Thursday, June 6, 2013

Gleanings from My Trip to Urban Hope (Philly)

Eleven people crammed into a twelve-passenger van. We were under strict orders to shower and wear clean shoes. Nothing puts a damper on a road trip like foot and body odor. We left shortly after six AM on a Friday. Desintation: Urban Hope (UH) Training Center and Church in Philadelphia.

UH comprises a full block in the Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia. It is a city set on a hill. We intended to bask in their light.

Three married couples, two teens, and three college-aged students took their seats. We smelled fresh, looked forward, and set out to have God teach us something about His mission and compassion. We were not disappointed.

The majority of residents surrounding UH are Puerto Rican. Drug dealers stand on the corners next to men washing cars and kids playing in the spray of fire hydrants. Latin beats scream from passing cars; trash dances on the sidewalks as people walk by.  The need for Jesus is palpable.

Our team arrived on Friday night, in time to participate in the outreach program for teenagers (R.O.C.K.). Saturday 's events included prayer walks, service projects, a visit to little Cambodia, and feeding the homeless at Love Park. On Sunday we worshiped with the church family before beginning our long return trip.

All in all, the trip was memorable, enjoyable, and stretching. Like any ministry experience, it opened my eyes to needs beyond my typical range of vision and deepened my connected to my teammates.

In addition, several unlikely gleanings from Philly stand out. 
I like Christian rap. The small sampling of Lecrae and Toby Mac I heard on the trip led me to bob my head and pump my fist. But the KB's song "Church Clap" may have started a revolution, not only for me, but for our entire church.

Matching shirts are a blessing and a curse. For our prayer walk, the UH staff sent us out in matching green tee-shirts. If our pasty skin was not conspicuous enough, the clans of four clad in bright green sent off a signal: Prayer is coming. The first guy to see us headed in his direction, jumped from his stood, darted in his door, and turned the lock before we could say hello. The neighbors new the drill. It's why a guy named Josh hid his join and a kid named Christian invited into his home to pray for his cancer.
Water Ice tastes so good. Philly's homegrown product is a cross between Italian ice and sorbet. It comes in a variety of flavors--pina colada, lime, lemon, blueberry, and cherry, to name a few. And anyone with a cooler, chain, and padlock can sell it from her front porch. A kid named Nasir brought me to the porch where he purchases his Water Ice for fifty cents. I gladly indulged.

Not everyone has heard of Jesus. The guys on Ella Street had. Of course, their information didn't line up with Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. They told me Jesus smoked pot. They must've been reading the Gnostic gospels. Sadder yet, when our team visited a Buddhist Temple in little Cambodia, the lady who gave us a crash course on how to pray to Buddah, admitted she had never heard of Jesus Christ. Twenty years in the US had not afforded her a single mention of the name above all names.

Church people and services need to loosen up. The kids ran circles in the basement before the service began. One lady drank a Mountain Dew and smoked a cigarette on the street before the opening song. Nothing started on time. One song switched from English to Spanish mid-chorus. Seven people took the microphone at various points to lead various elements. More than ten others walked up front to request prayer--for incarcerated family members, job needs, health needs, salvation needs. Toward the end of the morning, one girl committed her life to following Jesus. Neat and orderly worship services do not always produce life change.

Nicknames are crazy good. One of our team members was a quiet, college student. I personally invited him to join us a few months ago. He'd already returned home for the summer, but seemed eager to go with us to Philly. He started with the weakest connection to the rest of our team. Then he received his nickname. K-J-C. (The 'C' is drawn out). Twelve hours in a van and a few nasty dunks on basketball court brought him into the fold.

We never fully grow up. The amount of farting, dancing, teasing, and wrestling that took place on our trip underscore the fact that we never really grow up. Some of us less than others. The prime example of this child-likeness came at Love Park. After feeding and praying with several homeless people, we approached the fountain at the center of the park. The background of illuminated buildings created a magnetic glow to the water. It drew two of our team members in. Followed by six others. Within minutes, they were sopping wet and trying to dunk one another.

There is no Plan B. God uses people to reach the lost. It begins with prayer and moves to the streets. There is no perfect sales pitch for Jesus. Many of the lives that have been transformed in Philly were the spoils of weeks, months, and years of conversation. The decision to follow Him takes time when people realize what repentance truly means. Some folks don't want to or know how to turn from their misery, suffering, or selfish ways. But when Christ-followers model the Christian life and speak about it freely, it gives unbelievers a picture of God's love and patience.

White boards are good for praying. We wrote the name of every person we met on a white board. It quickly filled up. This is how they pray for people at UH. Learn a name. Pray for the person until they decide to follow Jesus. Time and time again, the staff encouraged us to pray for people in our sphere of influence. We were not expected to go home and pray for twenty names from Philly, but to find twenty names from Leesburg, Warsaw, and Winona Lake. Pray for my neighbors. Pray on my streets.