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

 

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

 

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

 

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.

 http://teensopposingpoverty.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/30-years-part-1-flashback/

http://teensopposingpoverty.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/30-years-part-2-november-to-remember/

http://teensopposingpoverty.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/30-years-november-to-remember-continued/

http://teensopposingpoverty.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/30-years-part-3-the-search/

30 Years – Part 3 – The Search

After the events of November 1982, I spent some time searching. I wanted to know this God who had revealed Himself to me as a personal God.

The only religion I was familiar with was Christianity, but I didn’t immediately turn to this “default religion.” The search I was about to undertake wasn’t just about finding a set of beliefs I was comfortable with; it was about finding the truth.

So I spent the next few months studying religions, New Age, Wicca and other even more esoteric belief systems. I rejected out-of-hand the ones based on “human potential” and those that weren’t based on a god you could relate to on a personal level. My own experience belied those choices.

During my search, God continued to drop divine guideposts on my path to point me to Him. One of those guideposts was Mary Ashby.  As we talked on the phone about arrangements for my move to Texas, she shared brief nuggets of treasure about her faith. I found myself looking forward to our conversations.

Another guidepost was my grandfather, Rupert Kincer. He was a strong-willed man with a powerful faith in Jesus.  He knew the Bible inside and out, and fearlessly shared Christ with whoever would listen.  Not only did his personal relationship with God impact me, but he had given me some books years before that I had never read.  One of them, in particular, would have an impact on my decision.

At first I didn’t think Christianity was unique among religions, but as I examined it more closely I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. Every other belief system I studied was based on laws, rules or levels of consciousness. Attainment of rewards ultimately depended on the believer’s discipline or adherence to a standard. In most of them, the believer could call on divine help to achieve the goal, and all of them had the potential to grant their followers a level of purpose and contentment. 

As I continued my search, something kept pulling me back to the faith of my childhood. When I began my close study of the core tenets of Christianity, it all made sense.  First, it recognizes that we are all imperfect, and as long as we are in this tent of flesh we will always be imperfect. In looking at myself, people I knew and the world around me, that was an obvious truth.  The Christian faith also recognizes that we cannot attain holiness and righteousness in our own power. Reaping the rewards of the faith does not depend on our abilities. It depends on how much of ourselves we surrender to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Our salvation comes through the works of another who was worthy.

Christianity’s accurate assessment of the human condition pulled me strongly in its direction. But I still had a problem accepting the resurrection. For some reason, I found that proposition hard to swallow.  Little did I know that God would answer my concerns.

More searching to come.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

 

30 Years – November to Remember (continued)

Fast forward to the weekend before Thanksgiving.  I had dropped back into my funky fog as I was headed south on Interstate 81 to Tech. I was indulging in my pity party when I saw the blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror.

I pulled over.

The state trooper asked, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“No sir.” I answered

“You were going 14 miles an hour over the speed limit. I tracked you for over three miles at that speed. Were you in a hurry?”

“No. Just going through a tough spot.  I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”

I put the ticket in the glove box and headed more cautiously down the road, fighting back anger at myself for letting my problems get to me so badly. For the first time since I was a young boy, I prayed.

“OK, God. I’m a mess. I don’t know if you’re a personal God or just some cosmic force.  If you’re real, now would be a great time to prove it.”

I finished my meeting in Blacksburg and headed to the nearby town of Dublin to spend the night with my grandmother. My uncle was there, too.  He had come down for a hunting trip.

That night we had a delicious dinner of wild turkey.  As we ate, I noticed my uncle drinking a lot of water.  He was diabetic and I knew what was going on.

When we were out of earshot of my grandmother, I said, “Your blood sugar’s all out of whack. Do I need to take you to the hospital?”

Nah, I’ll be alright.  I cut back on my insulin when I hunt. This morning I took the lower dose, but didn’t go out because it started raining. I’m back on it, now. This will pass in a couple of hours.”

It didn’t.

At 2:30 in the morning, I awoke to the sounds of Tommy throwing up in the bathroom. I went to the bathroom door.  He could hardly stand up. I called for an ambulance, but the dispatcher said something big was happening and it would be 30 minutes or more before they could get there. We couldn’t wait that long, so I called my cousin Tony, who lived nearby. He helped me carry Tommy down the stairs so I could take him to the hospital. Tony stayed to tell my grandmother what was going on. Tommy had to be admitted to the hospital and put on an IV to get his blood sugar under control.

The next day, as I was driving home, I thought about what a coincidence it was that I just happened to be at my grandmother’s on the exact night Tommy went into sugar shock. I found myself thanking God that my grandmother didn’t have to deal with it.

As the miles rolled under my tires, I settled back into my all-too-familiar funk.  “Gee, thanks, God,” I thought. “You’re doing a great job here.”

I was nearing a rest area north of Harrisonburg with my emotions still spinning like a waterspout, my brain foggy and my attitude in the toilet when the most amazing thing happened.  In an instant, my mind cleared and my emotions calmed. Something wonderful washed slowly over me like a bucket of warm honey being poured on my head. It was beautiful and refreshing. I got an answer to my prayer.

“OK, God. You have my attention.”

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings

Executive Director

Win-Win

By Dina Thompson

[Dina’s church, Providence Chapel Church in Frogtown, Virginia, had their first day of ministry for seniors at a subsidized housing project in their home county.  She was so moved by the experience that she wrote down her impressions the day after. It’s easy to see that when we give we often receive more in return] – Steve Jennings

We  were  greeted  with  smiles  and  hellos  as  we  carried  in  the  boxes  of  canned  food  and  fresh  fruit  to  the  common  area.  Some  had  already  gathered.  They  knew  we  were  coming  and  they  were  waiting  for  us.  We  fixed  small  packages  for  those  who  were  bound  to  their  rooms  to  be  delivered.

