Friday, December 10, 2010

Twista visits Breakthrough

The day before Thanksgiving, the rap artist, Twista, came to Breakthrough to volunteer in our Fresh Market food pantry. The visit was set up by our friends at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. A few days ago he posted this video on YouTube. They even included me trying to convince him to support our FamilyPlex Capital Campaign! I especially liked the diamond studded "grills" on his teeth!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Take the 21 day prayer challenge

Below is a challenge I brought to River City Community Church on 11-28-10. I really believe if we can be consistent in spending one on one time with God it transforms everything. It is one of the most difficult habits to keep because we are so easily distracted. For those of you who took me up on the challenge... how's it going?

A Christmas Story

A Nativity Scene was erected in a church yard. During the night the folks came across this scene. An abandoned dog was looking for a comfortable, protected place to sleep. He chose baby Jesus as his comfort. No one had the heart to send him away so he was there all night.

We should all have the good sense to curl up in Jesus' lap from time to time.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Heroin Highway

I saw this video on the news tonight. Kids from the western suburbs are coming to our neighborhood to buy heroin.

View more news videos at:

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Led By the Spirit or Driven By Need

Below is an article I wrote that was published on October 31st by the FullFill Magazine Weekly Refill Blog.

I have been leading Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago for eighteen years. We care for people who have become crippled by unemployment, homelessness and addiction in a neighborhood where poverty and crime make life stressful. Overwhelming brokenness and need carries with it the reality that there is always more I could do. People often ask what keeps me going. What keeps me from experiencing burnout?

Well, I have experienced burnout and it’s not pretty. When I was in my twenties I worked with kids who were referred to me by juvenile justice officers and school social workers. I met with groups of young girls who were in crisis. I loved taking them hiking, cross-country skiing and spelunking, but I was unaware of my own codependency tendencies. It felt good to be needed and I found myself pulled into the drama of their lives. I would get calls in the middle of the night to pick up a girl who had passed out drunk in an alley or to negotiate a family dispute. I once called 911 in desperation as a young woman overdosed on my living room floor. My work was compelling: girls in need, in pain, and in trouble, and they were looking for me to rescue them. But by the end of four years I was exhausted. I cringed every time the phone rang for fear of hearing about another suicide attempt.

I know now that much of my early energetic zeal was rooted in my own pride. I had entered ministry recognizing my need for a Savior, but then had begun to attempt to rescue and save others in my own strength on behalf of the Savior. The burnout I experienced as a result would forever change me as I learned the importance of waiting on God in contemplation before rushing in with my own agenda. I learned to be led by the Spirit instead of being driven by need.

Today I start each day in prayer. I ask God to orchestrate my day, to guide and direct me. I ask for Divine connections, for wisdom to know what to do and what not to do. I have learned there is always enough time to do what God wants me to do.

I also listen to my body. I have learned to recognize the difference between good stress that pushes me to my best, and bad stress that means I’m attempting to do something that is not mine to do. When my shoulders tense and my stomach knots, I do a “gut check” and ask myself if this really is my responsibility.

To be led by the Spirit rather than driven by need. That’s my goal. When the chaos mounts, I take a break. Even an hour of contemplation clears my mind and tells me which tasks need to be tossed to someone else and which are mine to juggle.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Going Home

Last week I struggled to open the door of our Breakthrough Mens' Center. The wind was whipping. I was hungry and it was cold. I managed to open the door and was immediately engulfed by warmth and the most wonderful smell of food. I’m not sure what was going on in the kitchen, but it smelled like Charlene had been cooking all morning, like thanksgiving dinner was in the oven. There was even the hint of brownies baking.

You know the feeling. It’s the feeling of being home. It’s warm and inviting and you know someone is creating something in the kitchen that is going to make your day very special.

I couldn’t help but think about the men huddled in the gathering place. Thirty of them had spent the night at Breakthrough and seventy more had come in from the cold, like I had. They may have slept in an abandoned building or in the park or doubled up on a friend’s floor. I knew this day they would experience the warmth of good food, friendship and support. It’s not the same as having your own place with your own stove and kitchen, but, today, they would know that they were loved and cared for. Today, they would know they were special. I knew the same thing was happening down the street at our women’s center.

Of course, the mission of Breakthrough goes beyond food. We surround our guests with supportive services that will hopefully, some day, get them into their own homes. But for now, at Breakthrough, they know they are special. They have found a home, a place to belong where people know their name.

As the temperatures drop and you enter your own home, reflect upon what it would be like to not have that experience of going home.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

The post below was originally posted by Tony Escobar on his Front Porch Theologian Blog on October 13th. Tony is Director of Community Relations at Breakthrough. It's the story behind the story of the video shoot for the Breakthrough benefit.

The most incredible things happen all the time when you are caught up in the kingdom of God. Have you ever noticed that?

