What a summer it has been! This summer held my first three mission trips in a summer with Calvary Denver’s youth – one to Honduras and most recently immersion experiences in Denver and Chicago with Christian Student Ministries (CSM).
Our Honduras trip was featured in my reflections last month. The Denver and Chicago trips marked my third and fourth experiences overall with CSM. Two new cities, new organizations to partner with, new prayer tours, new ethnic restaurants to try, and new memories with two groups of students.
Being a leader is a gift, you get the aerial view of the trips and those one-on-one moments with students, leaders, and city hosts. CSM trips are a blend of prayer tours, plunges, immersions, ministry sites, and devotions/debriefs. They are trips where the tangible results are few and far between. A great deal of the trip is experienced through the internal work of understanding how and why homelessness exists, what it means to be part of the working poor class, shaking stereotypes so they are no longer the lens we view people through, and processing our comfort zones – all the while understanding how God is present and at work in these cities.
When serving with CSM, you go to bed exhausted and wake up tired (it’s great when you have a longer drive to your ministry site because those catnaps are a gift). The work isn’t as physically taxing as building a house or pouring cement, but the work is tiring nonetheless. It’s the work of understanding that one of the greatest gifts one person can give another is to see them for their own story and not their stereotype and that looking someone in the eye can be the hope they need to believe there is a reason to keep pressing on.
I hope you all will join us this coming Sunday morning for the Forum where you will hear from some of the 19 students, five co-leaders, and myself about our snapshots from all three trips (Honduras, Denver, Chicago). That is where you can hear in more detail what we did on the Denver and Chicago trips and build upon what I wrote a month or so ago about the Honduras trip.
What I wish to offer you today is a snapshot of an encounter that I hope provides a window into the types of experiences our Calvary youth had this summer. I hope you’ll take the time to ask each of them personally about their own stories and encounters such as these that they experienced. Hearing their first-hand reflections is a true gift.
“The Denver Plunge”
On the Denver trip, we did a plunge (an in-depth scavenger hunt type of activity to learn about a portion of the city) in the Five Points neighborhood. During the plunge, the students were given the task of seeing if someone we met would like a cup of coffee. Sure enough, our five junior high students passed a woman on the street, and, in a simple exchange of hello’s, she accepted their offer–to buy her a cup of coffee.
The woman wished to stay outside, so as a few students went in to get her coffee, I stayed and got to know a bit about her, starting with her name – Olivia. When Olivia greeted me, I had my sunglasses on. She gently lifted them so that she could see my eyes. She was no longer a stranger we were buying coffee with, but Olivia, a woman who had lived in Five Points most of her life and had seen it back when it was wrought with gang turf wars between the Oldies and Crips.
You see, Olivia was an Oldie herself, and her partner, and father of her child, was a Crip – not something you hear everyday. As we stood there speaking, she shared her memories of old ice cream shops, stores, and houses that had been transformed into new businesses and took on the sites of gentrification.
Olivia is a gentle spirit that took time out of her day to speak with people who were not from her neighborhood but she wanted to make sure we knew good people came out of Five Points and that it was a good place to live. She shared her struggles of committing to a neighborhood that has experienced so much hardship and now faces new struggles as things change with new apartments being built and the businesses that have come in. Olivia wasn’t upset with the changes but reminded us that change is not easy – she spoke from observations and not judgments. We wished one another a good day, and as she walked away, she shared the peace of Christ with us and we with her.
In meeting Olivia, I am reminded that when one doesn’t have much reason to trust a stranger, seeing their eyes is a doorway to establishing trust. Being able to make direct eye contact is a gift shared to both people. Olivia is a woman who is small in stature, kind in tone, committed to her neighborhood and its people, hopeful for what is to come in her life and in Five Points. She is a sweet person who shared her story with strangers and shared a cup of coffee with us. Olivia is the Beloved Child of God and part of her story is that she is gang member.
These are the experiences we need to be offering our youth and why I believe in the types of trips CSM offers. Through these trips, we – youth and leaders alike – learn to look at the world (including our own city) with new eyes and to see our neighbors closer to how God sees them.
We, every last one of us, are first and foremost the child of God and are more than our past or pieces of our story.
I am continuing to grow and learn about people who have different stories than I do. Trips with students remind me they are more than society sees them as, and more than they even believe of themselves. It is a blessing to meet people who share their stories with you, and when one is open to hearing another’s story, the Spirit fills the space between them, and they end up standing on holy ground – Thanks be to God.