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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Operation Exodus: Mission to Inner City New York

I promised a blog post about this seven months ago. I promised to blog about it, because I came home from an exhausting week in New York City's Harlem too overwhelmed to talk much about it.

I did talk when the opportunity came up, but I never had the sense that I was fully communicating what that grueling and exhausting and glorious and invigorating week really meant to me, or how it seemed to affect my just-turned-15-year-old daughter either. But it did affect us. Forever.

It was my daughter's first mission trip. She's had a heart for some type of missions or service since she was six years old. I think I was born an activist, often an activist without a cause, so it was automatic that I would want to feed and fuel her ministry interests. Long ago, I decided that somehow, even with our never-enough personal income, I would do what I could, God willing, to introduce each girl to short-term missions around the age of 15. The two older ones started locally younger than that. Since the summer after 5th grade, each has volunteered with a local church day-camp in the summer, assisting adults who serve community kids with a very affordable arts and sports camp. They love the children they get to meet, and make relationships easily. They also readily serve in the children's ministry at our church, and again, readily give themselves to the little people in their care.

On the subway: On our way!
Last year about this time, our church (which we had been attending just over a year) announced a mission trip to the inner city of New York City. High-school youth and adult youth leaders were invited to join in. It was the opportunity I had been praying for years would arrive, right on time too for my oldest to participate. I inquired about going along as well, saying, "I think God wants me to go." The youth pastor responded that he thought the same, and so, we were on board. The trip is expensive. We had no idea how that would work out, but there was a sense of a supernatural palm in the middle of my back, pushing me toward this and a still, quiet voice simply saying, "Go."

We signed up. I felt nauseous at the commitment, as we grownups who've forgotten the daily provisions we've always known often do. I never was sure I felt OK about writing letters asking for support, but we crafted one together and sent it to a few dozen people. Some of those responded very generously. (Some of you reading this are most certainly among those.) I was baffled, humbled, awed by how willing people are to enter into ministry work that they won't even experience or see the benefits from. We put together a yard sale and got some income from that. A friend (Tiffany) even donated some of her own belongings to our sale to help support us. The church hosted three fundraisers and we participated in all of them, with a share of the earnings going to our account. Another friend (Cathy) donated some of her homemade goods for one of the fundraisers, another (Emma's Mee-Maw) donated handmade baskets. The company I do most of my work for donated a set of homeschool curriculum resources. Emma did manual work for a woman in our community; I got an extra freelance editing job. It came together--with even a small amount of excess to share with others in the group of 35 who went.

So in early  July of last year, we arrived very early (hardly slept a bit the night before) to meet our group in the church parking lot. We boarded a bus that had been chartered for us and drove to Charlotte to catch a plane flight to New York City. It was Emma's first time on a commercial plane. That was exciting in a fleeting, life's-little-milestones sort of way.

We stayed in apartments in the same neighborhood in Washington Heights where half our group would be serving. The other half--our half--had to walk and take the subway each day to get to our location in the Inwood neighborhood. I believe the count was 15 women in one NYC apartment. Close quarters, but the amenities far exceeded my expectations. The building was safe, secure, clean, and nicely furnished. We truly felt at home in it.

On site, we met the hundreds of children we would be working with through Operation Exodus, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America's Mission to the World. The organization provides after-school and over-the-summer tutoring programs for kids at high risk for dropping out of school. These children come from some of the poorest families in this wealthy country. Many are of Dominican descent. Their parents or grandparents came to New York, settling in Harlem, to seek something better, more livable, than their homeland offers. But education for these kids remains a challenge. Poverty pushes many to drop out of school and try to fend for themselves before they are mature enough to do so. Operation Exodus seeks to intervene and break that cycle with high-quality educational tutoring and an environment that teaches and lives out the God-given value of each and every individual. The success rates for drop-out prevention due to Operation Exodus are exceptionally high.

Our church did a fantastic job of preparing us ahead of time for the personal interactions we would have, the fatigue, the pressure, the stress. We were taught strategies for dealing respectfully and effectively with difficult children, using a method called Love and Logic. We were given advice on how to deal with the unruly. We learned how to accept others' personality preferences, and ways to avoid and deal with conflict in a godly way. We planned ahead the content we would bring to praise and worship time, craft time, lunch, playground, game times. But nothing really could have prepared us for what was going to happen to our hearts in that week, and how deeply people we had never met and might never see again were going to lodge there.

Some of the faces from the unexpected group I was assigned to.
"God's a funny guy," a friend of mine used to like to say. Unpredictable, that's for sure. As a mom of four kids who had to give up homeschooling because it simply wasn't working for me and my little ones and who also worked in church nursery and toddler Sunday school classes for many years, I completely burned out on the total immersion into the preschool years some time ago. I love interacting with teens and older kids, the ones who can take a good conversation and move from the concrete toward the abstract. I don't mind the challenge of the difficulties that come with that time of approaching-adulthood. But put me in a room full of tentatively potty-trained three- and four-year-olds and I break out into a panicky sweat. So naturally, since "God's a funny guy," where did I get assigned: Preschool. And not just "that one year before Kindergarten," but the two-, three-, and young four-year-olds. Babies, in some cases.

