Monday, September 26, 2016

Newfound Home

People often like to talk about what's wrong with the young people growing up in Homewood, but I really enjoy highlighting the many assets that the kids of Homewood possess. My neighborhood is filled with some of the most resilient, passionate, amazing young people around. Every once in a while I let the kids that I'm involved in mentoring take over this blog when they write something cool. One of Homewood's best and brightest kids recently got a writing assignment from his school, so, of course, it needs to be shared with the world. This is a young man with many assets describing his city that has many assets. The writing project is entitled Newfound Home (just as he wrote it). Check it out:

I've heard some inspiring
things about Pittsburgh
I've even seen
somethings too.
People here rep their
hoods with pride.
Little league football
teams excel.
Neighbors help each
Bridges everywhere,
along with buses
always packed.
But young boys and girls
never stray from giving
up their seat for the
So even though I miss
seeing the fireworks 
going off on the 4th of July
or seeing schools accept
one another, 
seeing the water
on all three rivers makes all
the difference.
Downtown is a food hub
from Italian food, Chinese
food, and Greek food all
on the same block
I now understand why
people say Pittsburgh is 
one of the best cities in
the world!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Tribute to Pastor Freedom

Every once in a while in this journey through life you bump into kindred spirits. You cross paths with people who you just know God put into your path to encourage you along the way. Pastor Freedom was one of those people for me.

When I first started serving and living in Homewood, I longed for personal mentors and friends who could help me to process through all of the ups and downs that I was experiencing in urban ministry.

My first mentors were people like Ray Bakke and John Perkins who live outside of Pittsburgh. These leaders dreamed big dreams about Christians leading the way to transforming cities. They talked about racial reconciliation, theology, prophetic vision, urban activism, and empowerment of the poor and marginalized people in our world.

As nice as it was to read books and to study under such amazing leaders, I longed to have a friend and a mentor who could walk this journey of urban ministry with me right here in Pittsburgh. I prayed about that a lot. And, then, about six or seven years ago I kept bumping into this larger than life character named Eugene Blackwell. I would see Freedom at the YMCA in Homewood where he would be tirelessly working to empower the young people. He knew all of the kids that I knew. Who was this guy? People were drawn to him, especially young people. I would see him at Pittsburgh Faison school where we had the mentoring program. I would see him out in the streets talking to people, feeding people, preaching to people, discipling people, and doing just about anything that was needed.

Freedom had a gift with kids. Speaking of kids, Freedom wasn’t just a benefit to the kids of Homewood in general. He also loved being a dad.

To Freedom’s children, thank you so much for sharing your dad with so many people.  

Alexis and Jessyca – Freedom’s adult daughters… although I didn’t know you well, I know that Freedom loved you so much. You meant the world to him.

Canaan – Freedom loved your entrepreneurial spirit, and your maturity to do many things that other people your age might not be willing to do.

Elisha – Freedom loved your sensitive spirit and your sermons that God would give you.

Elizabeth – Freedom loved to talk about your many talents, including your track accomplishments, and he would just light up with that big soft spot in his heart every time he would talk about you.

Freedom was a wonderful husband and father, and he was also a wonderful friend. Over the course of time, Freedom and I struck up a friendship and we realized that we had both been mentored in urban ministry by Ray Bakke and John Perkins. We both had a huge passion for transformation in Pittsburgh. I asked Freedom to teach me everything he knew about ministry in Homewood. When North Way asked me to plant a church in East Liberty as a campus pastor, I asked Freedom to partner with me in leading a diverse church in a diverse neighborhood. Oh, and would he be willing to preach? In Wexford? A lot. I’m so glad that he said yes. There are thousands of people in this city who are glad that he said yes.

Freedom was kind of a big kid at heart. When he did something, he was all in. And he had a wonderful sense of humor.

During the first summer that Freedom and I teamed up to participate in Kidz Gig, North Way’s VBS, we were talking one day and he told me that he would be willing to take a pie in the face in order to make the week more fun for the kids. Sure enough, at the end of the week he was true to his promise. He went right out into the middle of the big stage and he let a kid smash a pie in his face. But, he didn’t just let that happen. He sold out to it. He flipped his chair backwards and landed on his back with his feet up in the air. Everyone thought it was the greatest thing. I can still picture him there with pie all over his face and his arms and legs up in the air.  

