Thursday, September 15, 2011

WBEZ reports on the poverty situation in Chicago

Recent Census Bureau numbers show that nearly
1 in 6 Americans lives in poverty.
The Census Bureau recently released its findings about poverty in the U.S.  I had the privilege of representing Breakthrough and discussing poverty in Chicago alongside University of Chicago professor Scott Allard on the WBEZ show Eight Forty-Eight.  I'm looking forward to learning more from Scott and continuing the discussion!

If you missed the segment, you can listen to it here: Poverty Experts Describe Situation in Chicago

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Front Porch Interview with Douglas Van Ramshorst

In Front Porch Interviews I interview down-to-earth people who are making unique and meaningful contributions to urban spirituality and leadership. Got anyone in mind, let me know!

This month we're hitting the streets with an old college friend of mine, Doug Van Ramshorst. Doug and I both attended Lincoln Christian University, and we both followed paths to urban ministry in Chicago. Doug has been working at Emmaus Ministries since 2005 where he is now their street outreach coordinator helping men overcome a life of male prostitution.

TE: How did you get connected to Emmaus?

DVR:  In November of 1998 I packed a bag and headed to Chicago, to stay with a Christian Community in Uptown for the weekend to get a feel for the life that I thought God was calling me into.

I was shown my bed, dropped off my stuff and headed out to the streets to get my hands dirty. Within an hour I was solicited by a 60 year old woman at Burger King, I got lost and I was conned out of some of my belongings. Defeated, I found myself sitting on a skateboard ramp, crying. One of the Christian community members came out and sat next to me. He was in a band that I really looked up to, so I was nervous. He asked me what was wrong, I blubbered on for about 20 minutes about God's will this and God's will that. He listened and then offered me this advice: "Don't worry about God's will. Just try things. If it fits, stick with it."

After that weekend, I went back home and continued to co-lead a Bible study for punk rock kids and work in the heating and air conditioning field. At the Bible study, we started dealing with kids taking hard drugs, kids getting abused at home and kids that were... well, having kids. These were real problems and technical school didn't prepare me to offer any solutions.

So I went to Bible college

I visited Emmaus my junior year in college as a part of an urban ministry class. We showed up, unannounced. We couldn't find the place because there was no sign. When we finally found it, we buzzed up and asked if we could check out their drop-in center and the voice on the other end of the buzzer said, "Absolutely not.” The guy let us into the office and explained that we would have to go through training and commit to a year of service in order to meet any of the guys in the center. Some of the students I was with were kind of miffed that they had that attitude, but for me a light turned on. I liked that they respected their clients enough to not have obvious signage and gawking college students dropping in whenever they wanted. He sat us down and showed us a terrible promo video before sending us back to Wilson Avenue to fend for ourselves.

By my senior year, I was so sick of Christians that I planned on taking my ministry degree back to the ‘burbs and opening up a bulk coffee and tea store. But then, much to my chagrin, I realized that I had to complete a full-time, semester-long internship with an approved ministry. After trying to weasel out of it twice and failing, I remembered Emmaus and thought, "I could deal with that for four months.”

My internship ended, but I stayed on, because they needed some help. At the end of the summer, the then Outreach Coordinator, Larry Hope, was gearing up to take on a new role at the ministry, so I asked for his old job.

Time and space tell a funny little joke in that long-winded story. Remember the skateboard ramp, where I was blubbering on about not wanting to do urban ministry? I can see it from our office window. It just took me seven years to travel from 920 West Wilson to 921 West Wilson.

TE: You’re like the post office of street outreach –“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” (Herodotus). In fact I heard that you were out on the street on the night of that crazy blizzard back in February. First, why in the world would you do that, and second, what was it like for you on that night?

DVR: Yeah... that blizzard was a trip! I have done well over 1,200 nights of outreach and I have yet to cancel due to weather. New volunteers often ask, "What do you do when it rains?" and I say, "You get wet.”  Those crappy nights are important. The guys see us out there on those negative 12 degree nights and they know that we aren't kidding around.

