Friday, September 29, 2006

Up and down on the Bus Tour

Yesterday I went on the Greensboro Housing Coalition’s “Healthy Homes Bus Tour.” This was the third annual Tour, and basically we rode around Greensboro on chartered buses to see homes that either had been improved due to the Housing Coalition’s efforts or homes that still needed work. It was very encouraging to see how the Coalition really is having an effect in terms of getting slumlords to comply with basic housing codes on their buildings and to see how Habitat for Humanity is making an impact on existing homes through its Home Repair program. There were some truly awful houses that have been either knocked down (and the tenants relocated to better homes) or repaired, and they seem to be on their way to reducing substandard housing in Greensboro by 50% by the year 2008.

However, inside I was so up and down as far as urban ministry goes (granted, I was pretty close to exhausted following being out of town for a few days).

As we drove through a neighborhood not far from mine, yet in considerably more disarray, I got excited looking at the houses there, seeing them as they could be and not as they are, and I felt excitement over possibly living there.

On the other hand, as we toured the city, most of the homes that needed work or had been neglected were in parts of town where mostly black or Hispanic people lived. The dividing line of race and class was so clear, almost as though I had not seen it before, and it broke my heart. It’s like there are two worlds in Greensboro and it feels as though the divide is unbridgeable. It’s not just a black-white divide. It’s money and privilege and ignorance and crime and more.

The last house we looked at was in a nicer neighborhood near UNCG with houses that probably are worth over $200,000. As we drove those streets, my heart longed to live there, to have shady sidewalks bordered by well-kept lawns, where things are quiet and orderly and predictable, where there was aesthetic beauty all around and just a peace that comes from life being similar to how it was when I was growing up. I was so sad that this was not my home and that this was not the part of town that I was called to, and I was sad that my heart was still so drawn to that part of life, even after five years living and serving here.

Not sure what to do with all I felt or whether most of that was emotion brought on by being tired. But my heart was heavy as I got off the bus and headed home. I’m so thankful that when I came in my door here on Silver Avenue, I had such a sweet family excitedly waiting to greet me!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Run, don't walk, to Blockbuster (or your Netflix que)

It's 10:35 pm on Friday night and I have about an hour of prep left before an evangelism training at Elon University tomorrow. But instead I am blogging, because Diane and I just watched a movie that I hope everyone who reads this will see if they have not. It's called "Akeelah and the Bee", and I can't tell you how much we enjoyed it. When I saw it advertised in Starbucks, I thought it was a cartoon about a bee and some Dora-the-Explorer-like girl, and even if I had read the fine print and learned it was about a spelling bee, I might have taken a pass. But this movie is about much more than simply the story of a girl who goes to the national spelling bee, because Akeelah happens to live in the Crenshaw section of LA, attending a school where they can't afford to put doors on the bathroom stalls. Her mom is struggling to keep her family together and in line, and Akeelah is a brilliant 11-year-old struggling between the goal of fitting in and blending in at her middle school, and the desire to win a national spelling competition.

So much of this movie resonated with us just from our experiences with kids and families here in Glenwood (which is certainly not Crenshaw, but many issues are the same), and what made my heart really sing is it spoke again a hopeful message that one at a time, people and families can be transformed. The layers and layers of her family and history are so neat to see as well - on first glance, you would see single mom, gang-banger son, daughter with a baby and no dad around, and you would just discount them. But as you learn more, their story and struggle is so much more complex. And this movie portrays community as so vital to the success of its members, which really excited and inspired me.

Even if you don't live in a neighborhood like Akeelah's (or Glenwood), you will be inspired by this story and entertained as well. Check it out.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Passive resistance circa 2006

Today I went into the K-2 room of our tutoring program to find one of our little girls lying on the floor crying. "Susie, get up," I said. No answer, no movement. "Susie, get up right now or you will lose your snack." No answer, no movement. This continues for a few more rounds until I have to pick her up and carry her to a chair. Then I ask her, "Do you know why you're not getting snack today?" No answer. Repeat five times. No answer. I can't take her home because her mom is not there (which brings up the subject of two kids under the age of seven at home alone all afternoon, but that is for another post). I can't spank her or send her to the principal or flunk her. She didn't answer, didn't look at me didn't move, and I was really not sure what to do short of carrying her outside to the free time area where most of the other kids were. Finally she decided to walk out there (still not talking) after I picked her up and made her begin to walk.

Later, I thought about the sit-in movements and the passive resistance tactics of the 60's and realized why they were effective. If you don't answer, don't move, just sit, there isn't a whole lot anyone can do with you. I just wish I hadn't faced it during our after school program.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

All you need is love

After speaking at Duke's IV meeting this Friday, one of the students came up to talk. Over the course of talking, the topic of evangelism came up, and she began sharing how she had kind of sequestered herself away from non-Christians since she had been at school. She said that she didn't know how to share her faith very well and that she tended to get defensive when talking with non-Christians. But as we continued to talk, we began to zero in more and more on what the problem really was. It wasn't a lack of apologetics knowledge or a tendency to get defensive. Ultimately she had wandered from intimacy with Jesus, replacing a loving relationship with her Father with a boring, religious list of things to do. And so evangelism for her was not an expression of the love of Jesus that she was receiving; it was something that she ought to do. She had thought that evangelism was all up to her, and the concept of depending on Jesus to love her non-Christian friends through her was so foreign.

