It’s All I Remember

This year Teens Opposing Poverty celebrates 30 years of ministry!  As part of that celebration, we will share stories and insights that have helped to shape us.  Here is one from 2011.

Even when you devote your life to serving the poor, your priorities at times get skewed.  The true story that follows is in part a confession, but it’s also a lesson I learned: Never sacrifice the important things on the altar of the urgent.

My cell phone rang.  I didn’t recognize the number and debated whether or not I would answer it. It was the day before Easter.  My wife, daughter and I were having dinner with my parents and I really didn’t want to be bothered.  But for some reason I still can’t fathom, I answered it.

 The woman on the other end identified herself as Elizabeth.  She said that she and her husband lived on a fixed income and that they were almost out of food.  It was near the end of the month so the timing was right for a request like that.

 I’d like to say that my heart was filled with compassion for her at the moment, but it wasn’t.  In my role as the director of a ministry that works with homeless and poor people I get calls like this all the time, so I selfishly resented the intrusion on my family time and told her I would help her on Monday just to end the conversation as quickly as possible.

 Come Monday morning, I walked into my office overwhelmed by my “do list” with almost everything on it screaming “URGENT!” at me.  I rolled up my sleeves and dug in, hoping I could cross off at least a few things by the end of the day.  Right about the time I found my “groove” on a writing project, my phone rang.  It was Elizabeth.  I let it roll over to voice mail and forgot about it for a few hours.

 After lunch I checked my messages.  Sure enough, Elizabeth asked me to call her back as soon as possible.  Once again, I have to confess, my heart was not brimming over with compassion.  All I could think about was how much I had to do and how I really didn’t have the time to gather the food and drive ½ hour to Winchester to deliver it.  By the time I did everything, I knew I would lose nearly 2 hours out of my day.

 I wished I hadn’t told her I would take her the food, but I said I would and, since I believe that integrity is a dying virtue in our culture, I was determined to make good on my word.  I left work 20 minutes earlier than normal to take my daughter, Lindsey, to ballet practice so I would have time to get the food from the outreach pantry at my church.  Having her help pack the bags saved at least a little time.

 I dropped Lindsey off at ballet and headed to Winchester, hoping to arrive by 5 pm.  When I got close to the address she gave me, I called Elizabeth.  As I parked my truck along the street I could see an elderly woman standing at the door, waiting. I grabbed the groceries thinking, “This is going to be quick.”  There was so much work to do.

 Elizabeth held the door open as I approached.  She was less than 5 feet tall and looked even smaller because of her stooped shoulders.  Her husband was sitting on the couch of their cluttered-but-clean living room.  He looked at me and nodded, but said nothing.

 I set the grocery bags down.  Elizabeth thanked me and told me they had not eaten all day.  Ah, there was the compassion, along with a healthy conviction about my misplaced priorities.  Someone was hungry.  I should have made getting food to them my first task of the day, not the last.

 All of a sudden, I wasn’t in so much of a hurry.  We chatted awhile.  After a few minutes her husband joined in the conversation, although he still didn’t move.  As we talked, I learned that on their meager income they not only had to care for themselves but their two grandchildren as well.  The end of the month was always hard for them. 

 I didn’t stay too long.  I knew they were hungry.

 For the life of me, I can’t remember any of the other urgent tasks that faced me that day.  All I remember is that I was blessed with the opportunity to take food to somebody who was hungry.  I guess that’s all that was worth remembering.

“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” Gal 6:9 (NKJV)

Here’s to not growing weary.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings

Justice for One

Mahatma Gandhi was passionate about justice.  The young Indian-born lawyer found his way to South Africa after finishing law school in London.  When he saw discrimination against Indian people there, he fought for their civil rights.  After achieving success, he returned to India where he organized peasant farmers and urban laborers to resist excessive land taxes and discrimination.  After that, he spent most of the rest of his life securing the independence of India from Britain.

Gandhi fought injustice wherever he saw it and was able to rally an entire nation of people to peacefully challenge the status quo and achieve freedom.

If you look through history, you will find people who changed entire cultures by rallying thousands or millions to stand with them against injustice, bigotry and oppression.

Chances are you and I will never do that. For most of us, activism is limited to writing to our governmental leaders and voting our conscience.  We will, at best, play only a small part in transforming our society.

Does that mean we can’t do much to right wrongs and rid the world of injustice?  No.  Each of us can bring about enormous change… for one person.

