If was 2:00pm when the team arrived to set up for the launch of the Young Leaders Club. Rudy, who years ago helped us see the rich asset that young people can be, was wiping down the tables. Bev, one of our local young adults whom we had recruited to be a leader of the team, was setting up graham crackers, icing, marshmallows and pretzels for our “dream neighborhood building” activity.
I called the team together for prayer and asked Rudy to read our team devotional. I choose the story “It Matters” by Jeff Ostrander. I am sure many of you are familiar with the story. An old man is tossing stranded star fish into the ocean and a young man points out that that there are thousands of starfish and that what he is doing does not matter. The old man tosses another into the ocean and says, “It mattered to that one.”
The obvious moral of the story is that small things matter. The Brookland Park area is a tough neighborhood for youth development. Every time we have done a youth focused project in this neighborhood, we were always disappointed with the turn out. Yet in 2012, I had watched Rudy build a lasting relationship with four young men. At that time, they were in eighth and ninth grade. This day, he proudly shared that two of the young men had graduated high school. Considering the number of times these youths were homeless or suspended from school, this was truly a miracle. What Rudy did mattered. As we reflected on the starfish story, in my mind Rudy was the old man tossing starfish. I wanted this new team to appreciate that small can be beautiful.
The High School let out at 2:45, so we anxiously awaited our guests. Rudy and Bev had been handing out flyers and inviting youth to join us for a pizza party for weeks. At 3:15, we were still waiting. We had been sitting outside our building and had not seen a single young person. So Rudy and I went down to the park to see if we could find any. The park was empty.
By 4:00 the pizza was cold and our team was deflated. I decided to walk through the neighborhood and pray about what to do next. On Brookland Park Boulevard, there was a group of youth smoking cigarettes and engaged in a loud vulgar exchange. I keep on moving. I continued down the business corridor and saw only a handful of youth.
As I headed back to the building, discouraged and defeated, I saw two men were sitting on their porch. They said, “Nice day isn’t it?” I walked toward them and asked them, “Are there many young people on your street? We are hosting a pizza party for the area teens and I have an opportunity for them to earn some money but I can’t find the youth.” The man said, “Yeah, I have two of them in the house.” He called out to the boys and they appeared half dressed looking like they had been roused from an after school nap. The man said, “You boys want to learn how you can earn some money?” They shrugged. The man said, “Get your shoes on and go with this lady. She has pizza and needs your help.” They reluctantly obeyed.
Just as I turned to leave with these two boys, another youth walked past. I called out, “Do you like pizza?” The young man looked a bit confused as though it was a trick question and said, “Yeah, I like pizza.” I told him I was recruiting youth for a community listening project and that there was a small stipend available to those who joined the team. He said, “Sure, I’m not doing anything. I’ll come.”
When the three boys and I arrived back at our building, I was thrilled that three sisters from my own street had arrived. Our goal that day was to recruit 6 high school students. What we ended up with was one high school graduate, one 11th grader and four middle school students. It was pretty clear within a few minutes of our discussion that trying to hold the attention of these younger youth was going to be a challenge. I left thankful for the youth we had, but disappointed that we did not have the team I had hoped for.
Today, I am continuing my quest for the spirit of community building. As I have shared in previous posts, I am working through the Gospel of Luke, seeking to learn from the most successful community builder of all time – Jesus. Whether you are a Christian, an Atheist, a Muslim, a Jew or hold some other belief, I hope you will agree that the story of the Christian movement is the story of community building and there are lessons that are transferable for contemporary community builders.
In my prior post, we explored the need for places that nurture the spirit of community and discussed the importance of constructing new “wineskins” for a new movement. In my prior two posts, I examined Jesus’ first sermon which I see as Jesus’ Mission Statement. We also explored the violent response that Jesus received from his religious neighbors when he claimed God could use those outside the religious establishment.
Today, I want to look at Jesus’ methodology for building a team to support his mission of bringing good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The first call narratives are found in Luke 5:1-11.
“Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”
This text is so rich in meaning for those of us who are seeking to build community by building on assets. Here are just a few of the lessons that jumped out at me:
- Jesus started this exchange by borrowing Simon’s boat and asking Simon to take him out in it. In other words, he mobilized local assets.
- Jesus choose to build on the skills these men already had – fishing. He met them where they were and focused first on what they saw as important – catching fish.
- He then invites them to join him by linking their skills to his broader vision and mission – fishing for men.
What is most surprising to me is that there was no “criteria” for joining the Jesus team. Jesus did not require they sign a statement of faith or that they attend new believer’s classes or that they be baptized before he invited them to join. In fact, Simon quickly disqualifies himself as a sinful man, yet Jesus seems not to care about any of this.
So, this text begs the question, why these guys?
There is nothing special about them that we can see through our human eyes. They were terribly ordinary without particularly impressive resumes, yet Simon Peter, James and John became the most powerful of the eventual twelve disciples.
I think their ordinariness is the point. As humans we like to set up “criteria for selection.” When we do, we are basically saying that we can measure worthiness and value to the cause through some external means. Instead, Jesus issues these future world changers a very simple invitation to join him. What makes these men extraordinary is this:
- They allowed Jesus to use what they had (their boat),
- They allowed him to join them in their efforts (loads of fish),
- They joined Jesus in his effort (fishing for me.)
So the lessons for those of us who are building teams of leaders is this:
- Start with what the community has.
- Help people achieve success as they define it.
- Link their success to a broader vision, in our case a stronger community.
- Most importantly, do not set up “criteria for selection.” Instead, allow people to self-select by issuing a simple invitation to use what they have, live their own dreams, and then join in the larger movement.
I once heard a very successful church planter ask the question, “What is the most important word in John 3:16?” People began tossing out the obvious answers – God, loved, the world, gave, son, believe, etc. She then challenged us and said the most important word is “whomsoever.” Whomsoever shows up, is who God wants to use. Were Simon Peter, James and John special? Or were they simply the ones who showed up?
When I look at that little group that showed up at our Young Leaders Launch, with my human eyes, I do not see leaders. Immediately, I was disqualifying them in my mind. The middle schoolers were not old enough or focused enough, the one high school girl had an attitude, the nineteen-year-old was too old. This text is very convicting!
When I read the starfish story to my team, Rudy said, “Every time I hear this story, I am reminded that I was the starfish and someone tossed me back in the ocean.” When I read this story of Peter, I am reminded that when God called me to follow, I was the most unqualified person in the room.
So for those of you reading this who have been made to feel unqualified, less than, not perfect enough; Take heart, this movement of the spirit is for you!
So how does this advance our quest for the spirit of community? At the core of the ABCD movement is a spirit of “whomsoever” and I think that is the good news we are called to share with all who are experiencing poverty of any kind.