Thursday, February 25, 2010

To Norman With Love

I'm going to take a break from the stories of individuals I see throughout the week. There are many sides to "Community Ministry" and being a part of people's continual transformation. One of which is trying to connect the local church body with the people of whom I have been writing these stories. It is paramount that believers expand their concept of what "church" is. You can't contain the Church within any walls, programs, or cultures. We are in the age of the Holy Spirit. God's mystery is continually being unfolded; we don't have the full picture.
One of the ways we are providing an opportunity for relational bridgebuilding to occur is through an upcoming event called "To Norman With Love". It will be a two day church-wide to city-wide service project. Currently, I am calling as many local agencies as possible to provide projects that will expose the FBC body to the civic context within which we find ourselves.
Churches are not islands. We either choose to help the needy around and within us or not.
The vision extends from Luke chapter 10 (the good samaritan story). The interesting thing about that story is that Jesus tells it in response to the question "Who is my neighbor?". As Jesus so often does, he turns the teaching moment back on us and tells us how to be a good neighbor.
So, the statement is not, "Tell me who my neighbor is so that I can know who to help." Instead, it's "I need to be the right kind of neighbor who goes out of my way for others."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From prejudice to solidarity

On Wednesdays I setup appointments with people who have signed up on our church bike list. These are people who don't have cars. Some might have a bus pass, but all lack efficient mobility in a society that demands it. In 30 minute increments from 9-11:30am I visit with people every Wednesday. The people range from all ages, races, and genders (yes, all genders). Yesterday, 5 bikes were given out, 5 bibles, 2 family bags of food from our pantry, 1 pair of pants, 4 pairs of socks, and 2 laundry vouchers for a low-income mother of two. It was a good day of Christ loving people through the body of believers at FBC Norman.

It was time for my 10am appointment. This gentleman (Steve, of course), had been extremely cordial, punctual, and, honestly, a delight to interact with. I got the call from the office that he arrived, so I began walking down the hallway to meet him. Before I could even get to him, the reception ladies had put a cup of hot coffee in his hand. What follows is an example of my own subconscious stereotyping.
I saw a 56 year old white man, clean cut, wearing regular blue jeans, belt, an OU sweatshirt, wool jacket, good teeth, glasses, and an OU ball cap. I shook his hand and we introduced each other (putting faces to the voices on the phone). We went to my office and began sharing our stories with each other. My first thought when seeing this man was, "He dosen't need a bike. I better check and make sure he is really in need before giving him one." Besides the fact that my initial thought reeked of paternalism, it was in that instance I realized I have prejudices against people on both ends of the spectrum.
He told me that after working in a successful job for many years his wife got sick. She has two diseases that compounded the other's symptoms. She could not work for many years and it came to a point when Steve had to quit his job to take care of her and their daughter with down-syndrome. The bulk of the money he had was/is being spent on medical bills (of course). They foreclosed on their old home, moved to a place temporarily, and now have applied for housing assistance. His story was sprinkled with comments like, "I never thought I would be poor," and "I'm so embarrassed to ask for help in these ways." Steve is a follower of Christ and a member at a church nearby FBC, so I asked him if his thoughts about God had changed since the recent change in his lifestyle. He said, "I only know now how much God blesses us."
Amazing. When we have nothing is when we are able to see how much we really have.

My meeting with steve left me realizing how close we all are to being homeless and poor. Most of us are simply one paycheck away from being homeless. Perhaps, really, we're all just a bunch of homeless people, who happen to be living in houses.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The coffee accident

I spilled coffee on my shoe today. It wasn't a simple "oops, I dropped a few drops to the ground and some splattered on my foot." No, I was driving with my panera bread coffee cup on the floor board of the car, directly under the stereo console (trust me, it was a great place). As I was making the final right turn of my journey to work, the centrifugal force propelled the cup directly into the inside of my left foot. Even though I had the lid on, at least 5 oz of coffee injected itself through the mouth hole into my foot. My sock is saturated.

At church yesterday, I came to the Classic service a little late. I came in the very back and intended to sit by myself on the back pew. As I walked in I noticed a homeless man (in his late 40's), whom I knew from previous encounters, sitting on the pew I was heading for. Dressed in a heavy camo jacket he had his backpack on his right (which contained everything he owned), so I sat on his left. "Hey steve (steve will be the generic name I use throughout my stories)" I said. He replied, "Hey man, where've you been?"
We proceeded to casually and quietly carry out small talk and pleasantries. Eventually I said, "hey, where do you sleep when its this cold at night?" He told me about a floor in a bathroom at a local park that he stays at when it gets really cold. I said, "And the other nights?" He told me about a tent that he has and a forest area that he and some guys camp out on "nicer" nights.

My first reaction (which is usually the most primal and irrational) was anger when I injected my shoe with coffee this morning. I keep forgetting how easy my life is. And I suppose the question for most believers is, "How grateful of a life are we going to live?" There is always someone worse off than you. Even for this steve. There is someone worse off than he. We are all, from our own unique perspective, faced with the life-style altering question, "How grateful of a life am I going to live?"