I have spent 27 years working with people on the bottom rung of society’s ladder.  For them every single day is a struggle to survive. They are beaten down to the point where they have difficulty taking advantage of even the best opportunities presented to them.  They need advocates.  They need people to help them fight the injustices they face.

You can realize justice for one.  You can advocate for one.  You don’t have to change the whole world.  Just help change the world for one person.

That person may be poor, in prison, in an orphanage, a nursing home, or a hospital.  They may not be able to work their way through their situation.  But with someone to speak for them, they can triumph.

So now you know who to advocate for.  To whom do you advocate?

  • Start with the person you are helping.  They may not feel they are worthy or capable of a better life.  They may not think they have what it takes to fight that war.   It is our job let them know that we believe in them so they can believe in themselves. If their heads and hearts aren’t in the right place, anything else they do is more likely to fail.
  • Advocate for opportunity.  It may involve helping them find the opportunity they need, fill out applications, physically going with them to help them through whatever the next step might be, or just being there to answer questions or give counsel and advice.
  • Advocate for resources. Peter’s 1986 Ford conversion van (it was his home as well as his transportation) transmission blew.  We put out an appeal for funds to get it fixed.  He is now back to work and will soon move into an apartment.
  • Advocate for legitimacy.  Be willing to be a reference for jobs or entry into programs.  This means that you have to really get to know the person you are helping.
  • Advocate for justice.  I hate courtrooms, but I have been in more of them than I care to remember to offer moral support or to testify on behalf of someone I’m helping.  I have also helped them put together appeals for when they have been wrongly denied services.

It sounds like a lot and it can be taxing. If you pick up this mantle, don’t be surprised if there are times when you will grow “weary in well doing.” But if you are willing to step just a little out of your comfort zone you can bring about justice for one.   Then their world (and yours) will never be the same.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

Teens Opposing Poverty

Church Needs Better Infrastructure to Expand Ministry in Low Income Neighborhood. Really?

Part 1 of a series of blogs on Messy Ministry

A well-heeled congregation began an outreach to a low income neighborhood.  They started a food pantry and began meeting other physical needs for that community.  They started well.  Working with two local churches they were able to provide things that were truly needed instead of just guessing.  Their assistance provides families enough food to get through the month, and if they do nothing else, they are making a difference.

I was talking with a leader in the church about whether they planned to expand their involvement in that low income community.  Do they have any plans to get involved with people on a personal level? The answer was a “Yes, but…”

“Yes, but we’re not sure which way to go. There is no infrastructure for more involved ministry.”

The answer struck me as odd, but I didn’t have a response to it during the meeting.  As I drove home I pondered that phrase, “no infrastructure”.  What kind of infrastructure does it take to get to know people?  The first step in relational ministry is to get to know the people you are serving. Address their perceived needs.  Don’t assume you know what they’re hungry for.

Is there a place where people hang out in that community?  A park or playground?  If so, you have the infrastructure you need to get started.  Take a cooler of cold drinks there on a warm day and hang out with them.  Make friends.  That’s a great start.

The church in ministry works with two churches in the community. Do those churches have sanctuaries, parking lots or lawns?  If so, you have the infrastructure you need to get started. If there are no options with the local churches, is there a vacant lot in the neighborhood or a parking lot for a business you can use on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon?  If so, you have the infrastructure you need to get started.

Begin with a community gathering.  A block party is a great way to open doors.  To register for a door prize, a person has to fill out a survey.  From that survey and the conversations you have with people, you can assess where to move next in ministry.

Transformational ministry doesn’t need great infrastructure.  It needs people who are willing to make unlikely friends. It needs people who are willing to spend time with other people.  It needs people who are willing to risk broken hearts and disappointments in order to experience the shared joy of transformed lives.  It needs people who are willing to be transformed themselves.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

TeensOpposingPoverty.org

Help Multiplied

You can help homeless and other low income people learn how to earn an income even if they can’t find a job.  If you want to skip all the background stuff in the blog, go to

http://tinyurl.com/TOPwerxCampaign

If we reach our funding goal, we have cool rewards for everyone who pledges.  It’s a win-win-win situation.

We return you to the not-so-regularly-scheduled blog.

About ten years ago I had a conversation with a homeless man named John who told me he had just been turned down for another job.  He had been job hunting for two years after he finished serving his time on a felony charge.  It turns out that conviction was a life sentence that was keeping him from landing a job.  I remember he threw his hands up in the air and said, “Man, I can’t even get a job at McDonalds!”

