We have all experienced situations in our lives that have negatively affected the way we engage in relationships, in work and in other areas of our lives. Join us for a lunch and learn discussing Bible-based trauma healing and ways that we can better care for ourselves and walk alongside our neighbors and friends. Click here for more information about Bible-based trauma healing.
Routines and work and busy schedules—day to day life—can make us forget, or miss, what God is doing around us. Recently at Advance, three conversations with South Memphis neighbors woke me up and reminded me that our neighborhood is filled with talented people, made in God’s image, who are working to improve their lives and their community. Here are three things I observed in a fresh way, thanks to our participants.
PEOPLE WANT TO GIVE BACK
As we welcomed folks to class for orientation today, we asked, as we always do, “What would a positive possible future look like for you 18 months from now if you worked hard to move towards your goals?” Almost immediately a gentleman in the back spoke up and said: “I would be giving back to my community, investing in those like me who need somebody to help them along.” “I’d be financially stable and able to give generously to my community,” said another. “I could be a mentor or role model for younger folks, because they will see the change in my life,” said a third. (And grads ARE giving back – see this recent story.)
These answers get at the heart of why we do the Jobs for Life class: work is one of God’s best ways of empowering His people to contribute to the life of their communities. That’s why Paul tells even thieves to work with their hands: “so that you might have something to share with those in need.” Our neighbors are deeply invested in their communities and care about improving them. That’s a big part of why they’re here.
INJUSTICE KEEPS PEOPLE FROM WORK
At the beginning of each class, though, we also ask about challenges that participants face. Criminal records are a common answer, but today I heard a story that reminded me of the injustices facing ex-felons in the marketplace.
“I worked for six years for a company, full-time with benefits, and good at what I did,” one woman shared. “But because of a situation at another warehouse, they decided to do company wide background checks, and when they saw I had a felony from 12 years prior, they fired me.”
What a reminder of the way the system stacks up endless obstacles against low-skilled workers and workers with troubled pasts, no matter how far back. Paul thought thieves should be able to work so that they could contribute, but too often our system ensures that former thieves, regardless of how recovered, find it very, very difficult to find any work at all. And in some cases, like this woman’s, a person’s background trumps 6 years of quality performance on the job. I’ll remember that story the next time I hear someone say that if somebody really wants to work they can find a job, or that businesses will always reward hard work and solid performance. The story from the community’s experience reveals a much more complicated situation.
OUR NEIGHBORS ARE OVERCOMING THE ODDS
This afternoon, I also ran into a recent LAUNCH grad. LAUNCH is a 10 week entrepreneurship class that seeks to equip our neighbors to achieve greater economic self-sufficiency through starting or improving small businesses. This woman was on the computer filing her paperwork with the IRS because she just got another regular commercial client. As I talked with her, I realized this woman is set up to be doing $2,800 dollars of guaranteed revenue each month! And she’s looking for more! What a testimony that this woman, currently living in government housing, is using her God-given gifts and her God-given hustle to overcome the odds and create work for herself and her family.
Isaiah 61 tells us that the Messiah would come to turn the poor, captive, and indebted folks into Oaks of Righteousness who would rebuild the walls of their devastated cities. One of the best parts of working at Advance is getting to know some of these Oaks, some of these folks who, like those I talked to today, are using their God-given gifts to become a “planting for the display of His splendor.” May we open our eyes and ears to all of God’s image bearers, looking for ways to encourage one another on our way towards His kingdom.
One thing we continue to strive for here at Advance Memphis is a smoother transition for our Jobs for Life grads as they move into the workplace. We get pretty creative in order to reach that goal, and over the last year, the garden around the corner from our building has been a lab for that creativity. It has helped us build relationships and experiment with crops and small business ideas—and now we’re turning it into a classroom. Our Employment and Education departments teamed up to develop a Garden Work Day: the students take a class day and go do some physical work in our community garden.
I was involved with this process because of my role in our Employment department. My task is to bring in an employer view point, since a lot of the class will start working for me, through the Advance Memphis Staffing Program, after they graduate. During the Garden Work Day, participants helped to dig and amend four 4 x 10 garden beds and planted a cover crop of organic peas, clover, buckwheat, and rye grass. I believe that the Garden Work Day was beneficial in several ways:
After the work day, we came together and discussed how the experience went. We were able to get feedback from the graduates and see what they noticed and to hear their perceptions of their work as individuals, and as a team. They were then able to hear what other staff and I saw and observed. The experience allowed participants to see how employers look at things and perceive them as employees.
