I spent last week in and around Boston, MA with a group of high school students and adult leaders. This experience was a thought/idea/dream I had last year. Let me explain. I’m a student and young adult pastor in the Richmond, VA area. The church I serve at is part of the Church of the Nazarene, which is part of the Virginia District, which is part of the Eastern Field. The Eastern Field stretches from Virginia to Maine and our “assigned” denominational college is Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) in Quincy, MA, just outside Boston. As a pastor to students, many of who are looking at their college options, I thought I should be doing a better job of exposing them to the option of ENC. What if–I thought to myself–we could use ENC as a base of operations and hold our annual high school mission experience on campus and launch out to different places in the area each day in order to serve and grow together? Turns out, ENC was down for it. So that’s how we ended up there this past week. Shout out to Mark Brown, our coordinator, ENC staffer, and good friend who helped with all the many logistics. Mark CRUSHED the planning details and really helped make a memorable week.
*Full disclosure: I didn’t hear anyone say “Wicked Ahh-some” all week. Well, except for me.
I’m going to try and recap some of the most poignant moments we shared from the past week. Hopefully not in some boring, “Hey, don’t you want to watch my home movies” or “Hey, let’s sit down and look at my high school yearbook even though you know no one in it but me” kind of way. I promise if you read this through you’ll come away with some good stuff.
The first moment happened within two minutes of us arriving on campus. We stepped into our dorms and dorm rooms. I mistakenly thought Massachusetts would be at least a little cooler than central VA in July. I was wrong. It was hot. I mean HOT. These old brick dorms were not equipped with air conditioning. My phone rang just after I set my bag down in my room. It was one of our female leaders: “Jerry. Were you aware there’s no a/c?” I replied calmly, “Yes, I’m aware. Just open a window. You’ll be fine.”
If you’re living your daily life on the path of least resistance let me implore you to find the nearest off ramp and live differently. If your motivation is comfort and convenience, you’ll be soft and weak in no time flat. I can now confess that I in fact DID know there’d be no a/c before we went on this trip. Since there was nothing to do about it and there would be no room in the luggage for fans, why bother sharing that info? Call me cruel for withholding that detail, but I didn’t see the point.
What can you do today that you didn’t do yesterday? What is one purposefully uncomfortable thing you can do, if for no other reason than to experience a different reality than you normally do? You never know what learning is lurking just outside your grip on comfort.
A couple days later, we went into the city of Boston and partnered with a local church called Congregation Lion of Judah. We met Evelyn and Jeff, heard their stories and were led by them (in two groups) around the city streets in order to pray, meet those on the street in need, hear their stories, and serve them in some way. Not sure if you’re familiar with Boston, but Congregation Lion of Judah is located in Boston’s “South End” neighborhood in what is called “Methadone Mile” or what has been renamed by that local church as “Miracle Mile”. We walked the streets in small(er) groups and interacted with those experiencing homelessness, drug addicts, and those in the very act of drug use. Again, putting suburban teenagers into the context of the sketchiness of such a location was an intentional move. I believe it was very valuable for them to be eyeball to eyeball with pain, hopelessness, and chaos. It was intentionally uncomfortable and that discomfort proved powerful.
We are strongest when we are most reliant on God’s presence and enabling power. We couldn’t have imagined just what we’d see on those streets, but we saw loved and cherished humans for whom Jesus shed His very blood and we sought to serve them accordingly. We wanted to meet them with dignity, humility, and deep care. It was so special to watch our students interact with these precious ones with the love of God; not in a way that puts anyone above anyone but rather in a way that is relational, personal, and intimate–I imagine that’s much the way Jesus met people in need. Not in a “Oh, you poor thing.” kind of way, but in a “I’m here with you.” kind of way.
I truly believe that this is what it means to be a disciple. The word “Christian” is found in the New Testament just 3 times. The word “disciple” is seen 261 times. Why, oh why have we decided to call ourselves “Christians” then? A disciple is a far better term to use. A Christian may be someone who believes something, but a disciple is someone who DOES something with what they believe. The week was filled with opportunities to not merely believe good things, but DO good things. And its in the doing that the believing is verified and validated.
What am I doing today with what I’m believing today? How about you?
