October 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus, Matthew 5:7
I recently had the privilege of visiting with the Senior Vice President of World Relief’s North American operation. World Relief is a global non-profit organization, based in Baltimore, and committed to caring for the weak and needy around the world, whether for orphans, for immigrants, for victims of natural disaster, or those lost in the horrors and brutality of human trafficking. Years ago, when our church in Miami planted a church in ‘Little Havana,’ the ‘landing place’ for many immigrants from Latin America, World Relief had an office where we started the work. That office remains today, and as you can imagine, has processed innumerable refugees through the years, offering legal advice, guidance for green cards, citizenship, etc.
At the heart of World Relief’s mission is the gospel’s call to the Church with the singular thrust that the strong have been made – by God – stewards of the weak. I am convinced that if the Church fails, all is lost. Every other system that attempts to care for the poor, the weak and the underprivileged has some underlining political agenda that eventually fails the very people they attempt to serve, and often lines the pockets and reputations of those who champion these causes.
World Relief’s Vision Statement is Stand/For The Vulnerable.
Last night Katherine and I shared a meal with a young couple that is committed to mentoring young people from Baltimore’s Inner City whose lives are racked with heartache, brokenness and poverty. They give what they can: safe harbor, school clothing and supplies – and love. They stand for the vulnerable.
This morning I ran into one of our Members (okay it was at Dunkin Donuts – what can I say?). He leads a team that regularly meets with folks at New Song Church in Sandtown, the neighborhood ravaged by fire and riots earlier this year. New Song drives the agenda, but together they are working through ideas to generate commerce in the neighborhood so that the dollar will remain there, and hopefully begin to break the pattern of violence, hopelessness and sorrow that most of us in the burbs can’t fathom possible. They stand for the vulnerable.
We have a friend in Miami who, when she and her family attended a downtown church, for years, drove an hour away from her home, to the slums of Little Haiti, to bring children to church and later that week to Youth Group. In between she and her husband kept in touch, provided for needs and loved well. They stood for the vulnerable.
‘Blessed are the Merciful,’ was Jesus version of, ‘Blessed are they who stand for the vulnerable.’ Every word, action and encounter exemplified this during His ministry, all the way to the Cross, where He died for us – the vulnerable.
Who more than Christians, know the relief of being forgiven a debt one could never repay?
We have been given much – in order to be to the world what Christ has been to us. It really is that simple. And when those we serve feel our touch, it will be as though they have encountered Jesus Himself.
What good, hopeful news…
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.” David Brooks, The Small, Happy Life
Yesterday a mural mosaic was dedicated in a barely-conspicuous outdoor neighborhood service. The mural is visible to all who walk by the New Song Academy. It was constructed by the children of the Academy, under the guidance of a group called, Art with a Heart, a group that works in the City of Baltimore and teaches vulnerable children and adults through creativity. What makes the mosaic special is that the Academy resides in Sandtown, the neighborhood that was the flashpoint for the Baltimore riots in April. I have written about it here.
In a NYT OP-ED piece, David Brooks reported surprise at how many people responded to a survey, with the desire for what he termed, ‘the small, happy life,’ as opposed to what might seem to be more ambitious pursuits.
When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hill, became weary with a group of us troublemakers. We happened to live in an area that was booming in development, and so she decided to take us around the community collecting tile for the purpose of making a mosaic for our elementary school, which we did. Over a period of months we stayed after school as she brilliantly channeled our energy into creativity. Eventually the completed project was erected at Coral Reef Elementary, like the one at New Song Academy.
One day, in response to His disciples’ request to increase their faith (because they were thinking big!), Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Contrary to the claims of train wreck preachers who promise the moon and deliver disappointment, Jesus was simply saying, ‘Start small, because that is where we are.’ Put another way, ‘Start where you are, and offer what you have rather than what you don’t have.’
A cursory study of history will bear this out, whether with those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust, or others who have accomplished amazing feats of bravery, rescue, influence and impact. And there is always that ‘small step’ and ‘giant leap’ for mankind. Never do you hear braggadocio. Time and again we are introduced to humble people who merely did what they could in the moment. In the moment, the small was enormous.