As I said, when Freedom did something, he was all in. Freedom lived and breathed discipleship. Over these past couple of years when he was sick, he happened to play a part in one of his good friends coming to Christ. In order to disciple his friend, they committed to calling each other at 4am every morning to read the scriptures, to fast, to pray, and to talk about life. Freedom took discipleship to a new level with that 4am thing. Thankfully, God hasn’t called me to that, yet.

Freedom didn’t just talk about the poor. He was all in. He moved his family into Homewood. He started a ministry for everyday people. He relentlessly advocated for people. On at least one occasion, he took his advocacy with a young man who was going through the court system so far that he was actually arrested and spent the night in jail. He was not embarrassed by being unjustly arrested. It was a privilege for him to take his advocacy with people from Homewood so far. His courage earned him tremendous respect throughout the community. That incident happened early in Freedom’s time on staff at North Way. When Freedom told me that he was in jail and what had happened, I remember thinking to myself… how am I going to tell my boss, Scott Stevens, about this one? Of course, Scott understood and was 100% supportive of Freedom. In Scott’s simple but powerful way of leadership, he simply said, “Just let me know what you need.”

To Scott, Jay, Randy, the staff at North Way, all of the North Way members from different campuses. and the elders in leadership in this church, especially the elder council members and Fred, Doug, Reggie, Chad, Matt, and Jon from East End, I want to publicly thank you for welcoming Freedom whole heartedly into our church family at North Way. Not just into pastoral leadership and into the pulpit at North Way, but truly welcoming him into your hearts.

And the acceptance didn’t just come from North Way. Free, kids, Debra, Freedom’s mom, extended family members like Jacquelyn, and friends like Sherman Leeper were people connected to Freedom who whole heartedly embraced me and the entire North Way family as their church home. For that, I am eternally grateful. Thank you.

Friends and family members, will you join me in carrying Freedom’s big dreams and vision for Homewood and for our city forward? Yes, we need to take the time to grieve the loss of our friend, our pastor, our teacher, and our leader. But, let’s rise up together as God’s church to transform this city. Let’s rise up together to lead the people of our city to become reconciled to God and reconciled to each other across all racial and socioeconomic barriers that might divide us. Let’s rise up and lock arms together to work toward empowering the poor and marginalized residents of our city and our world. Let’s demonstrate the radical love of Christ to one another just like Freedom demonstrated that radical love with the people that he encountered every day, whether it’s on the street corners of Homewood or in the street corner next to a waterfall in Wexford.

 I’ll close with one passage of scripture that greatly inspired both me and Freedom is Isaiah 58:

10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. 11 And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. 12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in. – Isaiah 58:10-12 ESV

Goodbye, Freedom. You truly were a repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

CCDA Los Angeles Day 4

On the last day of the conference, we heard from speakers Enid Almanzar and Michael McBride. Both speakers challenged everyone attending to go back to their cities and neighborhoods to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in contextually appropriate ways while utilizing prophetic voices. Enid challenged us to rise up during these challenging times in our nation to truly engage marginalized people, not in paternalistic unhealthy ways, but in places where we have taken the time to listen and learn. Michael challenged us to move beyond learning in order to do the work of the prophetic church. We need to prophecy or we will perish. 

Earlier in the morning, Coach Gordon and John Perkins led another Bible study. I continue to be amazed at how these leaders allowed their pain to transform them into more fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Often in the work of urban ministry and Christian community development, practitioners deal with issues of life and death, brokenness and assets, signs of need and signs of hope. These leaders did such a great job of capturing all of the ups and downs of ministry on the margins, and they did so from a biblical perspective. I'll be processing everything that they shared, and I'm sure some of it will be coming out in the teaching that I'll be doing over the months and years to come. 

I am so thankful for my time in LA with the amazing people of CCDA. So often I feel lonely in the urban ministry and reconciliation work that the Lord has called me to be a part of in Pittsburgh. The best take away that I had from this week, then, was the opportunity to gather and experience fellowship in the family atmosphere of thousands of other people from around the country who are also participating in urban mission and cross-cultural relationships. I was so encouraged by the people that I was around, by the speakers, by the workshops, and through reconnecting with friends who are on the journey with me. 

I am glad to be back in Pittsburgh, though. I'm refreshed and charged up to take huge risks to participate in God's redemptive mission with every person in every place on this earth. The Lord is giving me new eyes to see, and I'm excited about building on the foundation that has already been established over the past 11 years of serving in Homewood. God is so amazing... let's get ready for something big Pittsburgh!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

CCDA Los Angeles Day 3

Wow! Today was incredible. There were so many speakers and workshop leaders sharing so many prophetic words that the Church of Jesus Christ needs to hear during these complex times that we live in. I was inspired, and I have so many things to share with my North Way family back in Pittsburgh and my students at Bakke Graduate University. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to attend this national CCDA conference.

