From City of NO to City of Yes

By Gary D. Myers

The City of No – that sure doesn’t sound like a happening place. It doesn’t sound like a city on the move . Sounds more like a place with very little opportunity.  Sounds like a place where needs go unmet and dreams go unfulfilled.

Until 2010, http://www.cityofno.com was the official web address for the New Orleans city government. Mayor Mitch Landrieu quickly changed the web address to http://www.nola.gov soon after he was elected to office. He referenced this fact in his recent State of the City speech.

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Where. When. Why. A second look.

By Gary D. Myers

Editor’s note: All the King Cake is gone and Geaux Therefore is back from the Mardi Gras break. This post on context was published in the early days of the Geaux Therefore blog. In those days, virtual no one was reading the blog, so I thought it might be time to take a second look at “where, when and why.” It isn’t a straight repeat, rather a second, updated look at context. I hope you enjoy.

Where, when and why. These are three of the most important concepts for the missional adventurer. Knowing, mastering and wrestling with each of these concepts is a life-long process.

Know where you are
By nature a photograph captures only a portion of the real scene. The photograph is stingy with space – capturing things as they really are within certain parameters. At times, the deepest communication in a photograph comes not from what is included, but from that which is missing. The photograph has captured truth – at least the portion visible in the viewfinder at a specific moment in time.

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An old lure, yet so much more

By Gary D. Myers

It’s an odd thing to keep – a beat up old fishing lure with no hooks. It’s been with me for quite a while – at least 15 years. The lure has traveled with me through various cross-country and cross-town moves. It has no value for catching fish besides I have little time for go fishing these days. I keep the lure because it means something to me.

Here’s the story. While I was working at the newspaper in Meridian, Miss., a homeless man approached me looking for a little cash. I gave him a few dollars and talked with him a little while. Before I left him, the man dug around in the shopping cart he was pushing and pulled out this fishing lure – one of his few, rather shabby earthly possessions. He was thankful for what I had given him and he wanted to give me something in return.

In some ways the lure serves as a spiritual marker for me. In the Bible, the Hebrews often set up spiritual markers, reminders when God did something special for them. When they crossed the Jordan River they carried 12 stones from the middle of the river and stacked them up as a tangible reminder that God had kept His promise to them. The marker was meant to help them remember the lesson. And as we all know, lessons are easy to forget.

The lure is tangible reminder of what God was doing in my life at that time and what He was about to do during the next 15 years. What was he doing back then? Giving me a heart to reach out to the cast-offs of society. This work in my life didn’t start in Meridian, but living there helped me along on the journey. Growing up around poverty in rural Oklahoma, I naturally had compassion for the poor. I learned to reject the easy characterizations and stereotypes people often attach to the poor. Trips to inner-city Houston and Los Angeles helped push me along the path. But Meridian, located on a major interstate between Atlanta and Dallas collected its fair share of homeless people. There I encountered the homeless on a daily or a least weekly basis. I learned a lot about treating poor people with dignity in Meridian. I learned that you cannot share the gospel with the poor and homeless if you see yourself as superior to them. No one’s salvation costs any more or less than mine.

Caring about those on the margins isn’t always popular. Once I was approached by a man in a grocery store parking lot in Meridian. He was seeking money for food. I told him that I would buy extra groceries for him while I did my own grocery shopping. I came out a few minutes later with a bag of food for him. The man was happy to receive the food, but the assistant manager who saw me give the man the food wasn’t happy at all. He said I shouldn’t have done that. He believed that the store would be overrun with “unworthy beggars.” He thought having homeless around would be bad for business (even though I bought extra groceries just a few minutes earlier – it was at least good for business that day). This assistant manager made his proclamation loudly for all to hear, including the homeless man and several other customers.

I went on to Pittsburgh where I encountered the homeless on a daily basis near the University of Pittsburgh campus and often volunteered at a shelter. Then I moved on to Kansas City where I volunteered at another shelter. By the time I made it to New Orleans, I had learned a lot about compassion ministry. Most of all, I had become more comfortable sharing my faith while meeting physical needs.

