Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Monday, July 30, 2012

Let’s talk about paths.

Today, I was in the botanical gardens in Golden Gate Park. I was with my group of students for the week and a group of residents from a long-term care hospital in the city. We stopped to take a short break and enjoy the view of the area we were in. I saw a path that led through some denser plants, off of the big paved path. I wasn’t sure where it would lead, but I was pretty sure it would be beautiful.
I went to explore the path, with encouragement from my group. “Let us know where it goes!” It was a beautiful little path, which took me around a small pond and put me on a dock that was in perfect view of my friends across the pond. It was a breathtakingly beautiful spot I ended up in, and there was an older man standing on the dock looking out.
I waved at my friends from across the pond, and the man next to me started talking to me. He pointed out some rocks in the shape of a turtle, we talked about the weather, and the next thing I knew he was talking culture which turned to philosophy which turned to politics which turned to just plain insight.
He began by talking about how people today don’t spend enough time outdoors. He has been coming to the botanical gardens once a week for years. We watch too much television today, he said, and spend too much time staring at a screen instead of enjoying the outdoors. This quickly spun into something very philosophical. Our whole life is a reaction, he said. We react to everything around us, all the time, and that is the substance of our lives. The variables are simple: how do we react? What reactions are inspired by the things we surround ourselves with? A life in front of a screen will condition us to give very different reactions than a life spent enjoying God’s creation. Culture encourages different reactions than nature.
This year, I have explored some paths without knowing where they would take me. I had plenty of encouragement from people who wanted to find out where this path would lead. Earlier this year, the path I explored led me to Greece and an experience that changed my life forever. I gained new perspectives, I was inspired to think about things I had never considered before, and I learned an immense amount from people and places very different from me.
This summer, the path led me to the Bay Area. Again, I received encouragement from people who wanted to see where this path would take me. I have discovered the beauty of Oakland, California–wait, what? Anyone who knows much about Oakland probably doesn’t expect to hear those words in the same sentence. But I have truly found the beauty of a city that nearly everyone overlooks because of its reputation. I have found the beauty and pain of San Francisco, the hidden dirt behind the glamour. I have been forced to think about things that I have never considered before. I am learning an immense amount from people and places very different from me.
Both of these paths took me away from people I love and everything I know. But they’re never too far away. Really, they’re just across a small pond. They’re within view–I might not be able to touch them, but I can give them a big smile and a wave. I can call out to them and let them know that everything is fine over here. We can watch each other’s lives unfold from afar, keeping each other updated no matter where we are.
And although these paths have taken me away from people and things, they have taken me to people and things as well. They have brought me to people who have new ideas. They have placed me next to people who have opened my eyes and my mind and made me think about new things. No matter what path I take, I never end up alone.
After I was done talking to this man on the dock, I ran to catch up with my group. They were still there, ready to welcome me back and hear about the man I was talking to. The same thing happened when I got home from Greece. Life went on without me, but my friends and family were still there waiting for me. And I know that, when I get home from the Bay next month, they’ll still be there to welcome me home and hear my stories.
Always take the path that looks interesting, even if you don’t know where it will take you. Chances are, it will take you somewhere beautiful. It will always give you a new experience, maybe one you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. It will probably give you a new perspective. It might even give you a new friend. And don’t worry about leaving anyone or behind–if they’re worth having around, they’ll be waiting for you when your paths cross again.
-Jessie, CSM San Francisco Bay Area Summer 2012 City Host
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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Update from CSM Denver Ministry Partner

CSM occasionally has the great privilege of working alongside ministry partners as they serve with us on a short-term missions trip. CSM Denver's housing partner, Open Door Ministries, sent a group to CSM Los Angeles this week to serve in that city. We received the following in an ODM E-Minute email blast from Open Door's Executive Director, David Warren. Please be in prayer for the requests he shares.