This morning John Perkins and Wayne "Coach" Gordon led another Bible study. Dr. Perkins reiterated the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. The gospel reconciles people to God and to each other. Both Dr. Perkins and Coach shared about the cult of personality in the modern evangelical church and the difficulty of succession planning. Coach shared a story about a man that he had invested deeply in over a period of many years, and that person, Daryl, ended up dying from a heart attack at the age of 49. The painful situation seemed to contradict God's plans for succession that had been placed in the hearts of the Lawndale community in Chicago. Why would God take somebody so young from a key leadership role?

I have to admit that I'm having many of the same questions about the death of Pastor Freedom Blackwell in Pittsburgh. Why did he have to leave us in his prime? What about the ministries in Homewood and at North Way that God had called him to? Freedom and I had talked many times about writing books together about urban ministry and reconciliation. What about all of those hopes and dreams now? As Coach shared about the loss of his friend, I could relate. Dr. Perkins shared about the death of his son and other people that he had tried to "raise up" as leaders and the disappointment that comes with plans not working out. Coach listed Proverbs 3:5-6 as a passage of scripture that applies to situations where we just don't know what God is up to. We have to continue to keep the faith and move forward even when we don't know the answers to difficult questions in life. We have to get down on our knees before the Lord and seek God's guidance. Godly leaders trust in the Lord, not on our own understanding.

Wayne Gordon and John Perkins signed a book for me during one of the breaks:

Today's speakers included Ben Lowe, Andy Bales, Ian Danley, Ched Myers, and Efrem Smith. All of the speakers were encouraging. I'm going to have to purchase Ian Danley's and Efrem Smith's talks. They were so inspirational when it comes to equipping people who are serving marginalized people in urban places. Ian Danley described growing up as a kid whose parents were engaged in the transformational work of incarnational ministry. I couldn't help but think about my own daughters, Sierra and Kyra, as he was speaking. He strongly encouraged parents to relocate to vulnerable urban neighborhoods to raise their kids because it is a great gift to children. He also encouraged leaders to engage at the systemic levels of justice. Personal relationships are helpful, but it's so important to advocate at the systemic level where transformation is needed.

Efrem Smith spoke on the letter to Philemon in the New Testament. He utilized his speaking opportunity to challenge so many people to move out of our comfort zones in order to truly go about the work of transformational urban ministry. We should all be trying to work ourselves out of jobs in order to be replaced by the people that we are currently serving. He challenged us to behave as Paul did in his letter to Philemon... empowering people who have been oppressed and enslaved. He gave a prophetic call for leaders doing Christian community development to raise up marginalized people who will eventually replace them. He challenged leaders to have thick skin when it comes to matters of reconciliation and empowering the poor. He said, "We must passionately believe in the transformed life. We've got to be careful that we don't train up timid or tame people due to our behaviors as leaders keeping people in lower places."

I am so thankful that I attended this CCDA conference. There were many other side conversations in addition to the main content of the conference that deeply impacted me this week. It's been a good time away, but I am so ready to get back to Pittsburgh to pass along what I have learned this week. I know that God is going to do amazing things through this time that I've had here in Los Angeles. Just one more day and I'll be back in the 'Burgh.

Friday, September 2, 2016

CCDA Los Angeles Day 2

I'm really tired after a long day, but I do have a few reflections about day 2 of CCDA in LA. This has been a valuable time of rest, reflection, and fresh vision from the Holy Spirit. I heard from Dr. John Perkins and Wayne "Coach" Gordon a lot today as they facilitated a Bible study this morning and a workshop this afternoon focused on the legacy and future of the CCDA movement. I appreciate how much Dr. Perkins recognized the role of the local church in bringing about transformation in the world. Programs can be helpful, and organizations outside of the local church can be helpful, but the local church has a significant role in participating in God's redemptive mission. Also, Dr. Perkins and Coach became emotional in the workshop as they described the power of friends and neighbors in urban neighborhoods rallying to defend them against injustices as they learned from their neighbors through incarnational ministry.

