Guess where I spent last weekend???
Still no clue? Check out a few more pictures...
If you guessed the center of the city, you're right! But I'm kind of thinking you might not have guesssed that and if you did, you might be wondering why would I be there? And why in the world would I spend the whole weekend there?
Ok, so I went with a few of our high school students and leaders on something called an urban dip, which is what I would describe as a mini inner-city mission trip. It was organized by Phil Skei, who some of you may know and who is the director of F.I.F.U.L. (Fresno Institute For Urban Leadership).
Phil and his wife, Rici are amazing yet ordinary people who have chosen to relocate to the downtown area to minister by loving their neighbors in a practical way. After having dinner at their house on Friday night, Phil shared the story of how God brought him to this point and he challenged us with Jesus' words to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength- by loving our neighbors as ourselves. It made an impact on everyone in our group that night and will not be forgotten.
After dinner we went to Eaton Plaza and watched an outdoor movie with a bunch of people from all over the city. After spending the night on a nice soft floor of a local church (that would be sarcasm), we got up and worked on a project with Bob the builder who is the director of F.U.N.D. (Fresno Urban Neighborhood Development). We helped to build a fence and paint for a preschool that is a part of FIRM (Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministry). This ministry to Southeast Asian refugee families is one that our family has been involved with off and on for the past year or so, so it was great to be able to help them out in this small way. It was a lot of fun as well! Here are a few pictures:
Next we had lunch at a local Armenian deli. It was my first time to try some of the traditional dishes and my favorite was the cheese borae (pretty sure I didn't spell that right.)
We then got in the car for an amazing driving tour of the city. This was not your average tour, you know here's this there's that. There was some of that, but there was also a lot of questions asked as we drove around downtown and beyond. Questions and things to observe like "What can you learn about the city from what you see? What might be the impact on people living in some of the neighborhoods of highly concentrated poverty you see? Who appear to be the largest employers downtown? (we saw 6 bail bonds on one street... across from the courthouse and jail of course.) What kinds of social services do you see? (none) What kinds of businesses? (at this point of the tour we hadn't seen a single grocery store, bank, restaurant.) I think the hardest part was driving along motel drive and hearing about the life of the people who live there. Hearing about the ones who live in these motels for as long as they can until their assistance check runs out and they live on the streets for the rest of the month and then start all over again. We imagined what it would be like to live this way as a family and the impact it would have on you and your children. The last part of the tour was through the Lowell neighborhood- a densely populated, high crime, high poverty, high drug use neighborhood- a neighborhood where several families have intentionally relocated from other parts of town in order to serve their neighbors and further God's kingdom there.
After my car broke down (yes, perfect timing!) we headed to Fulton mall for a brief excursion. We put ourselves in the shoes of a migrant family who needed to find services for things such as health care and emergency shelter. Everything that we needed to find was closed- it made us wonder how a working family who needed services would get help when everything was open only M-F 9-5! Oh, and we met a young street evangelist too- very interesting!
Next came my favorite part: the water project. It is really a very simple minstry of handing out water bottles to folks at the homeless encampment on H street, but by meeting a very real need of not having any water to drink- we were able to show love as Jesus would: interacting with people. I got to talk with a lady who had been out there for the past few months and she asked if I would be back the next day. I, of course had to tell her no- but it deifinitely caused me to evaluate my priorities and ask myself what was stopping me from coming back at least once a week or two? I had to confess that it was not the fear of going "downtown" like some people would say, but it was my own selfishness that keeps me from just getting out there and loving others!
After a wonderful El Salvadorian meal and teaching at Todd & Carrie Minturn's house (more relocators), we headed back to our sleeping quarters and got up the next morning bright and early for church on the west-side! We went to West Side Church of God and WOW is all I can say! The Spirit was alive and moving in that place and we left so excited and blessed by God's children.
Even though we were small in number (only 3 high-school students) it was the perfect group and the Lord revealed Himself to us in a completely new way- He gave us more of His heart for the city. About a year ago, I read the book by Randy White (one of the first relocators about 13 years ago) Journey to the Center of the City. This book, along with teaching from Perspectives, challenged me and changed the way I viewed a lot of things. Around this same time Randy was taking an Urban ministry course and would get excited about the things the Lord was showing him. We have loved getting to know some of the families who live down there. We have talked and prayed off and on about moving and relocating to the city, but so far have not yet felt it was the right timing. Honestly, I can tell you that I am anticipating that the next move we make will either be to another country or to downtown Fresno. Now I know that those sound like extreme opposites, but if you knew us and the passion God has given us to further His kingdom, you'd understand! So, for the time being we are here, but with always the possibility in our minds that He may be calling us elsewhere...
I'll end with a few quotes from Randy White's book:
"We need to understand the city as not inherently evil in itself. It is an environment that provides greater opportunities for human sinfulness to manifest itself- and therefore greater opportunities for the gospel to show its empowering and healing relevance."
Let us go into the city and observe God at work, but it will be even more than that. We will be relating to God as he comes to us as a homeless person, an unsupervised adolescent, a pregnant teen, a "third strike" felon, or little girl wanting candy at the door. Jesus said that when we reach out to people like this, we are interacting with Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40)