Whatever is true...whatever is lovely...dwell on these things.
I recently watched a TEDx talk by retired National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones entitled "Celebrate What's Right With the World!"
As a brilliant career photographer, Jones talks about "putting on a lens of celebration"—a lens that intentionally looks for beauty, for goodness, and for the things that are wonderful in the world. Breathtaking photos punctuate his presentation. I'd recommend you listen. Dewitt has got me thinking about being more intentional in choosing and securing this "lens of celebration" that he maintains will fill my soul and help me live more gratefully.
With this on my mind, I was thrilled to read a letter this week from a former UrbanPromise Academy student named Jessica. Her life was transformed by our high school Trekker program.
"Trekkers taught me to find beauty in every situation," she eloquently wrote, "even unfavorable ones."Jessica gushed about paddling a canoe in the Pine Barrens, climbing Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, and kayaking in Maine.
"Being able to walk around the Pine Barrens and smell the scent of the trees and hear noises other than car horns and trains was amazing." For a city kid like Jessica, exposure to nature is a really big deal. It changed her view of the world. It changed her self-perception. It fed her soul.
"When you step away from what's familiar to you, you gain clarity," she philosophized. "I learned to stop and absorb all the good things God has put around me."
It has been 10 years since Jessica graduated from our high school, but her experiences hiking trails, identifying birds, and pitching tents still guide her decisions, shape her faith, and bring meaning to her life. After high school, Jessica graduated from Bloomfield College with a BA in Psychology. She now works for Bancroft NeuroRehab which serves individuals with various developmental and intellectual delays. She hopes to go back for a Masters of Psychology one day and work with young people in Camden.
Jessica is living proof of the work we do at UrbanPromise. Our staff gives Camden's youth more than just an education. We provide skills and experiences that build faith, character, and a deeper understanding of God's purpose for their lives—we help them find that lens of celebration.
The apostle Paul makes a promise to the church in Philippi. Paul assures that if the community of saints is intentional about focusing on truth, beauty, and honorable and praiseworthy things, the "God of peace will be with you."
That's a promise we want for every kid at UrbanPromise. Please keep our UrbanTrekkers trekking by sponsoring an upcoming trip.
May peace be with you.
Dr. Bruce Main
PS. We made a decision 10 years ago that if we wanted to be successful in preparing our students for college and life after UrbanPromise we needed to do school differently – the classroom would be without walls. “Thinking Outside” would become the tag line. Whether paddling a canoe you built with your math teacher on the tidal Cooper River that flows through your city as you learn about the ecology and history of the Delaware River Watershed or hiking the nation’s capitol, visiting Arlington National Cemetery and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum - we would call it school. These experiences are all privately funded - help us to continue to transform the lives of kids by sponsoring our unique and powerful Trekker program.
Fellowship House and UrbanPromise Ministries are excited to announce that these two long-standing, mission-driven organizations, have come to an agreement in principle, that UrbanPromise will continue the Christian mission of Fellowship House in South Camden. As part of this agreement, Fellowship House's facilities will be transferred to UrbanPromise, and UrbanPromise will continue to serve the children and families of the neighborhood in much the same way as Fellowship House has done these past 52 years. We are hopeful to complete the transition by mid-May 2018 and look forward to announcing more details and events at that time Please stay tuned for more information coming soon about Camp Peace at Fellowship House in the summer 2018 – it’s right around the corner!
Usually I look forward to writing about the exciting things happening on our campus in Camden, and sharing stories about the incredible kids we serve here. But I take no pleasure in what I have to share with you today.
As you know, on Valentine’s Day, a lone gunman breached the security of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and ruthlessly killed 17 children and teachers, injuring 14 more.
Like you, I barely can comprehend that this is not only possible but that more than 31 school shootings have occurred in the United Stated in the last 10 years. So many in fact, that this generation of precious children are increasingly referred to as “Generation Massacre” or “Generation Columbine.” The mind reels at the very notion.
So here at UrbanPromise, it’s time to think about the unthinkable.