There were several interesting speakers in the morning. Nikki Toyama-Szeto challenged us to engage in the work of justice through advocacy, presence, and intervention. She focused on Isaiah 58 which is one of my favorite passages of scripture! She said that, "Shalom is a dream that God dreamed for the world... shalom is flourishing in all aspects of life." She spoke about how injustices can seem so overwhelming in our lives, so we have to depend on the Lord. Somehow God works through our small actions to bring about transformation in the world. Also this morning, Peter Chin spoke about the power of reconciling relationships between Korean Americans and African Americans, and San Van Opstal spoke about the commitment that is needed in Christian community development over many years in order to overcome the systemic powers and principalities that cause so much harm in our world.

Several leaders from Los Angeles had suggested that I just had to try Tacos Mexico for a meal while in town for the conference. I decided the make the long walk there for lunch, and even thought the line was long at this hole in the wall place, it was so worth it!

After lunch I attended the CCDA legacy workshop, and then I attended Dr. Kip Danley's workshop on mysticism and activism. She teaches at Bakke Graduate University, too, so I had the opportunity to talk to her for a little while about our teaching experiences at BGU after the workshop. She gave a very insightful talk about how urban ministry practitioners can learn from the people who have gone before us, including people like Howard Thurman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero, Abraham Heschel, St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Simone Weil, Denise Levertov, Clare of Assisi, St. Catherine of Sienna, Phoebe Palmer, and Sojourner Truth. I have also been deeply impacted by many of the people that she highlighted, so it was interesting to learn many new things about what we can learn from the leaders who have gone before us. She spent a considerable amount of time highlighting Oscar Romero. He is one of my favorite Christian leaders and activists! It was really an inspiring workshop.

In the evening plenary session, we heard from Ched Myers, Daniel Hill, and Lina Thompson. Daniel Hill's talk stood out to me as he highlighted the challenges of multiethnic church ministry and the dynamics of relationships between white people and people of color. I appreciate how CCDA is out on the leading edge of those discussions and they're highlighting people like Daniel Hill to bring context to the complex dynamics that are happening in our country across racial barriers right now. I appreciated how Daniel described how he was kind of naive to the complex dynamics of multiethnic ministry when he first started out, but he learned a lot as he listened to others. He emphasized that white people need to be in authentic community with marginalized people of color in order to listen and learn as we move toward reconciliation. We can't do the work by ourselves. We need other people.

Lots to take in today, but I'm so glad I attended the CCDA conference this week. I'm learning so much and God is healing my heart after an intense season of ministry in Pittsburgh. I'm looking forward to another good day tomorrow involving fresh perspectives from a variety of different perspectives. I can't wait to see what God has in store. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

CCDA Los Angeles Day 1

When I was enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at Bakke Graduate University, I was exposed to the Christian Community Development Association movement for the first time. I have been deeply impacted by the leaders and practitioners involved in CCDA. I had the opportunity to attend a smaller scale CCDA gathering in Fresno, California as part of a BGU course that I participated in, but I have never had the opportunity to attend a national CCDA annual conference.

Now that I've officially handed over the reigns of the church that I helped to plant in East Liberty five years ago (North Way East End), I am venturing into new territory as a pastor at North Way involving establishing a new Transformational Urban Leadership Institute. This trip to Los Angeles for the CCDA 2016 national conference will definitely help to equip me to mobilize followers of Jesus to take on the most challenging issues that human beings face in our modern world. I am praying that the Lord will give me a few days of rest, learning, and listening as I step into the fresh vision that God has placed on my heart for Homewood, Pittsburgh, and cities around the world.

I have to admit that it was difficult to even go on this trip. Since Pastor Freedom Blackwell died of cancer earlier this week, I have been grieving and the week involved a flurry of activity. I felt torn about whether I should still attend the CCDA conference. The pastor in me wanted to stay in Pittsburgh to help my family, friends, and the people at North Way Christian Community to grieve the loss of such an amazing person as Pastor Freedom. The urban ministry practitioner in me knew that Pastor Freedom would want me to attend the CCDA conference to gain fresh perspective on what God is doing to equip followers of Jesus to engage in Christian community development. I obviously ended up getting on the plane early this morning as I'm typing this update in LA.