So this broken-down fishing lure reminds me of that encounter in Meridian, but it reminds me of all the ways God has prepared me to minister to those on the margins of society. It reminds me that God has a plan and He prepared me for the ministry opportunities I have in New Orleans.

The symbolism of the fishing lure is not lost on me. When Jesus called Peter and John (who were fishermen) He said He would make them “fishers of men.” The lure is not only a reminder that I am supposed to be sharing the gospel (fishing for men), it is also a reminder of who God has called me to minister to – the castoffs, the forgotten and the down and out.

More than a game

By Gary D. Myers

Baseball is a lot like life. At times it is slow and boring. Other times all the pressure seems to fall on you. There’s nothing like the excitement you feel when you are batting or when a hard-hit ball is coming your way. Like life, baseball requires knowledge, individual skill and the ability to work with others. It’s complex and unpredictable. It requires quick thinking in difficult situations. Sometimes baseball hurts.

This summer I had the privilege of serving as an assistant coach for the Bunny Friend Eagles baseball team, a 9- and 10-year-old New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) team based at the Bunny Friend Playground in the Upper Ninth Ward.

It was great to reconnect with the game that I loved so much as a child and a teenager. All the fond memories of my playing days in grade school and high school flooded my mind. I thought about the first team I played on as an 8-year-old. We went undefeated (10-0) and won the league championship. I won’t revise history and claim that I played a huge role in that team’s success, but I did play a little.

I already knew that while learning the game of baseball is hard, playing it well is even harder. This summer I learned something new. Teaching little boys this complex game is even harder than playing the game well. During the Bunny Friend season, our team amassed an 0-8 record. Winless.

Our team was part Bad News Bears and part Fat Albert’s gang (with a mean streak). The Eagles never gained the focus needed to succeed at baseball. Moreover, they never mastered the mechanics of throwing and catching … especially during a game. As far as the situational aspects of the game, they never learned exactly when and where to throw the ball (or when not to throw the ball). If our only goal was to create a well-oiled baseball machine, we failed.

But that’s only half of the story. I joined the coaching staff to be an influence on these boys from a rough neighborhood. I had worked with most of them before in our church’s tutoring ministry, but there is something about hanging out on the playground. I really got to know them well and I got a glimpse into what life is like for these young men. Several of them have very sad histories.

Practice was difficult. Lot’s of curse words. Lot’s of fights and name calling. Lot’s of distraction and general bad behavior. Very little baseball. Most days I was at the point of utter frustration by the time practice ended. But it is the hope of the gospel that kept me coming. Jesus didn’t say go where it’s easy and go where the children are well behaved (are all the kids in our churches well-behaved?). Jesus went all the way to the cross and He sends us to the ends of the earth. The least I can do is go to the Upper Ninth Ward to invest in these boys.

I was able to connect with the boys in different ways. One conversation stands out. A little boy was talking about playing Wii, so I asked what was his favorite game. He said that he liked to play a Michael Jackson dancing game and started talking about dancing to the song “Billie Jean.” I told him I remembered when the song came out (I was in seventh grade). I asked him if he could do the moon walk. His eyes lit up and he tried it right there on the practice field.

Another neat experience came after one of our games. I had been gone for a while on my various trips (Alaska, Israel, Phoenix) and a new boy had joined the team while I was gone. When I told him to sit down in the dugout at the game he said, “You’re not my coach!” and refused to mind. He did apologize later at the prompting of another coach. I was not happy and that night I wondered if I was wasting my time with the team. At the next practice I made an extra effort to encourage this child. Not only did my attitude change, his did too. I didn’t have any more problems with him. I counted that a major victory.

Something else beautiful happened this summer — my 10-year-old son decided to play with the Eagles. That’s really how I got involved in the first place. He wanted to play with the Eagles because of our church’s connection with the team. I jumped at the opportunity and volunteered to help coach. Despite all their differences – racial, economic, social – Jonathan and his fellow team members got along well. Children have many things to teach us about the value of every person.

This summer was an investment — an investment in the future of New Orleans. It is rooted in the hope that these boys won’t end up as a crime stat in 10 years if they turn to Jesus. It was also an investment in my son’s spiritual development. He already has a missional bent. I hope that was strengthened this summer.