Breakthrough's Annual Benefit is next week. And for this year's event, we are presenting a series of vignettes that illustrate the stories of guests from each program who have experienced transformation at Breakthrough, and who have in turn given back as a result.

So yesterday I was working with my man Donald, our video producer (I know, fancy, right?), to shoot the footage that would accompany the story I will be telling about my friend Andre. But before I continue, this will slightly be a spoiler warning, but I have to tell you this amazing story that happens within a story, because this is not stuff that you can make up. Maybe it will picque your interest enough to attend our Benefit next week!

Andre arrives, and Donald and I are explaining to him the kind of footage that we will be shooting of him. One part of the story involves Andre carrying a sick man back to his home from Breakthrough. So Donald and I tell Andre that we will be getting some shots of him reenacting that. Andre, of course, is up for it, no matter who he carries. He's a strong guy and is ready for about 10-15 takes, easy. But I look at Donald and ask him blankly..."Have we found someone for him to carry?" Donald says, "No." I say, "I should probably get someone, huh?" Donald says, "Yeah."

So I go and find a gentleman from our men's program to volunteer for the shoot who more or less fit the orignal man's profile (Think kind of like those cut-in doubles on the Windows 7 commercials).

Then we go outside, and we start doing a couple takes. And suddenly, during the third or fourth take, this voice on my left says, "Yeah, that's the guy who saved my life. Just like that. He carried me home."

I look over and there's an older gentleman standing next to me, pointing at Andre. "That guy is a Godsend. I don't know what I would have done without him. He carried me just like that."

At that moment, Andre and our double return to the camera. "Hey, that's the guy right there!" points Andre. "That's Mr. Johnson. That's the man I carried." And they warmly reunite and greet each other with a handshake and a hug.

Meanwhile, the double says, "That's the real guy? Even better! You don't need me anymore, right?"

Donald and I look at each other a little dumbfounded and don't really know what to say or do? Was this really happening? Should we put the real guy in the shoot? How is it that he is even here right now? Is he even healthy enough for it?

I give Donald a what-should-we-do look. "It's up to you, man," he replies.

Turning to the man, I ask, "Well, what do you think, do you want to be in your own story? Are you well enough to do a few takes?"

"Oh yeah," he says. "That guy saved my life. Of course, I'll do anything!"

So the double takes off, and we start shooting the story with the real characters. And surprisingly, Mr. Johnson does a fantastic job. To our delight, a natural for dramatic theater!

But midway, something else extraordinary happens. A group of about 4 other older gentlemen are walking down the street, who happen to be Mr. Johnson's friends. They recognize him, and they stop and interrupt the shoot because apparently their buddy is a movie star now! But then they realize what's happening and say, "Oh, this is the guy who carried you home that one day?" And Mr. Johnson glowingly introduces them to Andre and says again, "Yeah, this is the guy who saved my life. Thank God!"

We just let the camera roll.

What I haven't shared yet is that the major hook in Andre's story is about being at the right place at the right time, right where God needs you.

I'm telling you. You can't make this stuff up. Stories like this happen all the time at places like Breakthrough. If you want to hear more stories like this, you really should come to this Benefit Dinner.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On the Radio with Ted Elm

Below is the audio of my October 4th interview with Ted Elm on WWJC-Duluth's Northland Notebook program. We talked about my book.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Urban Adventures and Environmental Injustice

The following is a guest post from my friend, Tracey Bianchi. Tracey is a pastor and the author of Green Mama: The Guilt Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan, 2010). I have the joy of joining her each month as part of the Redbud Writers Guild, a writing community of women’s voices that engage our world. You can catch her musings and information about her book at here.

I called Colorado home for a few blissful years. A native of Chicago and the Prairie State my little soul came to life as a graduate student in the Rocky Mountains. My classmates and I were a devoted tribe of skiers who would study Greek and Hebrew words en route to a ski resort, mostly broke we would skip a meal or two in order to scrape together the cash for a lift ticket or season pass.

I once took a ten day course that was designed to open my eyes to the complexities of urban poverty. We spent each night in a shabby hostel on the corner of a intersection where white skiing types like myself did not spend much time. We visited correctional centers, dined with the homeless at nearby shelters and enjoyed hours of lectures by community leaders seeking to bring peace, reconciliation and hope to the most beleaguered citizens of Denver.

One afternoon a local pastor stepped up to chat with us, the fleece and hiking boot crowd who sipped from high end water bottles and chattered away about recent hiking adventures as we waited for our session to begin. Behind his podium was a huge glass window offering a sun-drenched view of the Rockies.

He began by fanning his arm toward the window, remarking that indeed, it was a gorgeous day up in the mountains. We nodded, several of us letting our minds slip to a desire to be up in the hills rather than in a lecture. Then this pastor captured our attention quickly. He asked, “did you know that most of the children in this neighborhood have never been to the mountains?”

