Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses. There were seminars called, “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell” and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Acorns.” There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.
One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped ‘out of the blue’ by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he said, “We.....are....that!”
“Delusional,” laughed one acorn. Another mockingly queried, “So tell us, how would we become that tree?”
“Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground....and cracking open the shell.”
“That’s insane,” chorused the group in full throttled unison. “Totally morbid!” “If we did that,” scoffed another, “We wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”*
The acorn story isn’t original. Like many preachers, I’m a scavenger...always looking for a good story, a powerful metaphor or an example that leads to a deeper truth. So I took a few liberties and modified this old parable—and I think it’s a jewel. Like any good parable it lands a different meaning on each of us. You’ve probably made your determination. Here’s mine:
I’ve always believed that authentic faith should lead people to become better and more complete versions of themselves. Each of us is a unique masterpiece, made in the image of God. For numerous reasons this image gets lost and fades. God’s great promise and gift is our restoration—bringing vibrancy, radiance and aliveness to our divine imprint. An early church father, Irenaeus of Lyon, captured it beautifully: “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” Our “fully” aliveness as human beings can be metaphorically imagined in the process of an acorn becoming an oak tree. Acorns are wonderful—but God’s vision for our lives is so much fuller.
Yet there’s a problem. This journey to fullness can’t be purchased like a seven-day, all-expense Disney cruise. And sadly we can’t just read our way to this place, retreat our way to this place, pray our way to this place, or even church our way to this place. As the chipped and broken acorn audaciously suggests, “It has something to do with going into the ground.” And that idea is a little morbid—especially in a culture that increasingly builds its identity, vision and values around the promotion of self.
But for those who desire to begin this journey of transformation, the word often used is ...surrender. Surrender begins by letting go of our little selves: those primal needs to control, to win, and to dominate. Surrender means letting go of our norms and our preferences and even beliefs that limit transformation. Surrender means releasing those thoughts and ideas that bind us as acorns for a lifetime.
Jesus said it this way.: “Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whoever shall lose his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24) It’s a little counter, isn’t it? Or how about this zinger: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” (John 12:24). Jesus modeled and taught surrender. Even the apostle Paul noticed that Jesus “emptied himself and took on the form of a servant.” Self-emptying births a fuller life. Less of me means more of God.
So I might argue that this current historical moment offers a unique gift. Our lives are currently being disrupted, disturbed and disoriented. Old ways of thinking are being challenged. Routines broken. Assumptions dismantled. But here’s the truth: there’s an opportunity to let go of some old baggage and be filled with something new. Yes, the path can be uncomfortable. Deep change has a cost.
Theologian Cynthia Bourgeault says it this way: “...in any situation in life, confronted by an outer threat or opportunity, you can notice yourself responding inwardly in one or two ways. Either you will brace, harden, and resist, or you will soften, open, and yield.”
She continues by saying, “If you go with your former gesture, you will be catapulted immediately into your smaller self, with its animal instincts and survival responses. If you stay with the latter regardless of the outer conditions, you will remain in alignment with your innermost being, and through it...” God can reach you.
“Soften, open and yield,” are the words challenging me today. If I find myself bracing, hardening and resisting....I need to ask why? I need to take inventory. I need to reflect and go deeper. And hopefully I’ll find myself praying: “Dear Lord, help me surrender and trust your mysterious work which always wants to reorder my life in ways I can’t begin to imagine.”
I’ve met an Oak or two in my day. Special people for sure—humble, graceful, compassionate, wise, generous, joyful, kind and....fully alive. They’ve all taken the journey—a journey marked with surrender, a journey that “cracked the shell”, took them “into the ground” and brought them back to us as a magnificent examples of what it means to be fully human. As beautiful Oaks in our midst, they continually remind us: “we...are...that.”
President & Founder
*The Acorn Parable was originally created by Maurice Nicoll in the 1950s.
The automatic glass doors of the convalescent home flew open. A delightful blast of cool air—which those who reside in the northeast during August fully appreciate—sent a welcome shiver through my body. Hands moist with perspiration, I feebly gripped the slippery pen and signed my name at the front desk.
Down the hallway in room 106 I would find my 93-year-old friend Mable Smith. For those of you wondering how I visited a rehabilitation center during COVID, please take comfort that my visit happened 7 years ago.... remember those days when we were allowed to visit our loved ones needing medical care?
Three weeks prior Mable suffered a mild stroke on her way to church. Now recovering, she would be sent home soon when her sense of balance was regained and her vitals stable.
I peeked into the room. The bed empty. I thought the worst.
“She’s in the dining hall,” called the orderly across the hallway, with military-like authority. “Keep walking until the end, make a left and you’ll see the entrance.”
