When Sherilyn gave birth to our fourth child, Sahara, I felt alive. Everything seemed better when I held and took care of our newborn girl. Since I felt more attached to Sahara, I offered to to do her late night and early morning feedings. However, the nightmares—-which rehearsed many of the traumatic events that I experienced throughout the fifteen years as an urban missionary—-were becoming more frequent and more vivid until it culminated into a time where I put my wife and our newborn in danger.
After one of the late night feedings, I fell asleep with Sahara in my arms. But one of my reoccurring nightmares blended reality with fiction. Yes, the drug-dealer seemed to point the gun with its laser scope at at my head. But my hallucination also included him hurling threats to kill me and the precious infant that I held in my arms. As my nightmare reached its traumatic climax, Sherilyn sauntered down the stairs to relieve me and bring Sahara to her crib. However, I perceived Sherilyn in my dream as the gunman. With Sahara in one arm and my other arm cocked back to strike a blow to her face to protect my infant daughter, I charged after my wife. Only the frantic shouting of Sherilyn pleading me to stop awoke me out of my hellish dream.
I finally came to the realization that I needed professional help. Now that I was open to counseling, I connected to one of our supporting churches, Calvary Church of Grand Rapids. With multiple staff members overseeing their thriving missions program, Calvary church retained a professional counselor that specifically zeroed in on care for its supported missionaries. Realizing that my problem seemed bigger than the one traumatic episode with the gun and suspecting that I was dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he assigned me to write down every traumatic event that I experienced throughout my urban missionary career. I even visited several of the sites where these traumatic episodes took place, By recalling every incident, it would compel me to seek God and confront my fears and my wrong thinking about what had taken place. As I went through this exercise, I realized something profound. Over the past fifteen years as an urban youth worker and missionary, I reveled in my stories about violence in the ‘hood. I loved sharing about gun-battles, hiding from drug-dealers that threatened to kill me, breaking up gang-fights, pursuing after my students that were now involved in the streets as gang members. Moreover, whenever a crisis relating to violence actually took place, I felt an immediate rush of adrenaline flow through me—-and it felt good! In short, my identity was more in the adventures as an urban missionary than being in Jesus Christ. I made living and telling these glory stories of urban missions my primary identity and eventually they became my idol. Yet now these glory stories repulsed me and I wanted nothing to do with them.
As I visited the site where the gunman pointed his laser-scoped piece at me, I prayed. Praying that my attitude towards him would be forgiveness. Praying that I would harbor no bitterness or grudge. As I prayed, my thoughts began an unsuspected move towards redeeming the trauma. What if we could reach and disciple gang-members and drug-dealers with the gospel and then equip them to become entrepreneur-evangelists? Entrepreneurs that loved Christ and their neighborhood so much that they would return to the street corners as evangelists and proclaim the good news of Jesus to urban youth and young adults that trafficked drugs on the streets. Yet at the same time, also equip them to provide employment alternatives to the illegal drug activity. These entrepreneur-evangelists would serve as a vital link between the hustle of the streets and legitimate living-wage jobs for these so called “thugs.” And several of the young men that I was pouring my life into—Davien, DD, Percy, Peazy, Marquis, Nick, and Mike, were potential candidates for this mission. Maybe God would regenerate and redeem some of them to become entrepreneur-evangelists.
A month later, Sherilyn and I were invited to speak at one of the adult Sunday School classes of our sending church, Berean Baptist of Grand Rapids We shared our testimonies, how God called us into urban missions, and how he brought us together as a couple We recounted stories of transformed lives as well as heart-breaking sorrow among the at-risk urban students that we were discipling—-So far so good.
But when they sought prayer for us, I could feel the emotions swell. Sherilyn requested prayer for our safety with a brief mention of the gun episode, which inevitably aroused their curiosity. As I relayed the details of what happened that night, the dam burst. I didn’t just cry—-I wept hard. And I could not stop for anything that day until it gave way to sleep later that evening. For the next week, the tears came and went, and when there weren’t any tears, there were outbursts of anger, often in response to the pettiest circumstances in the rhythms of our life. When one of our close friends suggested counseling, I resisted it because of my prejudiced stigma that I attached to it. Only messed up and broken people need counseling and I didn’t see myself at that point yet. But I did find solace in my final year of seminary, with the research and writing of my Masters thesis and a class on Spiritual Formation.
