In my last post, I had the chance to share some of our church’s vision and goals. You may be wondering: ”How do you fit into that vision, Thomas?” In this post, I am hoping to talk a little more about how I have had a chance to be involved in New Life’s ministry to Lincoln Heights
One of the ways I have been involved here is simple, but also in many ways very challenging: to be present in the neighborhood and get to know people. It is difficult because into a working-class Latino neighborhood, people naturally think negatively about a white educated dude moving into their neighborhood, because most of what they have seen in the past has been negative. For example, our pastor, a white guy, moved into an apartment in the neighborhood previously occupied by an undercover cop. So when he went around talking to neighbors and asking personal questions (because he was a pastor) his neighbors believed he was the replacement cop, snooping around! Needless to say, they were pretty reserved in their interactions with him. To my knowledge, I have never been mistaken for a cop. But I have tried to delicately navigate the demographic shift in the neighborhood in the past few years. As housing has become scarce in the city of LA, property values and rent in Lincoln Heights have been rising in response to the realities of supply and demand. This has led to the early stages of gentrification in the neighborhood, and “hipsters,” who are mostly white artists and creative types, have started to move into neighborhood. Many residents are renters who do not profit from the increase in property values. In fact, most worry that soon they will not be able to afford the rent, or that their landlord might tear down their home to allow for new construction. Stories circulate about realtors and investors who target the housing of low-income and minority residents for demolition, in the hopes of raising property values. Good-faith measures like rent control do not really help to stem the tide of these market forces, and many argue it hurts. In the past year a long-time butcher shop on Broadway was replaced with a shop serving deli-style sandwiches and craft beer, and long-time residents were not happy, feeling like the needs of the “gentrifiers” were being.
So in Lincoln Heights, I walk a tricky line to build trust with folks, while also being myself. People have had many tangible experiences that make them distrust people like me, and that distrust is part of living here. Just like a person who has endured trauma can’t get over it quickly, folks in the neighborhood need to be given time to trust me fully. What I have found is that in Lincoln Heights, the sense of distrust is quite often trumped by people’s genuine desire to connect with me. There have been numerous examples of this. I have found that my neighbors often congregate outside, especially for meals during the hot summer months. In fact, on my first day in my apartment, my neighbors invited me to share their barbecue of Carne Asada . At the small gym where I work out, there is a small group of college-aged guys who consistently hang out and chat while they work out. The longer I have been a consistent presence, the more I have had the chance to talk with these guys. Similarly, I often find myself playing pickup basketball at one of the courts in the neighborhood, and the more I am around, the more people have been friendly and open. This kind of ministry of presence is very slow, and very frustrating to a big data and results-driven culture. You have to walk the tightrope between 1) thinking you are doing nothing, and 2) thinking that you are having an outsized influence on people merely by hanging around, without saying anything. But long-term, this is the kind of presence required to be truly involved in people’s lives.
Another dimension of my ministry has been within the church. A big part of my work here has been with the children’s ministry. When my cohort of interns arrived, the children’s ministry was in dire need of committed folks. The former director was in the midst of transferring out, the current director was brand new, and most of the teachers were approaching burnout. We were asked to teach and to revamp the curriculum from the ground up. I found myself teaching the toddlers, because was the ministry with the greatest need.
Now to be perfectly honest, I found working with toddlers to be 1) utterly terrifying, and 2) extremely humbling. Deep down, I think it’s fair to say that most of us who do some sort of ministry or development work have a bit of a savior complex. Whether we are aware of it or not, we want to save people, change the world, and start a revolution. We want to do big, great, sexy things that will get our name in some magazine article (well, any magazine except for Relevant –my apologies to all the Relevant fans I just offended. I promise you, it’s not you, it’s me). But if there is anything that will not get you that kind of satisfaction or praise, it is teaching toddler Sunday school. Not much is lower on the average person’s totem pole of respected ministries. The only audience you will ever have is almost completely developmentally incapable praising you. Serving them is a gut-check: “Do I actually care enough about the work that I am doing to do thankless tasks?”
Worse yet, toddlers are no respecters of persons. They don’t care how smart you are or how skilled you are. They barely have the vocabulary required to hold a conversation with you, and even if they can, you probably can’t hold their attention long enough for them to actually hear what you have to say. But the one thing that small children can discern very easily is whether you care about them. As a teacher, that is the “message” you try to convey in class after class. Caring about them is communicated in many different ways: playing silly, childish games with them, reading them stories, and getting excited at all the parts that can seem exciting to them, so they can catch your enthusiasm, trying to get the kids to respect themselves, and each other, even when you have to discipline them. Caring means crafting a short, but important ten minute Bible lesson/story, that tries to teach the kids one little tiny piece of truth. And in the end, teaching toddlers is ultimately an exercise in faith. I will never know how much, if any, of this teaching has an effect on the children. So far the closest thing to feedback was when one of the children’s moms told me that because of me, her son’s vocabulary had expanded to include the phrase “body slam.” So I’ll be able to be proud when he becomes a professional wrestler some day. Another fun piece of “feedback” came after one particular lesson, where I had the kids use flashlights in the dark to try to illustrate how “God is our light,” who guides us in times of trouble. When Sunday school was over, one particular 4 year old ran up to his grandma, and excitedly told her that he had learned all about how “God is White,” which was also the color my face turned when I heard him say that. Thankfully, the miscommunication was cleared up as she took a look at his coloring sheet. At least he got the first part right!
