A Lenten Journey
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice..” Matthew 9:13
“For six weeks after the shootings at Sandy Hook,” reminisced Duane. “I just stood outside the front door of the school and greeted the kids as they came in.”
Duane is our maintenance guy. He’s our go to when there’s a stopped up toilet, salt needed on an icy sidewalk or the mop and bucket guy when a kid pukes on the bathroom floor. Duane is on my speed dial—actually, everyone’s speed dial.
For those having forgotten, Sandy Hook was the horrific mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Two weeks before Christmas in 2012, a young man in his 20’s opened fired at the local elementary school killing 27 people. Twenty were children between the ages of five and seven. It shook the nation. After Sandy Hook, every parent in America thought twice about sending their child to school.
“I guess I just wanted to kids to feel safe,” continued Duane. “I thought that saying hello and greeting kids by name might calm their anxiety.”
I heard this story for the first time last year, eight years after the shooting. This particular night I was honoring employees who had served our ministry for 10 years. Around the dinner table, I asked each employee why they enjoyed working at our organization.
“You know,” Duane continued, “I’ll never forget. Every Wednesday one of the kid’s grandmothers would show up with a cup of coffee for me. It was her way of showing her appreciation.”
UrbanPromise has seen many employees over the years. Yet I’m always curious of those who go the proverbial extra mile—showing up early and leaving late? Walking through hallways infecting colleagues with goodness and levity? Remembering students’ birthdays with gifts and cards? Nothing in Duane’s job description demands he arrive at 7am to greet children for weeks after a mass school shooting. It’s not the maintenance man’s “job.” So what’s going on?
Duane feels compelled to bring peace and a smile to anxious children because his motivation runs so much deeper than fixing broken doorknobs, shoveling slippery snow covered sidewalks, punching a time clock and picking up his pay check. There’s something about his heart.
The ancient word “mercy” comes to mind. Poet Mary Oliver once commented, “Mercy is when you take people seriously.” I guess that includes anxiety ridden children. Did you know that ‘compassion’ and ‘mercy’ don’t actually mean the same thing? However, in the Latin the word is blended into one: misericordia. Misericordia suggests an attitude transcending one’s own egoism and has its heart not with itself, but rather with others—especially the poor and needy of every kind. Duane’s heart was “with others” after the shooting. Duane’s attentiveness is an “act of mercy.”
This Lenten season let’s focus on this theme of mercy. Mercy’s at the heart of Christian faith and our journey to Easter. God’s merciful love is extended to you and me. In turn we extend mercy to others. It should be a simple cycle. But it’s never easy because mercy calls us beyond a rule-based faith to something far deeper and complicated. Mercy is about our hearts.
Fortunately Jesus understood the challenge. To a religious culture who scored A’s on rule following and sacrifice, Jesus raised the consciousness of followers to “go and learn” a new way—the profound and life altering difference between religion as sacrifice and religion as mercy.
Let’s start learning the difference today....Duane is a good place to start.
A Lenten Journey
“What’s that?” I innocently asked, pointing to the smudge mark on Matthew’s forehead.
Our North Camden team bustled into our weekly staff meeting after sponsoring an early morning pancake breakfast at St Paul’s Episcopalian Church. Pancake breakfasts were a staple in the early days of UrbanPromise. This was 1991. Pancake mix and Maple Syrup had a special line item in our annual budget. And staff needed adept flipping skills to keep pace with the demands for those golden hot cakes.
“Father Martin offered an Ash Wednesday service in the chapel after breakfast,” he replied with a charming English accent. As a recent graduate from Oxford, Matthew spent a missionary year with us. “They’re ashes he placed on our forehead.”
I’d certainly heard about Ash Wednesday. But for a Baptist boy from the west coast, lent was not part of our liturgical calendar. Actually, we didn’t have much of a liturgical calendar. Christmas, Easter, potluck suppers and an occasional “revival” were our holy days. Religiosity of this kind was considered “high church”—always viewed with an eye of suspicion from us “low church” folk.
“Tell me a little about the service,” I inquired, sincerely interested in learning more.”
“He talked about the Lenten journey, modeled after Jesus’ 40 day sojourn in the desert. Father Martin urged us to use the weeks leading up to Easter to prepare ourselves.”
