Thursday, February 18, 2010


I met Quintrell when I spent some time at a women and children's homeless shelter in Blood Alley, Chicago. The name definitely did the place justice -- it was a small, dark (in more ways than one) avenue off a larger, busy street in Uptown. Until recently, there weren't even street lights in the Alley, hence its namesake. Gang-related crime was a staple in this small neighbourhood, and these children, raised by single mothers, were frequent witnesses to fights, shootings, and other violence.
My group and I were at the shelter to help serve the evening meal. We chopped vegetables, set tables, washed floors, and wrangled the kids in for dinner. As my group was cleaning up after the food was served, I noticed a boy -- maybe around seven or eight years old -- who seemed to possess a rare calm and peaceful demeanor that stood out to me in the midst of the noise and chaos. I approached him and asked him his name.

"Quintrell," he said, quietly.

"That's a great name," I told him, smiling inside at the discovery of yet another interesting and unique "Chicago" name.

He smiled at me and seemed to be OK with my being there, which was notable in itself. You see, the kids who lived at this shelter were living right in the middle of a high-stress environment. Their mothers were single, unable to provide for their children, pushed out onto the street and eventually welcomed into the shelter. They were squeezed, seventy or eighty at a time, into a large room crowded with bunk beds and mattresses plopped on the floor, where Mom slept with sometimes three or four of her kids in one bed with the others sharing the top bunk. They were herded downstairs to the main hall for meals, where they lined up to receive a spoonful of something on their plate. And when it was playtime, the kids were led to a small rooftop playground where they could let out at least some of their energy.
My intention certainly isn't to diminish the value of this place -- God bless JPUSA for being a presence in Blood Alley -- but could you imagine growing up there?

So Quintrell, a kid I expected to be aggressive, loud, distrusting, violent even, like many of the other children I encountered at the shelter, was the polar opposite. His eyes were dim, but kind. He was subdued in contrast to the other kids, but not completely beaten down. He trusted me enough to let me sit with him. He seemed to carry a sense of "knowing", almost as if to say, "This place is hell, but I've got a light." He intrigued me because he was so different, like a wild flower growing in the desert. So we chatted a bit longer. I asked him what he liked to do for fun, how many brothers and sisters he had (eight!), and what he wanted to be when he grew up. He asked if I wanted to see his room, and when I said yes, his face lit up. He led me across the Alley, to the shelter's extension on the other side of the street, and there, up a few flights of stairs, down some long and dark corridors, I saw the place Quintrell called home. Yet another large room, littered with clothes, beds, moms, babies. It was nothing extraordinary for the eyes -- but he was proud.

We wandered back to the staircase and sat down, talking a bit longer, until I heard a loud and mighty shriek come from who-knows-where. "QUIN-TRELL!! Get ova' here, boy!"

"That's my Momma," Quintrell said, unaffected. I was still reeling from the sheer magnitude of that Momma's vocal projection when he stood up, looked at me for the last time with those kind, knowing eyes, and said, "I better go."
I told Quintrell I had fun hanging out with him and that I would be praying for him. And then he was gone.

I sat on those stairs for a while longer, thinking about the interaction. In a time when injustice and a sense of hopelessness tended to get the best of me, I had been blessed by a little boy who seemed to rise above it all. I found myself mourning Quintrell's future before it even had a chance to happen, imagining him dropping out of out school, joining a gang, maybe even being killed. I know this sounds horribly cynical, but these were the statistics and sadly, the reality so many African-American kids in Chicago faced and continue to face today. Yet I recalled the light in his eyes, the peace he somehow, against-all-odds, carried with him, and I said a prayer for Quintrell, that God would keep him and preserve him and carry him into freedom.

Quintrell, wherever you are, I hope you're there.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

a new series...

