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

30 Years – Part 1 – Flashback

In February 1983 I gave my heart and life to Jesus Christ. These last 30 years have been a wild ride and an adventure I will never regret. Please permit me a little self-indulgent reflection on how all of this came about.

My faith journey began as a child.  Our family went to church; I went through confirmation class and professed my faith in Christ in 1965. But as I entered my teen years, I abandoned the faith of my childhood. By the time I started college I gave no thought to the things of God and doubted whether one even existed. Darwinian evolution was the foundation of my understanding of the origins of life. Naturalism was the lens through which I viewed the world.

Until my junior year, nothing had shaken that perspective. Then I took Dr. Watson’s physiology class where I gained an appreciation of how we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. I marveled at the intricate complexity of the human body and rejected the ridiculous, irrational claims of evolution. We cannot go “from goo to you by way of the zoo” as Frank Peretti puts it.

My rejection of Darwinian evolution had nothing to do with faith or religion. It just no longer made sense.

As an Animal Science student, I could see how an animal from the same family or genus might evolve into different species. Even many creationists believe in that process of speciation or microevolution. That is simply an extension of selective breeding that we use in livestock. You start with a genetically diverse animal. As you select for certain traits you concentrate some genetic traits and eliminate others.  But the idea that you can start with a genetically simple organism, such as a single-celled animal, that rapidly evolves into a genetically more complex organism didn’t (and still doesn’t) make sense.

So where did that leave me?

The only conclusion I could come to was that we are products of a brilliant design. If we are designed there must be a designer. And so I took my first baby steps on my journey of faith. Those steps had no impact on how I lived my life, but I went from being an atheist (or something akin to it) to being an agnostic.  Little did I know what God had in store for me.

Next: Part 2 – The November to Remember

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

An Exercise in Thanksgiving

In 25 years of ministry with homeless people, one of the greatest lessons I have learned is gratitude for the little things.  I thought I would share with you what I’m thankful for first thing in the morning. But instead of just being thankful, I thought it might be a more fulfilling exercise to pray for others who don’t share my blessings.

 I’m thankful I woke up this morning in a warm house.

  • I pray for the families of those who recently lost a loved one.
  • I pray for those who have to work long hours or who are going through trials and got no sleep.
  • I pray for those who have no home and for those who can’t afford to heat their homes.

 

I’m thankful for my wife, who is sleeping beside me, and my daughter, still asleep in her room.

  • I pray for people who are lonely.

 

I’m thankful I got out of bed.

  • I pray for those who sleep on the streets and have no bed
  • I pray for those who are bedridden. Lord grant them peace and strength.

 

I’m thankful for going to the bathroom (no, I’m not kidding)

  • I pray for those who can’t walk to their bathrooms or anywhere.
  • I pray for those who call a stream or a hole in the ground their bathroom.
  • I pray for those who suffer from infirmities that take away life’s most basic functions.

 

 I’m thankful for hot coffee and a tall glass of clean water.

  • I pray for those who have little in this world to give them comfort or pleasure.
  • I pray for those who must drink contaminated water and suffer the diseases that it gives them.

 

 I’m thankful for the Bible I get to read every day.

  • I pray for those who have never read this love letter from God
  • I pray for those who have read the Bible and have rejected its wonderful message.
  • I pray for those who earnestly desire a Bible but can’t get one.

 

I’m thankful for my relationship with Jesus and the opportunity to spend time with Him each day.

  • I pray for those who have never heard the Good News.
  • I pray for missionaries and evangelists who spread the Gospel around the world.
  • I pray for those who have turned their backs on the most beautiful relationship a human can experience.
  • I pray for people who do not have the freedom to worship God.

 

I’m thankful for the Holy Spirit, who leads me, guides me and strengthens me.

  • I pray for those who are wandering aimlessly through life.  Lord, grant them purpose.
  • I pray for people who try to live their lives without following the Lord’s leading.

 

 I’m thankful for my brief workout in the morning.

  • I pray for those who have lost the use of their limbs and who suffer from other conditions that prevent them from doing even the most basic things in life.

 

 I’m thankful for eggs and fruit for breakfast.

  • I pray for people who might go through this day with no food.

 

That covers the first couple of hours of my day.  I think the full day would be a rather lengthy blog, but you get the idea.