Dr. Phillip Bustrum, my Spiritual Formation professor, was a seasoned, soft-spoken missionary veteran that served in Kenya, Africa. I felt an immediate connection with him when he made himself vulnerable, opening up about a traumatic event on the mission field where he and his wife were robbed and beaten at gun-point—-and the long road that it took for recovery. In the class, Dr. Bustrum created small-groups of accountability for the purpose of encouraging openness and vulnerability. Although our small group consisted of three other men involved in pastoring or training to become pastors, none of us really looked forward to bearing our souls to each other. However, since the dam had already burst, I began opening up to these unsuspecting pastors-in-training. Over the fifteen week span of the class, our once a week accountability group morphed into the Joel-Shaffer support group, as I began to share stories of violence, crisis, disappointment, trauma, sorrow, laughter, and joy in my life and ministry. I am forever grateful to Zac, Dan, and Kendall for their patience, their prayers, and their probing questions that began a slow journey of healing and recovery in my life.
But I hadn’t healed. I had only prolonged my recovery.
The dam was just about to burst. Feeling such an enormous amount of pressure crushing against every part of my being, I finally reached my breaking point. Pressure to lead UTM (Urban Transformation Ministries) as its founding executive director even though I lacked certain administrative gifts—-Pressure to raise enough funds to support the ministry so that I could provide for our family—-Pressure from doing grief counseling as a result of a UTM student losing his life to gun violence on the streets of Grand Rapids—-Pressure to discover why our third child, Ashlyn, could not talk nor use her motor skills, even though she turned three in a month—-Pressure to make sure my seven year old and eldest child, Tiera, learned how to read, which prompted us to home school her for a year—-Pressure to finish up my Seminary degree, which I dragged out for my fourteenth year—-Pressure to help my wife Sherilyn as she began caring for her mother, whose Parkinson’s disease had taken a turn for the worse—- Pressure to serve my family even more sacrificially because Sherilyn was pregnant with our 4th child—-Pressure because our two best friend couples from our church that we shared life with were reeling from unhealthy marriages. And as we attempted to counsel them, we unknowingly developed a co-dependent relationship with them. All of these pressures created cracks in the wall of the dam that contained and controlled my feelings. Only one more crisis would trigger a flood of emotions from a breached dam within me. The crisis arrived in the form of a gun pointed at me.
On a late December evening driving through my neighborhood, I paused for a stop sign at a corner. As I gazed to the right of me, a young drug-dealer on the corner pulled out his gun with a laser scope and aimed its red dot at my forehead. With a blink of an eye, my entire life flashed before me as every life moment that I lived—-along with every life moment I desired to live in the future (including a vision of my oldest daughter Tiera walking down the aisle arm-in-arm with me for her wedding), I experienced in a couple heartbeats. Since I also happened to be talking to Sherilyn on my cell phone, I blurted out that I might not live through our phone conversation. Sherilyn immediately interceded for me in prayer with Tiera. With a pull of his trigger I would’ve been a dead man, but suddenly out of sheer terror, my entire body jolted with fear, which caused the gunman to double up with laughter allowing me to drive away.
Unnerved with panic, it took a good while to calm myself down. I thanked God for sparing my life and went on with my business. Regrettably, I did not think to call the police, most likely due to the shock and trauma of the gun pointed at my head. However, I forced this traumatic incident in the deepest part of my brain, hidden from everyone to keep the dam from bursting.
When I share the messy, raw stories of how Jesus transforms lives in my neighborhood through UTM, people often remark, “You really ought to write a book.” For many years I resisted, because I know myself. I sometimes fall into the habit of starting projects, but not completing them. But while on vacation up at Silver Lake, I cleared my head which allowed Sherilyn and I to come up with a strategy on how we could compile these stories into one book. Stories of transformation through Jesus—-among the many youth and families that we’ve served in the inner-city as well as our own transformation through Jesus. So we sketched out an outline along with the introduction and first chapter of “Under the Gun Rue.” Here is the unedited version of its introduction. Let us know what you think.
Under the Gun Rue: Introduction
Would you believe that the hip-hop slang name for Grand Rapids is Gun Rue? Its even more difficult to believe that gun violence, and all the pathologies associated with it, brought on this gritty street name for Grand Rapids. Yes, I am talking about the city of churches, where there is a place of worship on almost every street corner. And I am talking about the same city that claimed a coveted first place on Forbes magazine’s list for most desirable cities to raise a family in 2012!