Now Mable was a true character. Feisty. Opinionated. Life-long Presbyterian. A little eccentric. She spent her career as a Navy secretary and shared with me, on an earlier visit, her harrowing firsthand account of being in Pearl Harbor during the bombing. “Lucky to be alive,” she quipped, describing the pandemonium of that 1941 Sunday morning.
“Hi Mable,” I gushed, entering the room and giving her a hug as lowered myself into an empty chair next to her. “Who’s your friend?”
Across the table sat an aged woman, slowly spooning tapioca pudding into her mouth with a high level of intentionality. She hardly noticed my entrance.
“This is Chi..yo..ko,” mouthed Mable slowly and phonetically, making sure I understood. “She was born in Japan. Survived the bombing of Nagasaki.”
I stretched my hand across the table. The woman abruptly and respectfully stopped her methodical motion, placed her spoon on the tray, clutched my fingers and smiled. “Chiyoko,” she muttered softly. “Hello.”
“We figured we wouldn’t be friends if we met in 1942,” quipped Mable. “We were supposed to hate each other back then. Look at us now!”
For the next few minutes I listened to the story. Somehow Chiyoko survived the blast as a teenager, navigated the horrific aftermath and scraped together a few piecemeal jobs to put food in her stomach. Eventually she met a US serviceman stationed at a base in Japan, learned English, married him and moved to the United States. A widow for over a decade, no children and outliving her friends, she was essentially alone in the world—except for her new friend Mable.
For whatever reason, I’ve never forgotten that meal (certainly not the food). Perhaps this week, after reading articles recalling the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it triggered my memory. So without wading into the history and politics as to why those bombs were dropped, I think there’s a lesson to learn from a couple of elderly widows who survived a very dark period of our world’s history.
Maybe the lesson is how the prevailing forces of our historical moment seek to define us as people: influencing our relationships, shaping our values, dictating our behaviors. Perspectives and attitudes toward people—people we don’t even personally know—are consciously and unconsciously shaped by those with loudest and most convincing voices. As social animals, we even mimic the behavior of others in our quest for identity and belonging.
Then 75 years pass..... The cultural, social and geo-political winds change. New enemies are found and created. New wars need to be fought. New people groups need to be feared. But in the end, the lie of our suspicion and fear is exposed by the serendipitous encounter of two convalescing women eating puréed spinach and Gorton’s fish sticks together—in (of all places) Cinnaminson, New Jersey. The futility of hate is unveiled by life’s brevity and our deepest needs for intimacy.
These things we know to be true: Our loved ones will pass on, our workplace colleagues disperse, our children will go their different ways and our political parties will be voted in and out of office. And, if we are the last one standing, we’ll desire only a few elemental things: companionship and love. Ironically—as in the lives of Mable and Chiyoko—both may appear in the form of those we were once told to hate and fear.
James Baldwin wrote, “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated.”
Jesus put it another way: Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. Why? I always believed Jesus made these outrageous commands because it might lead to more peace, fewer wars and better relations with my neighbor who lets his dog do his business on my lawn. And that can certainly be true.
Now I’m thinking Jesus was a few steps ahead of what Baldwin and others would later learn from their firsthand experience of witnessing the corrosive effects of hate—not only on its recipients but on its givers as well. Perhaps Jesus’s commands are really a love letter to you and me from someone who wants to see us flourish and live into the fullness of what we were created to be. The commands are not simply given to win over our enemies...they’re actually for our benefit, regardless of the outcome. Creating identities around hate and suspicion produces little people. And Jesus is always about bigger people. Bigger hearts, bigger lives, bigger visions.
So why wait until the day we’re eating tapioca pudding and fish sticks to expand the companions around our dinner table? Let’s rise above the noise of today and tune into the frequency of God’s heart. Life’s really too short to waste time.
President & Founder
“....I am also pretty sure that the words social justice are not in the Bible,” revealed the email. “And therefore it’s not biblical.”
When I read my friend's words this past week, it reminded me of a story I heard years ago by an urban ministry pioneer named Ray Bakke. Ray was speaking at a suburban church outside of Chicago, sharing about his work with inner-city youth—job training, tutoring, athletic programs. After he spoke, a gentleman approached him: “Rev Bakke, it sounds like you’re committed to promoting a social gospel,” he questioned with a slight tone of judgment. “How does the true Gospel fit into your mission?”
Pastor Bakke paused for a minute. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” replied the man.
“I’m curious, where do you and your family live?”
The gentleman named an affluent, tree-lined street in a suburban town outside Chicago.
“Why do you live there?” continued Bakke.
“Great schools,” volunteered the man. “I travel a lot for work, so I feel my wife and children are safe. A terrific public library. The parks are beautiful as well.”