Later that same day, we took the “T” to Jamaica Plains in Boston and to Awaken City Church. Pastor Melinda Priest was there to greet us and lead us in prayer and on a prayer walk around that neighborhood. As we walked, I noticed a building that really looked like a church but clearly it wasn’t being used that way. I learned quickly that this building actually was a church building but had since closed and been converted into apartments. At first, I thought to myself, “What a shame. I really wish that church building were still being used to house times of prayer and worship and other “churchy” things. But God spoke to me almost immediately and challenged my lamenting attitude. Essentially, He said, “How do you know I don’t still have disciples in that building, living among and loving their neighbors and sharing my gospel, and serving selflessly?” Then I thought, “You know what, God? You’re right. After all, shouldn’t the church be IN the neighborhood in every sense?”
We shared lunch together after our prayer walk and heard more about the mission of this young church plant and what brought Melinda with her family from Michigan to Boston. In short, it was God’s clear directive call; a calling that still sustains them despite a constant flow of adversity in carrying out the mission of loving those who are far from Jesus. I found her story to be incredibly inspiring and my heart was challenged in a way that caused me to ask “What have I risked, surrendered, or endured for the gospel?” I’m still wrestling with that question even at this moment.
After lunch, we put “blessing bags” together and left those for the church’s future use. However, Pastor Melinda challenged students to take one with them and ask God to show them who needs to receive it in the coming hours or days as we travel around Boston. Each bag had personal essential items: water, fruit/grain bars, washcloth, soap, toothbrush, comb, and other basic necessities. All in a durable backpack that those experiencing hardship or homelessness would find useful.
Later that week, I found myself still toting that blessing bag on my back. It was a physical reminder that I was carrying a blessing with me that someone else needed. You may not have a literal sack on your back, but if you consider yourself a disciple, you most certainly have a blessing to give to someone today. And as long as I felt the bag on my back, I was mindful of where and who around me needed it. More on that later.
On Wednesday and Thursday of the week, we ventured to Friends of the Homeless in Newell, MA. This was not at all the kind of “homeless shelter” I was expecting to see. I had been to and served at homeless shelters in the past. But this one was remarkably different. This was a unique setting and ministry that provided homes for families specifically. Each family had their own dwelling and met certain criteria in order to stay there, whether for weeks or months at a time.
When we arrived, we met Tandah and Herb, the leaders of this powerful ministry which we learned was also a Nazarene Compassionate Ministry site. They had not had any volunteers in two years and they had never had a group of volunteers of our group’s size. But I give them credit because they were prepared! They had a few pages of tasks that they had wanted us to try and tackle. As the two days came and went, it was so gratifying to know we were helping them accomplish things that had long since sat dormant. We cleared out an entire box truck of supplies and donations that had been sitting for 2 years. We gave that space back to them for far more efficient use. We built 3 brand new picnic tables/benches so that each area on the property (15 dwellings total) could have a place for families to sit and eat together. We installed new ceilings in the basement, covering up insulation so that this space could be better utilized for storage. We reorganized a neglected “baby pantry” and installed a/c in that room so that it could be far more useful for families to get diapers, clothes, formula, and other needs for newborns and young children. We cut the grass, repainted the sign by the road, and power washed buildings to name a few more tasks we accomplished.
We met Bill, who was celebrating 40 years of sobriety on the second day of our visit. We created a big card to give him, that everyone signed and congratulated him with. Bill was just one of those guys you want to hang out with all day. A gentle and generous soul that Jesus had rescued. Not a man of great means, but still Bill decided he wanted to bless our group so during the day he went up the road and bought a gift certificate to a local dairy farm and ice cream stand so at the end of the day, our entire group could have fresh, delicious, homemade ice cream.
We wrapped up our two days at Friends of the Homeless and said goodbye to our new friends. That experience tenderized hearts and reminded us that there is no such thing as a small thing done in the name of Jesus. Like the fish and loaves, he takes our smallest offering and multiplies its impact far beyond what we can see.
As I’m writing, I just went back to the beginning of this post to read and edit mistakes. I’m tempted at this point to shut it down and end it. Kudos if you’ve read this far. If you’ll stick with me, I’ll share something from our last day in Boston.
