Wednesday, September 11, 2013

When There is Still Hope

I tease his tiny fingers until they curl around mine, tracing the freckles dotting his upper lip and chin with my fingertips while his eyes flutter into sleep. And tears drip off my own chin unchecked. His sixteen-year-old momma watches Pitch Perfect in the other room, and this baby unhinges me into the conviction that it is all just too much.

Six years ago, we got to know 5 ten and eleven year olds. They fight and tease and wrestle like siblings, quick to argue and quicker to stand up for each other: growing up in the projects together will do that to you, I suppose, solidifying community and family in mysteriously beautiful and unexpected ways. We have watched these five lengthen from all-knobby-knees-and-gap-teeth into teenagers who look more adult than child. And of the five, three are not just teenagers enmeshed in high-school drama, but mom or dad. Only two are still in high school at all, and one of those two at an alternative school. There is only one of the group who has never been arrested. And the odds stack ever-higher against them.

I finish reading Grady Baby, and flip back to the front to see when it was published. 1999. I wonder, even before I can stop myself, how many of the babies from the book find themselves, fourteen years later, back at Grady to deliver their own babies.

Sometimes cynicism mounts; the weight and pressure building until it all feels hopeless, not to mention entirely-too-hard. If you’re not growing your ministry, if you don’t have measurable results, you’re dying. He smiles at me after telling me this, and I smile back bravely, sure he can see the waver beneath. Because I look at our “results” and I’m not sure we have anything we should tell potential donors. I can talk all day and climb up on my soapbox about stopping the cycle and helping the kids and fighting for their futures. But things in the trenches look different than they do from the air.
The window on the door has been shattered when we walk up to the neighborhood high school. After discussing whether we should just reach through and open the door ourselves, we buzz ourselves in and wait patiently for a reply. When we tell the lady in the front office we’d like to volunteer, she wrinkles her nose and look confused while rifling through files to see if they even have a volunteer form of some sort. No one has ever done this before she offers by way of explanation. So we file tardy slips and shuffle tenth grade files back to the ninth grade drawer, and pull folders out for kids who have moved or dropped out. And it’s not glamorous, and perhaps even a little futile. But we show up anyways.
Yesterday during play-time, Jayci managed to dump out every single solitary card game we own (which, by the way, is a very large number of card games), and mix them together into a giant mountain of cards that were impressively thoroughly shuffled together. I walked in to find her sheepish. She tells me she accidentally made a big mess. I contemplated just shoving them all back in the baskets as they are, pretending it never happened and just pulling out cards when we need them. Finally, I sigh loudly, and perhaps a little dramatically. I yell for Adam; together, the three of us sat cross-legged on Jayci’s floor for nearly two hours sorting out cards. Occasionally, Caden is distracted from the play kitchen where he cooks “hot gogs,” and runs over to mix up our piles a little, to all of our chagrin and loud protests.

Putting cards in the right boxes, shuffling file-folders into alphabetical order, feels both strangely satisfying and smacks of futility. Because some of these kids wont show up for school tomorrow. And chances are better-than-good that Caden or Jayci, or both of them in a show of mischievous solidarity, will dump out all the cards again. And I’m not sitting here writing because I have this all figured out. I certainly don’t have an answer, or some wisdom to share with you. I write because I need to process why-DO-we-keep-showing-up? To process why we keep shuffling and sorting and reaching down into the grittiness of it all.
Sun streams through the windows as I wipe tears from my cheek and chin and gently wrap him in a blanket, burrito-style, just like we did with Jayci and Caden. Then I join his momma in the other room to watch Pitch Perfect, and can’t help myself from singing along. I jiggle him a little until his blinks lengthen, long lashes resting on his cheek and wrinkles smoothing from his forehead. He relaxes into sleep and I hold him close, ignoring my mile-long-to-do-list. On the drive back to their house, she tells me about the “other white lady from church,” (not my church, I don’t know her as it turns out) who helps their family and bought her sister a car. Through tears, she tells me how when church-lady (her words, not mine) met her son, and realized she had decided to keep him instead of giving him up for adoption, she said: congratulations, you flushed his life down the toilet.

We pull up to a red light, and I fight back my own tears, laying my hand on her arm. You know that’s not true right? I ask her. She shrugs. And I remind her that God doesn’t make mistakes. That despite the odds, and although raising her son will not be easy, THERE IS STILL HOPE. Because I have to believe that is true. I have to. Or else I might as well stop showing up. I have to believe that Jesus cares far more about us standing in the right place than He does about us being right. He would rather me stand with this precious young momma than stand and accuse her. Because I have to believe that the shame of this deep-seeded-belief, that her own life is worth-less, is exactly what led her to stare down the barrel of a life she declared again and again she didn't want for herself, and pull the trigger. To sleep with him, to have a baby, to step right into the cycle she has fought against for sixteen years.

And so we measure our success not with statistics or growth charts, but with love. And we hold our ground, refusing to be moved by what the world tells us we should be doing. Even when we trip over disappointment and set-backs, we regain our footing in the sure and ever-present promise of hope in Jesus. Because the darkness will not win, and success neither belongs to us nor can be measured by us anyways. Don’t we follow and chase after a God who delights in turning things on their head anyways? Where the first are last, and to find your life you lose it? We hold our ground, standing in solidarity with our neighbors, in an unexpected and beautiful kinship with those around us.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe we should care more about outcomes and statistics and RESULTS. There are certainly not any grant-givers or funders breaking down our door to offer us money for our “one-in-five-of-our-kiddos-has-never-been-arrested.” But I am holding-fast, nevertheless, to my belief in the slow work of a patient God who doesn’t give up on us. Who watches and waits for the prodigal to return, and then lifts His robes and runs to him when he takes the first steps towards home. We will believe in our kiddos until they believe in themselves. And in the solidarity and kinship of linking ourselves to them forever, regardless of decisions or outcomes, we open ourselves up to hurt and disappointment. But we also open ourselves to the beautiful heartbeat of hope and to the realization and we belong to each other. And we can finally believe the words of Jeremiah when he says “In this place of which you say it is a waste . . . there will be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness . . . the voices of those who sing.”