“I find it fascinating,” replied Bakke. “And I’m not judging you for selecting your neighborhood. But the reasons you’ve cited for living in your community are all social—education, safety, public services. You spend the bulk of your resources and life energy maintaining these social supports. At the risk of being blunt, I really think you’re the one committed to a social gospel."
I forget how the story ends. The two men may have continued to argue into the wee hours of the morning. Or maybe the gentleman became a regular donor to Bakke’s ministry. To me, the conversation reveals the stark differences between ministry in more affluent communities andministry in under-resourced communities. In affluent settings many of the social needs of people—good schools, sports leagues, community safety, jobs, nice parks—are provided, which allow churches to focus exclusively on “spiritual issues.” In under-resourced communities, these social supports simply don’t exist. Since humans are not one-dimensional spiritual beings, social issues must be considered if ministry is to be transformative.
My friend who questioned whether the term social justice is biblical, was ultimately concerned that UrbanPromise is teaching a “social justice” class to our teens this summer. I’m glad he raised the question. I’m also glad he didn’t walk away from our ministry. A conversation was requested. I complied. We had a lively and informative exchange.
In my experience we Christians tend to gravitate towards different “camps”—like-minded groups of people whose theology and politics align with others who hold similar beliefs. One camp of Christians may feel their primary job is to get people saved so they can enjoy eternal life with God in heaven. “Jesus is the only thing that matters,” I hear frequently—implying that the social conditions in which people live are of secondary concern to the eternal glory awaiting beyond the grave. Harsh realities of daily life are to be endured because we’re “just passing through”. Jesus is Savior only—not a man who lived, taught, spoke truth to power and cared for the physical lives of real people. This group might argue that it’s important to be charitable, but challenging systems that create adverse conditions is not in the Jesus play book.
Another “camp” of Christians feel that the social conditions in which humans live their lives, and the systems that create them—poverty, violence, racism, systemic injustices—need to be challenged and made more just. After all, Christians are agents of God’s Kingdom and need to play an active role in advancing this realm of peace and justice on earth “as it is in heaven.” Humans are made in the imagio dei—the image of God. Anything that damages or hurts this “image” needs to be confronted and changed. Life on earth matters. God wants human beings to flourish now—body, mind....and spirit.
So where does that leave us? Should we be teaching our kids about social justice, or should a Christian ministry be focusing simply on the spiritual dimensions of life?
I find myself returning to the Bible during these conversations, fully acknowledging that my interpretation of scripture is biased and influenced by my history, education and the context in which I read it. But even with my biases it’s hard to overlook the two thousand references to justice and poverty in the Bible. Digging deeper into these verses reveals a startling truth: many verses pertain to the “social” conditions of human beings. The book of Leviticus is all about the law—right and fair living between people. Scripture speaks out against “corrupt scales” in the market place (commerce), exploiting the poor by charging exorbitant interest rates (usury), acquiring multiple properties at the expense of the poor (unjust housing), exploiting widows and orphans (misuse of power), welcoming aliens and treating them well (immigration) paying day laborers fairly and quickly (good management) ...It’s there! God seems to care about the nitty-gritty details of human life. So if the Bible is true, social realities are a concern to God.
And what about Jesus? Was he concerned only with the spiritual dimensions of people’s life or was he concerned about the social and physical dimensions as well? Jesus healed people (health), he fed people (physical well being), he embraced the outcast and crossed racial/ethnic barriers (advocacy) and he defended women and children in a culture where it was not popular. Jesus also spoke harshly against those who hid behind their religious practices while they “...neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.” It appears that Jesus practiced the social dimensions of justice.
So why have the words “social justice” become so politicized and divisive for Christians? A memorable quote by Archbishop Dom Helder Camara highlights our divergent perspectives:
“When I feed the poor, they call me a Saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry they call me a communist.”
As Christians, we tend to be much more comfortable with the concept of charity than justice, probably because our solutions of fixing injustice look so different for each of us. Research does reveal that Christians are some of most generous people—hands down. But discussing injustice can make us uncomfortable—perhaps because addressing root causes can demand more than writing a check and, at times, reveal our own complicity in an injustice...calling us to do some soul searching.
I’ve always seen UrbanPromise as an organization that doesn’t avoid root causes that keep youth and families in cycles of perpetual poverty. I believe we need to be equipping young people to live the “abundant” lives that Jesus promised. Charity has its place, just as an emergency room is critical at a hospital. But long term health calls us to look at factors making unhealthy people. To get to this place, Christians must move beyond political and doctrinal differences and stay focus on what really matters—preparing the whole child to live into the fullness of who God created them to be.