"Eleven members of the Open Door Youth ministry left on a mission trip to Los Angeles early Saturday morning.  They had been preparing and raising funds for this trip for almost the entire last year. They made it safely to LA and are now engaged in outreach to the homeless on skid row and working in a local vacation Bible school.  Our ministry has been the recipient of many a mission team so it is exciting to be able to send out some of our own to minister to others.  Please be in special prayer for Ernesto, one of the team members.  Ernesto is a graduate of our youth ministry and now serves as a youth leader in addition to being an intern at ODM this summer.  He was in the theater on Thursday night when the shooting happened.  He had gone with several of his friends.  We praise God that he and all his friends made it out safely.  Pray for him as he recovers from that trauma and pray for the mission team to see God change lives through their service.  Specific requests – van to work properly, energy & endurance, relief of headaches for one team member, and changed lives for our youth and for those they meet."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Responding to the Aurora, CO Tragedy

The shooting early last Friday morning in Aurora is a tragedy that will have many long-term affects. CSM Denver appreciates your prayers as we continue to provide support to our ministry partners across the city and in Aurora. Though CSM's staff and serving groups were not personally affected, we know of several ministry partners who were at the theater and were either hurt or helped those who were hurt. 

Please be in prayer for the victims and their families as they begin to heal. Also, please lift up the many groups coming to serve alongside our community the remainder of this summer and year. We will continue to update our prayer partners on ways you can be supporting both CSM as well as our city.  

Keysha and Jay
CSM Denver Staff

Friday, July 20, 2012

Joining together your mind and heart

Life in Houston with CSM for me has been an experience of ever shifting perspectives and shattering perceptions. As a city host, I came into this experience knowing certain things in my head. I had encountered and processed enough poverty and homelessness in my life to know that there is no intrinsic difference between those individuals and me; but over the course of my summer in Houston, I have come to realize that while it is important for me to know certain things in my head, it is infinitely more important for me to know it in my heart and show it in my actions.

One of the situations that has prompted this understanding has been working with The Bread of Life ministry. The Bread of Life exists to provide creative and lasting solutions to the problems of hunger, homelessness and HIV.  Some of their solutions come in the form of an Art Therapy program, a Culinary Arts program, and also allowing a number of people without homes to sleep in their building at night.

One week, I took my group to a game night they were hosting. We played card and board games with some of their guests, ate a meal that had been cooked by students in their Culinary Arts program then we had ice cream with the guests before they pulled out the mattresses to sleep for the night.

This experience was amazing for me because it was truly the first time that I was fully able to bridge the gap between "us" and "them" in my mind. While mentally I am aware that there is no actual difference between the man that sleeps on the corner and myself, and I convey that truth to my groups and those around me, even as we serve at the numerous sites that provide food and social services to the community, a divide still exists.

I have been able to make large improvements in my perceptions in this area, but at The Bread of Life I played a card game that I had grown up playing with my family - only this time I played it with a group of men I had never met before and they also don't happen to have a permanent place to call their home. I ate delicious food - and it was made by the hands of a few homeless men. I ate ice cream alongside a woman who had just cleared my trash off the table - and she also happened to not have a building to which she can claim ownership.

God is doing great things in and around me. Sometimes I get a chance to notice a few of them.

- Tyler, CSM Houston Summer 2012 City Host

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's All in the Name

Stranger danger is a common lesson taught to every child. It is meant to keep them safe, but oftentimes instills fear into kids of people they don't know - especially those different than themselves. This fear generally follows children into adulthood making strangers people to avoid and remain nameless.

I hop out of the truck knowing I don't have much time. As I head up the hill, the eyes waiting in line turn to me which reminds me of our differences. We both know I am not there for the same reasons. I won't be standing in line for food. I push aside our differences knowing that if  those become my focus I will not see these people for who they are: simply people just like me. The line wraps around the sidewalk making a square. I step into the center and begin scanning the line knowing each minute is quickly slipping away. I spot my friend, Luke*, in the middle of the line and a smile lights up when we make eye contact. I walk towards him while noticing the man standing in front of 
Luke. His green shorts and sleeveless button up shirt attracts my attention. Only the top button of his shirt is fastened revealing the tattoos across his pale stomach and chest. He watches as I get closer, and I feel hesitant about him. I assume he will ignore me and keep to himself, so I begin talking to Luke about his week. Luke's sweet voice and genuine smile reminds me why I came that morning.

