Prayer Walking with the Police

2013-10-08 16.13.35Yesterday I went on a community walk with the Richmond Police Department in Whitcomb Court, one of the housing projects in the East End. This is part of an ongoing partnership between the police department and the city’s faith leaders.

I was accompanied by a police officer and the associate pastor of a sister church, Rev. Sharon, who had done this before. She knocked on the first door boldly, and when nobody answered the police officer knocked again. Someone inside said, “Who is it?” and he said, “Police!” By the time this woman got to the door, pulling on her clothes and adjusting her wig, she was terrified. She had been taking a nap and had no idea what was going on.

We tried to calm her down. We told her we were just there to ask people how they were doing and if they felt safe in their neighborhood. I said, “The police are smart enough to know they can’t do this job alone, and so they’ve recruited members of the faith community to help out. They provide the presence and we provide the prayers.”

That comforted her some, but you could tell her heart was still pounding, and that she might have been glad if the police and the faith leaders had simply left her alone. Rev. Sharon offered to pray for her and she nodded her head, and then Rev. Sharon said a prayer for her, her family, her home, and her future.

By the time we left I think she was feeling better.

We must have knocked on a dozen different doors yesterday, and behind almost every one was a mother who was concerned for her children. One woman told us she had a son, 27, who was “out there” day after day, doing who knows what. She was terrified that one day he would be shot and killed. We prayed for her as well, and specifically for her son.

Another woman had grown up in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, but then moved to Miami and eventually to Richmond. A beautiful little girl peeked out shyly from behind her legs and another one, the baby, was upstairs taking a nap. We prayed for that mother and those children as well.

Nobody turned us away, and everyone allowed us to pray. It seems that everyone has something to pray about, and these people had more than most. I prayed that God’s love would fill up those apartments in Whitcomb Court and overflow onto the streets and sidewalks, that people would be able to feel it wherever they went, to breathe it in, to live it out.

As we were leaving a school bus turned into the neighborhood and began to drop children off. Some of them came running toward us, curious about who we were and what we were doing. We invited them to join us in our closing circle and just before we prayed one little boy looked up at me and said, “Do I close my eyes now?” “Yes,” I said.  And he did.

At least, I think he did.  I had my eyes closed, too.

We said one more heartfelt prayer for Whitcomb Court and then began to head to our cars to drive home, most of us to comfortable homes far away from the East End. Ray Tarasovic, the Police Chief, stopped to talk with some of the boys before he left and I asked if he would let me take a picture. That’s the one at the top of this post.

Take a good look at it before you move on, click on it so you can see the faces more clearly, and then say a prayer for those boys. Pray that they would grow up into strong, smart, handsome men who never have a reason be afraid of the police, and never miss an opportunity to pray for the peace of their neighborhood. And then say a prayer for Chief Tarasovic.

He’s got a big job.

There was another shooting in Whitcomb Court last week, and all over that neighborhood, mothers held their children a little tighter.

KOH2RVA: Day 363

Preschool-ClassRemember how I was complaining a few days ago about spending too much time answering email and not enough time with people? Well, I got some of that time yesterday, with some of the most delightful people in Richmond.

I accepted Mary Hiteman’s invitation to stand with her at the Mulberry Street entrance of our building and greet the parents and children who were coming to our preschool’s open house.

They came in droves.

Some children were so shy they hid behind their mothers’ legs when I tried to say hello, others ignored my greeting altogether and galloped past me into the building, excited to be back at school. But all of them were beautiful, precious children. Most of their parents were happy to stop and say hello, and seemed grateful that I was taking an interest.

Because there seems to be a disconnect between the church and our preschool. There are parents who bring their children every weekday and never think of our building as a church. To them it is a school. A good school, certainly (you should have heard them gush), but nothing more than that. So as I shook hands yesterday and introduced myself as the pastor many of them seemed to be making the connection between the church and the school for the first time. “Ohhh,” they said, and I could almost see the light come on.

I’m hoping to maintain that connection in this school year by greeting children and parents at the door more often, telling the children Bible stories during chapel, and showing up for special programs and events. When I came to Richmond five years ago the staff asked me what we could do to “reach the Fan,” the neighborhood surrounding our building where so many of these parents and children live. I said, “What if we didn’t try to reach the Fan? What if we tried to love the Fan?”

That’s what I was trying to do yesterday: love the Fan and the people who live there. And what an easy way to do it! Stand at the door as they bring their children into our building; squat down and say hello to precious little boys and girls; and then stand up and shake hands with their parents, look them in the eye, and tell them how glad I am that they have brought their children to our school. And as I was doing it that thing happened that has happened so often in this year of mission…

…heaven came to earth.

KOH2RVA: Day 289

Essex Bible SchoolI didn’t make it to Bible school yesterday and it was my loss. Appointments and commitments that started early in the morning kept me busy until just before lunch. But I heard great things about the opening day of “Camp 2” at Richmond’s First Baptist Church and after lunch I drove out to Essex Village Apartments to see what happens when Bible school goes on the road.