The more that we can help our graduates understand how employers think, the easier it will be for them to let go of the “victim” mentality and take more responsibility. Working with graduates and business clients as closely as I have, I have been fortunate to see and understand how both employers and employees feel in a wide variety of workplace situations. I know firsthand that an employee who has no context for understanding how his or her boss is thinking can easily feel that he or she is being picked on. The truth, of course, is that managers have a standard that they are required to meet just like everyone else. Misunderstanding communication about these standards can cause an employees’ excitement and desire to work to diminish—and we need to rid our graduates of that as best as we can. I am grateful for the opportunity to get to join the class in the Garden Work Day and I look forward to doing it again.
Please continue to partner with us and pray for our graduates as they see the importance and dignity that God created in work.
The Lord Almighty makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Psalm 46:7-11
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken. Micah 4:2-5
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9
The Psalmist declares that God rules over even the violent and powerful, that He smashes the weapons of war to pieces. The prophet Micah looked forward to a day when all violence would be overcome, when the weapons of the world would be willingly turned into farm tools, and nobody would ever need to be afraid. And Jesus gave His disciples, and by extension us, the task of seeking peace between the now–with all of its wars, gang violence, police shootings of unarmed citizens, and mob violence at neighborhood grocery stores–and the not-yet-here-peace when there will be nothing to make any of us afraid.
Jesus, we are angry and tired of the violence in our neighborhoods, nation, and world, and we are tired of the violence in our own hearts. We confess that as a community we are addicted to violence and hate, that the line between good and evil runs straight through our hearts. Lord, smash our guns and knives and let us recognize the violence of our hateful speech and angry thoughts; turn the weapons of our hands and hearts into instruments of love and mercy. King Jesus, we do pray for earthly justice, for arrests and convictions for the perpetrators of violence, and we do pray for physical healing for the victims. Yet, more than either of these, we pray that you would drown all of us, including the perpetrators and the victims of the violence at Kroger this weekend, in the vast ocean of your Great Love, free of all hate and fear and filled with your peace. Fill us up with that same Holy Spirit that raised you from the dead, and bring life even in the midst of the death that lurks in our lives and in our neighborhoods.
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed . . . Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks and broke the loaves . . . they all ate and were satisfied . . . The number of those who ate was about five thousand . . . After Jesus had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.
There may be no greater mystery than the Christ’s apparent reliance on prayer. Jesus the Word made flesh often spoke his own words back to the Father. The Bread from Heaven turned to his Father to ask for earthly bread for the hungry. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, the God-Man begged God-the-Father for an alternative to the cross, before laying down his own will, and life, for his friends.
Unlike Jesus, I have always had a hard time with prayer. Not least when working with and for friends who are hungry, prayer often seems inadequate and distracting, a necessary ritual performed before and after the real work of training someone for a job, grieving with someone whose friend was recently shot, or discerning the wisest course of action in dealing with their slumlord property manager. Prayer just doesn’t get the job done.
But nor has prayer typically provided me the kind of revitalizing rest that it seems to have provided Jesus up on those mountain tops in the Gospels. Exhausted from a day serving 5 people, to say nothing of 5,000, I’m much more likely to look to a good meal with a friend, or a mindless hour in front of the TV than a night-long prayer vigil. My prayers mostly turn into endless verbal vomit anyway, containing a million requests or artificial sloppy “prayer-isms” that leave me exhausted. And if I’m honest, doubtful about whether anything is happening. Or could happen.
And so it is that many of us in ministries of mercy and justice decide that we, unlike God-made-man, do not need the life of prayer beyond the perfunctory requirements of our work, and seek simply to do our best on our own steam.
Abide in me and I will abide in you. And you shall bear much fruit.
This summer, I was required to take a course called Spiritual Formation for Ministry. I showed up to class weary with the world of work, broken relationships, injustice, and failure. I had low expectations, and so I was surprised when, instead of showing up and finding an out-of-touch fluff course, I found Jesus instead.
Not that we hadn’t met, even gotten pretty well acquainted. It’s just that when I read David Benner’s words that prayer is simply being attuned to and responding to God’s presence throughout the day, I started thinking about how most of my prayers fall into the “Thank You, Please, and I’m Sorry” category, as my friend Daniel put it. I also started thinking about what my relationship with my wife Rebecca would be like if all of our conversations began that way, and if they were all crammed into 5 minute slots at the beginning of the day and before meals. And I began recognizing that when Jesus called his disciples to abide, he probably meant more than either my ceiling-aimed verbal vomits or prayer-less activism.