The man next to us interjects a comment, and I turn to him smiling happy that he is interested. Something in me quickly realizes he is not how he appears (scary, violent, rough).

"I slept under a bridge last night."

It was the first time someone had openly spoken to me about what homelessness looks like to them. Plenty of people have shared their stories with me, but his was different.

Names are valuable - way more than we often realize. Names give identity, worth, beauty. Names are something to own. They are the one thing everyone has that is theirs. A name proves that though we all may have differences, we are utterly the same- human.

I've always hated being called Mandy, and for the most part, no one ever tried using that name. But every so often I would get a Mandy as if the person wanted to mix things up a bit. I would cringe at its sound knowing that it was being placed on me. To me, Mandy is everything I'm not. It just doesn't fit.

Later in the week, as I was leaving a different soup kitchen, Jessie yelled out my name stopping me in my tracks. I hadn't realized she knew my name. I had met 
Jessie many times during this past month, but just began using her name this week. She noticed and therefore learned mine.

Sleeping under the bridge was his first night of homelessness. Up until that point, he had been paying rent on an apartment. Our conversation travels back and forth between my life and his. I look at my phone realizing my time is up and I must get back to the housing site to start my day with my group. We say goodbyes and shake hands. Looking at me he says, "A stranger is a friend you haven't met yet."

His name is Rocco.

- Amanda, CSM Nashville Summer 2012 City Host

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*All names, except the author's, have been changed for privacy.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Ants Go Marching One by One

It's Monday night again. I'm driving along the same path and repeating the same statistics and facts about the city. We cross the bridge allowing the stadium to come into sight, and I'm the only one in the van who knows what we're about to do. We park past the yellow fire hydrant along the curb and cross the street to the sidewalk. I begin talking about the football stadium to my left and the juvenile court building to my right. One is lined with Tennessee Titans planters while the other is surrounded by a black rod iron fence. Two different lifestyles separated by a street. Rich and poor. Advantaged and disadvantaged. I finish explaining to my group that both need Jesus equally. Both have brokenness. We talk about the value of intercession and bridging this widening gap between the groups of people represented. I hesitate as I describe how we are going to intercede tonight never knowing how the group will react. They begin to spread out among the sidewalk and lay down- some on their backs, others on their stomachs.

The warmth of the pavement flows into my chest. This week I lay with my head facing the court building and my feet hanging off the curb into the street. I take a breath ready for my weekly conversation with God to resume. My focus changes as I notice the slightest movement a few inches from my face. As I'm about to panic at the thought of ants crawling on me, I realize this ant isn't moving in the ways I would expect. This ant is stuck on its back. I watch as it struggles arching its back with all its might. I reach out my finger and try to push the ant over as gently as possible. He lasts on his feet for only a moment before struggling again on his back. I try again but get the same result. I hover my finger over his legs hoping he will grab on, so I can place him back on his feet. It doesn't work. I conclude that something is wrong with this ant that is too small and intricate for me to fix. I wonder if I should kill it- if by killing it, I will actually be ending its misery. My group begins standing up letting me know they are done praying. I decide to leave the ant to suffer and join everyone else in standing. I look down at my feet in one last attempt to decide to squish it, but the ground is still. The ant has become too small for my vision.

How often have I been the ant struggling helplessly? How often have those around me been the ant- suffering and reaching for help but unable to receive it? How often have I turned away from those in need because it was too painful to face? As I drive through neighborhood after neighborhood and see hardships and struggles, I feel helpless- too insignificant to make an impact. People pushed to the margins of society- too small for its vision. 