We need to retrofit and upgrade our buildings to make sure our children are safe and protected every day. Many local public schools in South Jersey have each spent over half a million dollars building vestibules and installing automatically locking doors and cameras.
We don’t have that kind of budget here, but it does not diminish our responsibility to keep our children safe.
I need your help to add some important security features to our buildings.
Because our children already face enough traumatic issues - feeling unprotected at UrbanPromise should not be one of them.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Dr. Bruce Main
P.S. On March 14th, our students will stand in solidarity with high school students across the country during the walkout and will also join a local march on the 24th as we encourage them to contribute their young voices to a national conversation. Two of our students, whose families have been impacted by gun violence have been invited to speak. We are proud of them and we support them.
Ways you can help make our campus more secure!
- Fire extinguishers (20 needed), $47
- Blinds for classroom and sanctuary windows, library and installation (26 needed), $75
- Upgrade door monitoring system for the high school, $1,000
- Door monitor, $9,000
- Youth Wellness Sponsor (or $75/month) - $900
- Staff and volunteer safety training - $12,000
- A gift of any amount!
School safety takes many forms these days. At UrbanPromise, we are going to leave the politics to the politicians and make use of the best tools we can afford. At this time, we don’t have the funds to build elaborate bulletproof vestibules and retrofit all of our buildings with autolock doors, but we can take advantage of the following tools to protect our children:
- Fire extinguishers: the local police department has taught us that a fire extinguisher can be a powerful and effective deterrent to immobilize a threat or stop an attacker.
- Window blinds: blinds on exterior windows and interior blackout shades make it difficult for an intruder to see how many possible victims are inside a room in the hopes that they will keep moving.
- Door monitor with camera and buzz-in feature: if you have visited our campus, you know that you can’t enter our elementary school without being caught on camera at the front door and buzzed in by our staff. We need to upgrade our high school building with the same system.
- Training: our staff and volunteers need to be trained with the most up-to-date lockdown procedures and techniques for handling an intruder. We already conduct regular fire and lockdown drills, but more instruction is needed as we adjust to the continued escalation in the current climate.
- Finally, we want you to know that our most powerful defense against a threat to our children is our incredible staff. With a ratio of about one staff person for each five children, we have a created an atmosphere at UrbanPromise that is caring and vigillent. Operating in Camden, we are already accustomed to keeping a watchful eye on our young people. Every teacher and every staff person, from our directors to our beloved janitor, Duane, knows that the safety of our children is our first priority. I hope you will join us in protecting our kids.
If you'd prefer to mail your donation please send it to: UrbanPromise P.O. Box 1479 Camden, NJ 08105. For more information about making a donation, please contact Toni Farmer, Director of Development at (856) 630-9998 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pam Foxx opened her office door Monday morning and was shocked to discover water pouring from the ceiling and chunks of saturated sheet rock littering her desk.
As our long-time HR Director, Pam's first concern was the personnel files. "I just prayed they weren't damaged," she confided. "That would have been a disaster."
Sadly, UrbanPromise did not escape last week's "Bomb Cyclone" and subfreezing temperatures unscathed.
With a broken furnace in the CamdenForward School, our pipes were vulnerable to the savage cold. They burst. Water gushed overnight, flooding offices and our sixth grade classroom.
The estimate to replace the furnace: $20,000.
One problem: I don't have the finances to fund the project. I didn't budget for this emergency.
That's why I'm reaching out to you today. I know you're concerned that our children and staff have a warm, safe place in which they can learn and work.
- 1 giver at $5,000
- 2 givers at $2,500
- 5 givers at $1,000
- 10 givers at $500
- 10 givers at $250
- 25 givers at $100
Thanks for considering this urgent request! If everyone gives something, I will be able to make that call to the HVAC company today.
In advance, I thank you for your gift.
President & Founder
I returned to UrbanPromise after being away for ten years working on prison reform. For several months prior to starting in June of 2010, I was on cloud nine. I had met David, the love of my life. David was also dedicated to prison reform, and we were planning our move to Camden and our future life together. On his last day at work in California, David was shot in a mall parking lot. He died in an ambulance en route to the hospital during rush hour traffic.