So began my summer long journey into a set of spiritual practices suggested by Adele Calhoun’s phenomenal Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. For several weeks, in my morning hours, I spent more time in silence, lingering over smaller portions of Scripture. Then, I tried to find a one sentence prayer that I prayed repeatedly not only in the morning but, God willing, throughout the day. Prayers like “Father, you have given me all I need for life and godliness” from 2 Peter, or “Jesus wake me up to your presence among your people” from Revelation kept my heart just a bit more aware of this absurd reality we proclaim on a regular basis: that the Spirit of God has made his home in our hearts, that, to use the words of C.S. Lewis, “The world is crowded with God,” who “walks everywhere incognito.” And at the end of each day, I tried to spend 10 minutes walking through the day in the presence of Jesus, asking the simple questions: “Where did I sense God’s presence today? Where did I feel that He was absent?”
Each day of this experiment was different. Often I slept through scheduled devotions or found myself “meditating” on how big of a jerk somebody had been or on some scheme to make myself feel more important rather than on Christ. Other times, though, were breathtaking. Snuggling Isaiah to sleep and practicing my evening prayer and suddenly having this mental image that God was holding both my son and me in His own arms. Realizing at 4:30 p.m. that I was looking forward to my evening prayers, not out of duty or with any hopes of accomplishing anything but simply being before God. Taking the pain and struggle of my neighbors in the Jobs for Life class to Christ in prayer rather than burying them in my heart or processing them to death with a co-worker. Encountering temptation and finding that simple breath prayer “Father, you have given me all I need for life and godliness” spring unbidden to my mind and drowning out the voice of temptation. And maybe most powerfully, making me just a little less insecure, slightly less likely to let an offense kindle an inner rage, a tad quicker to forgive or extend the benefit of the doubt.
Class is basically over now, and faithful praying can no longer earn me an A. Honestly, I find myself wondering how to sustain, more, grow into the sort of praying that listens to God’s voice and invites Him to speak throughout the day, through His Word, through our hearts, and even through our neighbors. I am worried, if I’m honest, that as soon as I head down from the top of this spiritual mountain top, I’ll not only forget the views, but also the paths that got me there.
And yet, perhaps the deepest lesson I feel the Teacher teaching me in this classroom of prayer is simply this: the prayer-less road is the road to death. How many of us, I wonder, have lived much of our lives attempting to love others and do good, to bear much fruit, without spending any time attending to the love, the work, and the way of the vine Himself? According to Jesus, our efforts at flourishing apart from him lead only to fruitlessness, and eventually, destruction. As Nouwen says, in speaking about the connection between activism and prayer:
“Life becomes an unbearable burden whenever we lose touch with the presence of a loving Savior and see only hunger to be alleviated, injustice to be addressed, violence to be overcome, wars to be stopped, and loneliness to be removed . . . when our concern no longer flows from our personal encounter with the living Christ, we feel an oppressive weight.”
Neighbor love, according to Dean and Foster in The God-Bearing Life, happens when the cup of our lives has been so filled up with the Spirit of Christ’s presence that we overflow into the lives of those around us. But I have so often simply been a cup-half-full half-poured out and then empty, not because Christ has been absent, but simply because I have refused to take heed of Christ’s words: “take, eat; take, drink. This is my body, this is my blood, broken and poured out for you.” It is a matter of life and death for us, then. For only when we “discover the suffering of the world in the heart of Jesus,” rather than in our own efforts, can we face that suffering and live, “leading every sorrow to the source of all healing” (Nouwen).
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is death (Prov 14:12). For me, and I fear for many of us, that way has been to try to pursue Christ’s work without pursuing Christ’s heart. And the result is not only fruitlessness, but emptiness, pain, burnout, even death. May Christ call all of us, not least those of us who desire justice for our neighbors, back to the place of prayer, the place where Christ so fills us with His love that we flood His world with it.
One of the many programs we offer at Advance Memphis is a financial literacy class, Faith & Finances. The course reviews spending, saving, and income/expense tracking. But more importantly, Faith & Finances connects our finances to God’s greater plan in His world. When I think about Memphis and the high bankruptcy rates, our nation’s saving habits (or lack thereof), and even my own struggles with personal finances, I can easily become discouraged. Instead, Faith & Finances reminds me, and the class, that God sent Jesus to reconcile all things to Himself. This is great news for the city, the nation, and myself! God has a plan and is using my resources (ultimately His) to accomplish that plan. When I believe this, I am encouraged by the importance I have in stewarding His resources.