In yesterday’s post I talked about the partnership between First Baptist and Park Meadows Baptist Church in Waxahachie, Texas, and how the two were collaborating to bring Bible school not only to First Baptist Church, but also to Essex Village Apartments, where there are 544 children, many of whom live in single-parent homes.

I got there early, before the afternoon session of Bible school began, but in time for a pick-up game of kickball. And once again I got to watch that old miracle occur, where people who don’t know each other overcome their initial awkwardness through some silly game, and then begin to laugh and play together, so that by the end of the day they are BFF’s (Best Friends Forever). What breaks my heart is that the kids at Essex Village are so hungry for attention Essex Bible School3they will accept it from almost anybody, even a youth group from Waxahachie, Texas. What fills my heart is the way those youth discover that they can make a difference in someone’s life, and how much joy it gives them. By the end of the week they won’t want to leave their new friends at Essex Village, and their new friends at Essex Village won’t want to let them go.

I predict tearful farewells.

But today is only Day Two of Bible school, and the end of the week seems a long way away. So, if you’re looking for a little joy in your life, and for a way to make a difference in someone else’s, then come on out to Essex Village around two o’ clock this afternoon. Bring your sunglasses and bottled water and big, floppy hat, because it’s going to be hot, but wear your kickball shoes, because it’s going to be fun. I predict that by the end of the day miracles will have occurred at Essex Village, and the Kingdom of Heaven will have come a tiny bit closer to Richmond, Virginia.

KOH2RVA: Day 266

Essex Village students with Teresa

First Baptist member Jeannie Dortch was kind enough to give me a sneak preview of this forthcoming article on the afterschool program at Essex Village Apartments, where our church has an ongoing partnership, and where one remarkable woman overcomes her disability for the sake of the children.  I hope you will read Jeannie’s article all the way to the end, and then send her an email saying you’d like to help with the summer camp at Essex Village.  If Teresa Jackson can do it, you can too!

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The Saints Go Marching AND Rolling In
by Jeannie Dortch

It was the first time I had arrived at Essex Village to tutor at-risk children in the newly formed afterschool program. Upon entering the community center, I noticed that one of the other tutors was wheelchair-bound with no use of her legs and not much of her arms or hands. I was mesmerized with her command of the children. She radiated joy, sweetness, care and knowledge, and the children responded to her with respect and obedience. I eventually learned that Teresa Jackson was a Title 1 math assistant at Laburnum Elementary. She also volunteered in this afterschool program as part of the non-profit Seeds of Promise Outreach Ministries, Inc., started by Ernestine Dockery-Roy, recently retired assistant principal at Laburnum Elementary. With the godly leadership of these two women, the meeting space has been transformed into a place where children can find safe refuge and feel Love’s warmth.

Getting to know Teresa Jackson better is something I was determined to do to learn what motivated her to work in such a mentally and physically demanding job. Visiting her at Laburnum Elementary reinforced the concept that humans are only limited by their thoughts. Teresa whizzed through the corridors in her motorized chair and explained her philosophy of teaching to me. “I’m not handicapped,” she said when asked. “I’m disabled, meaning I’m not necessarily able to work like you do, but I am able to get the job done. It may take me a little longer, but the results are the same. I love children and I want to see them succeed, and that can be done in or out of a wheelchair.”

At present, Essex Village has a population of about 544 children, all living below the poverty level. According to Steve Blanchard, FBC’s Minister of Compassion, “The needs are great, but our partnership with Essex Village is showing promise as a blessing to those who live there but even more so to the people of FBC.”

This summer, Seeds of Promise will run a summer camp from July 8th-August 1st, Monday-Thursday, 9:00-1:00 to include arts and crafts, outdoor activities, and lunch for the elementary school children in Essex Village. Then, in the fall they will begin another nine week afterschool tutoring session.

Teresa Jackson sums it up by saying, “I love to see children brighten up by what they learn. Many of the students in our program come from abusive families, and I want them to know they have teachers who care about them. Some of the kids say, ‘I can’t try no more.’ I tell them, ‘Think Can, not Can’t. I don’t use the word Can’t. Look at me! If I can, you can. I don’t pity you, nor do I want to. I am motivated by you. I want you to find something that motivates you so you too will experience God’s blessing in your lives.’”

Editors note: If you are interested in volunteering to work with Seeds of Promise at Essex Village in either the summer camp or as a tutor please contact Jeannie Dortch (dortchcamp@mindspring.com) or Sandra Millican (sandramillican1943@yahoo.com )

KOH2RVA: Day 254

YosselinPray for the people of Oklahoma today, friends. The headline of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reads: “Massive Tornado Pummels Oklahoma.” The sub-heads carry the grim news that at least 51 people are dead and more than 140 injured; that a school was devastated and children, some dead, were pulled from the debris; that it was a powerful storm—a half-mile wide—packing 200 mph winds.

It’s that image of children being pulled from the debris of a school that gets me. There’s something about their innocence and vulnerability that makes that scene especially tragic. And even though I don’t believe this tornado was God’s judgment on the people of Oklahoma I still want to know why:

Why do children have to suffer?