Some investments offer quick returns; others take a steady, long-term approach. The Bunny Friend Eagles are of the long-term variety. But the investment continues. At least six of the Eagles are attending Vacation Bible School at our church this week. And I will begin tutoring again now that the baseball season is over. I guess you could say this one is going into extra innings … and we still have a chance to win this one.

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Rotten potatoes, humble pie and purposeful discipleship

By Gary D. Myers

I grew up attending church. In fact, I think I was less than a week old when my parents first took me to First Baptist Church in Calvin, Okla. As I grew and learned about Jesus, I realized my need for a Savior and at age six I made a commitment to follow Him.

I continued to learn and grow in my faith throughout grade school and high school. Though I had genuinely experienced the saving grace of God, I often settled for simple devotion and “dos and don’ts” rather than purposeful discipleship.

Fast-forward to college

I distinctly remember when God began to gently push me toward purposeful discipleship (or what some would call missional living). It happened during a week-long summer mission trip to Houston. We were serving in several mission centers in a poor section of the city.

The mission centers often received day-old bread and other perishable food items which the missionaries in turn distributed in the community. One day the center received several large sacks of “perishing” potatoes. My buddy and I were asked to sort through the sacks to see if any potatoes were salvageable. We squeezed and poked each potato seeking out the rotten spots. We then cut off the bad parts, washed the “fragments” that were left and put them in buckets of clean water. Now it was a typical summer day in Houston – hot, humid and sunny. The warmer it got, the worse the potatoes smelled. My stomach was queasy throughout the process. It was very satisfying to see hungry people line up and happily take these rescued potatoes later that afternoon.

In my prideful heart I thought “I wouldn’t eat those potatoes.”

That evening as we sat down for our meal at the mission house, I couldn’t help but notice the large bowl of mashed potatoes front and center. While Mildred McWhorter, the director of the mission center, was still in the kitchen my buddy and I quietly joked about the potatoes. We expressed how thankful we were that these were not the same potatoes we had cleaned earlier.

Ms. Mildred overheard our conversion and whipped around the corner. With stern, but caring tone she assured us that these were in fact the same potatoes. She went on to say that she would never distribute any food she was not willing to eat herself. Woe to me!

Well, I ate a big helping of those rescued potatoes along with some humble pie. I learned a lesson about identifying my neighbors and loving them as I love myself. It was a key moment in my growth toward purposeful discipleship.

Integrating belief and action for purposeful living

Just a few years later I moved to Pittsburgh, Pa. to serve as a college minister. In this urban setting God’s gentle push toward purposeful discipleship became a loving shove. I can’t put my finger on one event, it was everything. It was my first time to live outside of the Bible Belt – my first time to live in a large city. My view of God grew and my view of His Kingdom expanded. My time in Pittsburgh prepared me for how God is calling me to live in New Orleans.

I realized that discipleship involves the integration of love for God and love for our neighbors. It involves vibrant worship of the Triune God, who receives top priority in our lives, and selfless service to others. We are saved by God’s grace to serve in His power. It’s all about integrating belief and action – a “growing and going” faith. We are called to live out biblical Christian discipleship in a way that brings others to Christ. We are called to live out the Great Commission and the Great Commandments. I’m not there yet, but that’s how I’m trying to live.

Below, I have attempted to illustrate the differences with contrasting words and phrases. “Point A” represents the good and the bad of my early days as a believer. “Point B” represents where I want to be.

The Mississippi River: A metaphor for disciples

By Gary D. Myers

As followers of Jesus Christ – disciples – we are meant to “go” into the world to make disciples. Unfortunately, we find it much easier to develop a Christian sub-culture that allows us to live, work and be entertained totally separate from the world. The intentions are good.  We say that we are “preparing for ministry.” Or we fear the taint of the world and spend our time striving for holiness. Sometimes we are merely trying to protect the ones we love.

Oddly enough, I believe that the Mississippi River provides a great metaphor for the way we sometimes live the Christian life.

The great river and the disciple’s life are both meant to be free and untamed. However many attempts have been made to tame the Mighty Mississippi. These attempts have largely failed, but not in the way you would think. The failures have come in the form of unintended consequences. The tamed Christian life comes with unintended consequences as well.