His death went unsolved for six months until two days before Christmas in 2010. His killer tried to collect the reward money, and he was arrested. He was a mentally ill client that David had helped, housed, and equipped to free himself from addiction.
I was inconsolable. In this, my darkest hour, I did not see how I could step into a leadership role at UrbanPromise. How could I bring value to a place and a people in such poverty and pain, as my beloved City of Camden, when I was in so much pain myself?
Family and friends were so kind and patient during this time, but it was so painful to hear their questions about his unsolved murder. It was easier not to talk than to hear speculation about whether or not he was in some way at fault for his death. Yet God gave me moments that let me hold onto hope – a hope that Joy was not permanently dead.
Moments of peace came to me often through scripture, CS Lewis, and a special passage from Kahlil Gibran: "Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."
I did come to UrbanPromise. Here, I began meeting children who had lost their parents and meeting parents and grandparents who had lost loved ones too soon. Three of our kindergartners (now 7th graders) had lost parents.
One mom invited and then drove me to a grief group at a local church. One grandmother would stop by my office to talk to me every morning. She would tell me about losing her husband, how she felt, what she did to heal, and how she got through it little by little.
I can't imagine being anywhere but at UrbanPromise during this time. What a gift to be surrounded by a community of people who understood my sorrow, who brought comfort without judgment, who withstood my tears and loved me through this time of great sadness.
And they are the same people who now—seven years and three children later— who celebrate with me at adoptions, birthday parties, and baptisms. As written in the passage by Gibran, my joy is made greater because of the deepened place that contains it, the place carved out by sorrow. It is thanks to what God does through this beautiful UrbanPromise community of children, parents, staff, and volunteers that I can say -- Yes, I've been blessed, not in spite of, but because of my mourning.
Jodina Hick is our amazing executive director. Jodina heard Tony Campolo's message about making a difference with one's life when she was in high school. This influenced her greatly and led her to pursue a degree at Eastern University, a providential introduction to Bruce Main and a job at UrbanPromise. Jodina is responsible for starting our StreetLeader program and the UrbanPromise Academy during UrbanPromise's first decade. She eventually went on to law school and into prison reform. Jodina is passionate about prison reform and is proud to have helped change egregious laws that impede life after incarceration, including local, state and federal laws. Jodina has three children (8, 8, and 2) and she loves spending time with them, as well as reading, gospel music, British detective shows, and opera.
No one becomes a teacher because he or she thinks it will be boring. Every day in the classroom is exciting no matter what is thrown your way. Some days, you have to be ready for students to be loud and not focused on tasks. This was one of those days.
It was a Monday and my students were still on the ‘weekend grind’ and having difficulty transitioning back into 5th grade mode. As lunch approached, the only thing I was hungry for was the 25 minutes of quiet, a chance to plan how to refocus my class for afternoon instruction.
When our students go to lunch, they cross 36th street, which is an arterial road through the city. I stood in the street as 5th grade and middle school crossed one way and the entire elementary school crossed the other direction back towards school.
Cars became annoyed at the long line of students coming and going from the cafeteria. Waving ‘thank you’ with my hand was not enough to calm the horns from the idling cars. Just as I thought to myself, “Another manic Monday” I felt two hands grab around my waist. I quickly came to and realized a kindergartener named Kennedy had been hugging me. I smiled down at her huge grin and reciprocated with a hug. She looked up at me and said, “ I love my school! I love you, teacher and I never want this moment to end!” Peace quickly passed through my body as I stood in the middle of 36th street being hugged by a kindergartener as students and cars waited. Any anxiety I had about the afternoon washed away with the innocence of the child in that encounter.
Our class ended up having a very productive and positive afternoon. I was so grateful that God was able to show me peace in a hectic situation.
Reflection: Reflect on your week and identify two or three moments where you experienced love from an unexpected person or situation.