I was asking that question on Sunday afternoon as I watched a documentary about modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Often it is children, some of them very young, who are the victims of traders and traffickers. Little boys forced to work in rock quarries or make bricks day after day in India. Little girls prostituted in brothels in Cambodia and hotel rooms in Richmond. It’s their faces that break your heart.

There is no joy there.

On the table in front of me on Sunday was the face of a boy from Africa. He was up for “adoption” through Compassion International. And even though I might never meet this boy face to face Compassion International assures me that for a little more than a dollar a day he can receive food, clothing, shelter, and education. In other words, he can be rescued from a life of suffering.

I already sponsor a child through Compassion (Yosselin, from Mexico, in the picture above), but on Sunday I thought about sponsoring at least one more. I like what Tony Campolo says, that “every Christian should have a kid’s picture on their refrigerator.” If we did that—all two billion of us around the globe who call ourselves Christians—it would make a difference. And beyond that we could support the work of the International Justice Mission abroad and the Richmond Justice Initiative here at home, both organizations working to set children free from slavery and the sex trade.

There’s not much we can do about tornadoes, but we can do something about this. We can do our best to bring people to justice who trade and traffic in human flesh, and we can give children a chance to live a different kind of life. Our efforts may not make a difference to all the children in the world, but as I look at Yosselin’s picture, above, I’m hoping they will make a difference to her.

KOH2RVA: Day 249

mustache-kidLast night was our children’s end-of-the-year program at First Baptist Church, which is always a treat. Those kids who have spent the school year in Wednesday night music and mission activities get to show off what they’ve learned and last night we got to see:

They’ve learned a lot.

I didn’t take good notes and I forgot to take a picture, but here are some of the things that stood out:

The Kid with the Big Voice, who stood on the steps with the Angel Choir and sang the parts of the song he knew with enthusiasm. It was funny. The choir would be singing along in those tiny voices children have and then, suddenly, they would reach the chorus and here would come TKWTBV (the kid with the big voice), booming out the first line of the chorus like an opera star. The look on his face was priceless. He loves to sing, and it shows. I’ve got to get to know that kid.

The Prayer Walkers. These precious little girls told us about prayer walking in the neighborhood (which is exactly what it sounds like: you walk around the neighborhood praying for people and things). Several of the girls told us that they had prayed for “the lost cat.” Apparently they had seen a poster asking if anyone had seen a lost cat. The poster had a picture of the cat on it and the girls just melted. “Poor Mittens!” Isn’t it a comfort to know that somebody is out there praying for lost cats?

The Fake Mustaches. I think it was the Mission Force group that was telling us about the things they had done in the community during the year, and one of those things was singing Christmas carols at the nursing homes. So half the boys put on fake mustaches, as if they were the elderly residents of the nursing home, and the other half sang carols to them. When they finished singing the “elderly residents” came and hugged the boys and patted on them and tousled their hair just as they had at the nursing homes. The acting was Oscar-worthy.

The Fund Raisers. A few of the Girls in Action (GA’s) stood up to tell us about the fund-raising they’d been doing for mission projects around the world. Morella Harris told us about “Pure Water, Pure Love,” and I think she said at one point that it costs $500 to dig a well or put in a pump (or something) in an African village and that she and the other girls had raised enough money to do that six times over: $3,000. I gasped. She said they’d earned most of their money by selling lemonade, cutting grass, and—surprisingly—by selling water.

What impressed me about last night’s event was how many of the presentations were focused on mission, and how much of that mission was an effort to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. Kids catch on so quickly, and often they end up teaching us what can be done if we throw ourselves into it with enthusiasm and prayer and fund raising and fake mustaches.

I want to thank Ruth Szucs and Candi Brown, the staff members most responsible for directing our children’s music and mission programs, but I also want to thank the dozens of volunteers who come on Wednesday night week after week to work with children. What we got last night was just a taste of the fruit of their labors.

And it was delicious.

KOH2RVA: Day 121

indian_schoolchildrenI met a man yesterday who is passionate about his mission. In his lifetime he hopes to bring one billion people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Did you hear that?

One billion.

This is his approach: he goes to schools in India, talks with the principals, and tells them that if they will let him share “the true story of Christmas” he will give every child in the school a free pen.

I asked him to tell me the true story of Christmas and he said, “Well, it’s about Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus, of course, but that’s only the beginning.” And then he told me about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, his preaching of the Kingdom, his healing of the sick, his death on a cross, and his resurrection. But it sounded as if the story he tells eventually comes down to this: that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity. And then he invites the children to say the sinner’s prayer with him and be saved, and many of them do. He says he has been able to share “the true story of Christmas” with 600,000 children so far.

Only 9,400,000 to go.

Later I thought about this man and his mission and how it is a different mission than bringing heaven to earth. His mission is keeping people out of hell. And that did to me what it always does: it made me ask, “Is that what it’s all about? Is the ‘true story of Christmas’ a story about keeping people out of hell?”

I would appreciate your thoughts on that as we enter this new year, and the final two thirds of our year-long, every-member mission trip. I would love for us to go forward with this man’s energy and ambition.

But I don’t want us to go in the wrong direction.