John’s predicament is not unique.  My friend Kevin faces the same situation.  He served 5 years in prison on a bank robbery charge.  His prospects are bleak to say the least.  And so I developed a passion for finding a way to help people like John and Kevin earn an income even if they can’t find a job. It had to meet the following criteria:

  • It must be something that a person without much education can do
  • It must be something that is simple and can produce reliable income without a long learning curve.
  • It must be supported by a community of people who are already working the business successfully
  • It must pass the “Quick Test” of successfully producing income within 30 days.

It took over a decade of discovering what didn’t work, but I finally found it.  We call it TOPwerx.  It meets all of the criteria and passed the “Quick Test” with flying colors.

The business model is based on buying products to sell through online channels such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy.  We sold scores of products in 7 different market niches through 9 months of research and turned a healthy profit on everything we sold.

Now, we are seeking support to begin our training program with up to 5 students in the first year. We hope to expand the training in Washington, DC and throughout Virginia. TOPwerx is designed to be completely self-sustaining within two years.

 Project Details – Curriculum

The curriculum will be video-based and replicable. It will be divided into five phases.

Phase I: Get Your Head in the Game – students will have to demonstrate the right mindset in order to progress in the curriculum.  We focus on eliminating entitlement mentality, developing a can-do attitude and teaching our students to think like business owners, not employees.

Phase II: Your Tool Box – Students will receive basic training in computers and thorough training in the use of the smart phones and apps they will need to be successful.  In this phase, we plan to utilize youth volunteers as mentors to help students master the technology. Since this is all hands-on training, there will be no real development costs for it.

Phase III: Getting Started – Here we begin with the nuts and bolts of the business.  Students will learn what to sell, where to sell it, how to list their products, how to ship inventory and how to track sales and profits.

Phase IV: Advanced Sourcing and Selling Techniques – There are lots of ways to get products to sell profitably. Sorry, but these are trade secrets that will give our students an edge in the marketplace.  I think we’ll just keep them a secret

Phase V: Mind Your Own Business – The final phase will teach students how to manage their cash flow, keep accurate records, taxes, licenses, insurance and other paperwork related to their business.

We have obtained a license for a powerful, existing curriculum we will use for Phases III and IV.  Our students will also become part of a community of other people involved in this business, which will be critical for their success.

By the time they finish the course, they will have a successful business.  TOPwerx staff will provide support for students after they graduate to ensure their long-term success.

How You Can Help

Just click the above link to the TOPwerx Funding Campaign on StartSomeGood.com for details on how you can be a part of this movement.  We have a long way to go!  We can use all the pledges, prayers and shares we can get.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

 

I Have Failed

Yesterday was Good Friday.  When I was a kid, I used to always wonder why they called it “Good”.   After all, it’s a story about betrayal, pain, and death.  Now I understand that what Jesus went through was good for us.  It was VERY good for us.  His suffering and sacrifice paid the price for our sins and gave us the path to fellowship with God.

Every year around Good Friday, I reflect on His suffering and ask myself where I have failed Him.  He did so much for me.  Where have I let Him down?  This year, that reflection has turned my thoughts and my shame to one glaring failure.

Just a few years after giving my life to Jesus, God called me to serve homeless and poor people. [I hate using the terms “the homeless” or “the poor.”  They are people, not labels].  I teach youth how to be the hands, feet and loving arms of Jesus for “the least of these.”  Over the last 26+ years I have been humbled by the ways God has used me to transform the lives of others.

There have been successes, both with the youth I have trained and the people they serve.   Some of our youth grew up to become missionaries, pastors and social workers.  Others haveCrucifix on a Wall continued their ministries with poor people into adulthood.

Scores of those we have served have also seen their lives transformed.  I have witnessed miracles of deliverance from addictions, opportunities for housing, and jobs that seemed to come from out of the blue.  It has been an honor to play some part in these transformations.  All of that is good.  But it is not good enough.

I have failed Jesus in a lot of ways, but as I ponder my shortcomings, one failure stands out above the rest.  I blew my chance to share the Good News of Christ with people who desperately need Him; not just once but over and over again.

I take no comfort in the fact that this failure is widespread among American Christians.  I feel sick that someone may be eternally separated from God because I failed to say something.

I am convinced that Satan is perfectly happy for me to help homeless and poor people all day long.  He is perfectly happy for us Christians to fight culture wars and care for our environment.  He loves to see us do those things as long as we don’t tell people about Jesus.