About Sarah: This is Sarah's third year teaching 5th at UrbanPromise. Her favorite thing about teaching is working in an environment full of love from students, families, and teachers. Plus the kids always are keeping her on her toes so it's never boring Sarah is also an avid Eagles and Harry Potter fan. Her last meal on earth would be a Chik-fil-A sandwhich and Michelle Obama is her ideal best friend.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. - John 1:14
I was teaching UrbanPromise Academy sophomores about how emotions play out in our bodies when Andrea’s eyes opened wide. She slapped her open hands, palms down, on the black chemistry table then slid her hands toward her, leaving trails of sweat. “This! What does this mean??” She didn’t understand what was happening in her body and that made her afraid and anxious.
Growing up in concentrated urban poverty means too many of our children experience toxically stressful living situations, filled with unpredictability, hunger and exposure to violence. The universal human response to chronic adversity is numbness...because you can’t stuff down bad feelings without pushing down good feelings too. It’s just the way we are wired.
Ours is an incarnational faith. I believe Jesus came in a body for a reason! Our bodies are sacred; and when they are trying to communicate with us, we need to listen. That’s why we focus on teaching about emotions, and empower our youth with mindfulness practices, teaching how to get in touch with their bodies, emotions and thoughts with compassion and without judgment. We learn to look at and to love ourselves through God’s eyes.
By asking Andrea, “What happened to you?", she was able to connect her sweaty palms to her father’s anger towards herself and her mother before school that morning. This realization occurred at UrbanPromise - a loving, safe, predictable and relational environment. A place of healing. This insight helped her know that she wasn’t crazy and lessened her fear about her body. She came to understand that by listening to her body she could gain a sense of control.
This season we celebrate Emmanuel, Christ with us. This incarnate Word points the way to deep healing from the brokenness of this world; brokenness with which our youth are all too familiar. Learning acceptance of what is - in our bodies—opens the door to hope for what can be...lives lived with intention, called to serve the one who was born in a lowly manger.
Reflection: Poet Reiner Maria Rilke writes, “let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” What feeling are you carrying that you would rather not acknowledge? What would happen if you invited Christ into that feeling?”
Rebecca "Becky" Bryan is our amazing Wellness Center Director. She is known for being extremely gullible; she has been enthralled with Helen Keller since grade school, and can even sign the alphabet in stereo (both hands simultaneously). Before coming to UrbanPromise in 2012, she was a nurse practitioner for 20 years in primary care. Becky is currently earning her DNP from Rutgers University-Camden.
I had a student named Hope, and each time we would greet one another I would point my index finger in her direction and say “Hope!” and she would respond “Gotta have it.” Hope—I can’t imagine living without it.
A child is born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. Was there ever a day God gifted us with greater hope? I’d give the resurrection a close second. For Hope is an essential part of Faith. It is the reason to live each day with wild and crazy hopes for tomorrow.
Each day at UrbanPromise ministries throughout the world, we see in the eyes of children and youth, beauty and the endless possibility to fulfill God’s plan for each of us. We see the promise of a better day and a brighter future. I learned this early in my days at UrbanPromise…
She was angry and often miserable…I would wonder why she would sign up for all those Trekker trips in the early days. Was her mission to make me miserable? As I got to know more about her I learned she had been abandoned by her Mother and there was no Father in the picture. She was failing in school, and didn’t seem to even care. She had given up…she was without hope. Yet she kept coming on those Treks.
But in time she began to feel safe and I could see a childlike playfulness emerge…at first, I began a playful tease in return, until she allowed me to get to know her and the challenges in her life. Those Treks took her to places she never imagined and experiences that allowed her to dream of what could be. She graduated from high school and went onto advance vocational education. That was more than ten years ago, we keep in touch for we both owe so much to each other. We gave each other Hope!
A child is born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manager, because there was no room in the inn…and the world changed. May you have a hope filled Christmas!
Peace & Joy,
Director of Experiential Learning
Jim once spent 6 months taking weekly voice lessons so he could sing the Ave Marie in Latin at his nephew’s wedding. He also lived inside a Drive-in movie theater. Jim is better know around UrbanPromise for founding UrbanTrekkers, UrbanPromise’s expeditionary education program. The program provides hands-on learning and journey-based experiences to around 100 youth each year. Please contact Jim if you are interested in booking him for an upcoming wedding.
