A Day of Day Street With Outreach Inc Part II

Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, it’s amazing how little I know about my own city of 30+ years. It’s like the city has an entire side to it that we don’t realize is there. A learned invisibility as we’ve trained ourselves to not to see the homeless. We don’t want to stare out of “politeness”. We try to not make direct eye contact for fear of being hit up for change. We roll up our windows or lock our car doors when they get too near to our cars. It was on another day of day street with Outreach, Inc where this lesson was truly driven home.

We were in another area, almost literally in the shadow of downtown Indianapolis, investigating the rumor of a new squat. We had stopped to talk to a homeless gentleman who was living under a bridge. While talking to him, he told us of a place where kids were known to congregate. So we went off to investigate. Now, to be straight, this day was miserable. Not only was it cold, but it raining, a constant drizzle which soaked us.

We crossed over the bridge and down a path through the trees which blocked the view from the main street. Gray slate rocks covered the railroad tracks we soon crossed over. Their slick surface nearly twisting our ankles as we slipped across them. A thick grove of overgrown branches formed a wall on the other side of the tracks, but careful examination revealed a slight pathway.

Someone had been here. Towels and pairs of short were half buried in the mud as if a makeshift welcome mat into the home. An action figure of the X-Men villain, Pyro, hung from a tree. Two steps into the underbrush and I was covered in brambles and burrs. The thick copse of trees opened up into a clearing. A burgundy car seat sat next to a vinyl green chair as if they had been arranged in someone’s living room.

Collected bags of trash, though some of which had been scattered by animals, walled off one end of the site. A discarded set of book shelves held a flashlight with a hand crank and several candles. A milk crate was on either end of the encampment, covered with toilet seats. One had a grocery bag lining, the other was supported by two by fours over a hole. It’s difficult to convey the mix of emotions in seeing the scene. The sense of squalor, though in some ways, you admire the ingenuity.

We hoped this was a party squat, with the amount of Cobra, Magnum 40, and Miller Lite bottles we found. But we made a note to come back and check on the site a few more times to see how active it was.

Damp and itchy from burrs we went off to the next location. We had been hearing tales of a tent city down by the river, with conflicting reports of it being a ministry or self-run by homeless men, but some clients had stayed there so we decided to investigate. Our initial foray was at night during a night street, but wiser heads prevailed in not traipsing into the woods late at night [read: “Johnny, hopefully I’m not the only black friend you have. But let me tell you right now, no amount of words is going to get me into these strange and unfamiliar woods late at night. I’ve seen how this movie ends.”].

By day, we found the site easily. At the time, only one gentleman was present, but the other tents were clearly in active use with everyone else gone for the day. Turns out the tent city was part of a quasi-ministry, one which still left us with many questions. But that’s a discussion for another day.
But there you have it. A typical couple of days of what happens while on day street. In the end, it’s about finding and meeting the teens where they are and building relationships as their needs are met. It is hard and emotionally taxing work which is one reason I admire these folks so much.

And keep them in my prayers.

A Day of Day Street With Outreach Inc Part I

Today I found myself under a bridge in near downtown Indianapolis*, my lungs burned with the cold. Winter hadn’t quite set in, but a severe cold snap was letting us know it was around the corner and we needed to make preparations. A lot of people have asked what goes on when people talk about Day Street. I will try to paint a picture of a typical day.

Outreach, Inc, as I’ve written about before, works with homeless and at risk youth and was the inspiration behind my series, The Knights of Breton Court. One of the things they do is called day street, where they go out and look for potential clients, check in on current clients, and basically serves as research for night street (because it’s always better to be familiar with the lay of the land when stomping through them at night).

The day began with Johnny Teater hunched over his keyboard, a paen to multi-tasking: doing some of the endless copious paperwork that comes with the job while arguing on the phone with his gym about his workout appointment. Kristin Fuller comes bouncing in, far, far too perky for any morning. We** grab a handful of peanut butter chocolate chip granola bars and in an especially Holy Spirit led move, we began at Calvin Fletchers coffee shop to get our caffeine on where we plan that day’s activities.

We begin with a check in on one of the current clients. The cold cut through my clothes and I was layered like that little boy in the Bob Gregory weather commercials from back in the day. But even wearing a hat, scarf, and gloves, I am frozen to my core. And I wasn’t sleeping outside, exposed to the elements.

