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

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



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



30 Years – Part 3 – The Search (continued)

Around Christmas 1982, I picked up a book my grandfather had given me that had sat unread on my bookshelf since I was 12. It was “All the Apostles of the Bible” by Herbert Lockyear.  I pored over the accounts of the lives and martyrdom of Jesus’ disciples and the generation of Apostles that followed them. They suffered tremendously for the gospel.  Most of them died horrible deaths in order to share Jesus with the world.

Would they die for a lie?

Would they deny themselves the core comforts their civilization provided for something they knew to be false?  I know I wouldn’t.  If they had achieved great earthly gain, I would have continued to question the validity of the resurrection, but their sacrifices reached across the millennia to satisfy my doubts.

On Christmas Eve, I took the Bible I had received when I joined the church in 1965. I opened the red cover and smiled as I looked at the inscription that had misspelled my name.  Then I headed to the second chapter of Luke and looked at the wax stains on the page from where I had set the Bible in front of some candles as a Christmas decoration in my room many years before. It was time this book stopped being a decoration and started giving me some answers. I started reading.

Over the next week I read the four Gospels and the book of Acts. The words of Jesus made sense. If everybody lived according to His teaching, the world would be a much better place. I marveled at His parables and contemplated His words.  I also discovered that my understanding of Jesus as somewhat of a wimp was totally out of step with the man revealed in the pages of that long-dormant Book.

Throughout January I continued to read and compare. I reflected on the things that Mary said in our conversations that seemed to be just the thing I needed to hear, and I began to hurl questions at my grandfather.  I didn’t stop studying other faiths, but I began to feel an irresistible pull toward Jesus.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

 If you haven’t gotten the rest of the story, here are the links.





30 Years – Part 2 – November to Remember

I was still reeling from the separation and impending divorce from my first wife. I had never experienced that much emotional pain.  Something like this was never supposed to happen to me, but it did.

At first, I didn’t deal with it well at all. I couldn’t think straight. I had forgotten what a decent night’s sleep was like.  There was this huge, black hole in my heart, filled only with anger, an engulfing sense of unworthiness, and betrayal. 

I hated November 1982. I thought it was the end of love in my life, but it was really the beginning of the most life-altering love I would ever experience. I just couldn’t see it then. The month that began in misery ended with events that would point me down a path of adventure I never could have foreseen.

My newly estranged wife stayed at our house in Richmond.  I moved back in with my parents in northern Virginia; yet another blow to my young adult sense of self-worth. From there, I began planning to head to Texas to work on a horse ranch and test an ovulation detector for horses I was working on with a bio-engineering professor at Virginia Tech. We never could get the thing to give us a stable enough reading, but that’s another story.

I connected with a large horse breeding operation in Texas and started putting things together in November.  On one of my trips to Tech to work on the ovulation detector, I visited my major professor from graduate school and updated him on what was happening. He told me that Mary Ashby, another graduate of the Animal Science Department was working in that area and gave me her phone number.  Perhaps she could help me find a place to live.

The next day I called her.  We had met before but I didn’t know her.  She was helpful and friendly as I shared my plans. I even felt comfortable enough with her to mention my separation from my wife.

In that conversation, something strange happened.  Mary just mentioned “God” in passing.  Normally that would have passed my ears without any consideration, but when she said that word, I became VERY uncomfortable.  After I hung up the phone, I thought, “Whoa, what was THAT about? Why did I get so uncomfortable?”

Next: 30 Years – Part 2 – November to Remember – Continued

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director


The Power of Friendship

The one aspect of TOP’s ministry that has the greatest impact on the poor and on our volunteers can’t be measured or quantified, but it truly changes lives. It’s friendship.

Homeless and poor people spend much of their lives dodging the boulders that the world throws at them. When this happens day after day, they feel tired and beaten.  Often they are ignored or herded like cattle in order to receive the goods and services that keep them alive. It’s dehumanizing to say the least. Just having somebody who will look them in the eye, smile, or give an affirming touch is enough to change their week or their lives.  This encouragement can happen at a first meeting.  But when young people and the poor develop deeper friendships, incredible things can happen.

The benefits of friendship with the poor and homeless go beyond being a bright spot and having warm, fuzzy feelings. For some homeless people, friendships with teens have created a positive accountability. They don’t want to let their young friends down. That sense of obligation has helped several men I know kick a drug or alcohol habit and stay clean.