So my friend is actually correct. He wins the argument. The literal words “social justice” do not appear in the Bible (at least I can’t find them). But the biblical commands to be “doers of justice” and “minister justice to the poor and needy” certainly compels me to understanding, confronting and acting out their social implications. In some circles our different perspectives might signal the end of our relationship. United as brothers in Christ, I’m hoping the journey of creating a better world is just beginning.
Founder & President
“My mind was blown,” revealed the email. “How could people I didn’t know be willing to cover my entire trip?”
I love these serendipitous surprises. It’s the best part of my job. A former student, unexpectedly and unannounced, reaches out to me and—with a deep sense of gratitude—reflects positively on the impact UrbanPromise has on their lives.
Fifteen years have evaporated since a 16-year-old Vernon Mincey traveled to South Africa for a Habitat for Humanity service project with our program. He remembers as if it happened yesterday—precise, clear and defining.
“I was exposed to a world I didn’t know existed,” he wrote. “I remember returning to my south Camden neighborhood with a sense of duty....constantly reminding younger kids that they didn’t have to become a product of their environment....and challenging them to do better and better.”
Vernon now works as a Field Technician with Maser Consulting, an engineering firm specializing in municipal building projects throughout the Delaware Valley. Every fourth Friday the company collects money for a local charity. This past month, Vernon nominated UrbanPromise with a compelling and heartfelt letter to the CEO, sharing the impact UrbanPromise had on his life growing up in Camden.
“With your contributions on this charitable donation Friday,” implored Vernon, “I am hoping to help give another inner city child an opportunity to have their heart and eyes opened.” UrbanPromise was selected. Last Friday, $1,500 was collected from the employees at Maser.
This gift—and the story behind it—is a wonderful encouragement to my soul in the middle of a long and tiring pandemic. But beyond the gift, a deeper question is elevated—why do some people feel compelled to “give back” to the people (and organizations, schools, churches, camps) who impact their lives, whereas others do not?
According to organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, the world is full of what he calls “givers” and “takers.” Givers are those living their lives for others—always exploring ways to improve and develop people around them. Givers live beyond self interest. According to Grant’s research, “givers” are the people you want on your teams and in your companies. Their presence leads to greater creativity, greater trust, sharing of knowledge and greater efficiencies—even at the cost of their personal advancement.
“Takers,” on the other hand, are those advancing their own agenda, striving to get “one up” on their colleagues and protecting their self interest. They can rise quickly in their careers, but on teams they thwart productivity, diminish creativity and create cultures of low trust. Grant argues that many of us fall somewhere between. He calls these folk “Matchers”—matching one good deed of altruism against a deed of self interest. So here’s the question I want to answer: are people born as givers? Or takers? Or Matchers?
Kurt Hahn—the German educator of Jewish origin who taught at the prestigious Salem Castle boarding school in the 1930s and refused to sign a loyalty pledge to Hitler—believed “givers” can be nurtured. As Nazism rose to prominence, Hahn fled for his life and landed at the Gordonstown School in Scotland. There he converted to Christianity, renounced his German citizenship, and found his educational imagination illuminated by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Hahn developed the theory and practice of “experiential learning”,* believing that knowledge, in and of itself, is insufficient for flourishing lives.
“How do we help children become Good Samaritans?” asked Hahn. He believed the parable embodied everything for which a human should aspire—courage, faith, generosity, compassion, attentiveness, tribal transcendence.... Yes, Hahn believed in the rigors of good academics. But Nazism reminded him that intelligent people can do horrific things. Young people need to develop virtue, bravery, self-reliance and compassion. For Hahn the Good Samaritan was an aspirational story with potential to inspire students to transcend the limitations of race, ideology and indifference. A new generation of Good Samaritans—he believed—could protect the world from descending into madness.
Realizing the Good Samaritan is just a story—a parable told by Jesus—its enduring power is that we can all find ourselves somewhere in the narrative. Each of us can certainly relate to walking past situations inviting a response. I can certainly identify with the priest who rushes to his next appointment, missing the opportunity in his path....or the legal scholar who can rationalize away his ambivalence.
But the Samaritan intrigues us....why does he act so differently? Where does he learn courage, compassion, hospitality? Maybe from a caring mother, a courageous grandparent, an unassuming compassionate neighbor? Perhaps the Samaritan, as a child, received an unexpected generous gift...a trip paid for by an anonymous donor? Like Vernon.
Jesus obviously believed we could nurture Samaritan-like habits. Otherwise why share the story? If we can’t change, can’t grow, can’t become more giving people....why tell this parable? By telling the story, Jesus gives us humans a tremendous compliment. Jesus is basically saying: “I believe anyone can become an extraordinary giver.”