The Faith & Finances curriculum comes from The Chalmer’s Center for Economic Development. Over the course of 12 weeks, Faith & Finances hones in on how our individual finances fit into God’s plan. For the past several years, we have taught these classes at Advance and think the material is outstanding, the classes are fun, and the entire design honors the participants and their experiences. Since Advance Memphis is so invested in the themes and ideas connected in the curriculum, we are offering a certification course for future Faith & Finances sites. The Faith & Finances Certification Training is for anyone interested in hosting a site or using this curriculum.
Having personally been through this training and led portions of it as certified a trainer, I can say that this will be a tremendously valuable experience for anyone interested in adult education and/or financial literacy among low-income communities. Register today!
For the past 15 years, Advance Memphis has worked to empower adults from the 38126 community to move up the economic ladder. We’ve helped folks find jobs, save money, add marketable skills. But for 15 years we’ve heard our neighbors ask us to help them start their own businesses. This year, Advance is finally taking our neighbors up on the offer.
Last year, while exploring ways to create new jobs, Advance sent a group of residents (grads from our program) and summer interns to Chattanooga for a conference on job creation. One of the conference sponsors was an organization called LAUNCH Chattanooga, which has helped individuals start over 50 businesses in the last four years by offering classes and other services in traditionally under-served areas. When our neighbors met the staff and some of the entrepreneurs of LAUNCH, they knew that they’d found a program they’d like to see come back to Memphis. And so with the help of LAUNCH Chattanooga, this spring Advance Memphis offered our first ever LAUNCH class for entrepreneurs.
Fourteen individuals signed up for the 10-week class that met every Monday for three hours. The main requirement was that each participant came with a business idea. Some came with existing businesses, others with ideas that they’d dreamed of but never acted on. In addition to two staff, the class also included six LAUNCH mentors and a half dozen guest speakers. This support team brought real world entrepreneurship experience into the class each week, as participants actively strategized about their businesses’ primary products, customer problems, value proposition, “pitch,” and financial projections. Each session, participants tested their ideas in class by talking to potential customers.
By the end of the class, eight folks graduated, representing the following businesses:
Just a few weeks after class, we’ve seen folks make, produce, and sell their first tutu or cut down their first large tree; register and license new businesses; book DJ gigs and purchase new sound equipment; talk to up to 42 different potential customers over the course of the class; show up at night in the rain to get a staff person’s keys out of their locked car; and register Facebook pages and emails. But most importantly, we’ve seen people light up with the excitement at seeing their dream, based on their gifts, abilities, and hard work, begin to become a reality.
Walking with our neighbors in entrepreneurship makes all sorts of sense for Advance. Not only economically, where small businesses can provide jobs for the owners and others (LAUNCH Chattanooga’s 52 entrepreneurs have hired an additional 32 people, for instance), as well as helping under-employed or under-paid employees bridge the gap between what they currently earn and what their family needs. LAUNCH makes sense because Advance has always sought to help the poor primarily by empowering low-income individuals to recognize and build off their own assets and abilities, to see themselves as image-bearers with unique gifts and talents. So often in our city and world the poor are treated as deficits and problems to be solved; what better than entrepreneurship to remind our neighbors, and us, that our neighbors can use their assets and gifts to reach their goals and give back to their communities? Furthermore, the Bible presents us with a rich history of God’s people seeking to ensure that everyone in the community has access to work and even ownership of assets to provide basic security, relative equity, and full-participation in the life of the community. Think of the Jubilee laws and the seven year cycle of debt forgiveness, or the prophetic vision that in the last days everyone would sit under their own vine and fig tree, with no one to make them afraid. There is no perfect silver bullet for the problems facing our community, but given our philosophical commitment to asset-based community development and our theological commitment to seeing God’s people use their God-given gifts to add value in the community, LAUNCH is an effort that’s here to stay in 38126.
Will you join us? Will you help us figure out how to support our first eight entrepreneurs and the next 800 after them? Will you consider empowering a neighbor to provide for themselves by buying from these businesses? Would you consider mentoring an entrepreneur, helping some of our entrepreneurs market their services in your network, or just pray for them as they move forward, gain confidence, make mistakes, overcome them, and move towards God’s dream for themselves and their city? Together we can work towards a community where everybody who wants to work can provide for themselves, their family, and give back to their community. Walking with our neighbors in entrepreneurship is one step in that journey. Let’s take it.