On the holidays I literally pray that we don't see anyone. I hope to God that our guys aren't out, selling themselves for a place to stay on Christmas. But, I almost always see at least one. I can't tell you what it feels like to have a guy smile despite those circumstances, but that is why we do it... just in case.

TE: As you know, there are lots of misconceptions about the poor and about urban problems. For instance, working with the homeless at Breakthrough, I find that a lot of people just assume that “all these guys have to do is stop being lazy and get a job.” What kind of misconceptions have you encountered about the streets as it relates to your work?

DVR: I guess the biggest surprise for me was realizing how many of our guys, and the homeless population at large for that matter, suffer from severe mental illnesses. I have a client that suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. How is he supposed to just go apply at Target and live a normal life?

I have also realized that it is really cool to be boring. I always thought you had to have some torrid testimony in order to be effective. But the plain truth is that no matter who you work with, just being genuine is all that matters. I don't pretend that I lived some rough life before I came to Jesus or something crazy like that, I just live my life with them as I do with my friends and family.

TE: Christian sociologist, Jacques Ellul, in describing the unfortunate reality of city life said that “the city must, in order to stay alive, have its night shifts, the accumulation of a proletariat, alcohol, prostitution, [etc.] . . . And it is simply false to say that we can do away with all this and still keep the city.” What are your thoughts about that, and how might a statement like this square with people like you and me (pastors, social workers, and volunteers) who flock to cities like Chicago with a vision for transforming (saving?) the city?

DVR: Wow, Jacques Ellul... I haven't heard that name in a while. I guess I am not looking to save the city. That seems like a nice thought, but the plain truth is that Babylon will be Babylon. I just want to buy someone a cup of coffee and find out how his weekend was.

TE: How can people get involved with Emmaus? Or, for those in other places, how might they engage locally in a similar ministry or address similar issues that Emmaus faces?

DVR: We are pretty open to volunteers. You have to apply, go through a couple of days of training and commit to a regular shift with us on outreach, in our drop-in center or in the office. Al Tauber is the best guy to talk to about that. He is our Educational Ministries guy.

As for those in other areas…get educated. I hung out in the same area that I work in now since I was 16, but I had no idea what was going on there.

TE: Tell us about your band. And, as a fellow drummer, I’m curious - What kind of a kit do you play, and what kind of sticks do you use?

DVR: I have basically been playing with the same guys for the past decade. We just change names and play different types of punk music. The current amalgamation is our attempt at pop music... I say "our attempt" because it still ended up being a punk rock band, but a little more palatable. We are now called "The New Brunette" and I am having more fun with them than ever.

As for equipment, I play a tiny 3-piece Premier kit: 18 inch kick, floor tom, snare, a big ride cymbal and some hats. I buy the big brick of no name sticks and keep everything held together with stuff I buy at ACE hardware. The little kit pushes me to be more creative and it all fits in my [Chevy] Cavalier. My wife is my roadie, so she appreciates the smaller dimensions.

TE: Rahm Emmanuel is now the new mayor of Chicago. If he instituted one restaurant that all city residents had to eat in, which one would you hope it would be?

DVR: Oh, hands down the Vienna Beef factory's cafeteria. It is for [their employees], but is open to the public. Oh man…I could eat there everyday.

If you have someone in mind that would make for a great Front Porch Interview, email me at

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Redeeming a Few Bad Apples in the Family Tree, Part 2

In my previous post I drew attention to Matthew's inclusion of five intriguing women in his geneaology of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. One might first assume that these were women of great dignity and nobility to merit such recognition in the divine geneaology.  But a closer look shows that they seem to be more surly than sophisticated. Kind of like this sketch of Queen Elizabeth on SNL.

So what was Matthew thinking in including these embarrassing women in Jesus' family tree? Here's what I think.  Matthew is giving us a major clue about how God operates in the world. What Matthew shows us is that God is loving, forgiving, merciful, inclusive, creative, and even a little humorous. He can handle a little scandal. He doesn't condone it, but he redeems people and their sitautions, and finds a way to write them into his story to show that he (not us) is in control of history.