She said that for a couple of years she had been asking God to give her a passion for Him; I imagine that she thought that was a feeling or a zeal for the Lord. But perhaps, I told her, what she needed to ask God for was not a feeling of passion, but rather a knowing that the Lord loved her.

My heart went out to her, because I longed for her to be set free to know more deeply the love of Jesus. That is the only thing to change and transform her heart. That is the only thing that would compel her to share her faith with her non-Christian friends.

I just found it interesting to be reminded that for most of us, a lack of evangelistic zeal or effort is not primarily linked to lack of knowledge or training or even "I ought to's". But rather it is linked to our awareness of and soaking in the Love of the Father given to us through Christ.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


So a couple posts back I had this awesome, exciting news that over 110 people had expressed interest in tutoring this year, and how I had prayed for at least 80 people to help, and how amazed I was at God answering that prayer.

As of this week we have 40 tutors TOTAL (approximately 20 each day) for the 40-plus kids that attend our program, leaving us again at a one-on-two situation.

I've been kind of running from this contrast of 40 and 80, running from the exuberance of thinking that my prayer had quickly and easily been answered. I haven't know what to do with the reality that we still don't have enough folks, even though I asked with "freedom and confidence" like it says in Ephesians 3. I haven't known what to do with the nagging thought, "Well, see, I didn't quite pray enough."

Tutoring goes on and we make the best of what we have. God has provided 40, and that is great news for us. But something in me is afraid to admit that I feel let down or that I got excited too soon, and the temptation is to default into a more cautious posture from now on when asking for needs to be met. To try and not get my hopes up. To be "realistic" (also known as cynical).

But I remember my systematic theology professor teaching us that to live cynically and hopelessly is to be lazy in our faith. Who hopes for what he already has? To live with hope is crazy, it is work, and it is our call as Christians, for we are never without it.

Where are the other 40? I don't know. But I am thankful for God's provision thus far and I live with the hope that He will continue to provide one way or the other.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Embracing my inner Ricky Bobby

I got the most awesome birthday present this weekend - a bunch of family members and friends chipped in and got me a chance to do the Richard Petty Driving Experience ! Those of you who know me well know that I actually do enjoy NASCAR and have for quite some time, and I love seeing how fast those cars go and imagining that I was driving one.

I used to mow the grass at home in Statesville and pretend I was Dale Earnhardt, Sr (there was no need to say "Sr" then because "Junior" was still just a kid) slicing my way to the front at Daytona. So the idea of first getting to ride at over 150 MPH around a speedway and then also getting to DRIVE a car that fast (I hope) around one is just awesome.

The day I got my present I was sitting outside just looking out at the street and grinning, and Diane said, "Are you thinking about driving that car?" Yes indeedy.

Maybe a NASCAR talent scout will see me and sign me to drive the Zondervan TNIV Study Bible Chevrolet, with co-sponsors Innova Golf Discs, the UNC Tar Heels basketball team, and Cheerwine. Look, momma, I'm goin' fast!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Quiet and Confused

It’s quiet around here – too quiet. Three nights a week I run in a nearby neighborhood (just feels a little safer) and in years past I would lament at how much quiet-er and “normal” it seemed from Glenwood. But last night I noticed that my street was equally quiet as this other place, and that was strange. Glenwood is very quiet lately – few police sirens (I don’t even see them quietly patrolling as much), fewer cars with loud bass, fewer people walking by our house yelling and cursing.

As I have seen this place change, it makes me wonder about the Benbow’s future here. I think that I have moved forward a great deal in not placing my personal identity in urban ministry (see Saying Bye to 'Urban Guy') but from a vocational standpoint, I am kind of tied to living among the poor for part of my urban job. One of the ways that GUPY students learn is from the opportunity to see and apply Biblical truths about loving the poor in the place where they live. As the poor move to other parts of the city and landlords buy up properties and rent them to more UNCG-related people, the GUPY experience begins to lose some of its relevance.

As I think about this, thoughts of moving to another poor neighborhood surface, and when they come, I just think that there is no way that I can do that again. Our first year or two here was so hard, scary, and lonely that I wonder if I could go to a new place and face those fears and discomforts all over again. But can I host something like GUPY in a place like Glenwood? Certainly there could be some creative solution, but I don’t see it.

Also as I think about moving and possibly replicating our strategy of reaching children via a tutoring program, I don’t know how that would work either. We have close to 50 kids who could potentially be coming to tutoring next week, and close to ½ of those live more than a mile outside my neighborhood (which is not far, but they are not right around the corner, either). When kids move away from Glenwood, we keep up with them, and continue to bring them to tutoring. So relocating to a new area with new kids would add to the 40-plus kids we are already serving right now.

In short, I am very confused. Diane and I have a dream of having a house near our home for college students to live in year-round, loving our neighbors with us. There is a possibility here in Glenwood, but should we pursue it? Is this neighborhood the place for that dream or is it somewhere else? If we moved somewhere else, would other members of our church go with us from the start this time so that we don’t feel so lonely and isolated for the first year?

Prayers for clarity, patience, and hearing from the Lord, along with a heart to obey despite my own fears and dreams, would be much appreciated.