While serving in a local urban ministry, I first tried to get to know the kids on an individual basis, laboring to wade through their Ebonics enough to discover their grade level, the nature of their home life, and their interests. I realized how far behind they were in school. The place was teeming with fourth graders who could barely add and subtract, let alone recall multiplication facts they’d obviously never memorized. Their reading comprehension was lamentable: many could read the words aloud but had no idea what the text said. And their homework didn’t require them to do anything more. Often the assignments only called for copying a definition from the textbook onto a worksheet. I was saddened, surprised, and overwhelmed by the pressing and formidable needs. But that was just the beginning of what I learned from my first six months in urban ministry.
Working with Others
In our non-traditional fellowship, we’re used to doing ministry a certain way. So when I joined forces with Jere and Cynethia, from suburbia and the ghetto, respectively, I was in for an education.
Jere, a retiree and fundie, emphasized the Ten Commandments at every opportunity. His teachings meandered mostly through the Old Testament and invariably put the kids to sleep. But I also learned that he meant well, loved the kids, and was earnestly trying to help them. For example, he knew where each kid lived and took them Christmas boxes of food and gifts, carefully taking mental notes about the family situation of each child. His insight into their lives, though limited, was invaluable as we learned to serve kids who acted out as a result of the brokenness, poverty, and chaos of their home lives.
Then there was Cynethia, a convert who left behind her immoral street life for Christ. Between cigarette breaks on the porch, she kept it real with the kids, offering a model of effective disciplinary practices which I sometimes resented but later strove to imitate. She liked to lecture them about not cleaning up after themselves and how it was wrong to swear, but she had a soft spot for them too. Despite all her admonitions that they should do good for God and not for a reward, she couldn’t help but slip an extra treat into the lunch bag of whoever took out the trash.
While the two volutneers seemed worlds apart, they were united when it came to the after school program. They ran a calm, well-ordered two hours that always included a song and a lecture about what I considered tangential issues. I rediscovered the value of musical worship for kids, who learn more than you’d think from those corny worship songs. I didn’t agree with how rigid they were with the kids, but I knew I was in no place to say anything as a volunteer on their territory.
Then we set up our Tuesdays and Wednesdays and I learned what a blessing it was to have others there with a style that, however different from ours, achieved structure and discipline that was enviable. The kids had their bad days with Jere and Cynethia, too, so it wasn’t just us, but we definitely didn’t have the experience or know-how to keep things running as smoothly as they did. It was so hard to keep them busy and productive, especially when we didn’t have songs and lectures to take up time. We had a plethora of volunteers (at least to start) but we still didn’t know how to dig deeper into the chaos and heartache of their home lives. And we suspected the kids kept lying about their homework because they’d much rather play, so they weren’t getting the academic help they so desperately needed to break the poverty cycle.
Suddenly I appreciated the dull calm of Mr. Jere. As I frantically “organized” the food donations, teaching rotation, and volunteer schedule, I saw just how much it took to run the program. And as I taught the kids, I realized just how hard it was to hold their attention, even with all sorts of gimmicky jokes and interactions. Slowly but surely, we are learning how to tailor the teaching for our squirmy, elementary audience. We are learning to send kids home when they’ve gone too far. We’re learning to keep asking questions even when the kids are more interested in the Jimmy Neutron computer game or fourth grade gossip than they are in talking to us. We are learning how to address different disciplinary issues in appropriate ways, whether they make a mess or get caught in a lie.
We are learning the importance of vision, compassion, and how hard it is to cross even the smallest cultural barrier. I’m finding out just how much I have to learn, that I’m more tribal than I thought, and that I worry too much and don’t pray nearly enough. I’m learning that teaching high school kids only partly prepared me to work with elementary kids. I’m even learning how sacred and precious my marriage is. They kids look at my husband and me with wonder. They forcibly lead us to hold hands. They marvel at the fact that two young people would want to marry. Their parents are not married; their teenage sisters are pregnant. Their fathers are often absent, perhaps in and out of jail. Many are related to each other through the complicated web of sexual relations their parents wove. But from serving these broken children, we have a world to learn.
Yanika* is nine years old, but she’s shorter than the other girls her age. She talks with a speech impediment, which is made worse by her crowded, crooked mouthful of teeth which jut out in every direction, yet will never taste the metal of braces. Her clothes always look dirty, as if she’d been playing in dirt all day instead of sitting at a desk in school. She is the youngest of eight kids from several different fathers.
She eats her snack, alone in the middle of a second-hand couch, while the other girls color at the table.
“Yanika , don’t you want to go color?”
“I don’t want to sit with those girls,” she gushes through a mouthful of animal crackers.
The crumbs fall on her dirty, too-short jeans.
“They’re mean. They told Marcus they wouldn’t listen to his announcement,” she referred to a brown-nosing but good-hearted boy who wanted to tell the kids I brought a treat for his birthday.
