly she would ask about this young girl and with tearful prayers for the girl's future. Few of us pray as fervently as she.

Time passed. The likelihood of this girl returning to program diminished. Her smile and silver-tongue were forgotten by many, myself included. But not the woman. She continued to pray, continued to ask, and continued to weep. Those deep prayers are powerful.

Time passes. The girl's brother comes to Open Gym. Life has stabilized enough to reach out, but will this teenage girl with hormones and cell phone be interested in the Girl Scouts? As snow picks up, I stand outside this teenager's house, dropping off her brother. The woman's reminders and prayers are on my mind as I ask this teenage girl if she'd still be interested in Girl Scouts. I remind her of the woman and let her know that she remembers her and has been praying for her.

She's still interested. And she'll let me know.

There is no profound healing here. No dramatic life-altering choice. But a life of deep prayer yields fruit. In my world, this teenage girl's interest is a miracle. It is a miracle prepared by the prayers of a faithful woman with four legs.

Gospel Stories

Have you ever read through the Gospels (or the Bible for that matter) and wondered where the details are? So often Jesus' ministry sweeps into a town, performs miracles, changes lives, and continues to the next village all in a matter of a few verses! Sometimes those who are healed are named explicitly, however more often in the Scriptures those who are healed and forgiven are named only by their hardship and transformation:

Jesus cleanses a leper. A man with a withered hand is forgiven and restored. A woman with bleeding is esteemed and healed. Jesus heals a man born blind. And so the Gospels continue, story after story of miracle and change without names, backgrounds, or follow-up. The Gospels present us with glimpses into the most impactful moments of a few lucky individuals who encountered Jesus and leave the remainder of their stories untold.

We live in a world of individual stories and details. Like our Facebook page. Follow someone's Twitter feed. Check in, sign up, post, and Instagram the whole experience. With the artistic exception of Da Vinci's The Last Supper, there are no pictures posted of Jesus' miraculous meals. We have the Gospel stories, but perhaps the stories are not intended to highlight the recipient of Jesus love and power.

As we try to recount the last two months at South Street Ministries, a multitude of stories comes to mind. Young boys share their feelings and express what they think it means to be a man of God. A former fighter with anger issues prays for peace (and finds employment)! A woman wrestles with her sobriety, the community around her supports her through prayer and presence. Youth come daily to after school to a place of love and peace (and education).

The stories do not need names. The central character is consistent throughout them all: Jesus. The situations and characters change, but the theme stays the same: God changes lives. The last two months at South Street have felt like the Gospels: sinners repenting, lives changing, disciples following Jesus. The stories do not need details or follow-up. God is the main character, and the Spirit of God is moving.

Please continue to pray for South Street Ministries. God has been doing great things here (the Front Porch, After School, Open Gym, and all the Kingdom relationships that overflow from those programs and places). Pray that we can continue to live like the Gospel stories, and that Jesus Christ will continue to be a central character in the story of South Street Ministries.

New Year, New Friend

We share an outlet at the Front Porch. Everyday I come in to work, she comes in to occupy her time and download music for friends. As we plug our laptops in, we banter about the weather and joke about some of the Front Porch regulars. I have made a new friend.

Every week there are 8 recovery meetings at the Front Porch. I always count it as a deep blessing when I am able to listen in on the meetings, as men and women share their struggles, successes, and steps towards recovery. My new friend attends as many meetings as she can.

She shares her story at the meeting today. She shared how the holidays were challenging for her, bringing up memories and realities of her broken family. She knew where her boyfriend's spare bottles where, and a small sip would do so much to alleviate the pain.

She didn't drink, but called her sponsor. She shared how he helped her and that she spent the rest of the day at the Front Porch Café. It was a welcomed respite from the chaos of home and she appreciated the friends she had at the Café. She thanked me at the meeting for keeping the place open throughout Christmas and the New Year and reminded us that we just don't know how many people this place touches.

I'm always humbled by this. I know that it is not my machinations, Duane's charisma, nor Lisa's attention to detail that make South Street and the Front Porch is the place it is. It is by God's Spirit, His Presence here. I count it as a blessing when I get to watch the mustard seed grow. When a woman can come to the Front Porch to stay sober. When men can connect to just housing. Where kids are given the space to enjoy childhood.

And as I prepare for this upcoming year with budgets and organizational goals, the closing prayer of that Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and the voice of a new friend remind me how to pray and plan:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.