Take time to be thankful for the little things and say a prayer for those who can’t share your blessings.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

A Step Up the Ladder

Have you ever wondered why, despite all of the programs and ministries out there that poverty is still so rampant in our culture?  Recession and slow-to-nonexistent recovery aside, there are many obstacles to overcome before most of the poor can achieve a better lifestyle.

Ladder Out of Poverty
The Ladder Out of Poverty

The diagram is my feeble attempt to show at least some of the points where those of us working with the poor must connect in order to play our part in helping to lift even one person out of poverty.

Each rung of the ladder represents a level of ministry. In truth, many of these levels may overlap.  It’s not necessarily a sequential path, but generally, all of these things must happen to see desirable outcomes for each person we serve.

The bottom rung of ministry has to happen before anything else will work.  How can you expect anyone to make progress if they don’t have enough clothes to wear, a roof over their heads or food to eat?  In all honesty, I have seen dozens of people scratch and claw their way out of poverty without a home, but some protection from the elements is still essential.

Once we meet the basic needs of the people we serve, we must help them get into a place mentally, emotionally and spiritually where they can focus and push through the setbacks they will most certainly experience, whether due to their own failures or to circumstances beyond their control.  This is the rung where those of us at Teens Opposing Poverty place most of our emphasis.  We offer encouragement and Jesus.  Without enough resolve and faith, it will be difficult for anyone to climb to the next rung.

When someone is ready to take on the challenges, they can begin taking advantage of the opportunities for work, housing, rehabilitation or education they will need to “beat the streets.” This stage is where we see most people fall off the ladder.

I never cease to be amazed at the hardships our friends experience when they try to move on to a better life. Here is where those of us in ministry with the poor need to continue to believe in the people we serve, help them believe in themselves and remind them that they have something bigger than themselves to live for. When they slip off this rung, they don’t have to fall off the ladder.  Our job is to catch them at the next rung down and refuel their hearts, minds and souls so they can try again.

The top rung is where the poor can move to a better life.  Mind you, we need to be careful to allow the person we are serving to determine what that better life is.  Some people may be fine without indoor plumbing, but our job may be to help them get to where they can meet their other needs on their own.  Our work in ministry with the poor often doesn’t end when they get to this rung of the ladder.  Sometimes we have to push them to step out of their comfort zones or pull them along with us to take that next big step in life.  Or our job at this point may simply be to follow them on their journey and never stop being a friend.

Holding the rungs of the ladder together are “Resources” and “Served to Servant.” All along the climb up the ladder, those of us in ministry will have to provide resources.  It may be stuff for basic needs or it may be information to help someone continue the climb.  The other support that holds the ladder upright is made up of opportunities to encourage those we serve to become fellow servants.  When the poor cease to be objects of our charity and begin giving of themselves, big things begin to happen.  The opportunities for this can come anywhere along the climb up the ladder.

In TOP’s ministry, it can start with a homeless man sharing the mistakes he made in his life with the youth who are serving him.  In a rural setting it might mean someone who takes on the responsibility of managing a community garden.

I hope you see a place along this ladder where you can help bring someone to a better place in life.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

Dear Congress

Generally, I steer clear of politics.  It’s such a divisive subject.  But today I’m going to make an exception. As I write this, we are hot and heavy into the 2012 campaign season.  Print media and the airwaves are rife with lies, mischaracterizations, logical fallacies, mud slingslinging and other intellectual pablum designed to get supporters to the polls and turn the hearts of the undecided.

But there is a gorilla in the room people aren’t talking about.  It is a package of budget cuts and other painful economic measures that will hit us next year if Congress and the President fail to pass a responsible budget.  The fallout from their failure to act has the potential to drive this country into yet another deep recession. So herewith is my plea to our elected representatives.

Dear Congress:

As you campaign, remember that you have pushed this country to the brink of a fiscal cliff.  Please get off your ideologies, cooperate, and pass a responsible budget.  You really don’t have to wait until after the election to do something.  I’m sure the American people will be perfectly happy if we don’t have to live through yet another display of childish brinkmanship. You can do something now.  Yeah, I know that’s wishful thinking, but it’s such a nice dream.