We parked at a local tourist area and then crossed the main street in order to go under the bridge. Once again, we encounter Johnny’s arch-nemesis:
Thing is, there are several folks who stay in this area. Some live within the bridge structure itself and others live further down the embankment. I take pictures of some of the graffiti because this too provides information.
For example, we can see when gang tags start popping up and what gangs might be operating in the area. Gangs are an additional complication on the streets, a threat to any who are squatting in their territory. Also, when we stumble upon a squat, we have to differentiate between a squat where people are staying and a “party squat”, where folks congregate to have a good time.

Further down the embankment, we come across the dwelling of the clients. It is a makeshift tent, layered with plastic and blankets. We check on them, make sure they know about their various appointments, and see what assistance they need. Thing is, helping the homeless isn’t just a matter of bringing them food and blankets. In order to transition them off the streets, relationships and trust have to be built. If for no other reason than to assess what their specific needs are and what stumbling blocks they have due to their situation.

Our next stop is the Indianapolis Public Library. As always, and I mean always, we start fussing about who was supposed to bring change for the parking meters. The library is a well known spot where homeless people hang out (thus I can talk directly about it). Besides being a safe place from the cold, many homeless spend time there reading or killing time on the computers. The staff is wonderful, not only treating everyone fairly, but also being an invaluable resource.

Continued tomorrow

*I have to be vague: when I had a column for Intake Weekly, I used to write specifically about where the homeless congregated. In my naivete thinking maybe if folks knew where folks were in need, they would do something about it. The city ended up clearing out those squats (because sweeping out the “problem” is JUST like actually dealing with them).

**I’m like the bard of Outreach Inc. I run behind them and sing of their great deeds. Currently I’m working on “The Ballad of Brave Sir Teater”.

Living the Dream – The Growing Place

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.

It’s easy to sit back and criticize what folks should be doing or how they are screwing up what they are doing. It’s easy to complain and be disappointed in folks. It’s another thing to become involved and participate in being a part of the solution. So we at The Dwelling Place Faith Community have encouraged our people to dream big, to try and find ways to be a missional blessing to the world. The strategy is simple: find what you are passionate about, what you are gifted at doing, and then find either what is not being done or not being done enough. For me it meant the on-going experiment known as Creative Space. My sister had other ideas.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

In light of it being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Ro Griffin (ne Broaddus) and Laura Garcia found it appropriate to launch The Growing Place. They simply wanted to continue to live out his legacy. Demonstrating more faith than I have, the two quit their day jobs to pursue this endeavor full time. They worked with several families in their careers in the public school system, but saw far to many people falling through the cracks and even more disconnected from the system, but couldn’t find a way within their vocations to do anything about it. Laura put it this way: “God has given me skills and gifts and I want to use them.”

Though they had a dream of one day launching such the kind of ministry they had in mind, the timing never quite worked out. Now, it was time, they said, and their jobs were the final tie they had to cut in order to jump into this. Ro said, “I’m finally listening to God and myself rather than listening to everyone else who said I can’t do it. They want me to be safe, but there are no guarantees in life.”

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Growing Place is a multi-faceted ministry that will roll out in several phases. The first phase involves teaching English, Spanish, and offering tutoring. They break up the days with scrap-booking lunches and Saturday nights offering “parents’ night off” babysitting. Then comes the pre-school, GED, and citizenship classes.

They are also working with The Dwelling Place and Outreach Inc, organizing a thrift store/pantry, by being a care package distribution point on the northwest side of the city. Pure and simple, there are a lot of poor families in our community and not enough laborers. These ladies continue to impress me.

“Man is man because he is free to operate within the framework of his destiny. He is free to deliberate, to make decisions, and to choose between alternatives. He is distinguished from animals by his freedom to do evil or to do good and to walk the high road of beauty or tread the low road of ugly degeneracy.” Martin Luther King, Jr., The Measures of Man, 1959.

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In the Shadow of Downtown

A friend of mine has a rule when buying a house. Sure, he does the whole viewing thing with the realtor, but he goes back to the house at night, parks his care, and watches the neighborhood. His reasoning is quite simple: Every city has a shadow self.

It was an October night like many others, although there was a frost warning for that night. Outreach, Inc. was doing one of their “street” nights where they go around the city looking for homeless youth to offer them services. The first place we stopped was a place dubbed the Hispanic railroad because of the high Hispanic population typically found there.

A scree of rocks led up to the railroad tracks used to get to the black-tarped rooftop. Several soft spots, unsure whether they would hold our weight, mined the warehouse roof used to squat. Moldy sleeping bags, rugs, and crocheted blankets became doors to block the biting wind. A soldier and his wife been on the roof for a couple of weeks. The soldier was due to be shipped out any day now. He wouldn’t be the only veteran we’d encounter that night.