“So much of history is made up of small moves,” wrote Seyward Darby. “Hope, too, dwells in increments.” Vernon now lives his life as a giver—a young man who wants to pay it forward. That’s hopeful. That’s incremental. And if enough of us do it together, we’ll change the world.
PS. Check out this interview with Vernon. He recalls his time at UrbanPromise: https://vimeo.com/442065188
*As many of you already know, “experiential” learning is a major focus at UrbanPromise.
“I think we need to do a parade for our students,” suggested Siomara Wedderburn, the Director of our Wellness program. “We want our graduates to know they are loved and appreciated.”
On one level it seemed like an odd request, coming at the end of a very difficult week for our nation, our city, our youth and our staff. Collectively we had witnessed police brutality, peaceful demonstrations, rioting, calls for justice and reform. Collectively we had waited for verdicts, reactions from political and civic leaders and the memorial service of George Floyd. There was a heaviness of heart. Was this really a time for a parade?
“I’ll be honest,” confided Ms. Ford, our 6th grade teacher. “I didn’t want to do the parade. But within 5 minutes I had a change of heart. There’s something wonderful about putting aside my feelings and just loving kids.”
Despite the collective mood of the moment, our team decided it was critical not to forget the accomplishments of our students. Despite the unprecedented challenges of teaching remotely, our teachers rose to the occasion. Every 8th grader passed. Every 12th grader has completed high school. Time to celebrate.
Friday morning a convoy of 20 decorated vehicles left the parking lot of UrbanPromise, and began a three hour pilgrimage through the streets of Camden—honking horns, passing out goodie bags and making a big deal of our students. The parade stopped in front of every 8th and 12th grade student’s home. We created traffic jams and we vigorously honked our horns. To our surprise, city residents came out of their houses to applaud and take pictures. Momentum grew with each turn—a beautiful and memorable moment for our students and our city was created.
“I was surprised how big the parade was,” gushed Angel, a 12th grader on his way to culinary school in the fall. Angel and his family eagerly stood on their front steps in East Camden and watched the procession. “It made me feel pretty important.”
Two months ago I appealed to you for financial help in an emergency situation—help we needed to keep our teachers employed and our staff engaged during a time of decreasing revenue and uncertainty.
You responded with amazing generosity. Without your help our teachers would not have continued teaching, and our students would not have graduated. Simply put: You saved the academic year! I’m grateful, as are our parents, teachers and students. You allowed the UrbanPromise team to get our students across the finish line.
But UrbanPromise needed to cross another finish line as well—we need to raise $582,000 to close our June 30th, 2020 fiscal year.
The great news is an unprecedented $522,747 has been generated since April.
Only $59,253 is needed in the next two weeks to reach our GOAL. The finish line is in sight. I know we can do it!
Our teachers did what needed to be done for our students. Now I’m asking you to ensure we cross the financial finish line as well.
I’m confident you will help.
PS. Please watch this parade video. It’ll lift your spirits and remind you why you give to UrbanPromise.
Sixty years ago, on April 5th, 1959, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, at the age of 30, delivered a sermon called Shattered Dreams to his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. I still marvel at its depth and enduring significance.
That particular Sunday morning King preached from an obscure verse of scripture in the book of Romans: “When I take my journey into Spain, I will come unto you.” (15:14). I love when preachers thoughtfully amplify scripture and make application to their current realities.
King reminded his congregation that the Apostle Paul dreamed of traveling to Spain to share the Gospel. As he would make that long arduous trip from the Middle East across the Mediterranean, Paul promised to stop in Rome to visit a small and vital community of Christian believers—a community of people he deeply loved. This was Paul’s dream—his destiny. Yet the dream is never fulfilled. Paul never made it to Spain and only arrived in Rome as a fugitive to be confined to a small jail cell.
“Very few, if any, of us are able to see all our hopes fulfilled,” emphasized the young preacher. “Paul’s life was the tragic story of a shattered dream and blasted hope.”
At this point in the sermon King brilliantly pivots and asks his congregation the million dollar question: “What does one do under such circumstances?” Or to put it more directly: how do we deal with our shattered dreams?
According to King, people tend to deal with disappointment, shattered dreams and unfulfilled hopes in three ways. The first is bitterness and resentment. It’s a “coldness of heart” and the development of “hatred for life itself.” King adds that we take our anger and bitterness out on those closest to us—children, spouses and our neighbor. These kinds of people “love nobody and they demand no love.”
The second way people deal with their shattered dreams is withdrawal. They detach themselves from what is going on around them. At the cost of self-induced psychological and physiological damage caused by repression, reminded King, “they attempt to escape the disappointments of life by lifting their minds to the transcendent realm of cold indifference.”