I smiled at her demonstration of loyalty. “I’m sorry they did that. But they won’t be mean to you with those volunteers over there.”
“I know they don’t like me. I know they talk about me behind my back. They’re not nice.”
My heart went out to her. I didn’t doubt her suspicions of the other girls, who tried to be cool in typical fourth-grade fashion: putting others down, gossiping, and wearing trendy clothes they would lament later when perusing childhood photos.
“They just think they’re cooler than they really are,” I sympathized.
“Yeah,” she concurred, sending a shower of crumbs onto the couch.
“But you should still do the right thing and forgive them. And you should be able to color with them if you want to. It doesn’t mater what they think of you.” I’m sure it did matter to her, terribly so. Her mom was addicted to crack. Her dad was only an occasional character in the sob story that was her life. She was mostly cared for by two of her teenage sisters, but they were both pregnant, so she would probably receive less and less attention over time, even as she needed more help and love. Maybe the after school program was the only place where she would experience the stable, confident love she needed so badly. And these stupid little girls had to be mean to her to boost their own esteem.
If I’d read about Yanika one year ago, I would have felt briefly irritated at the injustice of the situation. But I would have quickly dismissed it as yet another sad story of kids suffering for their parents’ mistakes.
Now that the story has been lived out before me, I feel compassion in a new way. I still blame her parents, the mean girls, and the harsh world. But I also blame myself. I have the opportunity to show her that I care, to help her succeed in school, and to teach her about God’s impartial love. If Yanika isn’t loved, it is at least partly my fault. I can’t fix her life, but I can try to help. God has called us to be kind to the poor and He will give us the necessary power to obey His call.
On the surface Lacrishia and Shantaya look like any other girls their age. Their clothes are clean and often fashionable. They come into the “Upper Room” each day with a bag of hot fries fresh from the corner store. They talk about Hannah Montana and tease each other about their “boyfriends.” They mention both their parents in conversation.
As I chat with them while they snack on a mixture of hot fries and pretzels, I realize there is more to their lives than first appears.
“My tooth hurts,” Lacrishia announces as she digs around her molar to extract chewed-up pretzels.
“What’s wrong with it?” I ask.
She pulls back her cheek to reveal an abscessed tooth, with the puffy pink gum bulging around it.
“Ouch, that looks painful! Does it hurt?”
“Yeah, it hurts a lot.”
“Are you going to go to the dentist?”
“I was supposed to go last Thursday, but then my auntie had to borrow the car for my cousin’s court date so my mom couldn’t drive me.”
“Oh. So are you going to get a new appointment?”
“Yeah, but my mom’s gotta wait to get paid because she doesn’t think the insurance covers it, and this paycheck’s gotta go to rent, so I gotta wait like three more weeks.”
I marveled at her awareness of the details of her family’s financial life, which I was completely unaware of at that age. Lacrishia’s math skills were grade levels behind, but she already knew the arithmetic of the ‘hood: this paycheck goes to rent, and the next one goes to the most pressing needs. Her nonchalance at having to wait for pain relief also surprised me. When I was growing up, if something hurt, I went to the doctor within a day and got treatment. On my own now, I still waltzed into the dentist or doctor’s office, handed over my insurance card, and let someone else foot the bill. I didn’t think twice about how lucky I was to have good benefits. Instead I complained that I couldn’t go to any doctor I wanted because we signed up for the limited PPO.
Shantaya veered the conversation from Lacrishia’s tooth. “Are you coming over tonight?” she wondered to Lacrishia, who lives down the street from her apartment.
“Do you eat dinner when you get home?” I asked as I watched them devour hot fries and pretzels.
“No, we don’t have dinner,” Shantaya said.
“You need it, girl,” Lacrishia said, gripping Shantaya ’s tiny arm. If she was a teenager, you’d assume she was anorexic. At ten, she just looked unusually skinny, perhaps sickly.
Whether she was skinny or not, she needed more than corner-store snacks for dinner. I couldn’t imagine not having dinner. My mom always had a relatively well-rounded supper on the table by 5:30 p.m. and, despite the fact that there were five of us kids, there was always plenty to eat. Even if it was leftovers, she always added veggies and fruit to round out the meal. Growing up I thought supper time was stressful, as we were likely to fight with each other and get “put on silence,” or spill milk and get yelled at. But looking back I knew the family time was well-spent. I discovered that dinner was another basic necessity I took for granted. God had blessed me beyond what I realized until now. I didn’t deserve a comfortable upbringing any more than these girls, but I got it anyway.
Mission sounds so lofty, like those statements the elders get together to dream up and then print on the church bulletins. But mission became as much of a staple as bread and bologna at South Street. It all boiled down to the deceptively simple question of “What are we doing here?” It turned out not to be so simple after all.