The foothills would take less than one hour to reach, the resort destination of Breckenridge barely two hours.

“They look every day at those peaks yet have never stepped foot into a mountain stream or experienced the joy of hiking in the backcountry.”

I was stunned. I looked around at the motley crew of seminary students assembled for this lecture. We were shabby and broke but for most of us this was a choice. We made a decision to pay tuition over a mortgage and even on our worst days could scrape by enough cash to cover gas and hiking boots.

To be a child living below the poverty line in Denver, to look upon those mountains each day yet never take them in, was ludicrous to me.

Eight years later I find myself championing the cause of our environment from Chicago. I urge my fellow urbanites to walk when they can, shop smarter, compost, recycle and such. But my mind still settles on that room filled with yuppie hikers and an urban pastor. What is the point in saving this planet if the very people who inhabit it cannot all enjoy its bounty?

Environmental injustice runs deep in our culture. The poor find themselves on the losing end of multiple transactions. First, they unfairly receive waste, landfills and serve as toxic receptacles since many communities lack the funding and education to fight these initiatives.

Second, the poor rarely get to relish in what is good and beautiful about this planet. To live in Denver yet never set foot in the mountains is a grave injustice. Millions of visitors from across this nation and the world fly into Denver’s International Airport every year. They drive through these neighborhoods, past children who are native to Colorado, and these tourists experience a Rocky Mountain High while the very children who stare at that vast space each day do not know the first thing about John Denver.

As we engage in conversations about urban poverty let us do our best to be sure we get children out of their urban settings on occasion. Let us fund initiatives that take children to summer camp, the mountains, the beaches or wherever it is that those with more income dash off to for peace and rest. Even if it means planting a patch of wildflowers in a local park. Moving urban children toward wilderness experiences is to treat their lives with justice and fairness, it is to bring their hearts a glimpse of the wild, vast expanses of God’s world. It is only seems fair to share the planet.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Map of Race in Chicago

I got this map of where people live in Chicago by ethnicity from this web site. Could we be more segregated?!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What is poverty?

Rupert @roop13 asked me a series of great questions via twitter that I can’t answer in 140 characters. Here’s his tweet: @ArloaSutter define poverty? Do u really consider poverty in the US to be poverty? Do u really think we have it that bad in the US? #justcurious

Here is my response, Rupert. Let me know your thoughts.

Poverty is very complex and can be defined in many ways. The first thing that usually comes to our mind is economic poverty. In my book, The Invisible, I mention that even economic wealth is relative. Here is a quote from page 62.
Clearly, economic poverty is relative. A family living on $20,000 per year in Bolivia may be quite comfortable, while a family of four in the US would be living in poverty, and the family would be in crisis if they lived in Europe. When I traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2005, I was amazed to learn that $40 per month was considered a pretty good salary for teachers there…

While you may not consider yourself to be financially rich, I am going to assume, in a world in which half the population lives on less than $2 per day, that most of you reading this book are extremely wealthy. A web site,, will tabulate your income relative to the rest of the world. A salary of $50,000 will put you in the top 1 percent of the world’s wealthiest! Unless, your income is significantly less than that, you can be pretty sure that nearly 99 percent of the world’s population is poorer than you economically.
Yes, Rupert, I believe there is, indeed, poverty in the US and lots of it. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune “The Census Bureau said 14.3 percent of the U.S. population, or 43.6 million people, lived below the poverty line last year, compared with 13.2 percent in the previous year and 11.3 percent in 2000… The poverty threshold last year was $10,956 for one person and $21,954 for a family of four.”

In the US, this poverty is compounded by what I call a “poverty of purposelessness, hopelessness and despair”. There are millions who are left out of any income generating activities. While I don’t want to discount that some people are just lazy, I would suggest that, for the most part, these are individuals who have simply given up on ever having the opportunity to get ahead. They often come from families that have been burdened by poverty for generations, have attended under-performing schools and have lived in environments burdened by crime and violence. Poverty has become a way of life for them. They are trapped with seemingly no way out.

There is also a kind of poverty that burdens the economically wealthy. The church of Laodicea was told in Revelation 3, “You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” We can have economic wealth and be trapped in a web of self-centered consumerism that stifles our soul and compounds our greed.

A few years ago, I asked a group of young men who had spent time in a refugee camp in Kenya what they were given to eat. They rounded their hands to form a bowl and said they were each given one bowl of meal to last an entire month. I asked if it lasted that long and they said it didn’t, that sometimes they had to go several weeks with nothing.

I don’t think the poor in the US experience that kind of extreme poverty. The fact that millions in developing countries go hungry and die of malnutrition and other diseases should disturb us. I think we all need to be involved in poverty alleviation at home and abroad in some way through our investments and advocacy.