Beginning on March 2, 2007, The Times-Picayune ran a massive, ground-breaking three-day series of articles on coastal erosion. Louisiana’s coast is disappearing and at an alarming pace. One of the conclusions reached in the series is that the levees designed to protect New Orleans and other river towns are actually contributing to the loss of our coast and causing subsidence of land in New Orleans.

The floods we sometimes see along upper Mississippi River in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee bring rich sediment that replenishes the land. The sediment washes out of the river and onto the farm lands that yield some of our nation’s richest crops. The people in those areas suffer brutally during the floods, but the floods are necessary to PRESERVE their way of life.

The Mississippi River never makes it over the massive earthen levee in New Orleans as it rolls toward the Gulf of Mexico. It would seem that the levees are working like a charm. The touristy French Quarter is protected, the Central Business District is protected and residential areas like the Garden District, Uptown and Carrollton aren’t inundated every five or six years. The levees continue down river to Bohemia on the East Bank and Venice on the West Bank.

Protecting against flooding is a good thing, but it comes with unintended consequences. The river doesn’t spill its sediment into the marshes and wetlands that surround New Orleans. The land in these areas is not being replenished or rebuilt. In fact, these areas are sinking, a phenomenon called “subsidence.” And the problem continues all the way down to the coast – a coastline that is inching closer to New Orleans each day.

We as Christians do a similar thing in our lives. Instead of letting our godly passion overflow, we reduce the Christian life to “do’s and don’ts.” We settle for a scholastic, monastic faith focused on right belief rather than right belief matched with right practice.

When we keep our Christian passion inside the levee of our own sub-culture, we tend to blissfully float right by those we are supposed to be reaching. The longer we live this way, the further we sink and settle into our own little parallel universe. As years and years go by, we find it easier to walk right by the hurting as we rush about doing our Christian things (not unlike the religious leaders Jesus mentions in the Parable of the Good Samaritan).

In the end, our pseudo-monastic tendencies only leave us empty. We believe the right things, but our relationship with Christ is stunted. Our river of wild (untamed) godly passion is meant to overflow to a hurting world around us. We are supposed to have a positive influence on our society. We are called to love our neighbors and tell them the gospel of Jesus. There is opposition, pain and struggle outside of our Christian bubble, but that’s where Jesus bids us to go.

I believe that it is in the “go” of the gospel that our love for God and our neighbor come together in a unique way. It is at the intersection of the Great Commandments and the Great Commission that we find our great joy in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our deep devotion to Him keeps us in check and frees us to live forgiven lives. But that same devotion pushes us out into the world around us.

The one who does not love God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength is no disciple at all. But the same can be said of the one who does not take the great Gospel to his neighbor. Let it overflow.

You are the Only You

By Kay Bennett, Director of Baptist Friendship House

As we move through our daily lives encountering different experiences do we realize that God is uniquely equipping us? Every person God created is different. You are the only one with your life experiences, the only one with your fingerprint, the only one who sees through your eyes, the only one with your voice, the only one who hears what you hear, and the only one with your touch.

God made you uniquely you and so His call in your life is just as unique.

A passion for ministry evangelism

As I look at God’s calling in my life, I realize everything I have experienced has led me to where I am right now. Each experience and encounter is like a piece of a puzzle. Each piece leads you on a journey. My journey and calling in life began with a desire to minister to the whole person (ministry evangelism).

We are all made of physical, emotional and spiritual parts, and even though the spiritual part is the most important, to leave one of the other parts out can leave person feeling helpless and hopeless. I feel that building relationships with people and investing in their lives is one of the greatest ways to build God’s Kingdom.

I don’t remember a time when I did not have a calling to help people, but while in college, I got another piece of the puzzle or more direction of where God was leading me.

My bachelor’s degree in counseling required an internship, which I did at a mental health center. While there, I was able to minister to people’s physical and emotional needs, but not to their spiritual needs – and that made me feel limited. I grew up in a Christian home and have always felt it is important to minister to the whole person.

