We hope that this finds you all well and that your new year is fresh with hope, possibility, grace and new ways of resting in God's sweet mercy. We are finding His goodness to us is too good to put into words, but still, I will use what words I can to share with you what has been going on in our family life and ministry.
When I very first came to Philadelphia to serve for a summer with AIM, we used to hold weekly coffeehouse outreaches at the location that is now Cast Your Cares on Kensington Avenue. Two sweet sisters, Vicky and Jessica, used to come every week, pushing their not-yet-one-year-old brother in a stroller. I remember being astounded that these kids were allowed to wander to Kensington Ave on their own, and to just bring a baby along! It took a while to figure out that the baby's name was "Noel" because they always just called him "Sweepy" --- he had a habit of scooting around on the floor in such a way that his diaper was always sweeping things up!
Fast forward a few years later, and when I first moved to Fletcher Street, I was far enough away from where Vicky, Jessica & Noel lived that I wouldn't see them regularly. Then one day when I stopped by to drop off a gift during Vicky's birthday party, I realized my Fletcher Street next door neighbors were at the party -- of course God knew to move me right between Priscilla & Melinda, cousin & aunt to Vicky, Jessica & Noel!! Being reconnected means that as time passed and families shifted, I have had lots of opportunities to be involved with these special kids. For some months, they even lived in the house next door to me. Noel continued to grow into the absolute sweetest boy you could imagine. At about Callum's age, he was famous for his joke telling. ("Where does a sheep go to get his hair cut? To the Baaaa-ber shop." Which he always followed up with, "Get it? Baaaa-ber shop!") Seriously, he would melt your heart.
At around Selah's age, I remember Noel hanging out with us on Halloween night. We opted for having a party for the neighborhood kids, so we didn't have a stock of candy to pass out. When someone knocked on the door to trick or treat, Noel, knowing that we didn't have candy to give out grabbed candy from his own trick or treat bag to give the kid.
Noel has always just been the sweet and tender hearted kid that you could see so much potential in. When I first moved to Philadelphia and saw a lot of people come and go. In my mind, I said "I knew Noel as a baby, and I know I need to be here in ministry at very least until he graduates high school." It was a mile marker I looked forward to, and I hoped and believed that he would be a Kensington success story.
However, the path to high school graduation became a rocky one. I ran into Noel's mom in center city one day because she had been at court dealing with some trouble Noel was in. Considering all that has been stacked against her, she has been an amazing mother. Back when all of the other parents would only interact with me through secondhand messages delivered by their kids, Noel's mom would insist I join them at their dinner table and always treated me like family. She was always really involved with her kids, but she was reaching a point where Noel was consistently getting into trouble, and she felt helpless to change things.
I started to see Noel a lot on our block, and while it was nice to see him, it was also a time when there was a lot of drug activity going on. I remember one especially brokenhearted day when Noel and his cousin Anthony, another super-promising kid, sat on the stoop next door smoking pot. It was the first time I saw either of them smoke, and their demeanor just bore the heaviness of every other hardened & downtrodden teen that I had known in Philly. Having been here for nearly a full generation, I am now seeing people as teens and young adults that I knew as newborns or toddlers. It was heartbreaking because I care so deeply for these boys, and so discouraging because it made me wonder if our presence or efforts even mattered if the kids with the most potential still ended up on the same path that I saw so many Philadelphians trapped on.
One day this past summer, Noel was around and took some time to talk with me. He wanted to let me know that he had made the decision to turn himself in for some outstanding charges he had against him. He was weary of looking over his shoulder. His hope was that he could serve time in some sort of program that would allow him to get his GED. He knew he wanted something different for his life. That was in July, and after that I didn't see or hear from him for months.
In November, the last of Noel's extended family moved off of our block, so none of them have had reason to be around here anymore. The exception was one cousin, George, who didn't get the memo, and showed up looking for help after a bad night. (The kind of bad night that involves a bad drug trip and leaves you with no shoes, wearing someone else clothes, having had a run in with the police and a stay over in on the psych floor! But that's another story ...) George knocked on our door asking for Frank, and not only gave us the opportunity to love and help someone in a really desperate state, but eventually also gave us an update on Noel. Noel did in fact make it into a residential program, is working out whatever charges he had against him, was enjoying a break home with his family for Christmas, and was set to complete his GED ahead of schedule.
Please join me in praying for and believing with me for God's mighty hand working in the lives and hearts of Noel and the rest of his family. They are so very precious to me, and I realize how desperate we all are for God's grace and power when potential and loving people's efforts just don't automatically add up to a life that reflects God's Kingdom goodness.
Pray for Noel --- that God would capture and possess his heart, and that in all that he does to move his life in a positive direction, it would be saturated by God's goodness, not just human goodness.
Pray for George - he has a lot stacked against him, and a lot of wacky ideas mixed in with his desire to follow God. He came to church with Frank, and checks in with him now & then. Pray that the connectedness that he feels with Frank will be a great opportunity for Truth to come into his life and thinking.
Pray for Vicky, Jessica and their mom as well - that they would keep pursing good opportunities to work and care for their family, and that even in the put-togetherness of their lives, they would always see their need for God's grace.
You've all heard a lot about Priscilla over the years --- she was the last of that extended family to leave the block this past November. I sure do miss Shanaiyah knocking on the door and asking me for a banana and calling Frank "Franklin." I don't miss the co-dependency of the relationship that left me feeling like my peace and worth were depending on helping and fixing the mess of Priscilla's space and life. The upside of urban gentrification is that the wreck of a house that Priscilla was living in was able to be sold for enough money to buy a house in much better shape, although in a rougher neighborhood. Please pray for Priscilla and her girls, that the stability of a home in good repair would be the fresh start that she needs to be able to care well for herself and her girls.
And you know no update is complete without my trademark transparency that probably makes some squirm, but that hopefully sets many free. Thinking about Noel and Anthony it's really hard to not question and wonder if we, if I, did enough for them.
Yes, I love these kids, and I have done a lot to try to teach them, help them, guide them .... but
...I've also got a good number of lazy bones in my body,
...and I'm much better at starting than fishing,
...and I've savored and enjoyed the comfort that has come from our gentrifying neighborhood because it makes life easier for me and nicer for my kids
.... and sometimes all I can do is push out the thoughts of how the kids who used to spend hours on end in my living room, but now are hanging out on rough streets, in jail or figuring out how to be a teen parent.
There are lots of thoughts of blaming myself for not doing enough, or worse, supposing that maybe I DID actually do enough, but lives can be so messed up that it actually doesn't even matter what I do.
I fall back on the grace that "my enough" + "God's enough" = "enough enough" for the needs of the people we are here to love and serve.
As I'm learning more and more to grasp what Grace is, what the Gospel really means, I'm set free from these plaguing thoughts. And I'm hopeful for the lives and futures of Noel and Anthony and so many others, because even if I am the worst-of-the worst, God's grace and His Gospel are all about taking dead things and bringing them back to life. God is the author and finisher. Sometimes I get a cameo or a front row street, but he's the writer and director. I'll rest in His power and goodness.
Thanks for sticking with this rather long update. My hope and goal for 2016 is to begin to share more regularly, dare I say it outloud or write it out --- weekly -- on our blog, starting in February. There will be a subscribe option so that you can receive those more regular updates. Watch out for that soon.
We can't tell you all enough how thankful we are for the care and support that you all offer us. Thank you for your prayers, your encouragement, your gifts, your confidence in the call that God has on our lives.
Grace and Peace,
Frank, Elizabeth, Selah, Callum & Clementine