Emerson, Smith and Snell in their book, Passing the Plate, discovered that if 90 percent of committed Christian households in the United States would give away 10 percent of their after tax income, we could raise $85.5 billion each year above what is currently given. What a difference this could make in alleviating poverty! The sad fact is that one in five US Christians give literally nothing to church, para-church, or nonreligious charities!

Jesus told a group of Pharisees in Luke 11, “you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness… give what is inside [the dish] to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”

Jesus was the greatest advocate for caring for the poor in dignifying ways that ever lived. Those of us who choose to follow him will follow him to the poor.

Myths of Homelessness

Breakthrough Adult Services from Breakthrough Urban Ministries on Vimeo.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Memories of a five year old

I ran into Ann Healing at River City Community Church last Sunday. Ann is the Director of Intern and Fellows Program for the International Justice Mission. She and her husband Dave were on staff at Breakthrough before they moved to the east coast two years ago. She told me about a comment her son made that I asked her to put in writing so I could post it.
We just moved back to Chicago after living in the DC area for 2 years. When my 7 year old son finally got over his sadness about the move back, he asked me if I was going to work at Breakthrough again. I told him someone else now has my old job but he continued to beg me to work there. (clearly a little confused about how employment works). When I asked him why he wanted me to work there so badly he said “Mommy, I loved it when we served meals in that big kitchen to the people who live at Breakthrough”. He was 5 years old when we moved from Chicago. Much of what we did the first time we lived here he doesn’t remember. On top of that, he only actually joined us 2 or 3 times in the year that we served meals monthly at Breakthrough. Despite all that, he remembers that there was something special about serving and having a meal with others like we did at Breakthrough. It was unique and forming for him. We hope to begin to serve there again now that we have returned to Chicago.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Staying Refreshed

“How do you stay refreshed?” I’ve been asked that question twice in the last few weeks. “How do you stay positive in the midst of such crippling circumstances and devastating need?” Admittedly, we can run dry if we are not careful to put practices in place that sustain us for the long haul.

In my newly released book, The Invisible, I wrote an entire chapter on a principal that has guided my life work at Breakthrough. Early in our work we learned to “be led by the Spirit, rather than driven by need.”

In order to be led by the Spirit it is essential that we spend time with God in prayer and meditation before we rush in to meet needs and attempt to solve problems. We are led to joyful action when we first listen to the promptings of God’s Spirit. When we spend time with God each day we recognize how big God is and that God is the salvation of the world, not us. We don’t overestimate our own importance. Instead we let the love of God flow through us as we cooperate with the work God is already doing in the lives of others.

Another important principal that sustains us is the fact that we don’t work alone. We are part of a larger movement, a caring family of believers who work together to create a network of support for those who have become isolated and alone. This network also nurtures us as we engage in reciprocal relationships. We are part of a caring community that is reweaving the fabric of God’s shalom.

I am blessed to be surrounded by so many amazing people who are led by the Spirit to reach out with great acts of sacrifice and love in tough places. Thanks for being part of this great movement. Your contributions of time, encouragement and financial support keep us refreshed and joyful.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Green Faith and the Poor

Last week I preached the second message in a series at River City Community Church entitled "Green Faith". I realized as I prepared that God has been bringing me on a journey of sensitivity about environmental stewardship and especially the affect of environmental injustice on the poor. You can listen to my message below.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Are we spending too much time in holy huddles?

In my newly released book, The Invisible, I urge readers to join movements that are working for social change. This can be threatening to Christians who don’t feel safe joining causes that might be led or actively participated in by unbelievers. Can you participate in a walk to fund AIDs research or join a movement to end human trafficking that does not express Christian faith in its mission statement?

My friend and mentor, Ray Bakke, teaches that “people of good faith can join with people of good will for the good of the community.” We don’t need to water down our faith to be involved with unbelievers in causes that affect the welfare of the poor and oppressed. In fact, joining such movements is a natural expression of true Christian faith. When Christians are not present at the tables where plans are laid out to address societal evil our absence communicates that we don’t care.

Our holy prayer clusters are important. Our fellowship circles strengthen our resolve to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. But then we must move out from those comfortable places to take action in the world to care for the oppressed and to work to right the wrongs of social injustice. This was Christ’s mission on earth as expressed at the outset of his ministry in Luke 4:18-21.