Way back in 1960-something I learned that a mosaic is nothing more than a well-orchestrated outlay of broken tiles. It doesn’t take much for those seemingly worthless, jagged and often-dirty shards to become something wildly beautiful – like a scene from the coral reef, or a vision of a healed city. Every piece matters, and no tile is too damaged, in the same way that one simple mosaic on one part of one wall on one building in one neighborhood in a broken community can be that tiny piece that offers hope for something lovelier.
And it is for this reason that in Jesus God became small. Because we are small. Yet because we are adored by the Father, we are not insignificant.
What good news…
May 16, 2015 § Leave a comment
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
As you know, we have been immersed in the aftermath of the events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Perhaps the most challenging thing for us has been to ignore the voices from ‘outside.’ This is not offered in disrespect, but to say that whenever a crisis comes to a city, such as the one we have experienced, politicians and media outlets alike descend to make the most of it for their own purposes.
For example, there have been five murders in the same area since Freddie Gray died a few weeks ago, but no one has heard this. Why? Because it isn’t the kind of news that sells air time.
Don’t get me wrong. My intention is not to vilify or sow seeds of bitterness. It is to say that regardless of the crisis, and whether or not they are citywide or deeply individual, solutions never come from the outside. They are always far more personal, the deep ‘insider’ work of God’s Spirit.
Earlier our Staff spent the day with the Staff at the New Song church in Sandtown (the Sandtown/Winchester neighborhood was the flashpoint for much of the riots). It was one of the more delightful and hopeful meetings I have ever enjoyed, and it promises to forge a bond of deep love and friendship. The week before, a couple of us met downtown with some of the New Song Staff, along with Freddie Gray’s cousin and some locals. In each case we laid aside our assumptions and simply listened, only to find that we are all the same – people who carry their sorrows, struggles and fears, all trying to figure out life and faith in our contexts.
We also acknowledged that programs, violence and projects are not the answer, but that love and ‘kinship’ (as one young man termed it), are.
The gospel is eminently human as it is divine, each captured in the incarnation, life and rule of Jesus. Doesn’t it amaze you that God didn’t save us by some edict, but instead by sending His Son to become one of us? It does me! The last thing I want is for God to walk in on my ugly humanness, but this is exactly what He has done – and it is our only hope.
Whenever I find myself looking for a silver bullet to cure my problems, struggles and messes, it is because I want an easy way out, some symbolic ‘fix’ that only exacerbates my pain, and drives me more deeply into sin.
For the unfinished, healing and peace never come apart from face-to-face encounters with Jesus. The Father will never allow His people to approach Him religiously. It will always be in the unedited reality of our brokenness, because this is who we are.
And this is who the Father loves.
Friends, what good news…
May 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
If you live in or around Baltimore then you know firsthand how painful this past week has been. One cannot have lived here and not be affected. My heart goes out to friends near and far who are from Baltimore – their sadness is palpable.
I offer these words as a white guy who has lived in relative safety all his life, and knowing that those I have loved and known these five decades may disagree, and possibly even be angry. I also offer this knowing that I bring my own prejudices, predispositions and fears to the table.
It would be tempting to opine on the dynamics of the inner city, injustice and the future, but we who live in relative safety, are better served to keep our mouths shut and listen. We don’t have the answers. Wonks, politicians, news organizations and bloggers think they have the answers, but unless they have lived in the City, they don’t. At night we go home to our safe neighborhoods. We sleep in the assurance that when we awaken, our world will be as ordered and secure as it was when we went to bed. We aren’t there on the ground. We don’t know how good it is or how bad. We don’t know the desperation and the vicious, endless and often violent cycle of poverty, firsthand. We make assumptions and most of those assumptions are wrong.
It seems to me that answers from afar, criticism and finger pointing, are false versions of ‘care.’ They create within us the artificial self-assurance that we have connected, but that isn’t real at all. And we can postulate all we want on ‘fatherless America,’ and responsibility and the ‘American Way,’ but this helps nothing. It does exactly what those who spout these things want them to do – it keeps me away from you and ‘us’ from ‘them.’
So it is better to listen and observe. This past week some of us had the privilege of spending time with old and new friends in Sandtown. Sandtown is ‘ground zero’ for last week’s riots. You have read about this neighborhood in this blog. It is among the poorest in the country, but also one of the most beautiful. In spite of what you may assume or have read online or heard in the news, the residents of Sandtown are among the proudest of any neighborhood I have ever met. They love their community, and no amount of national sorrow can match the sadness they feel collectively when it suffers.