Don’t get me wrong….Grand Rapids has earned an excellent reputation as a conservative, family-friendly community blessed with thriving businesses, churches, Christian schools, Christian colleges, and an abundance of Christian nonprofit ministries. But just beyond the Beltine and the Ford Freeway, inner-city neighborhoods are plagued with violent crime, public schools that are labeled “drop-out” factories, rising unemployment, chronic poverty, soaring teen pregnancies, and gang-related killings. Grand Rapids truly fits the mold of a modern-day Dickinson tale of two cities. It was the violent streets of Grand Rapids that compelled a New York City Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated rapper by the name of Lason Jackson, aka LA the Darkman, to drop a track that referred to Grand Rapids as “Gun Rule.” Although Lason came from the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, he spent part of his high school years on the SE side of inner-city Grand Rapids where he experienced the dark underbelly of its street-life. Immediately, the hip-hop nation in Grand Rapids took notice and embraced the name Gun Rule, which eventually morphed into its hip-hop slang name, “Gun-Rue” or “Gun-Ru.”
The subtitle of this book gives you a clue in what you will encounter in this reading. It is the messy and violent story of Jesus—-not only transforming gang members, drug dealers, and at-risk urban youth and their families, but also transforming urban missionaries, affluent businessmen, and privileged white suburbanites. There are no heroes in this story, except for Jesus. None of us can boast in this narrative that we share in this book, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, Sherilyn and I have also chosen to include the darker moments in our lives and the darker moments of some that are part of the UTM/New City family—-along with moments of joy and the extraordinary, including the power of Jesus’ gospel transforming drug-dealing, hustlin’ and what the world labels “thugs” into godly men who stepped up and took responsibility for loving their broken families and their broken communities. As being completely real is such a core value in the ‘hood, we felt that we could not do otherwise. Therefore, this is a story of broken husband and wife called to love and serve broken people in our inner-city neighborhood. Through Jesus, these broken people that became family to us have also become godly leaders and are now spreading the gospel to the streets from whence they came.
Was the War on Poverty Too Ambitious (Part II) A caution with how we apply the Bible to America’s War on Poverty
“There need be no poor among you.” (Duet. 15:4 ) God gave ancient Israel this ideal goal when it came to addressing the problem of poverty. At first glance it might seem as if God expected his people to eventually make poverty history through their faithful obedience. But a few verses later, there lies a transition from the future ideal to the present reality. “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites…..Do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted towards them.” (Duet. 15:7) Later, in the same passage, an even greater assertion: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in the land.” (Duet.15:11) Interestingly, within the tiny theocratic state of ancient Israel where its leaders could levy control through the several hundreds of rules and regulations from the Mosaic law, there remained a realism that poverty was never going to be history. Rather, the realism that poverty will always exist became the occasion for the people of Israel to embrace a generous lifestyle towards the poor and needy.
The question arises, How do these scriptures apply to us today? Especially since these commands were given to ancient Israel—-a theocratic state, whereas America is completely different as a republic of represented democracy. Therefore, It would be wise to heed Biblical scholar Craig Blomberg’s reminder that “the closer the situation in any given portion of our contemporary world corresponds to the features—in this case the socio-economic features—of the world behind any given biblical instructions, the more straightforward one can transfer the principles of those texts in our modern age. The less the correspondence, the higher one has to move up the ladder of abstraction to look for broader principles that may transcend the uniqueness of specific situations.”
Sadly, many Christians and non-Christians alike do the exact opposite. Instead of looking for broader principles, they twist the Bible to reinforce their personal, social, and political agendas and narrow their interpretation of Bible verses on the issue of poverty. If I had a dollar for every conservative Christian that I’ve heard carelessly exploit Jesus’ comment “that the poor you will have always” (which is a paraphrase from Duet. 15:11) to justify their lack of compassion and responsibility towards the poor, I’d have enough money to buy a iPad. Ironically, these Christians seem to have more in common with “the survival of the fittest” mentality of social Darwinists than Jesus. At the same time, I’ve seen several progressives project their liberal ideology onto the Bible, believing, for instance, that the Sheep and the Goats parable describing the last judgement (Matt. 25:31-46) is an indictment against conservatives because they don’t embrace a large-scale government intervention strategy to help the poor. Not acknowledging that many conservatives, in their involvement and sacrificial giving through churches and non-profits, are actually compassionate people towards the poor and needy, but rather don’t possess faith in the government as do many progressives to make things better for the poor.
