My first day in “official” inner city youth ministry is always one of my favorite stories to tell. When I say official, I mean that in my mind it had become more legitimate. I had moved from the realm of volunteer to full time and somewhere along the way I actually was going to get paid for this. Funny thing is now I believe it is all “official,” but that is a story for another day.
Almost sixteen years later I remember it so vividly. I showed up to the offices of Aslan Youth Ministries bright eyed and full of wonder. I was so idealistic and scoffed at those who dare squelch my passion. Yes, I was sure that in a few short years all of the people of the inner city of Monmouth County, New Jersey would be saved and molded into grand Disciples of Christ. The new disciples would then march on to take over all of the other cities of New Jersey and then the world. I would then be able to march on with them to the next city in need of Christ. The change would be so radical that within 10 years, the cities would be so changed that I would be out of a job. (Many years later this continues to be my passionate dream for all cities everywhere.)
At that time Aslan had five employees and had been around for 20 years. There was the Executive Director, Office Manager, Ministry Director, Tutoring Director and a newly hired Development Director. What this translated into was that one person ran the ministry, one the office, one was in charge of raising money, one person ran a tutoring program and the Ministry Director did everything else. I was hired to be the “Assistant to Everything Else.”
My first day arrives and I meet, Lynn Ann, the Ministry Director at the office. I spent a few moments filling out forms. She spent some time explaining all the programs and then asked if I would like to take a ride while we talked. We piled into what I would like to loosely translate, “the cargo van.” This was a donated, van with the window taped up and no working air source of any kind. The thing was red and some wonderful volunteer from the community had offered to hand paint a golden lion on the side. (Yes, named after that Aslan).
As if this was a normal day, we piled in and started on our way. First, we stopped in the public housing projects to speak to the parent of one child in our “Bible Class” program. My first experience in being in an apartment like this, I sat on the black pleather couch that was held together with duct tape, staring at a television that took up at least ¾ of the room, while the walls crumbled in around us. I had never seen poverty like this in America. I didn’t understand what a “survivor” looked like until that day. We had to explain that her child was suspended only for one day of program, not totally kicked out for fighting. Once the parent’s worries were soothed, we climbed back into the van. This time we had to stop at the house of someone who was donating clothes for out local clothing drive, then onto someone else who was donating food for the food pantry. It felt like whip lash moving from the falling down shacks to manicured lawns in the suburbs. All the time Lynn Ann just kept chatting. She explained ministry and the city and the families. Her love after twenty something years in just oozed from every pore.
After this we stopped at the shed that the ministry kept in the parking lot of a local church. This was where others could bring clothing donations for the youth and their families.
The shed was bulging with clothes. Mostly, this was due to the fact that several people had ignored the very large, and bright, “Clothes Donations Only Please” and had decided out of the goodness of their heart to donate some baby equipment. Others had come along and thrown their donations on top. So Lynn Ann and I set out to organize the shed. Standing on a pile of clothes, while I pulled bags out, Lynn Ann loaded them into the, “cargo van.” Once loaded we drove these clothes back to the “Projects” that we had left earlier that day to drop the clothes off in the rec building where volunteers from the community were sorting clothes for a free clothing distribution the next day.
Back into the van we went. I think the end of the day was almost upon us. This is when the statement that has since been etched into my memory was declared, “I’ll bet you never though ministry was going to be this glamorous did you?’
No it was not what I expected. My days were followed with running bible studies, recreational programs, day camps, camping excursions, sleep over camp, field trips, more bible studies, clothing distributions, outreaches, small groups, food distributions, mentoring and discipleship little sleep and long hours. I wrote my own curriculum, ran large youth group programs, trained volunteers and talked to parents. There has been hurt, violence, shootings, drugs, teen mommies and despair. I have learned that there are parts of the city that are always dark no matter the time of the day. I have seen less than I would like to admit genuinely following Christ with their whole hearts.
That same woman who took me out on my “first” day has now been working in the city with youth just a couple of years shy of 40. Her family has been broken. She has seen loss in her own life many times over. Yet, every day she looks to the “glamour” of this calling and steps out yet again. When we allow the Lord to break our heart and see with his eyes he never promises that it will get “easier.” A “blessed” life does not mean that ministry stops being about pouring yourself out for your Jesus. It is entirely about obedience. Sometimes we leave a land that is known for one we can’t see, just because God pointed his finger and said, “GO!” Longevity in ministry is a foreign word these days. Most of us get tired, alright exhausted. We are bitter when change doesn’t come fast enough in the hearts of our students. Expectations put upon us by others seem unfair. Losing sight of who called us we focus on what is not happening. The accolades that we are not receiving grow large in our minds eye. So we walk away. Disheartened and lost we leave.
I can tell you that in close to 20 years of ministry I have yet to come to the other side of the mundane. Most moments continue to be filled with simple acts of life. There are still not a lot of “thank yous.” Hours are still long. Yet, the Lord hasn’t taken me down any other path but this one. I am more convinced every day that “well done, good and faithful servant,” is just about that. Following the Lord faithfully where he leads. For me it is still about looking into the eyes of a lost teen and seeing a beautifully transformed, Christ follower with a future full of purpose and a hope. What is yours?