 “Mr.”,  we  called  from  the  hall,  “we  have  some  things  for  you”.  We  could  hear  that  he  was  trying  to  get  the  door,  10  feet  away  dragging oxygen tubes and  using a cane.  It  took  several  minutes  for  him  to  eagerly  let  us  in.  We  put  the  food  away  in  his  cabinets  and  invited  him  to  the  common  area.  We  told  him  of  the  people  that  gathered  to  meet  him,  small  children,  and  music.  His face lit up.  We  could  see  and  feel  the  excitement as  he  tried  to  hurry  his  pace.  He  could  leave  his  oxygen  behind  for  just  a  little  while,  he  insisted…..  we  placed  a  chair  close  to  his  door  so  it  would  not  be  so  far for  him  to  walk.

We could barely hear her  call  to  come  in.  As  we  entered  the  room,  filled  with  cigarette  smoke,  all  her  necessities  surrounded  her  so  she  could  reach  them  easily.   An  older  woman,  she  seemed  to  be  confined  to  her  chair.  We  could  not  stay,  as  the  cigarette  smoke  overwhelmed  us,  but  she  thanked  us  gratefully.

A  pink  heart  shaped  welcome  sign  and  angel  wings  decorated  her  door.  As  we  waited  in  the  hallway  at  her  door,  I  thought  the  music  playing  loudly  inside  the  apartment  was  unusual  for  an  elderly  person.  Only  meeting  elderly  so far,  the  sight  of  the  young  woman  with  her  feet  and  body  strapped  to  the  wheel  chair,  instantly  grabbed  at  my  heart  and  put  a  lump  in  my  throat.  I  consciously  held  my  breath  a  moment   so  not  to  gasp  out  loud.  Like  the  angel  wings  on  her  door  foreshadowed,  she  was  beautiful.  She  had  the  face  of  an  angel,  a  vibrant  smile,  and  beautiful  blue  eyes  that  lit  up  with  tears.  “Yes!!”  She  nodded  eagerly.  She  would  like  to  go  upstairs  to  listen  to  the  music. Her  speech  was  difficult  but  the  brightness  in  her  eyes  and  the  yes  and  no  movements  from  her  head  allowed  us  to  understand.  Known  to  love  sitting  in  the  sun,  a  calendar  with  beach  scenes  was  found  for  her.  She  nodded  eagerly  and  marveled  at  the  beauty  of  the  beaches  as  I  read  about  each  on  the  back  cover.  A  small,  stuffed  puppy  was  so  soft that  she  enthusiastically  managed  to  turn  her  hands  slightly  and  her  eyes  sparkled,  when  I  placed  the  toy  in  her  hands.

Song  requests  were  called  out –  “Jesus  Loves  Me”,  “Amazing  Grace”,  “How  Great  Thou  Art”,  turning  the  afternoon  into  a  grand  hymn  sing,  party  atmosphere.

The  elderly  man  sitting  next  to  me  explained  that  he  was  the  victim  of  a  stroke  which  took  his  left  side.  He  used  to  love  to  sing  in  the  church  choir  and  cook  chicken  and  dumplings.  As  Providence  church  members  and  others  sang,  his  beautiful  baritone  voice  would  come  through  in  brief  spurts  of  energy  and  highlight  the  music.

“When can  you  all  come  back?”,  a  woman  asked.  “Yes!”,  the  rest  joined  in.  Another  said  she  would  have  sing  along  books  printed  for  next  time.  Good  times!  A  good  time  was  had  by  all.

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Psalm 98:4

http://www.teensopposingpoverty.org

A Lesson in Thankfulness

I’ll never forget the blizzard of 1996.  At least I think it was ’96.  Anyway, the snow was approaching and I had to get to Washington, D.C.  to keep a promise to my homeless friend Jakob.  He said his gout was acting up and asked for some aspirin.

I arrived at dusk. The street lights from Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House cast an eerie glow on the bench at Lafayette Square where he planned to sleep during the blizzard.

“Are you going to be OK?  This is supposed to be a big storm, you know.”  I tried to make my tone of voice sound ominous and urgent.

“I’ll be fine,” he assured me.

I guess my ominous tone wasn’t very ominous.

“I have been blessed with a stack of blankets and two tarps, I have lots of warm clothes on and I just had dinner.  I have everything I need.”

We stood for a while in the glare of lights from the home of the President of the United States. The air felt like the snow would start any second. After a few more words, I said goodbye, got into my truck, turned the heater on and drove home. That night and all the next day I sat in front of a warm fire, sipped hot chocolate and looked out the window as 40 inches of snow piled up outside.

As I was leaving, Jakob crawled under his tarp and between his many layers of blankets on the bench.  He awoke the next morning thinking somebody was sitting on him.  It was just the snow.  He had been warm and slept soundly through the night.

The homeless people we work with through TOP are a grateful bunch.  For many of them, if they have clothes on their backs, food in their bellies and some way to stay warm through the night they have enough. Everything else is a treat and a blessing.  You can’t believe the “thank you’s” we get just for handing out underwear!

So the next time you are tempted to complain about the hassles and aggravations of life, think about Jakob (he’s still on the streets) and give thanks for your underwear.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org