Since the poor and oppressed will always be among us, God’s people must always remain generous and compassionate people towards the poor and oppressed. That is the broader principle from Duet. 15. and should not surprise us, especially since our world is fallen and that we worship a God who has a special concern for the poor. So maybe we should change our poverty language from “eradication” and “making poverty history” to “alleviation” and “reduction.” Alleviating and reducing poverty is a much more realistic goal because it takes account of the complex, multi-faceted nature of poverty that comes from the truth that we live in a fallen, sin-filled world. A world that will never experience the complete utopian society that we all yearn for until Jesus comes back to this earth, cleanses it of all injustice and unrighteousness and sets everything right as a new earth (Rev. 21) In the meantime, as a follower of Jesus, I am to proclaim the gospel to everyone (Mark 16:15), and love God and love my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:25-37), part of which is to understand and live out what it means to care about justice for the poor (Prov. 29:7).
Can the War on Poverty be won in America? That depends on how you define what victory looks like. If you are the eternal optimist that presumes somehow our government or the free-market or church and private organizations will eliminate poverty during our lifetime and one day relegate it to a history museum, then you may be sorely disappointed. That does not mean that we should wave the white flag and surrender the fight against poverty. Nevertheless, we need to step back and gain a wide-angle view of the interwoven web of multiple moral, social, and economic issues that perpetuate poverty. Poverty is much too complex of an enemy than “pundits” compel us to believe. It is much more than “a lack of money, period” as left-wing social commentators Cornel West and Tavis Smily have passionately declared in their poverty manifesto. And so much more than a series of bad choices and habits by the poor as Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey recently insinuated in his “20 things the rich do everyday” article. Such sweeping generalizations and simplistic solutions do not paint a realistic portrait of 21st century poverty in America, but rather reinforce the tired old stereotypes within political debates between the left and right that dominate traditional and social media.
Nonetheless, my purpose for writing this particular post is not to explore in detail each cause of poverty, but rather bring to light the multiplicity of poverty to bring us back to the question: Was the war on poverty too ambitious and too optimistic? Did our progressive elders put all of their social change eggs in the government basket, believing that large-scale interventions totaling trillions of dollars could, for instance, prevent or counter the colossal phenomenon of the breakdown of the traditional family, a major contributor to poverty? Studies show when fathers are no longer present in the home, it results in the increasing number of children growing up in poverty. But that’s not all. Without a father, more teenagers end up dropping out of school, more teenage girls get pregnant, and more teen boys get locked up, all of which lead to even more poverty! All the money in the world cannot fix the broken relationships that correspond with the disintegration of the family.
Ironically many of my progressive friends and fellow poverty-fighters, especially those who are post-modern, post-9/11, post-baby boom, post-industrial, post-Christian, post-war, seem to give a free pass to the high-modernist ideology that assumes the all-encompassing proficiency of the state to harness all of its available power, redistribute financial resources and create a plethora of social programs that will result in the eradication of poverty. The past century is littered with the unintended consequences of failed schemes from ambitious governments (including our own) who presumed that their central planning, knowledge, technology, and ideology could create a grand utopian society. But then again, as a Bible-believing Christian, I am confronted with a certain verse in Scripture (Duet 15:4) that seems to advocate the ideal of poverty eradication, “there need be no poor among you……” Or does it? More to come next week with part II with “Was the War on Poverty too Ambitious?”
2014 marks fifty years since Lyndon Johnson officially declared War on Poverty in America. Its goal to end poverty by addressing social/economic issues such as housing, education, healthcare, and job creation. Being as it is the fifty year anniversary, many politicians are attacking or defending this massive undertaking that has cost tax payers many trillions of dollars over the long haul as either a dismal failure or moderate success, depending on whether you lean right or left on the political spectrum. Sadly, most politicians and political journalists do not possess the gift of nuance and civility, but rather create straw men, red herring, and ad hominem arguments, designed to arouse the passions of its constituents. And sadly, many people prefer the club-wielding verbal assault over the olive branches of a civil discourse. The language of public debate where ideas are passionately presented, tested, and given thoughtful consideration is all but lost. In its place, nasty caustic attacks litter social media and online media sites as well as the smorgasbord of intentionally biased news outlets that one can find on cable TV.
That being said, conversations about the War on Poverty in America must take place. Currently, around 50 million Americans live in poverty and approximately 20 trillion dollars of government dollars have gone to fight the war on poverty during the past fifty years. Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary with America’s war on poverty, and because I have devoted over 20 years of my life to serving the urban poor in my neighborhood, I’ve decided to write several blog posts during the year of 2014 and reflect on America’s War on Poverty. Just so you know, my Christian worldview and my two decades of poverty-fighting experience informs my beliefs and ideas on this controversial subject. I invite you to wade into this important conversation even if you hold entirely different religious, social, economic, and political beliefs than me. Although I am passionate about what I believe, I promise that these conversations will be civil because my faith in Jesus compels me to love those who are vastly different than me.