As Christians we are called to act out our faith. In fact, the apostle Paul states in Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love.” And James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a person claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Perhaps we are spending too much time in holy huddles and not enough time serving in food pantries and shelters or joining with others to bring education and business opportunities to impoverished communities. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
  • When was the last time you shared a meal with a poor person?
  • What cause or causes are you presently engaged in?
  • How many people in your network are from races and socioeconomic groups that are different from yours?
  • What is stopping you from getting involved in a movement that is working for compassion and justice?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Inside the Invisible World of the Homeless

Several years ago I took a big cultural leap. I had been providing services to Chicago’s homeless population and I decided I wanted to know what it felt like to be on the other side of the services Breakthrough offers. I put on a pair of sweat pants and a union jacket and ventured out on the streets of Chicago posing as a homeless woman.

I asked a priest where I could find shelter. He sent me trekking nearly five miles south into an economically disadvantaged community. I wandered about for nearly five hours before a police officer pointed me in the direction of a storefront church. I collapsed exhausted on a mat next to nearly thirty other women. Several of them talked to themselves throughout the night. Others coughed and moaned and cried.

There was one bathroom with one shower for thirty women, no toilet paper or towels, no soap or deodorant. The next day, on the advice of several of the women, I started on what the homeless call “the trail”. I made my way from shelters to soup kitchens to ministry centers in quest of food, bathroom facilities and shelter.

I felt what it was like to stand in a soup line and watch as people passed by on their way to work without really seeing us. Volunteers passed me plates of food, but never asked my name or why I was there. None of the staff showed me any personal attention. I became a nameless, faceless, homeless person. It was like being behind a one way glass. We could see out, but it was as if others couldn’t see us. We were invisible to them.

I learned that the women on the street were not all that different from me. Though they struggled to find food, shelter and health care, they had unique personalities and fostered bonds of friendships with accompanying drama. Each had a story they were willing to share freely. Every morning they stayed at the shelter until we joined hands in a circle to say the Lord’s Prayer together, seeming hungry for the personal touch and the moment of spiritual reflection.

One afternoon as I walked from a library to the shelter, a policeman called out to me from his squad car and told me to come to him. I was aghast when he asked me out on a date. When I said no and walked away, he and his partner followed me in their car, continuing to call out to me over their loud speaker. I felt frightened and vulnerable. If they were to force themselves on me, what could I do? Who would believe me, a homeless woman?

I watched as women fought over their belongings and their space at the shelter. I felt anxious when a man told me I had to surrender my grocery bag with my water bottle and book at the door of a soup kitchen, wondering if I would ever see it again. I made friends and realized I could survive on the street indefinitely. Yet, I knew I was only there for a season. In just a few days I would go back to my own home, with my comfortable bed and my own shower, shampoo, lotion and coffee maker. I can never really understand what it feels like to be trapped, to have no options, to have no hope for a different tomorrow.

Most of us will probably never have to experience the challenge of homelessness. We have networks of support that we can rely upon in a crisis. There is much we can do to bring love, hope and dignity to those who struggle for survival. We can become part of a support network for those we find in shelters and on the street. We can join an organization or a movement that contributes food, shelter and clothing for those who lack these basic necessities. Most of all, we can give our presence, our listening ear, our friendship. We can look people in the eyes and ask them their names and listen to their stories. As we acknowledge them we begin to see the image of Christ in them and they in us and we both become more fully alive to the love of God.

Click here to join the Breakthrough Network of Support.

[This article is a part of the first edition of Here's Life Inner City's iHope Blog Carnival. For more information and to read other entries that focus on homelessness and poverty, click here .]

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bruised Apples and Local Character

The post below is from my friend Tracey Bianchi, author of “Green Mama: The Guilt Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet.” She is the mother of three and an author, speaker, and women’s ministry director. You can find more of her musings on life, faith and sustainability here and purchase her book here.

Our local farmer's market is a hub of activity every week. Lettuce, jelly, strawberries, nuns who bake bread. The old Greek guy selling olives is definitely my favorite. He takes plump, oval, gorgeous olives and crams them with soft bleu cheese. I don't even like bleu cheese but his olives have made me a devotee.

The family that hauls heirloom apples up from the southern part of my state is another treasure. By late summer they truck in over two dozen varieties of apples. Brown Snout, Adina, Prairie Spy, Akane, Pink Pearl, Chisel Jersey. Did you know apples had these names?

My apple exposure comes from the pile at my local grocer. Granny Smith and Golden Delicious. Maybe on a daring day I dabble in a Jonathan Gold.

Grocery store apples are perfectly smooth, no bruises and quite hard. I arrive home and they don't taste as stellar as they looked. Mealy and lackluster. These apples come from fabulously far away places like Washington State or New Zealand. I find this odd given the multiple apple orchards near my home. None of the apples in our stores actually come from these orchards (a common occurrence in food life).

Commercial apples are often plucked from the trees long before they are ripe, stealing their sweetness and color. A green apple at your grocer might actually, if left on the tree, become a yellow apple! And sweeter than the one in your cart.
On a recent trip to the farmer’s market my two youngest children were running from bin to bin picking their apples by yanking whatever looked tasty from the heirloom varieties.