“Prepare for what?”
“Well, you know,” he counseled, “we need to reflect, fast, and repent to prepare ourselves. It creates space for something new to happen in our lives.”
This was beginning to sound interesting. For me, the 24 hours between Good Friday and Easter Sunday always seemed a little rushed for any serious internal reflection. Like preparing for for a final exam the night before. It can work, but more often you’re left with a gnawing feeling more could have been learned. A 40 day runway seemed a more effective path.
“What about the smudge on your forehead,” I continued.
“It’s actually not a smudge,” replied my friend in his proper English. “They’re ashes from last year’s palm fronds. As he placed them on our forehead he recited a verse from Genesis:
“For dust you are and to dust you shall return,”.
Only a kid from Oxford would use the word “frond” in a sentence. But the quote from Genesis seemed a little morbid. Not exactly a verse one might recite on the cusp of a 40 day spiritual pilgrimage, or grease-pencil on your bathroom mirror. Isaiah’s reminder that those who trust in God “...run and don’t grow weary, walk and don’t grow faint” might be a better inspirational selection. Why start the journey to Easter reflecting on human morality?
The challenge got me thinking about one of the more sobering books I read in seminary—The Denial of Death, by the late Jewish American cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker. Becker pulls no punches.
Becker hypothesis’ that people are “...literally split in two: he (she) has an awareness of (their) own splendid uniqueness in that (they) stick out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet (they) go back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.” I warned you he didn’t sugar coat. The problem, argues Becker, is most people spend their lives distracting themselves from this reality.
Humans, he continues, are “....drinking and drugging themselves out of awareness,” and spending their “...time shopping, which is the same thing.” Becker believed that when we repress our mortality we actually fail to live deeply and intentionally.
So those ashes walking into my staff meeting in 1991 were visual reminders that our lives are brief....temporary...and therefore so, so precious. Ashes on the forehead are the ultimate rebuke of a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry that sells a myth of immortality. So embracing this honest Lenten message can lead you and me to a life-giving sense of humility, gratitude and urgency. For dust we are....to dust we will return. The Bible doesn’t lie.
This past year has taught me that nothing can be taken for granted. I’m sure you stand in a similar place. Watching friends and friends of friends lose family members to this hideous pandemic acutely reminds me that our time to dance and sing on this planet is brief....and everyday a sacred gift. Mortality is part of the human package. Without it’s nagging, uncomfortable reminder we may wake up one day and say, “Where did my time go?”
So Jesus takes a detour to the desert for 40 days—40 days to confront the temptations that come to all us mortals who struggle to accept the truth that we’ll return to ash, that we’re ultimately all equal in the eyes of God and that abundant life arrives the day we no longer need to be the center of the universe. Sounds like a journey worthy of our attention. Let’s begin.
PS. If you want to write Bruce with a comment or question during this Lenten series, feel free to email him firstname.lastname@example.org
The EMT’s quickly wheeled Devante Taylor into the Emergency Room at Toronto’s Sunnybrooke University Hospital—his odds of survival minimal.
The bullet lodged in his neck, by a random act of gang violence, needed to be delicately and skillfully managed by the trauma team on duty that evening. Over the next 48 hours, the team channeled their energy and expertise to save the young man’s life.
That evening, the trauma team happened to be led by Dr Steven Ma, a capable and experienced trauma surgeon and also a man deeply motivated by his Christian faith—and he’s a huge fan of UrbanPromise Toronto.
Actually, Dr Ma is such an admirer of UrbanPromise that wears UrbanPromise t-shirts while on duty—hoping to inspire his staff with a Bible verse or make a connection with a family member experiencing trauma. When there’s a connection, Dr Ma calls the UP Toronto team for prayer and possible ministry to a family in crisis.
And that’s what happened that fateful night in 2017. Devante grew up at UrbanPromise. “He started with our camps at the age of 8,” shared UP Toronto executive director, Shawn James. “He’d also been a StreetLeader and was a semester away from graduating business college.” Driving his 3 year old cousin home one Sunday afternoon, Devante’s car was ambushed and riddled with bullets. His cousin unharmed, but Devante’s life changed forever. He survived because of the adept medical treatment he received, but was left paralyzed from the neck down.