Why is this important to women this Mother's Day? Witnessing the stories of all the great women in my life has given me some clues about a woman's experience in the world.  I know that you have endured hardships, many of which at the hands of men. I know that you have had to work around a system that often seems set up against you, that exerts double standards, and that forces you to compromise your values. I know that you have been mistreated, deceived, taken advantage of, shamed, and dismissed. I know that you have had to bear the burdens of entire households. I know that you have anxieties and insecurities and that you have struggled to reconcile your self image in an airbrushed world. Women, I know that you know that you are imperfect.  But does your imperfect pedigree make you less valuable to God?

No. What Matthew is telling you, ladies, is this:  Despite your pedigree, God is writing you into his salvation history.

Yes, God may have some things to patch up in your life, but he's got a spot for you in the story.

But there's more to it. The second point I find about Matthew's geneaology I think is connected to a statement that the Apostle Paul makes in a letter to Timothy. Now, before I share the connection, I just need you to hear me out. I'm about to go out on a limb here, but I think it's a good limb. So don't tune out until I finish this next point.

In 1 Timothy 2:15 Paul says that women will be saved through childbearing. (Stay with me). Some manuscripts even say that "women will be saved by the birth of the Child." I'm going to stick with that nuance. Paul draws an allusion to Eve in the Garden of Eden where women's "role" was established.  I'd actually like to read women's "opportunity."  And when I say opportunity, I mean that, regardless of all the power and privilege that men have wielded throughout the ages, there is one thing men could not do that only a woman could: give birth to Jesus.

Now, I don't want to get into the theology of Paul's statement. And I want to state very clearly that I am not interested in discussing literal gender roles, or "Annie Get your Gun" stuff.  But I am interested in viewing that statement in light of Matthew's geneaology and based on John 1:10-13.  John basically says that the way Jesus' salvation enters the world has nothing to do with any human actions or value systems, nor any gender roles nor none of that. It was only something that God could do in his own God-style. And for some reason God needed to use the uniqueness of women.

That reason, I believe, is this: Women, you were uniquely designed to give birth to Jesus, to Salvation.

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary were unwitting bearers of the Savior of the world. So if there is any inspirational take-away to you ladies this Mother's Day, it is that, despite your pedigree, God is writing you into his history so that you can "give birth" to Jesus in the world around you.

Women, you have the unique ability of bearing Jesus in the world that men do not have.  God has enabled you and has called you to bring Jesus to life in the world around you through your leadership, your vision, your talents, your creativity, your relationships, your ministry, your community, and yes, your motherhood. And this is true whether or not you ever become a physical mother. And based on John 1, this is a power that no man on earth can give to you. It is God himself who put that in you. And I know that, just like these five women, you will do whatever it takes to bear Jesus in your world.

Before I head out, I have to share a quick word with the men about their takeaway from this. (It's important that we don't isolate men and women from each other when it comes to fulfilling God's will; Gender separation is exactly how the enemy got us in this predicament to begin with.).  We can take our cues from the male counterparts in Matthew's geneaology. What we see is that these guys ultimately did three things:

1) They saw God at work in the lives of these women.
2) They humbled themselves to obey God on account of that.
3) They created the opportunity for them to bear Jesus in the world.
Judah saw God at work by recognizing Tamar's righteousness, so he confessed his sin, married her and helped her bear Jesus through the family tree. Joshua saw Rahab's faith in the Lord, so he kept his word to this Canaanite prostitute and provided her with the opportunity of integrating into the Israelite community, where she married and gave birth to Jesus through the family tree. Boaz recognized Ruth's faithfulness and integrity, so he redeemed this Moabite widow and helped her to bear Jesus in the family tree.  David realized his sin and married Bathsheba into the royal family, helping her to give birth to Jesus through the family tree. Joseph believes the Angel about this divine baby and he decides to honor Mary by marrying her and legitimizing both of them into the family tree of Jesus.  If men could do those things with the women in their lives, then Jesus will come to life in amazing ways throughout the world.