I pray that my failure ends here.  I pray that it ends today.  Job #1 for every follower of Christ is to preach the Good News and make disciples.  I will no longer hide under the cowardly veil of tolerance but will search out divine appointments to share the greatest story the world has known.  I know the Gospel is offensive to many, so I will offend.

Jesus sacrificed Himself for a reason.  He did not fail us.  I ask you to join me in resolving not to fail Him.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

When My Heart Stops Breaking, It’s Time to Leave

For nearly 26 years I have worked with people who have pushed their own self-destruct buttons, fought without success to break the fetters of addiction and suffered from the callousness of a society that prefers to keep its distance from them.

For nearly 26 years my heart has been broken over and over again. With each new crisis in the life of a person we serve, I re-live the heartbreaks of the past.

As I prepare to visit yet another friend going through a tragedy of monumental proportions (sorry, but I can’t tell you about it right now) a part of me can’t help but pray for a healthy dose of “professional detachment”. That part of me yearns to be able to seal this sad situation in a box that I open only when necessary. The rest of the time I can go on my merry way oblivious to the anguish as I perform the more mundane tasks of ministry.

But is that what I really want?

Is it better to keep that emotional distance, or is it better to feel the pain?  I confess that sometimes I “grow weary in well-doing” and even dream of days without a phone call or vision of someone’s suffering or desperate need,  but over the years I have made a discovery:

Walking with people through their pain, sharing grief in their defeats and joy in their victories is the fuel for my passion.

God’s vision for this ministry is the engine and the Holy Spirit is the spark that gets things started every day. But it’s my passion for the people we serve, our staff, volunteers and donors that keeps the engine running on what has become a very long trip.  And I think I have enough fuel to go just a little farther.

God help me if I lose that passion.  God help me if my heart stops breaking.  When that happens it will be time to leave.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

 

An Outrageous Challenge to Christians – What If?

I read a portion of a letter dated March 1, 1775 from John Wesley that struck a nerve with me.  Here is what it said:

As to the public affairs, I wish you to be like minded with me. I am of neither side and yet of both… Private Christians are excused, exempted, privileged to take no part in civil troubles. We love and pray for all with a sincere and impartial love. Faults there may be on both sides but such as neither you nor I can remedy; therefore, let us and all our children give ourselves unto prayer and so stand still and see the salvation of God.

Our country is in strife, although it has seen worse strife.  Remember that time about 150 years ago when a half million of us died at each other’s hands?  Or that time about 240 years ago when we took up arms against each other?

Wesley wrote his letter during a time of great strife and made a bold request to the Christians of the age. Most did not heed his counsel, but the proposition got me to thinking about what would happen if we did that now.

What if we as Christians took a break from fighting battles on issues to focus on prayer?

What if we as Christians sincerely prayed for those who oppose us, not asking God to destroy them or even see our way, but to somehow discover Jesus?

What if we as Christians held our tongues for just a season and gave God a chance to make His voice heard above the din of disagreement?

What if we as Christians could put aside our human tendency to “get even” and offer that undeserved merit we call grace?

What if we as Christians really got to know our opponents to find those things on which we can agree and build a dialog from there?

What if we as Christians started a national “Offer Grace Day” where we made a concerted effort to offer kindness to our enemies? Jesus said something about that, didn’t He?

I know this is extreme. And I have no idea how the world would respond if we did this en masse or even if they would notice, but God would notice. We would notice, and perhaps, just perhaps, we might be changed.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

Extraordinarily Ordinary

I love living on the edge, pushing the envelope of my faith in my service to Jesus through Teens Opposing Poverty.  I can identify with those who make a call for “radical Christianity.”  But my chosen vocation and avocation are not for every Christian.

Each year, we see over 1,500 youth and adult volunteers serve the poor through our ministry. The vast majority of them won’t choose full-time ministry as their vocation.  The adults have normal jobs and the youth are getting through school.  When they graduate, most of the youth will get jobs and raise families, just like their unbelieving neighbors.  Hopefully, they will stay in the church.

In other words, they will live ordinary lives.

Kristen is an adult volunteer with one of the groups that is involved in our motel ministry. She met a couple at one of the motels and they became close friends.  Kristen has advocated for them, helped the wife get a set of dentures, visits them on a regular basis and invites them to special occasions in her life.  She leads and ordinary life, but by just becoming a caring friend she has done something extraordinary.