Then they scurried over the the stroller where a canvas bag received their selections. At first they gently set the apples into the bag. It was perfectly idyllic. I was the uber eco-mom with the gentle kids and the awesome apples. But the moment quickly changed as competition and adrenaline suddenly took over.
They began racing back and forth, grabbing armloads of apples and throwing them into my bag. Beautiful apples bouncing around and bruising one another. I managed to stop the chaos for a moment so my 2.5 year old said "okay mommy, then let's go buy our apples."

Before I could harness his ambition he darted over to the stroller, grabbed the handle on our bag and yanked it with such force that the bag tipped and apples flew then bounced across the market lot. "Oops. Mommy?"

As we tucked them back into the bag I noticed, beyond our bruises, that each apple had such character. Traits you don't see in stores. Odd colors, lumps, freckles and spots. Each had a story to tell. An heirloom apple's worth of history, seeds from France, family secrets from Germany, local color from Illinois. These apples were ripe with more than flavor.

We relaxed enough to pay the farmer (who smiled and kindly said "happens all the time") and I felt embarrassed of course. But, I also felt joy and history swelling through my little suburban veins. A small moment of triumph over the commercial food industry, victory for my kitchen.

I had a bag of odd shaped character and it felt a little bit like my life. Freckled, bruised and filled with stories. Like the lives of my children as well.

So I beg you to get in touch with your local growers this summer. Not as an act of hatred against grocery chains but a way learning and of growing. To put your hands on freckled apples is to realize that you are connected to the same bizarre, bruised world as our farmers and our food.

A way of living into the reality that we are all connected to our land, God’s land. Our food and ultimately to one another. May you find an odd shaped apple this summer that fills your heart and your stomach with a glimpse of God’s love and grace for this world and for your very soul.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

This is what 100 years old should look like

This is 100 year old Vorese Fisher. This awesome woman of God is the only remaining family member and aunt of Tracy Kennedy. She is affectionately known to many of as "Aunt Vo." Tracy had a photo shoot for Aunt Vo a few days before her 100th Birthday. Oh yes, she is 100 years young!

Aunt Vo gets her rest. She loves the Perry Mason TV show. She cooks delicious homemade rolls. She is still mobile and enjoying riding her stationery exercise bike to stay healthy. This woman of tremendous poise, grace, and beauty is still in her "right mind". If you ask Aunt Vo what was her secret to longevity she would say , "Jesus in the morning. Jesus in the afternoon and Jesus at night keeps me in peace." Aunt Vo revealed her secret for health is simply moderation. Nothing overdone...nothing overdone. Aunt Vo retired from being in sales at the Bullocks Wilshire store in 1975. She is an avid reader. She learned how to endure the struggles and hardships of being a woman of color and so happy to have lived to received White House birthday greetings from President and Michelle Obama. (via Tracey Turner)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

May God Bless You With Discomfort

Thanks to John Deacon from Toronto for sending this quote to me...
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe you can make a difference in the world, so you can do what others claim cannot be done.
--Franciscan Prayer

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Caring for the poor is not an option for Christians

Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion looks out on the world.”

While those words sound beautiful, many of us in the body of Christ struggle with how to care for broken people. Compassion comes easily for people who are like us, but what about people on the margins of society. How can we be the hands and feet of Christ to people who are struggling in the downward spiral of poverty and isolation?

A woman sent me a note asking me to please stop sending her newsletters about our ministries’ work with the homeless in Chicago. “I don’t want to have anything to do with those people”, she wrote. “I let a homeless woman stay with me and she stole from me.”

“I’m afraid to get too involved with people who have such desperate needs,” Toni told me. “I know that if I get personally involved it’s going to get messy. I had an experience once where I was taken advantage of. I felt like an idiot. I was angry. That’s what I get scared of, that I’m just being foolish.”

None of us enjoys being duped. After experiencing two or three of these unfortunate confrontations, it is understandable that some would rather just avoid dealing with people in need. After all, aren’t there government programs that take care of the legitimately poor and the unemployed? Why should we be bothered and chance contributing to someone’s addiction or being taken advantage of?

Yet Jesus was very clear in his teaching that Christians don’t have the option not to care for the down and out.

The Good Samaritan crossed the road and was moved by compassion for the mugged man. He got involved by bandaging his wounds and then took him to the nearest rehab center and paid for his rehabilitation.

What we do for the least of these, Jesus said, is what we do for him. The list included providing food and clothing, looking after people in prison, caring for the sick and taking in strangers.

Compassionate care for the poor is central to the teaching of Scripture. Ultimately the power to overcome poverty lies in learning to live the Jesus way, to follow him in how he interacted with the poor and the marginalized, and to be willing—like Jesus, to lay down our self-centered, materialistic lives to take up the cross of loving generosity, gentle kindness, and tenacious advocacy for the rights of the poor and the oppressed.