A couple of my "babies": a brother and sister

We were prepared to work with partners from our own group: a male and a female in each class, assisting the tutors and then, when the tutors took their breaks and afternoons off to regroup, refresh--we pairs of volunteers would handle the entire class ourselves. That included escorting them across city streets to lunch and the park, and then back again for craft, reading, worship time. But upon arriving, we found so many preschoolers in the program that the grade was split into two, and I was given the younger ones on my own while my partner was put in with the fully-four- and five-year-olds. Another surprise.

My first day was difficult. The teachers were not the same type of tutors that the other grades had. They were, instead, more like grandmothers, and they seemed exceptionally stressed. The children were undisciplined, very high-energy, rambunctuous. There was more raising of voices to deal with them than I was comfortable with--and certainly not what Love and Logic had prepared me for. I just wanted to scoop those littles into my arms and sing or comfort or read--something calming and quieting for their spirits. I wasn't prepared well for the culture that I had stepped into, but I didn't trust my own perceptions either. Without a partner to evaluate my responses against, I felt unjustified in making any sort of judgment about the environment on my own even as it drained me and every shout felt like an attack. I persisted through the first day but at the end, nearly fell apart with exhaustion, stress. Every nerve was fried, honestly.

Our group debriefs every night in a large-group setting. We share the trials and triumphs. It's necessary in order to process well what the 12-hour day just held and to prepare to meet it again, better if possible, the next day. I didn't talk. I listened to others, but longed to get back to our apartment for some alone time with God.

I have to say that our group was well-prepared for the turbulence, even if we weren't aware of how prepared. Back in my room, prayer journaling, I was begging God to show me why I was there. I didn't think I could make an entire week of that kind of environment. I felt assaulted on behalf of the children, and useless. I thought it had been a mistake for me to go. One of the other women peeked in on me and saw my distress. Another did as well. In the smaller group, I could share a little of what had occurred, and they encouraged me to hold on, ask for help. (I understand one of them actually asked for help on my behalf. I'm not so good at that and I doubt I would have.) I slept soundly, woke earlier than anyone else, and spent a half hour in the quiet of the hallway to pray before the day started. I asked for supernatural help, so that I could show Christ's love to these little ones. I asked for mellowing of the leaders in my class too--for me to be useful to them.

To the rescue: The two Columbia football players
On the walk over to the site--many blocks plus a subway ride--our group leader pulled up alongside me. "Heard you had a hard day yesterday," he said. I responded affirmatively, and he asked if he could send someone else to help. I welcomed the offer, and another of the women was assigned to my class that day. But God came through in yet another big, and I mean BIG way. Upon arrival, I found not one but two of the biggest, sweetest, most helpful and pleasant young men I've ever met waiting for some direction in that preschool classroom. They were Columbia University incoming freshmen football players, and part of their introduction to Columbia life was to do five weeks of community service. These two were assigned to Operation Exodus.

The difference between Monday and Tuesday is the difference, I think, between light and dark. Monday was dark. Tuesday was nothing short of redeemed. With all the extra help, the classroom leaders seemed to settle down and relax. The children who were difficult the day before settled into the routine again--Mondays, it turns out, are high separation-anxiety days. Tuesdays are much more like business as usual. The children remembered me and vied for my attention in positive ways. They were intrigued with these nearly 7-foot-tall teens who had joined us and found great delight in climbing all over them. We managed to get to and from the park across city streets with the more-than-a-dozen amoeba-like preschoolers this time with plenty of hands to hold, eyes to watch. The day was still exhausting but delightful at the same time.

Walking home that night was completely different. Again, the group leader cruised up next to me. "You're smiling more than you were yesterday. Better day?" "Yes," I could say with complete confidence and relief. "A much better day." He smiled in a way that surprised me because I read genuine relief in it for him as well. "I'm so glad," he said. A good leader needs only, really, to get the job done. That had happened. Help was assigned. Followed through. Stamp it complete and close the file. A great leader does more than get the job done. He cares too. Our group leader, this year, is taking the whole group plus some more back to NYC, only this time, he's the entire ministry leader. Since last year's trip, he has been promoted to Director of Youth for the church. Apparently someone else sees with some regularity what I saw that day.

It would be impossible to detail everything that happened in that week, but I can and must share some highlights: An autistic boy who seemed to connect with no one let me share bracelet making with him--only he could not bear the mixing of the colored strings and took his bracelet apart to separate the colors into their own segments, then pocketed the strings carefully for some other purpose. Later at the park, when he did not want to leave and was near meltdown, he would let me and only me take his hand to lead him back. I had brought some books from home, and asked the ministry director for another one or two, which were eventually found for our class, and I did get to establish that quiet reading time for the group each afternoon before naps for them. The hardest part was settling the arguments over who got to sit on my lap, who sat beside me, leaning in, who stood behind leaning over... Each day, I left covered in sweat, saliva, tears, sometimes urine, and any variety of the contents of various juice boxes. And each day, I loved it a little more. I loved them a little more.