Many of you may not know this, but back in 2003 I worked for an organization called Center for Student Missions (CSM). Our purpose was to facilitate three- to seven-day missions trips for junior high, high school, and college students in the inner-city. My job as "City Host" was to welcome, orientate, guide, and debrief my group's experience in the city -- essentially, we were the bridge between the groups and the ministries with whom we served. We worked in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, after-school and summer daycamp programs, food banks, churches, and other parachurch ministries. We led prayer tours the night of the group's arrival to introduce them to some of the issues the city faces. We took our groups to a different ethnic restaurant every night so they could experience the rich and diverse culture of the inner-city. We even dedicated an entire night to walking through the city with nothing but a dollar to experience the reality of a runaway or homeless person trying to make it on the streets. And we led debriefing sessions at the end of each day, often witnessing the shock, the admissions of ignorance and guilt, the pain, and the disgust our groups felt as they saw and processed the harsh reality of poverty in their own backyard.
During the first five months of my time with CSM, I lived with a former Hell's Angel and his wife in a little brick house on Queen Street East in Toronto. I worked mostly at the homeless shelter down the street, a food bank, and at our office a block away. Just before our busy summer season hit, the directors of the organization visited from California and asked if my co-worker and I would be interested in hosting at the Chicago base for a couple of months. I gladly said yes, and my experience there was completely unique from the previous months spent in Toronto. There, in the Windy City, I worked almost strictly with children -- homeless, fatherless, displaced, and broken kids. Chicago had a completely different flavour than Toronto, and to be honest, I loved it most. I loved the challenge (although painfully hard at times), meeting new people, being uncomfortable, learning new things, and serving serving serving.

The truth is, I fell in love with the inner-city that year. I learned SO much, especially being the 20-year old prairie girl that I was. My eyes were opened to a world I never knew existed; to poverty, injustice, and serving (and even more, seeing) Jesus in the dirty, messy ways I had never before experienced. My heart started to break in ways that were new to me, and I think that was the year I truly realized that the world was a lot bigger than me and that following Jesus was going to cost me something.

For the past six years, I've intended to write about my experiences with CSM. I've found little tidbits in random notebooks and journals here and there, but overall, I've been very unfaithful to that desire. Two nights ago, as I lay in bed telling David a story from that time in my life, my eyes filled with tears and I remembered how much I loved that adventure. I remembered the kids I met in the projects and how much they affected me. I remembered the passion I had to right the wrongs in the world. I remembered that in so many ways, I've forgotten the needs of the broken and poor and have gotten a little too comfortable in my safe little suburb.

For the next little while, I'm going to be sharing some stories of the people I met during my time in Toronto and Chicago. I'm calling it "In the Shadows" because I think that's where these people are often found and why they are overlooked. Or perhaps where we keep them.

But they are so beautiful, if only we'd take the time to see them and know them.

*check out to get a taste of what this organization is all about. despite the debate on short-term missions, they do incredible work and i whole-heartedly support their vision. if you've got any questions, feel free to ask me.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

redeem the day

Today I had a painfully hard conversation. The burden of anticipating this conversation has been weighing heavy on me for a very long time, and I went into it nervous, uncertain of what to expect, and yet somehow still confident in God's unbelievably generous presence.
I can't exactly say that I feel completely released from the anxiety I've felt, now that it's all over -- I suppose I was secretly expecting the world to suddenly be made right after one conversation. But the reality is, life is hard sometimes and brings you circumstances that force you to make a choice about who you want to be. Regardless of how people view you or what they think or how the situation turns out. I'm learning to be me in all aspects of my life, whether I'm understood, accepted, validated or not. And I've gotta say, it's damn hard sometimes.

But isn't it like God to encourage and validate us, nevertheless? He did that this afternoon through one of the kindergarteners I work with. We were driving in the car, both kids in the backseat, when the little guy pulled out a book that was lying on the seat next to him. I think it's an old commentary on the book of Habakkuk (don't ask me how it got there). He began to read it, all matter-of-fact-and-professor-like, and this is what he said:

"Molly Jones* and Rachel Parker* and Lucas Cooper* and Alisha 'Kay, we have all entered into God's life...God is powerful and He is reading our life."

Yup. That's what he actually said. A five-year old who, to my understanding, has no extrinsic knowledge about the good Lord above. I don't know about you, but I was floored when I heard those words come from his tiny (yet often remarkably loud) mouth. Tears pooled in my eyes and I suddenly realized that Jesus was speaking to me through this little boy, reminding me that we are in Him and He in us. So interconnected it's impossible for our feeble, earth-bound minds to understand. When life is hard and complicated and unjust, we are invited to walk with Him, and when we fight for answers, for rest, for peace and comfort, He knows our story and writes us right through it.

So yes, today was a hard day, but I'm comforted by the fact that He is with me, and sometimes, that just has to be enough.

*names changed to protect the kidlets' confidentiality :)