In the shadow of downtown’s buildings.

Next we went to West Street and Kentucky Avenue to “The Tubes.” Torn up quarry remains lined a path down the bank of the White River. There we would find concrete tubes as houses with sheets of plastic as doors. The scene would be repeated at the McCarty Street Bridge and the Washing ton Street Bridge, with the tresses used like small apartments, quiet places where folks could stay warm.

There’s a perception that the poor want to live like this, that they are there because they are lazy or are there strictly as the result of their choices. The reality is that most want to transition out of the streets, from this way of life, but they were let down, if not abandoned, by the system. These are the forgotten, making use of anything and any space to stay warm and form a semblance of a life.

All in the shadow of downtown.

Take Your Ass Home

Dear Pastor, Ministry Worker, or Non-Profit Person:

Before I decided to work in ministry, part-time though it may be, I went around and talked to a lot of folks that I know in ministry. From pastors, to people who do other full-time ministry or charity work, one particular warning kept popping up: your first ministry is to your family.

Take your ass home.

Are we family here? Let’s be real then: you ain’t that important to Kingdom work. Yes, we are called to be missional and join in a ministry of reconciliation, but you aren’t irreplaceable. The work will be there tomorrow. You can’t sacrifice your family, (especially) not even in the name of the Lord or doing His work.

Consider this a welcome to leadership lesson two. It took me a long time to get comfortable (well, first that I’m a leader, and then) with the idea of what it means to be a leader in the Biblical sense. Being a leader doesn’t require sinless perfection. It doesn’t require academically qualified or highly skilled (we may not outright say it, but we tend to expect our leaders to have initials after their name if they are going to speak or write). A piece of paper doesn’t make anyone a good leader. It’s more about their character. Their honesty (with people and money). The stability of their personal/family life. An ability to teach. A maturity as a believer.

Take your ass home.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got next to zero self-control in this area. Left to my own devices, every waking moment would be filled with me volunteering for one group or another. My wife is already suspicious that I may be committing “ministry adultery” with all of my recent writing about Outreach, Inc. (Though, combining it with existing ministries is fine. However, she is, for real, tired of me volunteering for things, be it writing or “in the name of the Lord”). Here’s how we solved the problem for us: she’s in charge of my time. It’s similar to submitting to who is gifted in what area.

She’s better at balancing a checkbook and making (and sticking to) budgets, so she runs that aspect of our life. My heart and mind want to prioritize my family, but it’s funny how “work” can make us lose sight of these things. To ensure that I wouldn’t, I asked her to hold me to account for making sure I spent however much time she needed me to at home (this includes regular date nights). I have a day job, I work for the church, and I write – to which she’s been quite sacrificial in accommodating. To ensure that my time/priorities don’t topple out of order, for every “new” venture I decide to adopt, I have to drop something else I do. She also gets a veto on how many evenings I book up with “stuff” (everything we do gets cleared on the Family Calendar Board), because neither one of us wants to be constantly “busy”. It’s our system, but I know how this “mutual submission” talk makes some folks nervous, so your mileage may vary.

The bottom line is that too many of us think that we’re indispensable. That we have to be at church, our ministry, our vocation, our whatever, from sun up to sundown. Yes, sacrifice is often required and there is not enough time in the day to get everything done. However, your family is not that sacrifice. Tuck in your kids and kiss your spouse because if you’re neglecting your family, you’re neglecting your first ministry.

Take your ass home.

Love and kisses,

Maurice

P.S.

Creative Space: Lessons Learned

Sometimes we have to go with an idea, run as hard and as fast as we can, spend whatever resources we have in order to find out we’re wasting our time that much sooner. We have to experiment … and fail. Learn and start again, and not be afraid to fail. Realize that something is not working and not be afraid to shut it down, even if a remnant is still benefitting from it. Or that could be me rationalizing why I shut down Creative Space for the summer.

Officially, it was on hiatus, I simply had no intentions of starting it back up. I figured if God wanted it, He’d provide the people for it. Actually, it isn’t what I figured. I was a little bitter that my vision hadn’t taken off and was off pouting in silence. One of the things that I realized was that Creative Space, the first go around, was my vision. It went exactly as I envisioned and planned it … and flopped on its face. Thus, any pride of being able to say “I did it” or even “We (the Dwelling Place) did this” was gone. That was one of the lessons I learned in its down time.