Someone told me that New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary had a master’s degree program in counseling, so I went to the Seminary to check in out. I knew that was where God wanted me. Shortly after beginning seminary, God opened the door for me to minister at Brantley Baptist Center, a shelter for the homeless and a treatment program for people with addictions. My first day there was like everything I had ever wanted to do. I was able to minister to the whole person.

I often tell people I found a home with the homeless.

When I graduated from Seminary, God opened the door for me to stay at Brantley Center as a career missionary. Ten years later, in 1997, God moved me across the French Quarter to direct the ministry at our sister agency, Baptist Friendship House.

Friendship House is a transitional housing program for homeless women with children and a community ministry center. Over the past few years, the number of homeless women with children has increased. Today, families make up one third of the nation’s homeless population.

I love to watch God show up and show out. At Baptist Friendship House, I get to watch people’s lives change for the better. It is evident that only God can take someone who has nothing and take them to a place where they are self-sufficient. Only God can give that help and hope for a person to rise from their circumstances.

For example, not too long ago a homeless lady rang the doorbell at Friendship House and asked to use the restroom (finding a restroom is a real challenge for homeless that many people never think about).

The first thing I noticed about the lady was her t-shirt which had a nasty comment on it. I let her use the restroom, and then when she came out, I offered her a new t-shirt. She thought I wanted her t-shirt and she began looking down at her shirt. She looked back up at me and said, “What does it say?”

The lady could not read.

I was able to give her a new t-shirt from our clothes closet. I was also able to begin teaching her how to read and write. Allowing her to use the restroom gave me an opportunity to give her a t-shirt, which made it possible to teach her to read and write, and through building that relationship, opened the door for me to share Jesus with her. That is ministry evangelism! That is ministering to the whole person. That is my passion and my calling.

A day at Friendship House

There is no typical day at Friendship House. Everyday is different and it is never boring. Our days revolve around families in our transitional housing program and new families coming into our program. The ones in the program get up for breakfast and get their kids out to daycare or school. We then build mom’s skills and have Bible study. She either has a job or goes job hunting. She learns how to save her money. And we help transition her into her own housing.

The day also consists of people coming to our door for emergency food assistance, snack packs, hygiene kits, clothing, diapers, school supplies and other needs. We also teach computer skills, literacy skills, adult basic education and English as a second language to women in our city. We have community Bible study, health education and nutrition classes at the center as well.

People often show up at the door in crisis situations and need someone to counsel with them and pray with them.

We also have big events such as block parties, health fairs, pet fairs and fall festivals. During the summer, we have a preventative program for girls called Up 2 HOPE that encourages girls ages 8 and up to avoid destructive lifestyles and to stay in school.

We want to reach them while they are young, so they will not need us when they are older.

The bigger picture

As I look at my calling and our world today, I become more convinced that ministry evangelism is the greatest way to reach the world for Christ and to share His love. The statistics are staggering:

  • Statistics show that the United States ranks 3rd in the world with regard to lostness.
  • 500,000 American children under the age of 5 are homeless.
  • On any given night, there are 2 million homeless in the United States.
  • Every 9 seconds a woman is beaten in the United States.
  • One out of five adults in United States cannot read or write.
  • One third of our students in the U.S. ages 12 to 18 reports having been bullied in school.
  • 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually.
  • As many as 2.8 million children live on the streets, a third of whom are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
  • There is a trafficking victim brought to the U. S. every 10 minutes.
  • Today, at least 3,750 persons in the Gulf Coast Region have been identified as potential victims of human trafficking for the purposes of forced labor following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – 704 cases are in the New Orleans Metro Area alone.
  • Louisiana has the most homeless children in America per capita, but every state has homeless children.

This is but a glimpse into the reality of our world and community. But this brief glimpse demonstrates that one of the best ways to make a difference is to use the life that God has given you to invest in other people’s lives through building relationships that bring about positive change.

Let us not cut back on doing ministry evangelism in a time in which our world’s needs have increased, but let us be found faithful following Jesus example in Matthew 25. And may you take part in the way only you can.

You are the only you.

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For more information on Baptist Friendship House, go online to http://www.baptistfriendshiphouse.blogspot.com or follow Friendship House on Facebook and Twitter.