Another benefit to homeless and poor people is having someone outside their peer group to cheer them on and encourage them when they are down. Here is where teens really shine in their ministry. They don’t judge. They don’t condemn. They listen, try to understand and offer hope. When a homeless man gives up after being knocked down for the fourth or fifth time in a year, that word of encouragement from a teen can be enough to get him to try again.

Through our friendships we earn the right to share the good news of Jesus.  Many nonbelieving homeless and poor people have heard the gospel or read a tract, but they haven’t seen Jesus at work in the people who serve them.  Once they see perfect agape love in action, many are more receptive to hearing about the source of that powerful love.

Never underestimate the power of friendship. It’s the key that opens the door to transformation and hope. 

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

 Teens Opposing Poverty

Fly By Evangelism

I watched the small group of young adults huddle in the corner of McPherson Square, just two blocks from the White House.  They each had a small paper bag filled with something.  After some excited discussion, they prayed and started walking toward groups of homeless people scattered throughout the park.  They reached into their bags, handed everyone something and said a couple of words.  Within 5 minutes they had completed their task and left the park.


One by one, most of the homeless men in the park either dropped their new treasure on the ground or tossed it into a trash can.  The “treasure” was a gospel tract.  It was the “This Was Your Life” tract.  I looked around the park to see if anybody was reading the tract they were given.  Not a single person was reading it.


At that moment, I was embarrassed for Jesus.  Have we learned nothing from His example?  Look at each encounters He had with people; the woman at the well, the 10 lepers, the rich, young ruler, the blind beggar, the lame man by the pool.  He invested His time in each of these people and met them at their point of need.  By meeting them at their point of need most of them believed in Him.  OK, so the rich young ruler walked away.  It just goes to show you that some peoples’ hearts are hardened to the point where they can’t change.  Accept it and move on.


Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) we don’t have the ability to peer into the peoples’ souls.  So it may take us a little longer than our Lord to figure out a person’s real needs.  But when we meet those needs, we earn the right to share the Gospel in power.


During Advent, we read with nostalgia the words from John’s Gospel: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The Word of God must still become flesh to poor and hurting people before they can turn their troubles, fears, hearts and lives to the One who, better than any of us, can turn their lives around.  God’s Word becomes flesh through us.  Do you want to win the hearts of poor people for Christ?  You show them Christ first.  Then you can fill in the blanks with words.


God’s grace to you,


Steve Jennings

Win the Battle – Lose the War

Pro-family forces have been giving themselves high-fives since the 2008 elections when Proposition 8 in California and other pro-family referenda passed.  Tens of millions of dollars were pumped into these campaigns.  The victories were exhilarating for pro-family advocates who have fought long and hard to bring about change in public policy.


What difference will it make?  Will the passage of Proposition 8 or the other pro-family initiatives cause even one homosexual to abandon that lifestyle?  I doubt it.


Now don’t get me wrong.  Advocacy for change in public policy has its place in the “culture wars.”   I’m not suggesting we should just roll over and let the “other side” have their way in the legislatures and courts, whatever the issue may be.  As Americans we have a right and a responsibility to work within our political and judicial systems for what we believe in.  But I am suggesting that this type of advocacy shouldn’t be our first priority if we truly want to change the culture.  That is not how the Christian faith works.


The growing popularity of pushing for change in the political/judicial arena has supplanted, for many Christians, the real work of advancing the cause of Christ.  We may feel that we are fulfilling our calling in Christ by participating in marches, contacting our legislative representatives or giving our time, talent and treasure to advocacy organizations.  It’s a cleaner, more glamorous way return our nation to its Christian roots.  The problem is that if we rely on changing our country this way, we will certainly fail.


The real work of the Gospel isn’t so clean or glamorous.  It’s often dirty, unrewarding and invisible to most people in this country.  We have to get involved in the lives of others and make ourselves vulnerable to the disappointments and emotional risks of real relationships with people who aren’t like us.  But more than advocacy, more than preaching and Christian media, it is through relationships that we change our world.  It may not seem like much to our number-obsessed American minds, but God has made clear that each human life, each human heart, is precious to Him. 


I use Proposition 8 merely as an example.  The same principle applies to all the other issues in which Christians stake out a moral position, whether it be racial injustice, poverty, international oppression, human rights or abortion.  The only way to truly bring about change in the lives of most people is to show them, one-on-one, the better love that comes through a real realtionship with Jesus Christ and His followers.  You can’t do that through the courts or referenda.  It can only happen one heart at a time.  When you change each heart, you come just a little closer to changing the culture.


God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings