KOH2RVA: Day 349

AJCES Melissa BrooksSomehow I got myself on the Mustard Seed mailing list, which means I get the e-mailed prayer requests of the Mustard Seed Sunday school class. It’s been a good way for me to keep up with the concerns of this large, vibrant class, and to pray along with them for the needs of their classmates, family, and friends. But on Monday I got this announcement from class member Mark Roane:

Good afternoon ‘Seeds,

As many of you know, our church has been helping out at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, located at 2124 N 29th Street in Richmond’s Church Hill Area. This coming Friday, August 23, 2013 a group will be doing some interior painting at the school from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. If anyone is interested in participating, please contact Chuck Dean.

Thanks

When I got that email I put it on my calendar to drop by the Cooper School on Friday to see how the work was going, but when I got to the office yesterday things were even more piled up than usual. I wasn’t able to get away. And then at 3:57 p.m. I got this email from Mike Maruca, Head of School.

Jim:

I’m going to recommend that Our Lord put your congregation in charge of housekeeping and hospitality in heaven.

A small group was over here today and what they did was really something else. A lot of seemingly small stuff that makes all the difference and makes us look good—in the best sense. My debt to [First Baptist Church] only grows.

Blessings,

Mike

I don’t know that any of the members of that “small group” were members of the Mustard Seed Sunday school class, but I wouldn’t be surprised, because this is how it often happens:

1. One person becomes aware of a need and lets others know about it.
2. One of more of those others is moved to do something about that need.
3. The need is met in a way that makes a difference in the lives of still others.

There are kids from the housing projects in the East End who will come to the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School on the first day of school not knowing that Mark Roane sent out an email to the Mustard Seed Class, not knowing that some of those “Seeds” responded, not knowing how much time they spent at the school or exactly what they did—knowing only that when they walk into that building they feel special, as if someone cares about them and their future, a feeling they may not have anywhere else.

Thank you, Mark. Thank you, Mustard Seeds. Thank you for the ways you allow yourselves to be used to make things on earth a little more like they are in heaven. We cannot know how far these simple acts of kindness will reach, but Jesus said the Kingdom is like a mustard seed:

It starts small and grows.

KOH2RVA: Day 179

robbie and justin

Robbie Dalton and his Book Buddy Justin enjoyed Dr. Seuss’s birthday

When Melissa Brooks was deciding what her way of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, would be, she looked at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School not far from where she lives on Church Hill.  This school is dedicated to educating bright young people from the neighborhood and helping to break the cycle of poverty that keeps so many of them down.  Melissa began to volunteer at AJCES, and eventually had the idea of bringing sixth graders from that school to read to preschoolers at the Weekday school at First Baptist, where her own son is a student.  I blogged about the Book Buddy program once before, when I got to drive the bus, but last Friday I saw Melissa at church with a big grin on her face.  It was Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and the Book Buddies had come to read Dr. Seuss books to our preschoolers (all of them wearing “Cat in the Hat” hats they had made themselves).  I asked Melissa why she hadn’t asked me to drive the bus and she said she had recruited a church member—someone still looking for his way to bring the KOH2RVA—to help.  I loved that.  In fact, I loved everything about the event.  I asked Melissa to send pictures and stories and this is what I got.

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Dear Jim:

I put together a few words because my heart was full after today’s Dr. Seuss celebration. Please don’t feel like you need to use these words for anything, but I wanted to offer them up because “my cup runneth over.” Thanks.

Melissa

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If you’re still thinking about how to get off the mission bus and bring the kingdom of heaven to Richmond, Virginia, let me offer some insight from a few overheard conversations by the 6th graders at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. Since the beginning of 2013, the “Cooper kids” have been picked up by two FBC volunteers on the first Friday of every month. We make the bumpy trip from their east end school nestled in between two of the largest housing projects in the city to the towering mansions that line our beloved Monument Avenue. It’s like traveling to another country and the kids know that. For two hours the entire 6th grade class of AJCES fill the First Baptist Weekday Preschool classrooms with their smiles and love of books. We pray together, read together, laugh together and eat together. When it’s time to load the shuttles back to the “other” side of town we say goodbye with sincere hugs and high-fives—the way good friends do. For me, one of the most rewarding moments is the ride back to the Cooper school. I love hearing the candid chatter from the back of the shuttle. Here are a few of the things I’ve heard:

“I like that the kids don’t even know us, but are respectful.” Respect is powerful in all cultures. Sometimes respect can be offered for the wrong reasons, especially in the neighborhood that AJCES serves. Showing unconditional respect for your neighbor is a lot like loving your neighbor. I’m pretty sure Jesus was big on that.

“They always have the best snacks.” Food brings people together, and it’s also a basic necessity. You’d be surprised at what a bag of pretzels and a cup of juice can do.

“I wish we could stay longer.” Time is free, but it’s priceless. Slow down and spend a little more time on people.

Every month when Book Buddy Day rolls around Mary Hiteman and I giggle with excitement and think to ourselves why on earth we haven’t been doing something like this sooner. We run from classroom to classroom snapping pictures and observing the beauty of budding friendships. We pray about how God can work through us to the benefit of both FBC Weekday Preschool and the Cooper kids. We remind ourselves to stay out of the way and to let His will be done. So far, he’s been exceeding any and all expectations. Only the Lord of sea and sky could take two groups of kids separated by age, race, geographic location, socioeconomic class, and faith denomination and weave them together through the common denominator of his love.

That’s KOH2RVA.

KOH2RVA: 136

R0916_FLR_MIKE4First of all, let me apologize to the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church:

When I said that you were doing a “service project” yesterday I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t on a mission, or that you weren’t trying to change the world, I was just thinking about how some people do service projects because they make them feel good, or because they think they ought to, and not because they have some bigger goal in mind.

You do.

You’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and yesterday you came close. As Steve Blanchard put it—heaven was “hovering” just above the ground.

Thank you for your good work.

But back to that other question: Is there a difference between doing a service project and being on a mission? Yes, there is. We did a little painting at the Anna Julia Cooper School yesterday. We put up a gigantic photo collage, and moved some furniture, and cleaned out the gutters. We did a service project. But Mike Maruca, the founder of the school, is on a mission. He says, “Helping to ensure that our students are on a path toward a full and decent life is our fundamental reason for being here.”

I heard a story about Mike that made that clear. A member of the staff said that Mike greets the students as they enter the building in the morning and calls each one by name. If one or more of them is missing he says, “I’ll be right back,” and then gets in his car and drives to those students’ homes where he knocks on the door and asks if they are all right.

He not only knows their names; he knows where they live.

That tells me something about his commitment to this mission. He’s helping to ensure that his students are on a path toward a full and decent life. Everything he does has that bigger goal in mind.

A service project can contribute to a mission. If we hadn’t done what we did yesterday Mike, or someone else, would have had to do it. But here’s another difference, and it’s a big one: when you finish a service project you can go home and get some rest, but a mission never really ends. Mike Maruca will never be finished “helping to ensure that his students are on a path toward a full and decent life.”

And we may never finish bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. But there are days when you can tell it came a little closer, just as I’m sure there are days when Mike knows he’s making progress. I heard that all of his graduating students from last year got into good local high schools.

Just think how he will feel when he hears that they all got into good colleges.

KOH2RVA: Day 135

R0916_FLR_MIKE2Today the entire staff of First Baptist Church is going to the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School in Richmond’s East End to see if we can bring a little heaven to earth.

This may have started a few years ago, when I asked why the church offices were open on Martin Luther King Day. I had just come from Washington, DC, where the church offices were always closed on national holidays and this was a national holiday, but there we were, tallying up the previous day’s offerings and recording attendance as if it were just another day.

So, we started talking, but instead of talking about taking a day off we talked about taking a day on, about doing something on that day that would honor Dr. King’s dream of a nation where children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School shares that dream.

The school is an independent, tuition-free, faith-based middle school for students of limited resources primarily from Richmond’s East End neighborhood. It started with 25 students in September of 2009, operating out of a house owned by the Peter Paul Development Center. In 2011 it moved into a school building on N. 29th Street, and now has 62 students enrolled in 6th-8th grades.

It also has a dog.

I hope you will visit the website to learn a little more about the school and about Anna Julia Cooper herself, who was a remarkable woman. Our involvement has come about mostly because of Melissa Ansley Brooks, one of our members, who lives on Church Hill and who is, herself, a remarkable woman. She and her husband, Justin, made a very deliberate decision to live in a part of the city that needs some love, and as they have gotten to know their neighbors and their neighborhood they have found a number of ways to bring heaven to earth.

Loving the Anna Julia Cooper School is one of them.

I’m not ready to write about it yet, but I’m thinking about the difference between doing a service project and being on mission. Today the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church will do a service project, but tomorrow Melissa will still be on a mission, because she’s not only trying to do some good,

She’s trying to change the world.

KOH2RVA: Day 27

On Monday of this week Steve Blanchard, our Minister of Christian Compassion, took the staff on a “windshield tour” of Richmond, to show us some of the places where heaven seems farthest away from our city. Steve’s conviction is that there are some things you just have to see before you can begin to feel compassion, and a lot of us don’t see these things.

Honestly, we get in our nice cars and drive from our nice neighborhoods to our nice church and drive home again. And then the preacher starts talking about bringing heaven to earth and we think, “Why bother? It’s already here!”

But it’s not in the places we went on Monday.

We started with Essex Village, an apartment complex on Laburnum Avenue, where there are 544 children, many of them living in single parent homes. The crime rate in Essex Village is twice the national average. How do you think those children sleep at night?

And then we went to Glen Lea Elementary School, which has 549 students, most of them enrolled in the free lunch program and most of those also taking advantage of the free breakfast. For many of them, these two meals are the best they get all day. And what do they eat on the weekends?

We drove around the housing projects in the East End of the city and the numbers are just staggering—the size of the projects, the number of people living there, the pitifully low income of those people—hearing all of it at once breaks your heart. Right in the center of it all is the Peter Paul Development Center, dedicated to loving and helping the children of those projects.

From there we stopped by the city jail and the intake center for the homeless. The numbers we heard there were, again, heartbreaking: six or seven inmates stuffed into a jail cell meant for four, suffering through a Richmond summer without air conditioning or fans, and for the homeless, an estimate three times higher than the “official” estimate of 800, with rumors that there may be as many as a thousand homeless children in Richmond.

Finally, we drove to the South Side for a look at Rudd’s Trailer Park on the Jefferson Davis Highway. This is where many of the Mixtecas live, the poorest of the poor from Mexico, an indigenous people group who speak Spanish as a second language and English—if they speak it at all—as a third. We’ve delivered Christmas baskets out there before, and stood inside trailers where you could see the ground beneath through holes in the floor.

As we were driving back to the church Steve asked what we were feeling and Ruth Szucs summed it up: “Overwhelmed,” she said, and we all nodded our heads. Steve’s conviction is that you have to see in order to feel, but also that you have to feel in order to act. Our next question was, “What can we do? How can we even begin to make a dent in such huge problems?” “We can,” Steve assured us. “We’re already doing a lot.” And that’s true, but I added that if we’re going to keep people from being overwhelmed we’ll probably need to break some of these problems down into bite-size pieces.

Starting with Essex Village and Glen Lea Elementary may be a good solution for us. Tutoring one child at Glen Lea, or helping with a community service day at Essex Village, may get us out from behind the windshield, off the bus, and onto the mission field.