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

And Now for Something a Little Different

The sunlight was as cold and barren as the naked trees in Franklin Square, just a few blocks from the White House. It seemed to offer no respite from the chilly breeze that blew through the park.  John and Walter stood with cups of hot chili in their hands and their collars turned up to keep their necks warm.

 We engaged in small talk for a while.  Both men answered questions and offered opinions between bites of chili and a never-ceasing stream of thank-yous.  Walter talked excitedly about starting a new job after more than two years of searching. 

 John fell silent as Walter spoke.  He cast his eyes into his cup of chili like he was looking for a bit of cracker floating in it.  After a few minutes, John began to share his struggle to find a job.  As the frustration in his voice grew, he stopped eating the chili and spread his arms in a gesture of desperation.

 “No matter where I go, no matter where I apply, I can’t get a job! I’ve filled in over 200 applications and still nothing,” he lamented.  “Because I have a prison record, I can’t even get a job at McDonalds! I served my time.  I paid my debt to society.  Why can’t I get a break?”

 That conversation took place in 1999 during a strong economy.  Jobs were plentiful, but not for John.  His words have haunted me ever since.

 How many people languish in poverty because, no matter how hard they try, they can’t get a job?  Prison record, lack of education, lack of job skills, mental illness and other obstacles create dim prospects for tens of thousands of poor people. Many have marketable skills and talents, but a job is still out of reach for them. 

 That conversation spurred me to look for a way that someone in John’s shoes can learn how to earn an income regardless of their background or mental state.

 Recently, I discovered eBay Giving Works, the nonprofit arm of the giant online auction.  I also began researching Etsy, a marketing system for arts and crafts, the Amazon Marketplace, Fulfillment by Amazon, and other Internet-based commerce platforms.  I believe these methods can provide additional support for TOP and help homeless and other poor people we serve step up the ladder to a better life.  

 We have named this effort TOPwerx. We are launching it right now.  In the first stage, our staff will learn the techniques of selling online. Our initial approach will be sort of an online thrift store, except we won’t sell everything through one site.  We’ll use whatever platform best suits a product. 

As we learn the ins-and-outs of online commerce, we will develop a training program.  Once a core curriculum is in place, we plan to help 2 – 3 clients through a pilot program.  During this stage we will fine tune the system and make careful notes on outcomes.  We plan to bring in youth volunteers wherever we can during the process, especially when we teach computer skills. Finally, we will seek grants to expand so we can serve more people and increase support for TOP at the same time.

 How You Can Help

We are looking for donated items to sell.  Games, toys, tools, horse supplies, electronics, textbooks, reference books, shoes, clothing and anything else you can imagine selling on eBay.  We can arrange pickup in Northern Virginia, the Northern Shenandoah Valley and DC.  If you are somewhere else in the region contact us.  Our goal is to find a repository for donated items in every city where we work.

We are also looking for people who have experience selling on eBay, Half.com, Etsy.com, Amazon Marketplace or Fulfillment by Amazon to help shorten the learning curve for us.

 Please pray that TOPwerx will become an opportunity for those who have little hope in the job market and that it will help TOP expand its ministry with “the least of these.”

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director


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