Yesterday morning I awoke too early with the sour taste of a mistake on my tongue. I was heavy with the knowledge that during a short talk I had given the night before, I had made a joke that came out badly. I had possibly hurt someone I respect and care about, and I looked like a jerk, to boot. I was already exhausted by the long day that was ahead of me, and it was a big one — potent with purpose, mission dancing on the edge of being fulfilled.
Much of my writing, I realize, consists of me trying to work out my identity as a Gen-X adult Christian in America. I had a BC life — I came to Christ as an adult so I have memories of life before him. I am so tired of the media portraying us as hateful, bigoted, and close-minded. I am disgusted when I come across those of us who live up to that stereotype. I get tired when my non-Christian friends think I checked my brain at the door or want me to approve their choice of spirituality as if I must pass some philosophical test of non-judgement. I get angry when Christians call me a “supposed-Christian” or suggest I am somehow less than because I voted for Barack Obama, I think yes, guns do kill people and children especially, and that interspersed in my vast array of awesome friends are (gasp!) gay people.
But when we Christians do this Christian thing right? Man, that is a beautiful thing. And yesterday, I experienced Christianity done right.
First, I sent a second apology to the friend I’d hurt via email (I’d apologized in person immediately after it happened). Then I began planning my day. A quick workout I wasn’t in the mood for, then a meeting with Master Guerrero at Guerrero Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu regarding doing a seminar for the kids my church will be mentoring at the Newark YMCA. Home for a quick shower, run some errands, and then that small matter of fulfilling destiny.
After almost a full year of planning, praying, debating, researching, interviewing, training, and background checks, the TLCC Mentor Project finally got it’s official start. This has been not just a long process in the lives of myself and my amazing volunteers, but it’s been a spiritual journey for me as well. One in which God has been calling me out onto the waters of mission with him, to that scary place where I come face to face with the things that break his heart. It’s a place outside the boundaries of my zone of comfort and yet it’s there where the blessings abide.
As I began my day in earnest, God’s blessings began to rain down from heaven. It wasn’t until the next day, when I was recounting the whole thing to my best friend, and I was saying how I can’t believe how much God blessed me, and she said …more blessings than you’ll know what to do with… I realized that once again, God proved himself and his word to be true.
Let me recount the blessings. First, my friend who I’d hurt with my stupid words wrote me a beautiful email of forgiveness back. He told me that he is not offended because he knows me and that I didn’t mean it. There was so much grace in his words: I didn’t take offense because I know you. Tears of gratitude flow down my cheeks even now as I recount this feeling of being forgiven.
It made me realize that although it’s true that the gate of Jesus is a narrow one, on the other side are the wide open spaces where grace resides. And grace is a beautiful place to live. It’s a place where we can be known by God. A place where our true hearts and all their messes are known — intimate and in the truth of all our messes — and loved passionately. For isn’t the most wonderful thing on this earth the feeling of finally, for once, being known and understood? And loved anyway?
Next I went to speak with Master Guerrero about the kids. We had a great conversation. Turns out he is from Newark (where our program takes place), was an at-risk youth himself, and can relate to these kids even better than I imagined. He started training as a kid and told me often he’d come home from training to discover another friend had been put in jail. I am excited to share him with the kids. Martial arts changed my life almost 20 years ago. Obviously, it changed Master Guerrero’s life, too.
While we were talking, a friend of Master Guerrero’s came into the studio. Long story short: he’s a 2-time Grammy Award winning music producer. While he was waiting, Master Guerrero’s wife Claudia told him about our mentoring project.
And now he wants to help. Bring the kids into a studio. Play around with some tracks.
I can’t wait to tell them.
Maybe you don’t know how huge that is. Let me explain. These kids — they have a four-block-wide world view. Four-blocks. Imagine your entire world consisting of four gang-ridden, drug-infested city blocks decorated with flower-strewn memorials on every corner. They don’t expect to live past the age of eighteen.