The third way is fatalism. King believed this was particularly dangerous for religious folk. People resolve that everything is foreordained and inescapable. They believe that people have no freedom. “Everything is God’s will, however evil it happens to be.” King admits that in order to preserve human freedom, God does permit evil. But there is a difference between permitting something and ordaining something. It’s a dangerous mindset, according to King, to just throw up one’s hands and surrender one’s disappointments and call it “the will of God.”
So what then is the answer?
Honestly confront your shattered dreams and believe that almost anything that happens to us can be woven into the bigger purposes of God. “On the one hand we must accept the finite disappointment,” King concludes. “But in spite of this we must maintain the infinite hope. This is the only way that we will be able to live without the fatigue of bitterness and the drain of resentment.”
That “infinite hope”—in the face of very real disappointments—led this pastor (without a national stage at the time) to act on a local level by organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott in a church basement, an event that propelled the civil rights movement forward. King did not resolve to bitterness, neither did he ignore the injustices in his city, nor did he resolve that segregation was simply God’s will. For months on end a handful of his congregants met, prayed, hoped and planned how best to act as God’s people...in that moment.
For many, the events of the last few weeks and months may represent a shattered dream of sorts. Your hope has been “blasted”. For some of us who grew up in the 1960’s, we hoped for a world where people would not be judged by the “the color of their skin, but the content of their character”*—that dream has been shattered. For many who witnessed the protests and riots in the early 1990’s around the Rodney King beating, we believed that comprehensive police reform would take root and make our communities safer for all people—that dream has been shattered. And for our young people today, who imagine a world of equality, decency and respect for human life for their friends and brothers and sisters of color—their dreams have been shattered these past weeks.
On another level, some of you may be dealing with other kinds of shattered dreams as well—the loss of a career due to the coronavirus, a closing of a business you spent years building, a dissolved marriage, a wayward child, a scandal in your church....all real disappointments. All asking for a response.
So we have a choice. Bitterness and resentment. Indifference. Fatalism. Or infinite hope in the face of disappointment—a hope that forces us to engage our disappointment and propels us to act in ways that reflect the heart of God.
Fortunately we have examples of those who went before us. St Paul and Dr. King Jr. neither resolved to bitterness, to cold indifference or to a toxic fatalism. They faced their disappointments, dug deeper into their faith, looked for God’s deeper purpose and continued to act as followers of Jesus. We must do likewise.
PS. My summary does not do Dr. King’s sermon justice. You can read in its entirety here and be challenged and encouraged by its fullness: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/draft-chapter-x...
*Quote from MLKing Jr, “I have a Dream” Speech, August 28, 1963
Twice a month the UrbanPromise staff gather (by Zoom recently) to share, laugh, pray, celebrate accomplishments and encourage one another. We see ourselves as a community—more than a program, more than a service provider, and more than an educational institution. The vibrancy of our programs flow from our unity as a community.
Our community is rooted in what Christians call the body of Christ. And I believe, by extension, you who read these words—donors, volunteers, alumni, parents, board members, interns —are part of this mystical body as well. I know your connection to our ministry is deeper than simply sending a check, playing in a golf outing or attending a banquet. Even if some don’t ascribe our belief system, you keep supporting us and volunteer because there is something unique and authentic about this place—you sense a powerful bond between our team and our youth. You witness lives transformed.
So I think the words of the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth are particularly relevant to all of us connected to the UrbanPromise community...especially this week in light of our country’s tragic events:
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
Paul eloquently casts a vision of the burden and joy of being part of this sacred community that transcends race, geography, time, economics and ethnicity. Paul is not describing a country club membership, a college fraternity or a monolithic group of people connected for reasons of self-interest. St. Paul is describing a different kind community—a group of people connected to one another by faith and love in Christ. This is the commitment we make. We voluntarily move into the lives and worlds of those we may not know, or with whom we have very few things in common, or even disagree and share radically different histories. Our capacity to suffer expands because of our union....as does our capacity for joy.
That’s why I need to invite you into our staff meeting of this past Friday afternoon. I want you to hear the voices of our community as they process the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
“I was watching an innocent children’s program on Channel 3 with my 8 year old son,” shared one of my female colleagues, voice heavy with emotion. “Part way through the program it switched to a “Breaking News Update” and there was George Floyd with an officer’s knee on his neck in my living room. My son was visibly shaken. At that moment I knew I had to have 'The Talk'.”
Some in our group needed to be schooled on what “The Talk” means. So we listened intently as our colleague described what it’s like to be an African American mother, having to discuss the realities of race in America with a curious and rambunctious boy. “It’s not a conversation I want to have,” she lamented. “I see stuff like this and I’m terrified for my child.” We listened and tried to honor her fear and pain.