But a little humility has never been bad for the soul. It reminds you how much service we consider inconsequential, and therefore, how many people’s service goes unpraised. If someone is “noticed” or “praised,” it happens because fickle humans just happened to see them doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. There is a profound dimension to toddler ministry once you realize there isn’t as much difference between you and the toddler as you would like to think. We are all slow to grow up, slow to improve in character, slow to follow directions, and slow to be helpful. We would rather do our own thing than do what is right. At the end of the day, looking at toddlers reminds me of how I look to God. There may not be a better way to appreciate God’s grace than when we must extend grace to others. The only difference between us and toddlers might be that toddlers have some conception of their own neediness and dependence on the love of others, while we too often find ourselves so entrenched in our pride that we can’t even receive God’s love, though it is so freely extended. In many ways, we should hope to become more like these little children!
The last ministry I will talk about in this post working with Lincoln High School’s sports teams through “In The City.” It started in late October 2014, when I was able to head up into the mountains with the JV basketball team and their coaches and join in with them as they bonded at their annual “Champ Camp.” Both of their coaches attend New Life, so they welcomed us to help out with the team. Most of the boys on the team had never been into the mountains to camp before, so they were simultaneously delighted at the opportunity, and utterly unprepared for the circumstances, some having no sleeping bags or long pants. But in spite of the circumstances, the trip ended up being a very positive one that facilitated a lot of bonding. When we returned, I began tutoring the team, which meant engaging them as they did their schoolwork before practices, trying to help them learn, and to develop their interest and engagement with their classes. My goal was always to try to make learning fun and personal for the boys, by trying to identify what their specific interests were, and helping them see how various academic subjects connected to their interests. I also would take the time to go to their basketball games as often as I could during the week, to be present and be encouraging.
During the season, I also began mentoring three of the Freshman players one-on-one. Mentoring gave me a chance to get to know the guys better. In this time, we would chat about their hopes and dreams and where they hope to be in 5-10 years. For most of them, this involves going to college and playing professional sports if possible. One of my mentees hopes to become a doctor some day, another a lawyer, and the third wants to become a general manager of a NBA team. Taking these dreams as our starting place, I tried to help them come up with a short-term plan, set goals, and slowly move towards their dream. For all of them this involved raising their GPAs so that they would actually be eligible for college. But it also involved enrichment in specific areas: one mentee had never been taught how to write using any sort of structure, and so he dreaded and often avoided doing writing assignments. Another needed enrichment in his basic math functions so he could survive algebra. It was pretty eye-opening to see the huge gaps in the education they had received, and to hear about the sheer apathy of some of their teachers. It was a pretty clear contrast with the schools I had versus the schools these kids found themselves in. I consistently had access to awesome teachers, schools with very high budgets, and parents who both had advanced degrees. Many of these kids had to fight to just be treated fairly by their teachers. The funding gap becomes clear when you notice that Lincoln High’s gym is nearly 100 years old, and has no air conditioning. Many parents can’t attend their kid’s sporting events, because occur early in the afternoon so that the principal can provide security without working overtime. The vast majority of parents don’t have college degrees. Many are immigrants who are learning English themselves, and so are in no position to help their kids with high school level work. In many ways, it’s a reminder that the problems that surround us are far too big to be solved neatly or simply, and definitely not by solely by the efforts of one individual.
There were some discouraging moments in the mentoring process. When we started mentoring, the goal was to continue as long as the boys wanted. But before the school year ended, one of the three decided he didn’t want to continue mentoring any more. The other two failed to reach the majority of their goals. On the other hand, it was cool to see them respond in positive ways, even if not in as many ways as I hoped for. One of the guys saw his GPA rise from a 1.8 from before basketball season began to a 3.0 by the end of the school year. The other, while he didn’t make progress on his GPA, by the end of the year had resolved to learn to plan ahead more, and not procrastinate on his assignments.
During spring 2015, I helped tutor the varsity baseball team. This was an enjoyable experience, as the guys were genuinely excited to play the sport, and had a very congenial attitude in tutoring. I was able to get to know several of the boys, and build solid relationships. I also enjoyed the challenge of reviewing subjects like Calculus and Chemistry with the players. Again, I found that the guys had numerous gaps in their education, and that many of their teachers, past and present, hadn’t taught them key concepts. I remember one conversation where one of the more driven baseball players spoke angrily about the insufficiency of his education. He had realized this because that year, he had a good history teacher, which made him realized how little his previous history teachers had actually cared or taught him. Ultimately, their baseball season ended well. The team managed to make it to the city baseball championship, which was played in Dodger Stadium. I had a chance to attend and watch them beat Cesar Chavez High to win the city championship. While my relationship with those boys was not by any means deep enough to see significant change, I like to hope that seeing hard work pay off on the field will translate to having more hope in their lives going forward.
This fall I have tried to pull back a little bit from being as involved at the high school, trying to make sure my schedule doesn’t get too crazy busy. I have been trying to continue to meet with my mentee who persisted until the end of the school year last year. However, both of my remaining mentees have been inconsistent in meeting me this fall. But I have hope that they will come around soon, and I will continue to see good work come out of the mentoring ministry.
In my next post, I’m try to explain a little bit of what I have been doing with my “day job,” which has been focused on trying to create jobs in our community.