I had a four or five hour direct flight from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles early this morning. I thought that I would probably just sleep the whole time. However, as the plane took off and all was quiet in the cabin I was flooded with grief over Freedom's death. I realized that this was the first time I really had by myself to sit and think and process through the journey with Freedom over the past few years. I started to cry, so I pretended to sleep while I was crying so the other people sitting next to me on the plane wouldn't think that something was wrong with me. I tried listening to music, but that just added emotions to my already fragile emotions. I thought about all of the great memories that I had with Freedom over the years as we partnered in working toward shalom in our city, and I thought about all of the difficult moments as he valiantly fought cancer over a period of years. I praised God that he brought Freedom into my life, and I was so sad that Freedom left this world at such a young age.

Mercifully, the plane landed in LA and I pulled myself together. I took an Uber ride (my first time... it worked really well) from LAX to visit with my friend Stefan who used to attend North Way East End when he lived in Pittsburgh a few years ago. He now lives in southern California. It was so great to catch up with him. He spoiled me by treating me to lunch and driving me to the conference center. I was so encouraged to hear about everything that God has been doing in his life over the past couple of years. The time I spent with him today was just what I needed. Community with other people has a way of helping us to navigate through difficult times.

The hotel and conference center is amazing. Here's a picture of my view for the next few days:

I love cities, and Los Angeles is a great city to explore. I know that I'm going to enjoy checking this place out over the next few days. By the time I got settled into my room and had some dinner, it was time for the first plenary session of the conference.

Noel Castellanos was the first speaker after the time of worship. The worship helped to center me for the rest of the evening. Noel talked about The Camino, or the journey, and how challenging the journey is for people who are involved in working toward biblical justice. There were so many people who filled up the big room where the conference was being held.

I was encouraged by his message. Then, Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil spoke about how new models of engagement are required to make a difference in the brokenness in the world. She encouraged everyone in attendance to think outside the box when it comes to how followers of Jesus live out our lives in front of a skeptical world. I was challenged by her message, and I am hoping and praying that the Transformational Urban Leadership Institute will present opportunities for Christians to be able to engage in creative ways in order to participate in the process of transformation in Pittsburgh. After hearing Dr. McNeil speak, I was more inspired than ever to engage the complex urban issues in our world.

Today was a long day. I'm looking forward to everything that God has in store this week as I seek to participate in God's redemptive mission. I am praying that God will inspire new vision in my calling and in the areas where I am engaged in Pittsburgh. I'm looking forward to what God is going to do. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Running the Race

Around ten years ago I was going through a difficult stretch in my life, and I asked God for clarity with discerning a calling in my life. "I'll go anywhere and do anything" I remember saying confidently to God. I don't think I knew at the time what I was really praying for. At the time God was taking me through a season where I would learn to depend on Him because I would need to constantly turn to the profound love of Jesus Christ over these past ten years.

God has provided plenty of opportunities to go into some complex situations in order to participate in His redemptive mission. I've had the opportunity to minister to hundreds of high risk youth in Homewood. I've had the great privilege of leading entire families to Christ, and I've endured the heart break of violence in the streets impacting people close to me. I've been able to teach and train leaders in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. God opened the door to plant a multi-ethnic urban church with many passionate followers of Jesus Christ. Yet, there have been many challenges in serving as a pastor that I did not anticipate. It's a good calling, but it's a difficult calling sometimes. I've grown weary at times over the years.

Just this past week, a young man that I've been mentoring for years was shot and I walked with him through a traumatic event in his life. A close friend is fighting cancer, and it's been a challenge to go through all of the ups and downs with him as he digs deep to find the strength to engage in the battle each day. There have been many leadership responsibilities. Marriage and parenting are both adventures with great days and challenging days. I've grown weary at times.

It's okay to grow weary. This life is not meant to be lived comfortably. It comes with tremendous moments of joy, and it also comes with suffering. I am thankful for the challenging calling that God has given me, and sometimes I am overwhelmed by the calling. When I'm feeling weary and overwhelmed, it becomes increasingly important for me to orient myself in God's Story. I can persevere because I'll never have it as bad as Jesus had it. Jesus overcame death on a cross and He serves as the vine which provides all of the strength that I need to endure in this life.

I love Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of Hebrews 12:1-3 in The Message: Do you see what this means - all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we'd better get on with it. Strip down, start running - and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we're in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed - that exhilarating finish in and with God - he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he's there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

Yes, the journey is difficult. I can endure, though, and even thrive, because I am following in Jesus' footsteps. This concept brings me to my knees. I am compelled to worship God in the midst of all of the highs and lows in life. And, one day, I am praying that I will stand before the Lord and receive the crown of life that comes from enduring and running the race well. In the mean time, I could use a shot of God's adrenaline to my soul! How about you? Keep running the race!