“As a white male,” shared another colleague, “the only talk I’ll have with my kids is a conversation about safe sex. I’ll be candid, I never really think about the safety of my kids walking through our neighborhood. I’m sorry you have to have these conversations.”
“You know,” added another, his face buried deep in his hands. “I was a student at UCLA during the Watts riots...I just can’t believe we are still dealing with these forms of racism 30 years later. It’s like we’re moving backwards.”
One of the more senior women in the group jumped into the conversation. “You know my father was chased 3 times by the KKK,” she recounted from her days growing up in the South. “I’ve raised 3 sons. I know what it’s like to worry.”
“The saddest part of having our schools closed,” concluded another, “is we can’t have these kinds of discussions to help our students process this moment and strategize solutions.” As a group we continued to listen, trying our best to honor the varied experiences of our group.
Over the past three decades UrbanPromise has tried to build an intentionally diverse community. We’ve tried to build something reflecting and celebrating the breadth and width of God’s human creation. It has not always been easy, and often feels quite fragile. But I believe diverse communities create opportunities for us to grow bigger as people—our lives expand because we welcome the experiences and perspectives of others. And in this moment, when parts of our community hurt, we have all been given the privilege of “...bearing one another’s burdens” and so fulfilling “the law of Christ.” It’s critical we stay together and don’t fragment.
As a Christian leader, the husband of 32 years of an African American woman, and the father of three adult children trying to make sense of their racial identity in our world, I keep returning to Jesus as my source of hope and inspiration during this difficult time. As this man—fully human—suffers a painful, inhumane and unjust death on a cross, he continues to extend forgiveness to those who suffer beside him. Even in his pain Jesus blesses others. And even until his last breath, Jesus extends an invitation to become part of a realm called the kingdom of God—a place of justice, a place of peace, a place of love and a place of forgiveness. We must do likewise.
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” prays our Lord. In the words of theologian Nicholas Waltersdorf, God’s people are “aching visionaries.” We long for God’s Kingdom on earth and our hearts ache when we experience situations, events and systems that contradict this vision. Racism, violence and poverty are not part of God’s vision. They have no place and must be resisted on all levels.
My prayer is that each of us will continue to “ache” for the things that break the heart of God—and that our aching will lead to sustained, enduring action. My prayer is that we will not grow weary of doing the hard, tedious, intentional and courageous work of making our neighborhoods more just, more safe and more hospitable to all her people.
Even though you don’t attend our weekly meetings, I am grateful you are part of our community and willing to journey with our team through this difficult time—sharing both our pain and joys. We need you now more than ever.
This past Sunday the pastor introduced his sermon by asking the congregation if they remembered a date when they had a significant spiritual experience. It got me thinking.
Friday, April 3rd, 2020 popped into my mind.
It’s a day I’ll not forget—perhaps my most significant spiritual moment of this pandemic.
At 1pm that day I had the privilege of telling the UrbanPromise staff during a Zoom meeting that we would not lay off anyone, we would continue to show up for our children and we would plan and prepare for a post-coronavirus Camden. In short—I told the team we were staying together and staying the course. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous leading up to the moment. Once I shared those words, I knew there was no turning back. Verbally making a promise to support the livelihood of 60+ staff and their families was daunting. Yet once the words were uttered there was also a sense of liberation. Commitments works that way. This commitment would define the future of UrbanPromise.
Making this promise may not seem like a big deal to you, but let me share some context. Our accountant closed March with a 50% shortfall in revenue, we had 3 weeks of cash in the bank, the stock market was in a free fall and our three fourth quarter fundraisers needed to be cancelled—events that typically generate a significant percentage of our annual budget. Economically vulnerable would accurately describe our organizational situation.
Some might argue it was irresponsible to make this kind of announcement to our staff. And looking through a certain lens you’re absolutely correct. If we based our decision on cash flow projections, the stock market, unemployment numbers and an uncertain economic forecast you would win the argument. Hands down.
UrbanPromise calls itself a “faith-based” organization. I often remind our team that “faith-based” has less to do with our doctrine and more to do with how we act as God’s people.
Actions speak louder than words—so what does it mean to act in faith in those moments when common sense and a shaky economic forecast suggest a more conservative path forward? At this particular moment being “faith-based” meant taking the proverbial leap of faith. Or as the late theologian William Sloan Coffin used to quip: “Jump first, then grow wings.”
I’ve come to believe that taking a leap of faith is often a critical first step in creating conditions for the miraculous to happen. It’s hard to put into words. But faith is more than an intellectual ascent to a set of propositional truths. Faith is action. Faith is committing beyond our human capabilities and placing ourselves in a vulnerable space....and hoping that God shows up.