There is enough poverty in our country.  We don’t need you to add to it.  We understand some of us may lose tax loopholes, and some of us may lose government services.  We’ll live. The alternative is an economic disaster that will throw more people into poverty than you can imagine.  So please, grow up, play nice and get something accomplished for a change.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

Open the Door and Walk Down the Street

For the first time, Teens Opposing Poverty has coordinated a week-long mission outreach to the homeless in Washington, DC.  Part of the week’s activities included visiting other organizations that work poor and homeless people.

 We visited So Others Might Eat (SOME) and DC Central Kitchen. Both of these organizations do incredible work for the poor and homeless.  DC Central Kitchen provides 5,000 meals a day that are served through a variety of soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels and other programs.  They also have a training program that moves people from homelessness to employment (at a living wage) in the food service industry.  SOME has a soup kitchen, food pantry, clothes closet, low income housing, a warehouse full of furniture and other essential items and a long-term rehab program, along with providing medical, dental and mental health care.

 The people who took us on our tours were passionate about what they do and totally focused on their mission. 

 That is a good thing and a not-so-good thing.

 It’s good because passion and focus on your mission may be the only motivations to carry you through tough times when you are in the nonprofit world. It also keeps all of us who work with an organization or ministry on track.   I am often the same way with TOP, and it has been an important reason why we have stayed alive during the lean seasons.

 But that kind of focus can also be a negative.  We (fingers pointing back to me) too readily put on blinders and fail to connect with our fellow servants.  Thus we often re-invent the wheel, creating unnecessary duplication of services. 

 I’ve had people suggest that we do all sorts of things to combat poverty from job training to setting up day centers for the homeless to transitional housing.  In my wild imaginings I picture TOP doing those things. But other people are already doing that, and it’s not our mission.  We are often the first point of contact for the people we serve.  Our job is to encourage them, find out what keeps them on the street, and point them to the resources that help them into a new life.

 Getting to know other organizations helps us to do a better job of fulfilling our mission and opens our eyes to new possibilities in how we serve others. A fringe benefit of this interaction is that we learn things that help us do a better job of running the organization.

 If you’re involved in a church or nonprofit organization, I challenge you to open the door and walk down the street to other churches and nonprofits and groups who serve the people you serve.  Learn what they do and how they do it.  Don’t be afraid to form partnerships and cross referrals.  Every once in awhile take off the blinders of passion for your own organization and learn a little from others. You’ll be glad you did.

 God’s grace to you

Steve Jennings

www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

How Long Will You Hide?

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Psalm 13:1 (NIV)

David, the King of Israel and psalmist,  penned these words about 3,000 years ago, but some things never change. If you live long enough, chances are you will go through at least one time of trouble that will leave you feeling the same way.

You know what it’s like, don’t you? You feel stuck in a hole with no way out. It beats you down. It takes a toll on your mind, body and soul. You feel overwhelmed, frustrated, drained, desperate and angry all at the same time.

It’s awful.

For most of us this pain, and the situation that causes it, will pass. But others get no reprieve.  Broken relationships, addiction, chronic sickness, long-term unemployment and poverty can drive people into the dark pit of despair for a lifetime.

How do they respond? They adapt. Their tough situation in life becomes the “new normal” and they learn how to live in their dark place. They try and fail to “get over the hump” so often that they give up. Once they reach this state of mind, any efforts they make to improve their lives are tainted by the expectation that they will fail again. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can’t count how many homeless people I have worked with over the last 25 years who have given up trying to get out of their situations. They have embraced the belief that God has hidden His face from them and will forget them forever. For them, it takes a bonfire instead of a spark to light the fire of hope.

And yet that fire can still be lit, even in the heart of someone who has been homeless for 10, 20 or 30 years. I have had the unspeakable joy of seeing it happen.

That is where you and I come in. We can light the fire through friendship, exploring possibilities, re-igniting dreams and showing them that maybe- just maybe- God hasn’t forgotten them after all.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

What I Learned from My Dog

Mandy the Little Lady

As the vet was preparing the injections that would end her life, our dog, Mandy, laid her little head on my hand.  With tears flowing, my wife, daughter and I were all gently petting her as she took her last, small breath.