The needs of the poor are often complicated. Generations of social castaways are plagued with inadequate education, dilapidated housing and few employable skills.

What can the church do find and serve the least of these?

As I have walked for the past eighteen years alongside thousands of men and women who have become homeless in the city of Chicago, and as I have visited impoverished communities throughout the world, I have discovered good news. We actually can, in very practical ways, find sustainable, manageable ways to make a difference in the lives of the poor.

Caring for the poor is something we do together. In the body of Christ, we each have a role to play. God raises up leaders who start movements, ministries and organizations that are feeding and clothing the homeless, providing shelter, caring for the sick and ministering to those in prison. Each of us can join these movements in some way through giving and volunteering.

When was the last time you shared a meal or had a meaningful conversation with a poor person? Find a ministry in your community that is caring for people in need and find out how you can get involved. It will change your life.

The Christian church is the largest grassroots movement on earth. How we respond to the poor is central to the life and teachings of Jesus and to what it means for us to follow Christ. Together we can make a profound impact on poverty. Indeed, I believe we are called by God to do so.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Practice of Self Regulation

Tell those rich in this world’s wealth
to quit being so full of
themselves and so obsessed with money,
which is here today and gone tomorrow.
Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the
riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping
others, to be extravagantly generous.
If they do that, they’ll build
a treasure that will last, gaining life that is truly life.

— I Timothy 6:17-19, The Message

Irving Wasserman was on a mission. He was single handedly going to erase the national debt by building an endowment. He saved nearly all of his disability checks and bought government bonds until he had accrued half a million dollars. Before he passed away in 2000 he set up a revocable living trust to give his estate to Breakthrough. Despite his disability, Irving still holds the record for the largest one time gift to Breakthrough from an individual.

Irving was the most frugal man I have ever met. He asked us to move his stove to the alley so he wouldn’t have to pay the gas bill for the pilot light. When he found coins on the street he immediately walked them to the bank. “I can’t trust myself with money,” he replied when I questioned him about deposits for five cents or a quarter.

One day I invited Irving to my house for dinner. Since he was a diabetic I purchased special sugar-free ice cream bars for him. He ate one with great pleasure. At the end of the evening I gave him the rest of the package of ice cream bars to take home.

The next morning he was pounding on my door. “Here, take these,” he yelled as he thrust the ice cream bars into my hands. “They make me want to have them all the time!”

His words have stuck with me through the years as I have pondered my own life style. As I have eaten at finer restaurants and stayed at nicer hotels, I realize, “They make me want to have them all the time.”

There is power in learning to practice self regulation, to simplify our life styles so we can do more for the kingdom. Instead of leading a lifestyle of consumerism and teaching our kids to follow in our footsteps, we can leave a legacy of changed lives and community transformation. We may not be as frugal as Irving, but there are likely ways that all of us could do more to regulate our consumption in order to be more generous and helpful to others. Though he was challenged in many ways, Irving Wasserman left a legacy.

What’s your legacy?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Social Justice is not Socialism

Recently I was surprised to learn that the concept of social justice has been under attack. Several talk show hosts seem to be equating social justice with socialism and have warned Christians not to align themselves with anyone who is advocating for social justice.

While the words sound the same, they are actually quite opposite. Under socialism, all earnings from labor are given to the government and people are given just enough food and clothing to live in the worst conditions. I have never met a Christian social justice advocate who thinks socialism is the answer. Instead, we are guided by Scripture to acknowledge that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1) and we are to be stewards who care for the poor through loving generosity, not obligation. (2 Corinthians 9:6-10)

Justice is, in fact, a concept that is core to the message of the gospel. Jesus announced in Luke 4:18-19 that he was anointed to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.

“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne”, declared the Psalmist in Psalm 89:14 and Micah wrote, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

King Josiah discovered the lost scripture in the temple and hearing it read led him to repentance. Later Jeremiah wrote of Josiah, “He defended the cause of the poor and needy so that all went well. ‘Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 22:16)

While I can understand the concern that big government might actually increase poverty, I can not back down from the call of God to defend the cause of the poor. Social justice is not socialism. It is what it means to know God.

Micah 6:8 Conference from Conversations Next on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Empowerment: How do you help people without hurting?

One of the core principles of the Christian Community Development Association is "Empowerment". The video below from Urban Entry gives a great introduction to the concept.

Does Serving Mean Playing Small?

I teach a Wheaton College class in Chicago every semester. I like to remind my students that the fact that they are getting a college education and own computers means they are in the top 1% of the most privileged people in the world and that they have a special responsibility to use their privilege on behalf of the world and God’s kingdom. I encourage them to maximize their gifts to become world leaders who will speak to power about the needs of the poor.