"Sometimes, Lord, it just seems to be too much:
too much violence, too much fear;
too much of demands and problems;
too much of broken dreams and broken lives;
too much of war and slums and dying;
too much of greed and squishy fatness
and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth;
too much of stale routines and quarrels,
unpaid bills and dead ends;
too much of words lobbed in to explode
and leaving shredded hearts and lacerated souls;
too much of turned-away backs and yellow silence,
red rage and the bitter taste of ashes in my mouth.

Sometimes the very air seems scorched
by threats and rejection and decay
until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion.

Too much of darkness, Lord,
too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference...

Too much, Lord,
too much,
too bloody, bruising, brain-washing much.

Or is it too little,
too little of compassion,
too little of courage,
of daring,
of persistence,
of sacrifice;
too little of music and laughter and celebration?

O God,
make of me some nourishment
for these starved times,
some food for my brothers and sisters
who are hungry for gladness and hope,
that, being bread for them,
I may also be fed and be full.

- "Guerrillas of Grace" by Ted Loder 

- Amanda, CSM Nashville Summer 2012 City Host

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Seeing Glimpses of Grace on the Streets

With two dollars in pocket and five of my group members beside me, we set out at 8:30 am toward San Francisco.  For six hours we were to simulate what it would be like to be an immigrant family wandering the streets, finding a place to sleep, and somehow put a meal together for only two dollars.

It was a day full of walking and getting rejected as we constantly asked for help and guidance from people with which we shared the sidewalk.  After walking about twenty blocks to find a restroom that was free to use (a surprisingly difficult task), we found an area that was occupied with homeless men and women.  My group dispersed to go find someone that would direct us to a cheap place to eat and where they slept at night.

Instantly I spotted a young guy.  I went over to him and introduced myself to him.  At first he introduced himself as Mike.  We engaged in small talk then told him what I and my group was doing for a day.  I told him about the two dollars I had and the need for a place to stay at night.  After telling him the situation he reached into his bag and gave me a bag with his last little bit of cereal. 

Trusting me now, he then stretched out his hand and said his name was Aaron* and that he was 23.  He continued to tell me that he had been homeless for two years.  I immediately got a sick feeling in my stomach. Aaron and I had the same interest in sports and movies.  We liked similar music and loved watching the playoffs.  We were so similar, yet we lived very different lives.  He dressed like a homeless person, and I clothed myself with a v-neck from express.  We faced very different circumstances which resulted in very different lifestyle choices.

Nonetheless, I realize that, though we are different, I can say I saw God in the action of the cereal bearing man that looked slightly like a small grizzly bear. In his generosity, I saw that God truly does work through the least of these. May we pray that God blesses and reveals to Aaron His true identity - a frame to the face of Jesus.

Blake, CSM Summer 2012 San Francisco Bay Area City Host

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*Name has been changed for privacy 

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Weeping for Brokenness

My mind is in a haze. There is something that has been blocking me from breaking through. These are vague descriptions, but they are the only ones I can muster to describe the confusion. Since I have arrived in Boston, I have been going through the motions. I have been getting to know the staff, learning the way around the city, getting information on the ministry sites etc. I have shared my testimony, tried to open up, maybe then the fog would clear. However, every conversation I had, every bit of information I received never could break through the fog. I was not being affected by what I was hearing and seeing. The poverty, the violence, the brokenness, I was unaffected. Perhaps unaffected is not the best word. It’s more that I had seen it all before. I had spent the previous summer immersed in conversations and situations where the heavy brokenness was staring me in the face, penetrating my whole self. I had felt brokenness. I had wept every night for it. I had trusted in God’s strength to power through it, and by the end of the summer I was a transformed person.

Reentering back into school and the life of a college student was not hard for me, because I was excited to share what had transformed me with everyone I knew. I was plugged in with ministries and programs in my town, but it was very different. I found myself becoming immune. I spent three months during the summer in the hoods with broken children and in the city with hurting people, and returning home to see it only in small doses and on a small scale, it was if I wasn’t seeing it at all. It wasn’t that I was disillusioned; it was that I was turning inward. I was closing in on myself. I became selfish, returning to my own brokenness and settling in it, letting it be my shield that I could hide behind, that I could retreat to. I knew I had deep rooted brokenness that had not been fully dealt with and that I had not been healed of. However, instead of seeking the healing I needed, I retreated into the solitude of my mind. This was no shield of strength; this was the strongest flaming arrow the enemy launched at my soul. Self-centered solitude, with the veil of “self cleansing reflections.” I lost sight completely. I became so inward that I lost sight of the world around me, the severely broken world.

