Sometimes as an urban missionary, my task feels like an uphill battle. I envision my work of discipleship like being a pitcher on the mound, and my students are the batters who keep striking out as they fall back into their addictions. I am presented with a new batter every three or four pitches. Over the past 14 years, I can count a small handful of men who are continuing to live transformed lives.
In many of the men’s lives, I may just be planting the seed and someone else will see the fruit. Praise be to God that it is not my responsibility to play the Holy Spirit. Transformation is His job; I am only called to serve and to continue to serve. I don’t know what God is doing all the time and that is okay. I choose to see the best in everyone and desire that they accept the call of discipleship, to die to self daily. My wife, Deborah, and I are in it for the long haul, building community and giving ourselves to real people with real issues who need real guidance. I have come to appreciate that God desires to unite all things to Himself and that is what we are all a part of.
Gary* is a man who demonstrates a solid relationship with God and who also has a ton of baggage. Gary has been an addict for the past 20 years. He lost his family due to his addictions. His wife doesn’t trust him and she is struggling to keep food on the table while living a distance away in another state. It is men like Gary that we pour our lives into as a family and it is men like him who make it worth it. Will Gary succeed? I am not sure, but that is not why I am in ministry.
As I was standing on the altar of our church preparing to officiate the wedding of Shawn and Danielle*, it occurred to me that I met this guy in the Lebanon County Correctional Facility at a weekly Bible study two years earlier. I mentored Shawn while he was in a biblically-based program designed to assist returning citizens and help them transition back into society.
At the reception, as I was telling Shawn how much of an encouragement he is to me, he said “This was a result of your vision—this is what it’s all about” (referring to my urban mission work). I responded by saying. “Shawn, you have blessed me. Now is your time to bless someone else. It’s your turn to disciple someone now.” He smiled again as he often does and said, “Yeah, disciples who make disciples.”
One night, Rashan* called me from Good Samaritan Hospital in Lebanon, Pa. He was anxious and scared, telling me he got thrown out of the Lebanon Rescue Mission. I asked him why, and he told me that he just broke too many rules. I told him that I was on my way to see him, still unsure of how I was going to deal with the situation. I took Rashan home, and Deborah and I listened to him vent for about two hours. He was hopeless but mentioned faith and Jesus a lot. One thing for sure was Rashan loved Jesus. He was just struggling with how to get his life back on track.
Deborah and I just listened as he unpacked everything and at the right moment, we began to plant seeds of hope back into his life, showing him that this wasn’t the end of the road. I remember saying as long as he doesn’t “pick up” (a common term for using drugs again), everything would eventually work itself out. I put him in a hotel for the evening. The next day, I got him a phone so he could begin to look for a job and took him to Fresh Start, a homeless resource center operated by Lebanon County Christian Ministries (LCCM).
Rashan got a job through a temp agency and then a door opened up for a long-term job in trucking and he took it. At first, I was apprehensive since the new job would take him to Seattle. I was sure that I would never see him again. That’s not a bad thing, but I really liked Rashan and would have liked to have him involved in ministry someday. Just the other day, Rashan called to tell me he bought his own truck. He told me he missed us and wanted to live in Lebanon again. I am not sure how this will all turn out, but I am hopeful. Our relationship didn’t happen overnight; it took months and months of building and time spent together. It took being able to be there for him when he needed it the most. It took setting aside our agenda to make room for Rashan.
I understand that there is not a quick solution to problems. It is not that simple. Years of neglect, abuse, addictions, and hopelessness tend to form a particular mold that takes a lot more than a Bible study or church attendance to break through. If you have been brought up with parents who provided, cared for, and nurtured a healthy relationship with you, it may be difficult to understand why an addict can’t just stop using. It is not like a light switch that you can just simply turn on and off. Life gets messy and there is a need for something larger than life to help. That is why Jesus is the only answer, and walking with someone follows the same example that Jesus displayed with his disciples. He didn’t give up on His people. He didn’t give up on you or me.
*Full names are not used for sensitivity reasons.