My eyes have seen your salvation. —Luke 2:30
"Her husband kicked her and the nine children out of his house," shared my friend Peter Kitayimbwa. "She came to me destitute and begging for help."
The situation appeared to be hopeless: a homeless mother, a bunch of kids, no job, no education. She needed immediate help, but Peter was in no position to sustain a family of ten.
"I told her to go find seven other women in the village who wanted to improve their lives," continued my friend, "And I'd give them each a $200 loan to start their own business."
Peter, who just served two years with UrbanPromise Camden in our Fellows program, returned to his native Uganda this past June to bring hope and transformation to his village.
"We found her temporary shelter, she assembled the group of women, received the loan, and bought seed, chickens and goats. Within the last eight months she fed her family, saved her extra income and completed construction on her new home--and it’s bigger than her former husband’s!"
I don't know about you, but my soul is thirsty for hope this Advent season. It is not easy to find. Contentious and deep political and racial divisions, an impending nuclear crisis in North Korea, mass shootings, stories of sexual harassment grab all the headlines and make all of the noise; there is no reason to believe that things will get better. But then I think of Peter. I think of how hope is a gift that God gives ordinary people to share with those who have no hope. People pass hope.
My challenge, these next few weeks, is to search for hope, share hope and celebrate hope. And when I find stories of hope--like my friend Peter’s--I'm going to allow these living testimonies to nourish my soul pass it to others.
Dr. Bruce Main
Founder and President
Have you seen an expression of hope today? How can you "pass hope" on to other people this week?
“There’s no possible way people live on less than a dollar a day,” retorts Masira in disbelief. “I mean, what can a person really eat for a dollar?”
Masira is one of our outstanding 11th graders at the UrbanPromise Academy in Camden. Her world has forever changed because of an unlikely relationship—a friendship with a young Malawian leader name Vanessa Mwangala.
Vanessa is an UrbanPromise Fellow who trains with us in Camden. Her dream is to go back to Malawi next May and create an UrbanPromise-type program focusing on female empowerment. Malawi, an extremely poor sub-Saharan country in southeast Africa, desperately needs leaders like Vanessa who will create opportunity for young women.
UrbanPromise Camden is preparing Vanessa.
But while Vanessa trains, she’s also impacting our students in Camden, especially our teenage girls. Vanessa is opening the eyes of our young women—like Masira—to what poverty looks like in different parts of the world.
Masira’s lessons are growing deeper each day as she learns about poverty around the world: the luxury of shoes, electricity, meat, indoor plumbing, and education—things she takes for granted.
“I’m definitely more grateful this year,” confesses Masira. “I just see things differently now.”
That is a powerful statement when it comes from a young person who lives in a city entrenched in poverty (currently 42% of Camden’s residents live below the poverty line). At UrbanPromise, even as we care for our young people and help meet their most basic needs, we are also teaching them not just to receive, but also to give. This Thanksgiving as we continue our tradition of providing a turkey dinner to families like Masira’s, we celebrate seeing our young people develop a different perspective, understand the value of service to others and have gratitude for what God has given them. Masira and her friends are empowered to be part of the solution for Camden and beyond. Masira is even planning a future trip to Malawi!
Having friends like Vanessa and Masira challenges me to “see things differently” and has deepened my own practice of gratitude and appreciation for life and God’s amazing gifts.
In the coming days, UrbanPromise will encourage our children, families and staff to practice gratitude. Once again, Thanksgiving dinners will be served around the city of Camden for hundreds of children, parents and community members. This annual tradition of breaking bread together dates back 29 years.
Families will gather with our staff to celebrate God’s goodness. As a community we will pray, sing, enjoy good food, deepen friendships, and practice gratitude.
As you contemplate your blessings this Thanksgiving, I hope you will share your abundance with our children and families.
One delicious meal of turkey, yams, collard greens, and pumpkin pie costs a mere $6.50, 5 meals for $32.50, a table just $65.
Thanks in advance for the blessing of your gifts.
Dr. Bruce Main
Founder & President