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Who knew helping people could get so political?

It was a day like any other day. The snow was falling here in Norman, I was in and out of the office frequently, and a man came to the church door asking for assistance. I was on my way out of the office, so I met him at the door and said, "can we walk and talk together?" He said "sure". Now, from my extensive and vast experience...I've noticed that people approaching other people for assistance are typically well accustomed to the formalities of conversation. There are the cordial phrases like "good afternoon", "how are you", sometimes even a "you look nice today." This man was no different. I asked him his story and eventually made it around to what he needed.
He was living out of his van, and he needed gas vouchers to sustain the temperature throughout the night. I let him know that we don't have money for vouchers or other financial forms of assistance, but I asked him if some blankets would help. His face lit up and he said that would be great! By this time in the conversation we were beginning to really connect with each other. We managed to cut-up a little as we both walked down to FBC's clothes storage room where we kept some blanket donations.
This is where the story gets interesting. I pulled out a few options and he was really grateful and sincere in his acceptance of the blankets. As we were leaving the storage room I said "so, (we'll call him steve)...So, Steve, how did you come to be living in your van." And his response was typical..."the anti-christ has been attacking me lately." Huh. Okay. I looked at him, and my initial response to something that catches me off-guard is laughter. But as I began to chuckle I noticed he was more serious than he had been since we first met 20 minutes ago.
As we picked up the pace heading for the exit, I figured the next best question would be, of course, "who's the anti-christ, steve?" I hadn't read the paper that day yet, so I thought maybe I had missed something. He continued in the most serious tone, "President Obama." Oh boy. I couldn't help but try to keep the conversation light so I had to continue to smile and chuckle a little bit. I wanted him to think that I thought he was kidding, when in reality I knew that he meant every word.
And just when you thought that was it, he said, "Don't tell him you helped me. Be careful what you say on the phone. They're listening to every word." I think an entire episode of the X-Files unfolded before my eyes.
I let him know that he was welcome to come to our Sunday lunches and Food Pantry/Clothes Closet. He really was a nice guy, and represents one of the so very many people who are living out of their vehicles these days.
See, the people whom society is trying to forget can be the most political. God loves us all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

One of the guys

This afternoon, as I was eating my lunch consisting of a dry Panera breadbowl with two turkey hotdogs inside of it, I was reflecting on the day. My first thought was, "I would never eat such an insulting concoction if Ashley was around. Oh, bachelorhood." My second wave of thoughts took me back to the morning...

It was FBC's turn to serve lunch at a local "soup kitchen". I met the volunteers down there around 11am. As I approached the location on foot, I recognized several of the homeless guys standing out front. I stopped to have a smoke with them (and by "smoke" I mean small talk and smoke from the second hand). After the initial pleasantries, I began to feel included as "one of the guys".
Let me tell you some key signs that you have been accepted in this way. First, when a homeless man offers you a cigarette (I repeat, a homeless man). Second, when they speak candidly in front of you about how upset they were that they had been thrown in jail for the last week. And third, when one of them asks you, specifically you, to help him go over to the 65 year drunk-as-a-skunk old man sitting against the fence and get him up into the building where he can get warm and fed.

Man, we all have stereotypes don't we? No one is immune to that disease. I was offered a sacrificial portion of this man's comfort (in the form of a cigarette). I was allowed to be one of two people that picked an old man up off his sleeping bag and through the fumes of cheap alcohol found him a seat and a plate of food.

I think there is a lot more good out there than fear will allow us to see.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I knew this would be a part of my job, but I did not know how much of a part it would be. On an average I would say FBC Norman gets visited by 10-20 "walk-ins" a week. These can range anywhere from people who need money for utilities, actual clothes and food, or just a calm presence of someone to speak with. The following is the first of many stories of people that have already come by.

My first week here I received a call from one of the church members who works at a local middle school. She informed me that a member of their custodial staff's house burnt to the ground the day before. This lady, her two children, and her mom, all were left with nothing. No clothes, no food, no _______(fill in the blank with whatever you keep in your house).
Luckily, she had homeowner's insurance. And even still, with that insurance, I am reminded that the system is not perfect. Her family was provided a hotel room to stay in the first night from the fire department, however, the insurance company said they needed a week to process her claim. A week?! Surely (don't call me shirley; Airplane), not every insurance company says "ok, can you be homeless for a week while we process your request?"
Anyway, the school let her off of work early that day so she could come by FBC. We were able to give her food and clothes to get through the immediate emergency situation. What a spiritual experience it was to welcome and hug someone who had just been through one of the many unthinkable situations to which we are all vulnerable. What a joy it was to take her into our clothes closet and food pantry and say "take whatever you need."

One of the dilemmas that providing this service from within a church inevitably raises is the issue of helping those who are not within our congregation. How far should resources be used to aid those of the community who are not a member of the church, or even a Christian?
If this tragedy had happened to a church member, of course we would have helped. But I think I've heard someone say something about how easy it is to love people who love you back, or who are on the "inside", or "saved", or...etc. Why would we ever want to take the easy way out!?

Stay tuned for more.