 Mandy had fought a cancerous nasal tumor for a year.  The veterinarian had told us she might last 6 months if we gave her a high-dose radiation treatment.  We refused, and took a natural course that kept her happy and content until the last couple of weeks of her life.  Oh, she had some rough spells, but she would always bounce back. 

 Finally, dental disease we couldn’t treat, combined with the cancer, brought her to a point where she could only eat a little bit at a time.  She began to lose weight quickly, but still was our bright, cuddly puppy.  It wasn’t until the last few days of her life that she grew despondent. On the last day, her expression took on a distant sadness, and she sought out hidden places to curl up and die.  Before we put her in the truck for her final ride, she let us know that she had made her decision about life.  How could we not honor that?

Like most dogs, Mandy loved her family.  Every time we came home she acted like she hadn’t seen us for months even if we had only been gone an hour or two.  If we did something that hurt her, she quickly forgave us like nothing had ever happened.  She loved attention and food more than anything in the world.  A few pets and a full belly was all it took to make her happy.  It makes me want to re-think my desires in life.  Maybe I want a bit too much.  I’ll admit that I might want more than a tummy rub to experience the richest joys in life but do I really need all the stuff I think I need?

 During her illness, Mandy taught us how to face adversity with courage, taking it in stride. Even on her bad days, she would still come up for petting and greet us when we came home.  She didn’t stop trying to get the most out of life just because she was going through hard times.  Mandy looked for, and discovered, every little positive when almost everything around her was negative.

 But the greatest lesson Mandy taught me was a trait she possessed that was rare even for dogs. She loved ALL people.  When Mandy was young, we kept one of Lindsey’s little friends with us for a weekend.  I have to confess that the child was incorrigible the whole weekend.  At one point, I heard Mandy squealing in pain and ran in the next room to find Lindsey’s friend pulling as hard as she could on her ears.  I know a lot of dogs would have would have tried to bite or attack to protect themselves.  But not Mandy.  She never made any attempt to hurt that child.

 God loves all people, regardless of how they look or smell, whether they’re nice or nasty, rich or poor, liberal or conservative (although some of you may disagree with that last one).  My little Mandy demonstrated that kind of love more than any earthly creature I have ever seen.  She never judged anybody and would show love to everybody.  That didn’t make her much of a guard dog, but it sure endeared her to a lot of people.

 So as I take these sentimental moments to reflect on the life of my little dog, my prayer is that I can learn to love all people half as much as she did.

 God’s grace to you,

 Steve Jennings, Executive Director

What Difference Do We Make?

Yesterday, I did a Q&A during the Youth Sunday Service at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. One of the teens asked me this question: “What difference does TOP make in the lives of the homeless?”

I can’t remember my exact words, but here is the gist of my answer with a few things I wish I would have said:

TOP helps homeless people in two ways. First, we meet material needs by providing food, clothing, toiletries, packs and bags and other needed items. Over the years we have learned of things that are constantly in need, such as socks and underwear. We take these simple articles of clothing for granted, but they are often the very essence of human dignity for someone living on the street. People on the street also need help with transportation. In Washington, DC, the homeless can get three meals a day IF they can get to all the places that serve. Most of them can’t or won’t spend the time and energy it takes to get to meal programs if they have to walk. In 2007 we surveyed over 100 homeless people, and 68% ate only one meal a day on a frequent basis (3 or more times a week).

In my opinion, our focus on offering hope, friendship and encouragement is even more important than meeting the material needs. Something as simple as eye contact, a smile or a touch on the shoulder can mean the world to a homeless person. All week long they are herded like cattle or ignored. It’s dehumanizing. I have spent days and nights on the street with my homeless friends. Most of the time, people just walked past, deliberately turning their attention away from us. Even during these short stints on the street, I could feel my sense of worth fading. Something as simple as a smile and “how are you today?” was very uplifting.

No job training program, drug or alcohol program or any other program is going to work for homeless people without hope and believing that they can succeed. This is a huge, and often overlooked, obstacle to success. It takes consistent encouragement and an investment in their lives to instill this hope in people who have been downtrodden. It requires a relationship.

So what does TOP do? We meet physical needs and we are agents of joy, encouragement, grace, friendship and hope. Does it make a difference? You bet it does. Just ask our friends on the street and the ones who have made it off.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings
Executive Director