However, some folks started whispering in my ear that we ought to start the ministry back up. Which was fine, I just wasn’t going to be the person leading it. You quickly find out who was serious about it by putting the burden of starting it on their shoulders. Once I started hearing “how can I help?” I was ready to start seeing about putting together the structure – one that could run without me. That was lesson number two, allowing the right people room to come in and do what they are passionate about.

My next step was to talk to people. People inside the Dwelling Place and outside (as a couple of the voices prodding me didn’t even go to my church, but wanted to see a ministry like it take off). Lesson number three, if you want to be able to best use your people, find out what they do and what they want to do. I only pursued as step as I found people interested in helping with it.

With that in mind, here’s what the overall plan currently is:
-Creative Space will start back up in January of 2007 (January 9, 2007 to be precise)
-it will meet Tuesday nights at the Dwelling Place starting at 6:30 pm
-we will be working with some of the teens from Outreach Incorporated. What we’ve seen is that art speaks right to where they are and cuts through the crap of life. We will be acting as mentors for them to help them express themselves (however that may be) as well as collaborating with them on a few projects.
-in addition to the loose format of an open gym night for projects, there will be six areas of interest:

1) Film. We will be working on creating a movie for our Christmas 2007 service. We like the idea of using people’s artistic gifts to do a production, however, to be honest, I hate cantatass. The movie will be written, directed, and filmed by the folks at Creative Space. We may even do the next Outreach documentary.

2) Writing. One of our projects will be a book/photography project with the working title “The Face of Homeless Teens.” We will be helping the teens tell their stories alongside photo essays of them.

3) Art. Artists from creative space will be doing a series of paintings, poems, and photographs so that the story of the bible will be told around the main room of the Dwelling Place.

4) Music. Some of our people will be helping the kids lay down tracks and helping them fulfill their music vision. We’ve even made contacts who would be willing to sell the CDs. Others under this area of the ministry will be helping score the movie or documentary projects.

5) Dance/Drama. We have people who want to be able to express themselves through dance. Also, these will be the people who will act in the film.

6) Individual projects. This was our sole area of interest the first time around and this will still be a place for artists to come and encourage each other. We have free wireless at the Dwelling Place, so bloggers can blog and other writers can research. In addition to the other artful expressions, folks can scrap-book (okay, that’s actually a concession for my wife).

Our goal is to eventually be able to do a once a month a gallery showing/open mic night, complete with a coffee bar. We’re partnering with other churches, too. Helping them where we can in doing what they do within the arts community; why reinvent the wheel? It’s not about who gets the credit, but getting the work done. That’s where we are – we’ll see how it goes.

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Focus on Outreach, Inc.

Okay, I take back what I said about me not writing about some of my friends. I lie. I do that sometimes. I thought I’d highlight a friend who runs a parachurch ministry, Outreach, Inc.

Outreach, Inc. is a Christian ministry in Indianapolis reaching out to homeless and at-risk young adults with the compassion of Jesus Christ. Outreach accomplishes this by providing street outreach, a youth drop-in center, holistic social services, emergency/referral services and case management; operated in an environment of God’s love. We are dedicated to introducing the youth to a relationship with Jesus Christ and helping them to mature in that relationship. Outreach comes along side the church in helping it understand and fulfill the “Great Commission” on a local level by training, equipping and supporting the body of Christ and community to minister to this population, empowering the youth to exit the street life.

About 300 kids a year pass through their doors, most from the Indianapolis area. There’s a perception that these kids want to be out on the streets, that they are there because they are lazy or are there strictly as the result of their choices. The reality is that most want to transition out of the streets; that they were let down, if not abandoned, by the system. Outreach, Inc. works within and fills the cracks of that system.

There’s never a typical week for Outreach, Inc. Some of the things that occur weekly are their staff meeting on Mondays, client meetings on Wednesdays, and their Bible study on Thursdays. Then there are their afternoon drops, plus their evening drops on Thursay, Friday, Saturday evenings and street outreach. As you can imagine, it’s the unpredictability of the ministry that break any sense of routine (or IS the routine). The emergencies that pop up, meeting with the youth, going to court with them, helping their plans to transition from mediocrity to success – whether that means getting them food, clothing, bus passes, finding a job, or working one-on-one with them.

In other words, my new Intake column is up. “Focus on Outreach.” And we can’t forget the important work done by the volunteers of Outreach, Inc. Thank you, volunteers!