In closing, women, I would like to leave you with this blessing...
...May you display the righteous determination of Tamar.
...May you receive the faithful security of Rahab.
...May you experience the redemption of Ruth.
...May you have the restored dignity of Bathsheba.
...May you find favor in the eyes of the Lord as Mary did.
...May God write you into his story despite your pedigree,
...and may you bear Jesus abundantly in the world around you!

And may you have a happy Mother's Day.

Redeeming a Few Bad Apples in the Family Tree, Part 1 (A little Mother's Day Inspiration)

This post goes out to all the great mothers and excellent women in my life.

The Royal Wedding 2011
 The end of April was exciting for wedding planners ... On April 29 Kate Middleton became the Duchess of Cambridge in one of the most publicized weddings in a long time.  No, I didn't get up in the middle of the night to watch Kate and William tie the knot, nor did I care how many times the couple kissed at their wedding. (C'mon people!) But I do have two females living in my house, and we have one TV, so I was forced to watch some of the coverage. Something I found interesting is that Kate comes from a "common family," coal miners in fact.  This of course makes for the perfect Disney plot - a common girl marries the prince.  And heck, if she could do it, then anyone could do it, right ladies? Well, not quite...the Middleton's have some dough and seem to be well-connected, and the media coverage about Kate did reveal that deeper in her lineage lies more dignified ties to the royal family. But you get the point...according to royal lineage standards, she was just the girl next door.  Yet, I can't help but wonder: what will future British generations think about a coal mining family infiltrating the royal pedigree?

Something similar seems to have happened in a royal lineage that we find in the Bible. In chapter 1 of Matthew's Gospel, Matthew starts right away with a family tree tracing Jesus' royal and divine pedigree back to King David and ultimately to the patriarch Abraham.  A quick word on Biblical geneaologies, compiling a list of descendants was very important in ancient times. As a primarily oral culture, geneaologies served as the only source of history that many people would ever know.  Furthermore, geneaologies arbitrated things like inheritances and property allotments, and validated offices for priests and kings. And much like modern family trees, they provided a sense of cultural identity and social status (see John 6:41-42).  So for Jesus to be touted as the King of Kings, God's highest priest, and the Messiah, it would be important to demonstrate his royal and divine bloodline.

But my good friend Arloa Sutter drew my attention to something else that I had never noticed before.  (Probably because I skip over lists in the Bible so much!) Omissions and broad generational strokes are also common in geneaologies. For instance, you find names of unimportant or embarrassing family members left out, people who might minimize or disgrace the family pedigree. (Sorry Uncle Larry.)  Also, given the patriarchal focus of that culture, women have much less emphasis in family trees, and are likewise often omitted altogether.  So geneaologies are thoughtful and selective.  Matthew details that he only lists 41 people from the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus.

Ok, so based on all of that, here's where it gets interesting.  Matthew lists five women in his geneaology.

Surely these must have been exceptionally dignified women to crack into the geneaology of the Chosen One.  I mean, this is a royal and a divine lineage now. Only the best should be in here, right? We'll, let's take a closer look at each of them:

Tamar (Gen. 38).  A widow twice over who was shamed and unjustly neglected by the men in her life and who resorts to deception and indignity in order to, essentially, do the right thing (pass on her family line). She disguises herself as a shrine prostitute and convinces Judah, her father-in-law, to sleep with her. Interestingly enough, she has twin boys. The oldest of which was Perez, who passes on the family line and also makes it into Jesus' family tree.

Rahab (Joshua 2, 6).  Rahab expresses her fear of the Lord and helps the Israelites occupy the Promised Land. But she was a foreigner, a Canaanite. And she was a prostitute. But the Israelites honor their deal with her and spare her family. She apparently marries an Israelite and gives birth to a son named Boaz. They both make it into the geneaology. And she is considered a woman of great faith in the New Testament (Hebrews 11).

Ruth (she has her own book!).  Ruth was a Moabite woman. The Moabites were not well regarded among Israelites. They had incestous family roots (Gen. 19) and they just generally did not get along with each other. Nevertheless, Ruth marries into an Israelite family. But she and her mother-in-law Naomi, and her sister-in-law Orpah, all become widows. Ouch. Instant poverty and helplessness. But because she is faithful, hard working, and humble, Boaz (Rahab's son!) marries and redeems her from obscurity. She is then blessed with a son named Obed, who would become the grandfather of King David. They all made it into the geneaology.

Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). She and King David get caught up in an adulterous affair. David tries to fix it by killing her husband, and loyal Israelite soldier, Uriah. Of course, none of those things ever work out well, but David ultimately repents of his sin, and they suffer the consequence of a stillborn child. David marries Bathsheba and she gives birth to Solomon. They all made it into the list.

Mary (Luke 1). Mary is just a teenager from a small town when she finds out that she is going to give birth to a very special child by way of the Holy Spirit.  She becomes pregnant, but she's still only engaged to Joseph. How do you explain that one and not get a stone thrown at you? 

Um, Happy Mother's Day??  Clearly these were not dignified women to be in, what one would think, the most dignified and utterly important geneaology in history. On the contrary. These were powerless, hopeless, shameful, scandalous, embattled, simple, and otherwise insignificant women.  Certainly there were better mothers that could have made the list. Moms who who made delicious apple pies, took their families to church each Sunday, and served faithfully on the PTA, no? So why these ladies? If geneaologies are so thoughtfully crafted, what was Matthew thinking? 

(To be continued...)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

If humans have free will, then I choose . . . oatmeal

Do humans have the freedom to choose? This question has been one of the most central issues in human thought for ages, and has so many theological, ethical, and scientific implications. I think I may have even seen it come up in the recent Rob Bell hype. That’s why it was on my mind this week.

The thing about the free will debate (and often theology in general) is that it becomes so otherworldly and lofty that we often overlook the relevancy of the debate at the floor level. The debate rages at the heights of soteriology (views on salvation) and other metaphysical realities. But I don’t often see people discuss the implications of free choice with everyday things in life, especially discussions that didn’t bring it back to salvation or metaphysics somehow.

Now, I’m not writing to split hairs about whether Calvinists or Arminians, or compatibilists or incompatibilists have it right. More than likely, since we’re humans, they both have it right and wrong. This is also not to make light of this classic debate. And granted, what transpires below may also be very sloppy theology! But I just want to view the debate from a more practical lens and bring it down from the rafters, just for a moment.

I want to discuss the importance of choice among those who routinely are not able to choose, or who are prevented from choosing. Many people who live in impoverished areas are constantly chosen for: someone else chooses where they will live, what kind of food they will eat, when they will get up and when they will sleep, where they will work, when they can shop, where they will attend school. This kind of lack of freedom is an overall lack of an ability to participate in the exchange of life. How does that affect people? And is that what God wanted for us?

I’ll give you a specific example. Have you ever volunteered at a food pantry? Many traditional pantries are set up like this: food is donated, volunteers gather together to sort and bag the food, and then the volunteers hand those bags to the pantry clients. “God bless yous” and “Thank Yous” are exchanged. But many people fail to realize what happens later. A lot of those clients end up dumping half the bag of food because it’s not food they would ever choose to eat.

Does that seem a little ridiculous or unappreciative to you?

Well, when you go to the grocery store, what would you do if a clerk greeted you at the door, and began filling your cart before you had a chance to say hello? Now, would you want that for yourself?

So there’s a movement happening among food pantries that I’m glad Breakthrough is a part of. It’s the “client-choice” food pantry model. Basically, a client-choice pantry is set up more like a grocery store. It may look differently at each pantry, but the bottom line is that people get to pick what they want to eat. It’s not really that genius. It should be a no-brainer. And the more I think of it, I’m dumbfounded that it has taken so long for well-meaning food pantries to pick up on it. Duh, people should be able to choose what kind of food they want to eat!

We don’t go far as to place any forbidden or poisonous fruit in our Fresh Market food pantry that people are warned to avoid…or else! But at a client-choice food pantry, “choosing” allows people to be human at a most basic level. (And I’ll smack you if ask me whether God determined or knew that they would choose oatmeal over tomato sauce). This goes a long way with a person’s overall quality of life. Yet, those of us with resources and “power” take for granted how important our choices are with everyday things.