One of the Columbia players took over reading time after I left.
I was deeply blessed by the friendship I formed with one of the football players. We are still occasionally in touch now, touching base every few months to catch up some, and I hope to see him next summer when we go back. Our afternoon worship times with the whole group of kids, including the middle-schoolers, was at first a bit frustrating to me. We had prepared songs, a skit, content with meaning to communicate to them the lavish love of our Father God, given through his Son Jesus, but nothing seemed to be going in. They were tired at the end of the day, distracted, disinterested. But we pressed on, trying to bring our best. On the final day, God again showed up in a big way. He completely wrecked the schedule for that last day. The entire group except my little babies were to go to Central Park for a field trip, but some details went wrong and the trip was going to be delayed. We were asked to fill the morning's empty time, and so, on the literal spur of the moment, we had to act to put on our music and worship time in the morning. We scrambled. I was leading the talk part, and had an illustration planned to recap the week's teaching, but I needed our Arts & Media guy to come on board with me, with music and video to back me up, with very little prep and planning. He wasn't sure what I was going for, but he promised just to do what I asked when I asked. I had already lined up help in the illustration from our group leader, and he accommodated the change of timing. Somehow doing it earlier in the day, even though we were taken by surprise, seemed to work for the kids in the group. Remember, we are talking about more than a hundred--maybe two hundred--kids. All in one room. All tired of waiting for an event they had looked forward to, now at least temporarily disappointed.

But their response was fantastic! We wanted to end our teaching, which had been about The Prodigal Son, with a party, and a party it was! I got to lead the kids in acting out how we all turn away from God in our sin, but every single time he opens our eyes, we come to our senses, we realize our sin and our need for Jesus, we are forgiven and accepted, and invited to that Heavenly Party where we know the love of the Father always.

Joyfully joining the Heavenly Party!

As more and more kids entered the "party," we cued up the song "Celebration!" and got them all involved in a conga line to celebrate our redemption. It was memorable to say the least. If they took away only one tiny pearl from that week, I hope it was that through Christ, we can all be forgiven and included in that eternal joy of God's presence.

That sweet face!

Saying goodbye to my little ones that week was difficult. I don't know if I will see any of the same children this next year, but I miss them. I miss Penelope's spunk and Sydney's smarts. I miss sweet Angeline with the raspy voice, the deep black eyes, the fascination with my soft, curly, bright hair. I miss Daniel's humor and sly flirtatiousness. Each unique little person came alive that week and they are forever written on my heart. I wonder if children so young can remember me. I hope, at least, that they remember someone came, read to them, played with them, and loved them.

Emma's week changed her as well. She was met initially with one fourth-grade boy who immediately told her he didn't like her. She wasn't as good as last week's volunteer. He ran out of the classroom and she had to pursue him. By week's end, he loved her. Made her a friendship bracelet. She still wears it today. It has never left her wrist--even when she went to her Christmas semi-formal.
Emma and her fourth-graders in the subway

Prior to this trip, she felt fairly certain she wanted to be a nurse in the international mission field. She had even taken several elective medical classes in preparation. But she came home last summer with different wheels turning, and sought out an internship with New City school, a local private school for inner city kids. Because of her Operation Exodus assignment, she specifically requested to be placed in fourth grade. She loved every minute of it.

I know that, as one only at this church a little over two years, I am still newish to the group, but I have been welcomed there. Emma has most certainly been welcomed there. And as a group, I see some friendships developing since last year's trip that seem to reflect the adelphoi assumptions of the New Testament writers. Sometimes the mission is about who you go to serve. Sometimes it is about who goes to serve. Sometimes it is about both. Always, it is about our Lord--and as he is triune, it shouldn't seem odd to us that he can work in such a way as to accomplish something new for each group and his own glory. That he did.

And so we are going back. And we are preparing now. Our group has grown by a few, which is good. Our flights are booked and accommodations seem to be set. We'll return in July, similar to last year's dates. Fundraisers are being planned, and odd jobs sought. We would love to have your prayers for this trip--preparation as well as our purpose while there. If you would like to support us this year, and are able to do so with a tax-deductible financial contribution, you would bless us all with that donation. We must each raise, earn, and save $1000 to participate. Donations can be sent to
Grace Community Church
495 Cardinal Road
Mills River, NC 28759

Please put Watershed NY Missions on the check memo and include a separate note "For Rebecca and Emma." Any excess donations, if there was such a generous outpouring, will be shared with the group as there is need.

Thank you for your prayers, thoughts, and any support you offer to us, to Operation Exodus, to the children of Harlem and the future God has planned for them. It has been a humbling honor to be a part of this kind of Kingdom work.

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