This is why Dr Ma continues in this work. Besides his numerous medical accomplishments( he even holds a Master’s Degree in Theology from Tyndale College) he chooses to be on call 6 nights a month as the attending staff trauma surgeon so he can deploy his extraordinary gifts for God’s purposes. “I exchange money for time,” he shared to a reporter in a University of Toronto interview for aspiring medical students. Time to serve his community—time to use his vacations to perform volunteer surgeries at a missions hospital West Africa so missionary doctors can take a vacation. Faith defines the way Ma spends his time.
Dr Ma’s desire to integrate faith into all aspects of his life reminds me of a quote by pastor and writer Brian McLaren. “I often say that one of my favorite parts of being a pastor for 24 years was pronouncing the benediction each week,” he muses. “It wasn’t that I was glad for our gatherings to be over; rather, I was thrilled to be deploying people into the world to live out their faith between Sundays.”
It’s “faith between Sundays” that is needed in our world right now. Not a showy, dogmatic, I need-to-win-my-argument kind of faith. But the kind of faith the biblical writer James talks about—faith that becomes real in our world through acts of healing, justice and compassion. Faith that creatively infuses every aspect of our lives—even if it means wearing a t-shirt sending subtle signals of hope to an overly anxious medical team or creating God-conversations with families in the throes of an existential crisis.
This past week, Dr Ma popped into my mind. A couple of years have passed since we last communicated. I wondered about his UrbanPromise t-shirt supply. Serendipitously I pinged him an email—minutes later:
“My wife was teasing me about my dwindling supply of UrbanPromise t-shirts,” his enthusiastic email began. “I have been worried because I’m down to 2 shirts. The rule in our home is that whenever a hole appears anywhere in the T-Shirt, daddy has to throw it out or allow the girls to turn them into PJ’s.”
He continued, “I wear UrbanPromise t-shirts everyday at the hospital. The messages on the back encourages many nurses and other staff. They’ve opened doors for many conversations and prayers with patients and their families.”
“Here’s another way to put it,” says Jesus, in a popular colloquial version of Matthew 5:16, “You’re here to be light, bring God-colors into the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this.” Sounds like faith “between Sundays” to me.
I’m off to the Post Office with a box of t-shirts—special delivery to Canada.
PS. Please watch this inspiring video of Devante who was recently featured in a micro-soft commercial. This young man continues to be a light and inspiration to others.
My journey into advocacy for children with special needs can at best be described as serendipitous. This is more so because prior to the life-changing encounter I will proceed to recount very soon, I knew nothing about Down syndrome or any kind of rare condition, special needs or inclusion, I mean I knew absolutely nothing. But I took a bold step and trusted God to make the path clearer. I can say with great confidence that He is doing just that.
So the story starts a few years ago when I had witnessed the bullying of a very young boy who was supposed to be in school, like other children of his age, but serving as an apprentice in a cobbler's shop.
There was something different about him. He had a flattened face, especially the bridge of the nose, an almond-shaped eye that slant up and a short neck.
I had tried to stop the bullying with very little success. And so with a well-channelled irritation stemming from the fact that I could not help him despite my efforts to, and a determination to do something about it, I carried out some extensive desk research to ascertain why the boy looked so different. In many countries in Africa, children with special needs are hidden or killed. There are very little resources or education around special needs kids.
My findings did not only open me to several other kinds of rare conditions and their causes, but it also revealed that the young boy had Down syndrome. That experience and the desire to help people like him going forward gave birth to The Nechamah Foundation; a not-for-profit organisation, set up to advocate for the inclusion of children with special needs especially down syndrome while influencing the society towards their protection.
This journey has given my life a whole new perspective, a passion which I find very fulfilling.
A little over two months into the fellowship program as an Urban Promise International Fellow, and a master’s degree student (M.A, Organizational Leadership at the Eastern University), I now wish that I had somehow learnt previously what I am learning now. If I had, perhaps the journey would have been a little smoother. But thanks to those experiences, and the numerous problems I and my team have had to solve with little or no resources, they make me appreciate the journey even better because I am able to relate with class activities and teachings on a very great level and especially during discussions in school.