I walked out of the studio, my jaw hanging open in awe of God’s goodness and favor. My phone did it’s happy dance in my coat pocket. You’ve got mail. I quickly scan and learn that after months of hard work, my certification as a Christian Life Coach has come through. It’s official. I have letters after my name. Mission on purpose. All while I’m walking down the street. I could almost see the angels of God’s army following me down the street, carrying out his good plans, rejoicing with me over the changed futures these kids will enjoy as a result of The Mentor Project.
Finally, off to the Y. I arrive first, find Victor, our contact there, then sit in the brightly colored room. Wait. Our first day is here.
Slowly but surely, the mentors start to trickle in. They’re all nervous. We’re all nervous. Those long, awkward silences as we wait for the kids to come in.
I worry in those silences. These kids are so tough on the outside. I’ve tried to prepare the mentors — tried to make them understand. These aren’t prep school kids. They aren’t the kids they might have met at Pride Academy, who have a parent who fought to get them into a charter school. These are kids who might have parents they try to hide from. Or parents who are addicted. Or parents who just don’t really show up for stuff. These kids found more security in a gang than they found at home. More love on the streets than in their own living rooms. I know the mentors all have a huge heart to help. But have I trained them well? Have we prepared them enough? Will they be okay? Will the kids be okay?
I tried to let them in on the fact that the kids may not be open at first, that it will take time. Understanding. Patience to build their trust. On the inside they’re just kids but on the outside, man, tough. Tough exteriors to protect their broken and abused hearts.
My heart beats faster as I realize two worlds are about to collide in a God moment and it’s time for me to just sit back and watch him work. To stop coordinating and just let it happen. I wonder if this is what it felt like on the day God made The Big Bang happen. Or the day Adam met Eve. Or the day that Jesus came to fully understand his mission.
The mentors and I pray — we pray for God’s presence to be thick in the room. I didn’t notice it then, but in my memory now, it feels as if I had to swim through it — a buoyant viscosity of God’s Spirit that carried on the laughter and the boy-man teasing that soon filled the air.
Finally, the kids meander in. Take their seats.
How can I explain what happened next? It was as if the costumes of gang members and drug dealers and tough kids began to melt away, revealing the children beneath. Child-like smiles began to crack the crust of the streets. Was that trust I saw on that face? Wonder? Was that a the beginning of a sense of self-worth?
D. is the smallest one with the biggest attitude. He makes it clear he doesn’t want to be here. But he is also the natural leader. He demonstrates an initiative born out of his desire to go home and uses it to get our group project done quickly and efficiently. We’ve assembled two bikes together that we’ll give to two homeless kids living upstairs.
When the little boy walks in, surprised that he’s not in trouble and is instead getting the bike that he worked on, D. quickly jumps up to readjust the seat. When Stan, a defense attorney in New York City, sits down for a one-one-one with him later in the evening, it’s obvious they connect. And when D. has to introduce Stan to the group as part of our group exercise, I can not describe the look that shone from his face as he tapped Stan on the knee and said, “This here is Stan. He’s a cool guy. I want to follow this guy. He says I’m a leader.”
I don’t think anyone has ever told D. something like that. He says I’m a leader.
How can I possibly describe the sound of the good-natured teasing, the laughter, the strange coming together of it all? How do I describe the way it felt to hear these kids say as they left, “When are they coming back?”
When are they coming back?
Oh, we’ll be back. We’ll be back the way Jesus keeps coming back for us. We’ll be back even after you don’t show up, when you skip out on the program, we’ll be back. We’ll come back when you mess up and we’ll come back when you step up. It might just be an hour or two a week, but we’ll be the body of Jesus to you, we’ll show you who he was in how we treat you. We’ll show you his dignity, his plans for you. That he created you for something more. Because you matter. You matter.
And we’ll be back.
To watch a short video of our first night mentoring, click the link. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10203390337742164&set=vb.1323413703&type=2&theater