If you follow Jesus, you will be anything but ordinary.  The Holy Spirit can guide you to those wonderful, small acts that can impact the lives of others. Living a life filled with righteousness, love, grace, mercy and justice will make you stick out like a sore thumb even if you don’t abandon the ‘burbs for a radical life with the rural or urban poor. You can be a disciple maker and witness for Christ right where you are. Just be true to Him.

People everywhere need a dose of God’s grace, a friend, a listening ear, wise counsel from the Bible, a word of encouragement, a smile on a really bad day and…well, you get the picture.  It doesn’t take much to be extraordinarily ordinary.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

 

Emotional Gas

Two churches were sharing the duties of the ministry trip for Teens Opposing Poverty on a cool Sunday afternoon.  One brought the hot dogs. The other brought the chili.

We served about 30-40 homeless people in McPherson Square, just a few blocks from the White House. There were no long lines, no rush.  They just kind of trickled in for food.  The atmosphere was relaxed. Our volunteers had lots of opportunities to connect with the people they served..

As we transitioned from mostly serving to mostly talking and visiting, David, Oliver and I stood between the chili and hot dog stations.  Oliver was bringing us up to date on his decision to propose to his girlfriend and told us how good he was feeling right now.  He suffers from a number of chronic health problems.

After some unrelated small talk, the discussion turned to household bills.  David shared the recent break he had gotten on his gas bill.  Oliver was lamenting that the gas company estimates his bill every other month and they always overcharge him. One month he will have a huge bill, the next month he will have a huge credit.

As they continued their conversation, a wave of emotion swept over me.

I have known both of these men for over 10 years. They both used to be homeless, trapped in the prisons of their addictions.  I watched how God used our friendship, relationships they formed with our volunteers and other influences to get their heads and hearts in the right place so they could endure the rigors of overcoming their homelessness.  It wasn’t an easy road for either of them.  There were setbacks too numerous to mention, but they persevered. They beat the streets.

And now they were talking about their gas bills.

I put my hands on their shoulders, looked at them, smiled and asked, “Ten years ago, could you have ever imagined you would be having this conversation right now?”

They they looked at me and at each other. In nearly perfect unison they smiled and said, “Never.”

Who would have ever thought someone could be grateful for a gas bill?

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

 

30 Years – Part 4 – Where the Rubber Meets the Road

This is the last in a series of self-indulgent blogs celebrating the 30th Anniversary of my new life in Christ. Check out Teens Opposing Poverty’s Blog for the rest of the story. 

February brought with it the formal filing of divorce papers.  Ever since my “warm honey” experience in November, I had been free of my angst over the situation.  I thought nothing else would bother me about it.

I was wrong.

As I signed the divorce papers, I was overwhelmed with a sense that I was a failure.  Instead of signing my name, I thought I should have written “LOSER.” My feelings took me by surprise and threw me into another funk. It wasn’t the mind-numbing emotional pain I had felt before, but it wore me down nonetheless.

Hoping to change my attitude, I dug into my research with gusto. By Groundhog Day, I had concluded that Christianity, the faith of my childhood, made the most sense both intellectually and in the way it fit with my experiences over the previous three months.

Once I embraced following Jesus on an intellectual level, it was up to the Holy Spirit for my faith to travel that short, but obstacle strewn, path to my heart.

I can’t tell you the date or even what week it was, just that it was February. I remember that it was a clear, dry day and I was cleaning stalls in the barn of my parents’ horse farm. I had scooped up a fork full of horse manure and stood there staring at it with the words “failure” and “loser” filling my mind. I looked at the manure and thought, “This is your life. This is what you are on your own.”

I continued to stare at the manure when, all of a sudden, memories of sitting with my grandfather watching Billy Graham Crusades flooded my thoughts.  I could see the crowds shuffling down the aisle toward the platform.  I remembered the prayer of salvation.

It was time.

“Jesus, without You my life has turned to this. What scares me is that I know I can go lower, and I don’t want that to happen. I know I’m a mess. I know I’m a screw-up. I know I’m a sinner, but You want me despite all of that.  I guess that’s what I see in you that’s so great. I’m yours. You paid a huge price for me. Forgive me for turning away from you and all the other sins I have committed. I can’t begin to count them.  Do what You will with me. You lead. I’ll follow.”

I dumped the manure into the wheelbarrow.  To be honest, I didn’t feel that much different. I just knew I had done the right thing; the best thing. The wild adventures of faith that would follow over the next thirty years and the ones still ahead continue to convince me that I chose the best path.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org