The past few days here in Boston we have been gathering more and more information about the brokenness of this city. One of the focuses is human trafficking. We had someone who is working with an organization helping those who have been trafficked into stable and safe environments. Not only were these sessions plagued with gruesome statistics, but also a few of the hosts decided to watch an MSNBC series on Sex Slaves in America, from the large urban cities to the small suburban towns. How could I not react to this? Of course I was shocked at the numbers and the sickening details, but I would not break. Why? Why was I struggling so much through the fog of trying to be broken for this city, but being incapable of truly connecting.

Then I realized, that my inwardness was building a wall between the world and me. What I thought was healthy reflection on my own brokenness in order to reproduce the fruits of humility and grace to others, was actually creating a division in my life. My thoughts were on my own brokenness, and not on the brokenness of the world. I had seen the brokenness, I had felt the brokenness, but I had become so consumed with my own that I completely lost connection with everyone else’s. I spent the next hour weeping in the shower, not for my self, but for the world. I wept for the brokenness that unifies all humanity. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone is broken. And the biggest lie you could ever believe is that you are isolated in your own faults, in your own scars. You can’t bring healing to yourself, and you can’t bring healing to the world. Therefore, we must join together and weep together for the broken, battered, sickness that unites humanity. We weep, not because we are hopeless, but because we know that the Lord hears the cries of his people and because He is the only hope of our restoration. We must be poor in spirit to receive the kingdom of heaven. We must mourn to be comforted. We must be meek to inherit the earth. We must hunger and thirst for justice to be filled. Weep with me for justice, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our world.

Praise the Lord that simply weeping for others can lift a heavy fog of selfishness.

- Kelsey, CSM Boston Summer 2012 City Host

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Many Faces of the Homelessness

The group is ready to go. We have our backpacks full of lunches and our hearts ready to talk. We are standing in the middle of a park where many homeless have gathered to sleep for the night. A strange silence comes over the youth as they experience an equal amount of fear and excitement at the prospect of approaching the homeless.
“What does a homeless person look like?”
This is my favorite question. Now, I won’t pretend for even a minute to be an expert on homelessness in Philadelphia. I have only worked for CSM for a month and half, and my understanding of what it means to be homeless is challenged daily.
So I ask the youth what it is they think a homeless person looks like. They offer descriptions such as worn clothing, poor hygiene, and carrying luggage. Now these answers are not necessarily wrong, these characteristics often accompany the homeless who sleep out in the park.
But these descriptions are missing something.
When you truly look at a homeless person, you don’t see their worn clothing, plastic bags, or even smell their body odor. When you truly look at a homeless person you see the smile on their face that reflects gratefulness even for the smallest things in life. You see the tears in their eyes as they grieve the losses they have experiences. You see the cascade of emotions that makes a person human. But the youth don’t know that yet. They will soon.
So the group sets out and approaches the first homeless person they see. The youth struggle to find their voice, but soon they discover that this homeless person has a name just like them. The youth begin to share their life experiences and this homeless person begins to share his. And portrayed with these life experiences are the emotions that accompany them. Before we know it 45 minutes have passed. As the conversation begins to wrap up and the students ask their new friend if they can pray together.
You see the biggest thing that people have in common is the emotions that they have felt. And if the youth, even for a moment, can begin to see the emotions of a man living on the streets, will no longer feel as though they are superior to that homeless person. Often looking into the eyes of the homeless we can begin to see a reflection of ourselves. We have felt the same joys and pains.
So what DOES a homeless person REALLY look like?
Well, when it comes down to it, he looks just like you.

- Katie, CSM Philadelphia Summer 2012 City Host

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