One month after we starting running two days ourselves, workers were beginning to wonder what our purpose was at South Street. Some volunteers thought we were there to mentor the kids, and felt frustrated by how slowly they were getting to know the kids.
“I just don’t know how I’m supposed to get close to them when I only see them once a week for two hours,” one worker wondered.
It turned out that we didn’t have to decide how close to get to the kids. That was up to them. Some kids would pour out their pitiful home lives to you with the smallest prompting; others answered to direct questions vaguely, perhaps describing home as “annoying” and nothing more. We hope to establish mentoring relationships with those kids who seem most interested and responsive, but we’ll see what time brings.
Those who taught during the Bible time questioned what our goal was in that arena. We were using a curriculum designed for hour-long children’s church classes. It traced “God’s Incredible Plan” from creation to Christ, showing how the Old Testament stories paved the way for the gospel message.
“It’s a great curriculum. I came out of Sunday school knowing little bits and pieces of the story, but never understanding what Noah or Abraham had to do with God’s plan,” I gushed to people when we were choosing the curriculum.
But it turned out to be more difficult than we expected, especially since many of the kids didn’t know the stories in the first place. We were trying to cram a Bible story, personal application, and big-picture perspective into every teaching, along with activities and questions to keep the kids engaged. It was going over their heads, and they were losing attention as a result.
So we decided to aim for fifteen minute teachings, including only the story and one main point. For example, with Adam and Eve we taught them that God gave us free will. In other cases we emphasize applications like forgiveness, grace, and asking for salvation.
Then there was homework. The kids were so behind, but often lied about not having homework. What was our role? We went to more experienced urban ministry workers from a different ministry to get their input.
“It’s an after school tutoring program, so they have to do homework,” they reasoned. “If they really don’t have any, have them work on another academic skill, like flash cards or reading.”
We tried to implement this suggestion as well as we could. Sometimes it worked. Other times, the kids outnumbered volunteers by four to one and it was nearly impossible to enforce since it wasn’t school, after all. We bribed them with candy, pizza, and gold stars; we threatened with loss of privileges and kicking them out. One day when we were short on workers and patience, the founder and leader of the ministry walked into the room while the kids were screaming answers at the top of their lungs. Grouped around a high school volunteer who was flashing math fact cards at them, they were technically practicing academic skills, but I shuddered to think how the situation might look to him.
In the end, we decided to emphasize school work and reward completed homework, trying to target areas of need as best we could in our short and busy weekly time there.
We never came up with a vision statement, but our unspoken commitment was to God’s command to “be kind to the poor.” We wanted to do His will as effectively and strategically as possible, without ever losing sight of the compassion we were so quickly learning.
It was at South Street that I realized my teaching experience had little to do with serving urban kids. I was probably better off because of my background, but usually felt completely clueless when it came to this ministry. One of the biggest struggles for me was that I had no idea what I was doing.
During our two-week transition from supporting Jere to leading on our own, Cynethia lectured the kids severely about misbehaving for us after she left.
“They might be small,” she lectured, referring to my friend Sarah and me, “but they’re grown-ups and you have to listen to them.”
This made me feel terribly un-grown-up. And the kids were good, for a week or two. But then they started testing us. And maybe they weren’t even doing it on purpose. It was entirely possible that they were just rowdy and sick of sitting at school. Some were behaving badly because of stressful and emotional situations at home. Whatever their reasons, I quickly learned that I didn’t know as much about handling kids as I thought I did.
Teaching was a challenge, too. I was itching to give it a try since Jere was so bland. And the first couple times went pretty well. But on their worse days, when attention ran low and attitude was high, it felt nearly impossible to get through a simple story like Cain and Abel. In the midst of constantly reprimanding them, I could barely get out what I wanted to say.
Mark, our most experienced and gifted teacher, also confronted the same difficulty in communicating God’s Word to the kids. “My effectiveness as a teacher is tied to how much I know about the audience,” he said, “and I’m realizing how little I know these kids. I don’t know what will catch their attention or make them laugh.”
“I can’t say one sentence without them getting distracted,” he continued. “We had to read the same verse three times because they weren’t listening or would forget what it said.”
As a result of these challenges, I started praying for the kids, the program, and the volunteers like I’d never prayed for them before. Even after the worst of days, when I felt like such a failure and just wanted to give up, I found myself imploring God for help, power, and wisdom. I finally understood what it meant to beg Him for souls as I beseeched Him to use our pathetic efforts to impact these kids and bring them into a saving relationship with Him. As I got before the Lord more frequently and intently, I found that it didn’t get any easier. But I was less fearful, more perseverant, and increasingly grateful for the opportunity God gave me. I was doing God’s will, learning new skills, depending on Him more, and growing in love for the kids of South Street. And the journey has just begun.
*The children’s names have been changed.