I have learnt and still learning that mistakes are not to be avoided. However, learning quickly from the mistake(s) and how we bounce back from them, is what propels the universal trajectory of growth and development. Each day, I am reminded that several lives are dependent on my being resilient and several others draw inspiration from what I do and in who I am.
Those thoughts invigorate me.
It is easy to say: “that’s not my child”, “that’s not my community”, “not my problem”, “not my world”. But the issues surrounding children with special needs, speaks to problems that must be jointly solved; responsibilities that must be considered critically and shared. In all of our campaigns and advocacy, there are those who see the need and respond accordingly by supporting the cause in kind, providing resources to enable us reach more people; I consider them heroes of humanity. My drive has always been to see that children with special needs especially ones who are economically disadvantaged are able to live up to their full potentials.
I want to be remembered as that individual, who from a deep sense of conviction, thrived in a path that is least trodden, was a voice to the most vulnerable and marginalized; children and teenagers with special needs such as Down syndrome, who helped them become their highest self and to live a life that is full, significant, happy and interesting.
I am from Liberia, a small country on the West African coast of Africa. Liberia is the size of the state of Tennessee but with a population of 5 million people. Liberia is the poorest country in the world with 85% of its population living on less than $2 a day. 50% of Liberia’s population is under the age of 20 while 65% of children of primary school going age are out of school. Liberia underwent a civil war for over 14 years that led to the loss of many lives and property. As a result of the war, the country’s entire economy system was broken down, infrastructures were destroyed, and the education and health sectors were greatly affected.
I was born to a low-income family near Liberia’s capital-Monrovia and am the fourth of five children. I grew up in a Christian home where my parents exhibited strong Christian principles. My family housed 19 members consisting of cousins and other relatives and I shared a room with six boys.
I began my education during the period of the civil war and struggled to complete high school in 2006, graduating top of my class-Valedictorian. After my graduation from high school, I was very passionate to continue my education to college, but had to desperately wait for four years because of lack of financial support. During the period of waiting, I met Rev. E. Walker, the person who later changed my life. Rev. Walker became my mentor and helped me to discover, and develop my potential. Rev. Walker always told me that I could be the best I wanted to be only if I stayed focused. Rev. Walker shaped my purpose on earth through the interactions he always had with me. I finally enrolled at the University of Liberia in 2010. To support myself, I took on a teaching job at a primary school, and did other paid chores over the weekends in order to raise money for my college tuition. I eventually graduated with a BPA degree in Public Administration in 2017.
With a deep quest for youth development, I resigned my job as Administrative Assistant of Libra Sanitation, Liberia’s biggest Waste Management Company, to volunteer at CELDI-Liberia as one of its industrious staff. CELDI-Liberia is UrbanPromise first West-African Site founded by Rev. Walker in 2016. It is a children and youth focus group which exists to change Liberia… one child at a time. It does so by developing children from vulnerable communities, breaking the circle of poverty through education, and raising a new generation of servant leaders that can proactively transform and serve their communities with distinction.
While serving at CELDI-Liberia, I was given the opportunity to travel to the US, in 2018 to further my education. I am the first Liberian Fellow at Urban Promise International, and the first member of my family pursuing a Master. I am enrolled in the Organizational Leadership program at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, which is equipping me with the relevant experiences and the education needed to be an effective leader.
Upon completion of my studies, I will return as a capacity builder to expand the work of CELDI-Liberia. My dream is to reach a child, raise a leader and restore a community. In order to achieve this dream, I hope to build a school for underprivileged children in CELDI’s afterschool program and the community. At this school, the children will be equipped with the skills necessary for academic achievement, life management, personal growth and servant leadership.
Currently, I have started fundraising for the school project. The project will cost $62,000 for the construction of the structure of the school, and its operational cost for the first year.
You can get involved: by praying for the ministry, donating to the school project, sponsoring a child at $33, help to friend raise for the ministry or join our mailing list for an update on the ministry. Or better still, you can invite me to your small group at church, create speaking engagements or provide professional training opportunities. Donations can be made at UrbanPromise International/CELDI at P.O Box 156 Pennsauken, NJ 08110 or online at www.urbanpromiseinternational.org/celdi. I can be reached at +1 302-415-9709 or email@example.com