No, there is no such thing as absolute freedom. That is unfathomable. God also establishes many paths for us according to his will. But to be an everyday human, we do have choices within our given environment. And I find that the more determined a person’s life is with the everyday choices of eating and sleeping and working, then the more despairing they tend to be.

Now you can draw your own metaphysical conclusions from this example and bring it back up to the salvation rafters and all if you want. But there is a simpler experience of free choice that calls us to consider whether or not we are living as humans right now. At the floor level, freedom is a symbol of human dignity. And I think that’s why God gave us at least a little bit of freedom. It makes such a big deal with the smallest things in life.

Honestly, who knows the mind of the Lord and what all that freedom talk means when the final bell rings. Yes, it’s important and fun (for some) to debate about it. But do we debate enough about what might happen at an everyday level if more choice was infused into the lives of those from whom it has been absent for so long?

Since one of the major themes of Deuteronomy related to righteousness and justice is how people choose to live, let’s think about what is preventing so many disenfranchised people from being able to do so. We must not think of freedom as simply a matter of metaphysics or salvation, because we have a lot of other smaller and more critical life choices to make in our ministries and lifestyles before we have any business talking about how or whether we’re saved. Because if we choose to overlook how our choices affect the choices of others, we may find ourselves hanging with the goats.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Responding to Panhandlers: thoughts on how to really help those on the streets

Arloa Sutter and Yolanda Fields, leaders at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, discuss how to respond to panhandlers.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I will not blog about Rob Bell...I will not blog about Rob Bell...I will not blog about Rob Bell...

So I waited a whole week for the smoke to clear about the Rob Bell hype, and I tried resisting.  But the pressures in my neighborhood are far too great for my fingers to sit idly.  Here are some things that I wanted to throw out there in relation to Rob Bell.

Like many others, I was amazed by the following:

*The controversy over the contents of a book that the world has yet to read.
**The piping hot tweets of Johnny P.
***The marketing genius of it all - a classic evangelical cocktail bomb.

But there are two thoughts that I want to discuss today.

The first one is short and sweet. I hate Twitter.  Twitter is to social commentary what a car is to a drunk leaving a party.  A crash happens and people get hurt.  (Of course, you can tear apart my logic and question whether that means that I hate cars.  So maybe I can't stand the "drunks" who use Twitter).  John Piper lost his credibility with me when he got behind the wheel after being intoxicated by the hype.

Second, and mainly, I'm curious about the way that Rob Bell's dissenters have sharply criticized his views.  Not so much that he has been criticized, but how. A lot of people are really concerned about whatever he is going to say in this book, and they have gone into orange-alert mode to defend the faith.  He is being rebuked.

But is it appropriate to criticize a person like Rob Bell in this way?  Has he warranted the kind of serious correction that we find, for instance, in Galatians?

Furthermore, is his line of work the type that needs to invite this level of critical dialogue?  I'm not talking about the critical, popular buzz.  I'm talking about the fact that heavy-hitting, professional theologians are engaging the situation.  The way that I understand the nature of professional theologians (professors at universities) is this:  Professors engage in high-level academic research that invites criticism from peers. That's how they mature intellectually. Delivering and receiving criticism is a primary response to work that is produced. A great example is the career of a theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr.

Rob Bell is not a professional theologian. He doesn't teach at a university. The way I understand Rob Bell is that he is a teaching pastor who produces materials to help laypeople (mostly) connect better with God.  Creating pastoral dialogue and reflection is a primary response to the kind of work that pastors like him produce. And to that end, pastors are concerned about reaching unity in their churches, and within the Church at large.

But I haven't seen a lot of unity around the hype of a book entitled Love Wins. he above criticism or rebuke? Of course not. But has he been criticized  too soon? And has he really earned a rebuke? Yet?

And really, my main questions for discussion are...

What deserves a Christian rebuke, and what is the appropriate way for doing it?  And/or, what is an appropriate way to criticize pastoral-level writers and speakers?

Can you help me with this?