I’m flying to Dallas today to teach two classes until August 8th at the Salvation Army South Region Territorial Youth Institute. One of the five day classes is on Bridge Building, the other five day class is on How to Study the Bible.
Last year I spent a week with them teaching and it was one of the most transformational things I’ve ever had the privilege to do. The youth that the Salvation Army bring to this event are no joke! From the outside looking in, few of them have hope for a better future. Few of them know any life other than hustling, drugs, gangs, baby-mommas, guns, welfare, systemic poverty, death … you name it. Now not all the youth at this event are in that situation, but my experience was the majority definitely are.
My first conversation that week was with a 17 year old kid. I asked him how his week was before coming to the Institute, and nonchalantly with no discernible expression, like it’s just a normal part of everyday life said:
“Well, at the beginning of last week I was hanging with my cousin at a party and then my brother showed up and shot my cousin in the face while I was standing right next to him. He died in my arms. It was a gang thing, you know. The funeral was yesterday and now I’m here. I’m trying to figure out how to get out of that life.”
What?! What?! Did he just say that to me? I’ve literally never had anyone say something like that to me in real time.
And let me tell you that stories like that were not uncommon. In fact, they were by far and away the norm. The life so many of these kids live is beyond my, or many of your, realms of contemplation. Teaching these kids how to read and study the Bible, and also how to love our LGBT brothers and sisters was an honor. The conversations and questions and friendships I built from that intense week have lasted since, and I am interested to see what this year will bring. I pray it will be exactly what they need to further their own lives, stories and journey. It was an honor to even be around them and let their will to survive transform me! And then, to get to do it again… words don’t describe the feeling. Well, maybe these words: Heavy responsibility.
But throughout that week, and this past week leading up to today, I have been thinking about something that really gets under my skin. Let me set it up this way:
The biggest contingency at the Institute, that I knew of, comes from the g-h-e-t-t-o of Atlanta. It is also where friends of mine live in the middle of raising a few month old child, and also where they work for the Salvation Army. They live across from a prostitution house. Murder and burglaries are normal. In fact, when I went to stay with them this last time they even asked me if I wanted to because their house got robbed a few days earlier and staying with them at such a juncture would probably be dangerous. And those friends of mine… they’re white and stick out like a sore thumb.
Here’s the thought I just couldn’t, and still can’t shake:
Hey Andy Stanley and North Point Church and Brad Lomenick and Catalyst and all you other cool Christians in the mecca of Atlanta – where you all at?
You talk, tweet, blog, hold events, preach, write books and whatever else you do so much about leadership and raising up the next generation… From what I see and read and listen to I guess that just means the next generation of folks you’re talking about are those that look and live like you.
You know when Jesus said ‘what you do for the least of these you do for me.’
I contend that Jesus meant the least of these in your OWN NEIGHBORHOOD, IN YOUR OWN CITY.
Not in Africa. In Atlanta.
You’re always the hero of the story when you go to Africa.
You’re nothing more than the privileged white man when you go to East Point or College Park surrounding Atlanta.
Where would Jesus, if he lived in Atlanta, go? Would he walk to the ghetto down the street and invest his time and energy and intelligence and love there, or would he fly, for thousands of dollars, to a foreign land because across the world they “need more help”. Look in your back yard for those that “need more help”.
Andy and Brad and any other cool Christian in and around Atlanta – you better thank the Lord, Creator of Heaven and Earth, that the Salvation Army is there picking up and loving and teaching and raising up those you don’t want to touch with a million foot pole. And you also better start giving them your money so they can keep doing what they’re doing in theirs and your neighborhoods in Atlanta … you know, doing the things you don’t; or don’t want to do.
If the aforementioned ARE investing their time and energy and love and passion and knowledge in those areas, where is the color at their church/events? Why don’t those living in poverty in the ghetto not showing up to be taught or to live a more faithful life of love and leadership?
Where are those who the day before, got shot in the face by a relative over gang related stuff? Where are they at your church or event?
I can just hear it now:
That’s not our target demographic…
They don’t come to our churches or events and we can’t help everybody…
The Salvation Army is already doing a great job and it’s their expertise and have a handle on it…
Blah blah blah
You know why those kids don’t go to North Point or Catalyst or the like? Because the “leaders” and their “followers” aren’t willing to invest the time and effort and credibility and longevity into these kid’s lives enough that they will actually start to trust them. And PS – Jesus never waited for people to come to Him. He sought people out. The Pharisees waited in their temple courts for those in need to come to them. Who are YOU acting like?
Why don’t you give them all scholarships to attend your conferences or services or events or gathering or whatever? You make enough money to do such a thing. If not, why don’t you hold stuff in THEIR neighborhood and show light where light is meant to be shown!? GO IN PERSON and make sure they get there and attend! No, you won’t make a penny off of them. They might not turn into the next YOU, but the potential impact in their lives and the chance that one more person can gain the tools and advantage to be taken out of the cycle of poverty they live within and truly become the leader you love to talk about will be immeasurable.
And you know what? Maybe they won’t. And that is why, what the Salvation Army is investing in SO reeks of the incarnational life and work and ministry of Jesus. The outcome was secondary to the fidelity of living in relation to, and relationship with.
I don’t care what any of you reading this might think or perceive about the Salvation Army. This Youth Institute, and what my friends do and live in their everyday life is the real freaking deal. I’m humbled to even get to be in the same space as my heroes. I just pray that from today through August 8th I might teach and be fully available, 24/7, to be there in any way I can; that this week, like last year, will be a launching pad for a new set of solid relationships with a group of youth that I can pour myself into for the long haul to be there for whatever they need from me personally.