The picture above was taken at lunch after a morning of clean up (most had been done by the Sandtown residents when we arrived the morning after the riots). It is of two guys, one black and the other white – no distinction – work boots and jeans – people who locked arms for the sake of a healed neighborhood. ‘A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
Years ago I learned from a friend who led Miami’s rebuilding effort after Hurricane Andrew decimated it, that one can either sit around and point fingers and complain about problems and perpetrators, or they can see possibilities and the beauty of a healed City, and then work together towards that vision.
The scriptures are strewn with examples of people who lived in the hope of future joy. After all, isn’t this who we are? We are a people who live in the promise of what will one day be. And we serve a King who came and on our behalf saw that same future (Hebrews 12:1-2). He personally entered into places where weakness, oppression and sorrow prevailed, and by His care bore evidence of hope for a city of delight, and human flourishing.
Friends, beyond our advantages, fears and differences, it is not what we have, but whose we are and what will one day be ours…
This is our good news and the gospel’s sweet new song…
June 16, 2010 § 5 Comments
A hero died in Baltimore last week. His name is Allan Tibbels – He wasn’t the stereotypical hero. He didn’t land a jetliner into the Hudson River and he didn’t catch a Super Bowl game-winning pass. No, Allan was a Christ-follower who, along with his wife Susan and children, quietly moved into one of the poorest communities in the nation – Sandtown in Baltimore, Maryland.
Years ago, in Miami, I performed the wedding ceremony of a young man who grew up in Sandtown, and had left the community to play professional basketball in Europe. He was determined to never return to Sandtown, claiming that he was among few friends that had emerged from the neighborhood alive. So he moved out.
But Allan and Susan moved in.
Allan was born and grew up in Greater Baltimore. The City was in his blood. He met Jesus in Baltimore. He led youth and college ministries in Baltimore. He believed that God loved Baltimore and that He wanted Allan to love Baltimore.
Moved and shaped by the experiences and teachings of John Perkins, Founder of Voice of Calvary Ministries out of Mississippi, and his vision for Holistic Community Development, the Tibbels’ set out on a journey of healing and renewal – a lily-white couple in an almost-entirely African-American, impoverished and often overlooked and neglected community.
No one really knew. A lifelong friend, Mark Gornik, joined the Tibbels, and together they launched a revolutionary vision of seeing Sandtown be restored, not through political activism, but through the simple message of the Gospel – that God loves broken people and that He loves broken neighborhoods.
They formed the Newsong Community Church. They started the Newsong Community School. They founded the Newsong Center of Performing Arts. They opened a Newsong home for women who were transitioning out of prison. They founded and championed the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, one of the only Habitat communities devoted solely to one neighborhood. Allan oversaw Sandtown Habitat. They brought leaders together. They empowered residents. They created and facilitated jobs.
And in a space of 25 years, a forgotten neighborhood was, and continues to be transformed. Instead of earning dollars that flow into other areas of the world, Sandtown is thriving. Nearly 300 homes have been restored, with nearly 200 more slated to be. The City of Baltimore has come to the Newsong folks to gain wisdom and guidance on repairing its own broken school system. A second Newsong church was started in Harlem, NY, along with similar accompanying organizations and activities that accommodate such renewal.
This is the short list.
Two evenings ago roughly a thousand people came to say farewell – people from the City Allan loved – people whose lives had been quietly put back together – people that once had been discarded, but who, through Newsong, had become the somebodies that God created them to be in the first place – important people that knew their reputations were puny compared to this mammoth, humble, hardly-known quadriplegic that had poured out his entire life as an offering to God on behalf of one neighborhood that God loved through him – black and white people – old and young people.
For Allan, all this was founded and grounded in a simple commitment he made over 30 years ago: “My life is yours. I want to forsake all for you. I don’t know all that this means, but I make this a sincere promise. Take all I have to offer – it is yours.” (June 22, 1978)
Here is the thing about heroes – They are as ordinary, simple, human and flawed as the next person – but they have discovered that this is exactly the kind of person God uses to do the big stuff.
Allan Tibbels – March 18, 1955 – June 3, 2010
The Sandtown Habitat Staff raise their hammers as a banner of love over Allan’s casket and family as they leave the sanctuary.