Speaking of God and faith, I have a favorite quote I’ve returned to over the years—somewhat reluctantly at times, I’ll admit. The source slips my mind, but the words I’ve not forgotten: “Faith is putting ourselves in situations where, if God doesn’t show up, we’re in trouble.”
For those familiar with the scriptures, you’ll probably agree that this quote is rooted in an observable and repeated pattern. Page after page the Bible records stories about ordinary people who put themselves in situations where....if God doesn’t show up....they’re in trouble.
There’s Moses. Waist deep in the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army closing in.....God needs to show up. There’s this young boy David up against a rather large giant named Goliath....God needs to show up. There’s Gideon. Joseph in the Egyptian jail. The young men who take a stand against an egotistical king name Nebuchadnezzar and find themselves in a fiery furnace. The widow who gives all her resources. The disciples who respond to the simple words, “Follow me.” An active faith places these characters in situations where God needs to show up...or they are in trouble.
Seven weeks have passed since I first made the announcement to the staff. As a community we have truly experienced the miraculous. God has shown up. We’ve made payroll every week. Our donors and partners have responded with humbling generosity and sacrifice. For the first time in 32 years our organization received assistance through a federal government program called the CARES Act.
Programs have continued—although taking new forms. Most importantly the faith of our people has been deepened as we’ve supported, encouraged and ministered to one another, our youth and our families. Something powerful is happening.
When the dust settles from this pandemic, my hope is that we can all point to a defining moment—a memorable moment when we experienced the miraculous because we took a leap of faith. Einstein put it best: “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” I’m choosing the latter.
I’ve been to lots of birthday parties over the years—very few match the one I attended recently. First, it was held in this fancy space called “Zoom”, with people attending from all across the country. Second, the “birthday boy” turned 100 years old. After perfunctory introductions and the celebratory This is Your Life online slide show, the man of the hour was given the microphone.
“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done,” reverberated the baritone voice through cyberspace. “On earth as it is in heaven.” The long-retired pastor paused, caught his breath, and then delivered a 3-minute homily that would rival any preacher in their prime. “We need to be about the business of building God’s kingdom of justice, peace and compassion on this earth,” he crescendoed. “That’s our mission. Our purpose.”
One hundred years old.....and he still possesses the passion, vision and hope to make the world a better place. I find it remarkable.
I first met Dr. Charles Sayre 30-plus years ago when I arrived in Camden. I was a young whippersnapper learning the ropes of urban ministry, trying to figure out which way was up. I had heard about this legendary pastor at Haddonfield United Methodist Church who believed the division between suburban and urban communities was not God’s plan, and that the great commandment was to love our neighbors—and not just the one on the other side of our manicured hedge. He walked the walk...literally to Camden.
Over the decades, Dr. Sayre helped birth dynamic and impactful Camden-based non-profits. Respond Inc. was one—impacting the city through job creation and affordable housing. For years he chaired the Fellowship House in South Camden, a youth ministry organization (which was recently donated to UrbanPromise to continue its legacy) that served our city for 50 years. Despite his credentials and academic pedigree, he always served with humility. A unifier of people, always kind, he believed UrbanPromise was the best thing since sliced bread and he was always generous with his praise. You can understand why I like him.
This week I asked Dr. Sayre the secret to his longevity. With his quick and disarming sense of humor he quipped, “Lack of stress,” and chuckled. Naturally averse to the spotlight, he’s always deflected attention from himself. I conclude that his vitality is deeply connected to a faith that drives his unwavering sense of moral purpose. Whatever age, whatever stage of his career, this man always uses his influence and power to move people of different backgrounds towards building a world that mirrors God’s heart.
The two most important days of your life: the day you were born and the day you discovered why. –Mark Twain
Finding the “why” for our lives is critical. And trust me....clergy alone don’t have the corner on the purpose market. Every week I meet people discovering the “why” for their existence: business owners leveraging their influence for the greater good, retirees re-purposing their talents to build stronger non-profits, doctors and dentists volunteering their weekends and vacations to help heal our under-resourced communities....the list goes on. Show me a person who has discovered the why of their existence and I’ll show you someone with purpose, passion and joy.
Jesus preached that humans need more than just “bread” and clothing to have full and robust lives. Yes, food is important—and clothes are essential—but each of us needs a larger life vision to feed the deeper hunger of our soul. “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” encourages Jesus. “And all these things will be added unto you.” If our priorities are ordered correctly, the rest will fall into place. It’s worked for Dr. Sayre.
Not all of us will live to celebrate our hundredth birthday, but I guarantee a life with deep purpose will take us on a journey we’ll never regret.