26 comments:

  1. You have me crying in the middle of math and spelling.
    And you are so true and right and hope-FULL.
    Love this.

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  2. Amen. Well done, sister. So well done.

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  3. You know there's still hope because of the willingness you have to show them Jesus, right? Sure, Jesus is our (and their) hope but how will they ever see it if people treat them like that "church lady" did?

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  4. Sometimes I wonder too. Just this morning I was wondering. One of my very favorite kids from my time at LP Elementary School called me a few weeks ago. He had just gotten out of prison and was determined to do the right thing. He is 20 now and filled with hope and excitement. I was filled with those things too. But then, this morning, I saw him selling. He wouldn't make eye contact. He dashed around the block quickly even though I followed as fast as my car could drive. As I saw him running from me, my heart broke. Tears fell. I wondered if I was making a difference. I think I am not. I mean, he did call to say he was out, but he is selling already. That is not a good sign. And even if I can find him and talk to him and try to stop him, will it be enough. Will it ever be enough?

    Tears fall. I fail these children. And I fail my own. Day after day.

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  5. I gasped and then cried at what "church-lady" said.

    Hope is fragile and should never taken for granted.

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  6. So thankful for the grace you bring to lives that have been given so little of it before. Cried this week to find that one of my students was being charged as a "juvenile" and not an adult ... and that maybe, that gives him more hope for a future. Have to remember to do for the ONE what we wish we could do for them ALL!

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  7. I just finished reading "Rosa Lee: A Mother and her Family in Urban America" because I read one of your old posts about it. I was struck by the two elements that set her two children who went on to hold down jobs and have homes and families: a teacher who cared about their education and exposure to a traditional family. The roads of those two were not without bumps, including arrests and teen parenting, but in the end, those two things are what broke the cycle of poverty, drugs, and illegal activity.

    I would love to see a follow up story on how the children of those two fared compared to their cousins, because I'm sure the results are still showing themselves a generation later.

    What you do DOES make a difference. Now and for a long time ahead.

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    1. I would love to read that too! And I really liked that book, even though it was painful to read.

      And thank you!

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  8. I am a results-oriented person, but I don't think Jesus calls us based on the results. He calls us based on love. You are fulfilling that call each and every day - even more so on the hard days. Grace and peace to you.

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  9. So honest and so encouraging. Thank you!

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  10. We can't give up. Not while HE asks us to stay. Thank you for loving the least of these around you - from a girl who recognizes much of what you say, because it resonates with my life here in the city. Results often don't show until years and years down the road, when you find out something you said or did made a difference. And maybe we won't know this side of heaven.

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  11. I love you, friend. Please keep going. We all need you. xoxoxoxo

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  12. Love this. Keep on keepin' on! Jesus needs you.

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  13. Love this and you... and understand this more than you know....

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  14. Stumbled across your blog through a friend on fb. Keep pressing on. Sometimes our definition of "results" is, I believe, very different from God's. Have you read "The Insanity of God"? It might change your whole perspective on "results" in missions/ministry.

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    1. I haven't read that - I'll have to go check it out! Thanks for sharing :-)

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  15. I work for a non-profit where our success (my success) as a community organizer is measured totally by results, numbers, metrics. It wears on me. I know the acts of love at times feels futile, but you know what feels even more futile? Racking up numbers of faces you don't even really know. That's the kind of number that doesn't matter. Thanks for reminding me of what true success looks like, and reminding me that our God isn't a funder. He's far more patient, far more intimate, and, most importantly, He's right there doing the work with us.

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    1. Oh thanks for sharing! Seriously, sometimes we can feel really alone . . . I'm grateful for a space where I can feel less-alone.

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  16. My husband is one of the most results-driven people I know. He's been to a former Soviet nation doing volunteer work in orphanages a couple of times, and last time he went the Pastor at the church he was helping said that he was thinking about pulling out of the mission to a particular orphanage because he had seen no 'fruit' (ie. no orphans that had graduated were sitting on seats in his church). Hubby was shocked. He now goes around telling people that when it comes to mission, it is often arrogant of us to expect to see the 'fruit' of our work. If we do it's a bonus, and is very encouraging, but it should never be our focus, our expectation, or our standard for continuing a mission. Of course one can't escape this when working for an organisation- especially if that organisation depends on grant funding, but as long as we have the attitude of Courtney, above, that will help us through. There are some fabulous comments here BTW.

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    1. I do have the best commenters :-) seriously. Anyways, I totally agree with you and this whole tension can be so hard sometimes. . . . I appreciate your insight! :-)

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  17. This one has me quite undone, friend. Man alive.

    This I know: Hope does not disappoint us.

    And so we hope. Even when things seem hopeless.

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  18. This is so beautiful. I was reminded of words I read earlier today on the patience of love. How God's love is so patient and will wait as long as it takes for us to be reconciled with Him, to find our way home. You are embodying that patient work of love. May God's strength sustain and keep you and your kiddos. Blessings to you

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  19. This is so beautiful. I was reminded of words I read earlier today on the patience of love. How God's love is so patient and will wait as long as it takes for us to be reconciled with Him, to find our way home. You are embodying that patient work of love. May God's strength sustain and keep you and your kiddos. Blessings to you

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