Some of the students in one of my recent classes took me to task over this notion. Should they not take the role of humble servants, setting aside their privilege to live common lives among the poor? Isn’t that what it means to serve? To follow Jesus’ example of laying aside his position of power and privilege to take on the form of a servant? To live among the poor and disparate as one of them?

It’s a good question, isn’t it? Yet, even the fact that some of us have choices, sets us apart from those who don’t.

Shane Claiborne, of the Simple Way, is a good example of a young man from privilege, with a Wheaton College education, who set aside aspirations to accrue wealth and power to live in an impoverished community in Philadelphia and join his companions in making their own clothing and diving in dumpsters for food. He uses his power in crafting the English language to give compelling voice to the lives and struggles of the poor through his speaking and writing. Many in my neighborhood would have difficulty bridging cultural worlds like he does. They lack the educational background and access to a broader network to ever impact the world like he does. He is powerfully using his privilege on behalf of the poor.

The mother of two of Jesus’ disciples wanted to ensure that her sons would have powerful positions when she asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hand in the kingdom. As a mother, I understand that. Who doesn’t want their kids to be great? To be acknowledged and recognized for their achievements?

Jesus never reprimanded her or her boys for wanting to be great. He just gently turned the tables on the definition of true greatness with his answer. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-27)

I love that my students are wrestling with this question. I’m sure that some of them will become attorneys who will draft legislation and run for office, others will become doctors and teachers among the poor. Some will run businesses and finance firms that will generate revenue that they will pass on to incubate community and economic development projects and support ministries in impoverished communities throughout the world. I love their passion for justice and their desire to follow Jesus with radical abandon.

We are indeed, all called to serve, to give our lives for a greater cause, whether we head corporations and governments or pick up the dying in the streets of Calcutta.

Nelson Mandela, in his 1994 inaugural address quoted Marianne Williamson’s beautiful words below:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us;
It's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Grace Awakening

A couple of days ago I came upon a beautiful blog post written by Jordan Dowell, who volunteered with his church, Willow Creek, at Breakthrough's women's center. Jordan gave me permission to copy a portion of his post below. You can read it in it's entirety here.
Tonight I had the opportunity along with 5 college students from my church to serve and eat a meal at Breakthrough Urban Ministries Women’s shelter on the Westside of Chicago. An old factory, turned warehouse, turned machine shop, then abandoned, and now remodeled, provides housing for 30 women and staff under Breakthrough’s name. It is a simple place, but in the unfolding production of grace this building radiates upon the stage. I wish to articulate everything that happened tonight, but to do so would take an entire book, so I must consolidate.

As is ritual, one veteran volunteer led the women in worship with her acoustic guitar while the meal was being prepared. As the women trickled into the dinning hall connected directly to the large open kitchen the smell of meatloaf and dinner rolls filled the air. The room echoed badly as the music begun, but despite that and the harsh hanging florescent lights there was an intense awareness of “home,” security, hope, and belonging among the people in the room.

I sat at a table with a woman named Patricia and shared her song book as we sang worship songs put to the simple rhythm of a guitar. She and I chatted briefly between songs as others in the room shouted song requests, then we would continue with the group in song. I noticed that as I sang louder, so would Patricia, and so I sang very loudly on one song “Hosanna.” I didn’t look at the songbook very much during that song because I knew it by memory, so I sang, loudly, along with Patricia who from the way she closely followed the words in the song book, I determined hadn’t heard the song many times before.

When the song ended, Patricia pointed with her finger to the first two lines of the bridge that read, “Heal my heart and make it clean, open up my eyes to the things unseen.” Through what seemed to be tears, she said “That’s what He did for me”
Patricia ran her finger along the words, back and forth as if stroking a precious piece of jewelry. I was taken aback by her emotion. I had just sung those words out of the cold repository of my memory without second thought while Patricia had been intensely reminded of grace and forgiveness. The next song started, but Patricia kept talking about who she’d been, who she’d hurt and disappointed, the drugs she’d used, the education she’d thrown away. She told me about an experience where God clearly “opened up her eyes to the things unseen.” With a cringe and a whisper she said, “I saw everything, I saw who I was, I saw who God was…” She paused, I was riveted by the passion with which she talked about God. Her awareness of grace brought tears to my eyes as I thought, “that’s what He did for me too.”

Last night I sang a song as I’d done many times before, but through the simplicity of a strummed guitar and through the delicate loving way Patricia talked about the words, my understanding of grace soared.

There are times when a simple single thing, when experienced in a delicate and simple way, will change your understanding of the greater whole.

Grace is a grand production that is redeeming humanity. It’s breadth and scale is magnificent, but to appreciate grace there are many elements of which we need to remain aware.

In understanding grace, there are stories we need to hear, and songs we need to sing.