Friday was our planned “free day”; a day we set aside to reflect, rest, and enjoy the sights of Boston. We spent the morning at Nantasket Beach in Hull, MA. It was hot and wonderful. The water was quite cold and as I stood in the shallows on the shoreline, I thought back over the week and thanked God for all He had shown us, the changes He used us to affect, and the ways we had been stretched. We walked up the street, found a mural to take a group photo in front of (see below), and enjoyed some DD on the way back. After all, “when in Rome”, am I right?
Then on Friday evening, Mark our guide led us to Boston Garden, Boston Common, and finally to Quincy Market where we split up for dinner. Quincy Market is a veritable smorgasbord of food options. I’d never had a lobster roll, so opted for that. If I’m being honest, I can mark it off my culinary bucket list, but I’ll never wake up craving one. But I digress.
Remember that blessing bag I said I still had on my back? The evening was winding down (after a visit to Mike’s Pastries and Old North Church) as we headed back to the T for the trip back to ENC’s campus. I started thinking that perhaps my best efforts to offload and bless someone, I just hadn’t felt like I saw anyone to give my bag to. But then I did.
I saw a small group of men that seemed to be experiencing homelessness. My son Hudson and I approached one of them to introduce ourselves and to let them know about the bag, what was in it, and to offer it to him. His name was Miguel and in short order he let us know he had served in the United States Army as a cryptologist (?) for 9 years and had been homeless for the past 28 years. Clearly, he had no love loss for the military and the government’s treatment (or lack thereof) for his situation. After a few minutes of listening to his stories peppered with wisdom directed at Hudson, he stopped and asked us a rather unique question: “Are you guys with God?” Caught slightly off-balance by his phrasing, I paused, looked over at Hudson and turned back to Miguel and said, “Yes, we both love Jesus.” He immediately gripped my neck with his hand, drops his head, and starts in with “May the Lord bless you and keep you, may His face shine upon you…” You can find this blessing in Numbers 6:24-26. This blessing is known as “Aaron’s Blessing” or the “Priestly Blessing”. It’s short but beautiful. When he was done reciting it, we asked Miguel if we could pray for him to which he immediately agreed. We all bowed our heads, his hand still on my neck, Hudson’s hand and mine on his shoulders, and my hand to heaven. And we prayed for Miguel; his mind, his heart, his future, his relationships, and his walk with God. Meanwhile the entire group of 20 stood nearby waiting for us before crossing the street. Honestly, it was perhaps one of the best ways I could have thought of to wrap up this powerful week, praying with my own son for a hurting man facing homelessness on the streets of Boston.
I suppose there is far more that happened that week that I could tell about, but quite honestly I’m still processing those moments and those thoughts. They were moments of raw worship, deep conversations, hilarious laughter, and unmistakable bonding with those around me. I want to thank several people including Mark Brown, our coordinator and host. Big thanks to Jeff and Evelyn at Congregation Lion of Judah for their hospitality. Thanks to our special guest speakers: Crystal Erb, Melinda Priest, Steve Kindt, & Stretch Dean. Huge thanks for Missey Kindt for making 20+ sandwiches and snacks for us EVERY day. Thank you to Nonny and Amarisse for being phenomenal worship leaders, hosts, and friends. Thanks to Herb & Tandah for allowing us to partner with them for the sake of families. And I want to give the biggest thanks to my phenomenal team of adult leaders: Katie Badgerow, Sharon Little, Ray Powell, Will Poynter, & Wynter Van Syckle.
Our theme for the week was “Mission:Boston” but for you and I right now (unless you’re in Boston while reading this), it should be “Mission:WhereverYouAre”. What does it really mean to live on a mission every day we’re on earth? What would the outcome(s) be if we lived in a missional mindset? Let me share with you the things I’m praying for myself and for our students going forward:
That we would focus more on…
- Seeing the mission every morning.
- Being selfless enough to embrace surrender and serving.
- Pushing into places where faith is needed, not just ability.
- Speaking words of truth and life to those in need, while being vulnerable with our own scars so that God can use our story in others’ stories.
If you’ve got thoughts on missional living or you’ve got your own stories where you encountered Jesus in uncomfortable places, I’d love to hear about those in the comments. Or send me an email. Either way, I’d really treasure hearing from you.