People Who Have Wrecked My Life, Part 2 – Ken & Tracey

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. – Isaiah 1:17

Twenty-four hours into our church’s annual youth summer mission trip, I met two people who instantly changed my outlook on life. (I started to write “changed my life”… but I guess that will depend on what I do with what I learned from them.)

After a full day of orientation to our destination of Las Vegas, our team was ready to go actually do something useful. So we were excited to learn that we would be spending the evening hanging out with and praying for a local foster family whom we were assigned to through a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) organization called “Foster Connect.” Foster Connect — as a 30-ish, perky woman named Clare explained to us through role plays and Q & A — recruits foster parents through local churches in order to get more Christians involved in this broken system. Host churches support the foster families connected to their church by praying for them, helping financially, and offering childcare relief so tired foster parents can take a much-needed break.

YWAM staffers Brett and Lydia, and Deja — Clare’s 14-year-old foster daughter (who had been with their family less than a month), joined our team and piled into the unwieldy toaster-oven-on-wheels that YWAM called a vehicle for the 20-minute drive to Ken and Tracey’s home. On the ride over, I awkwardly quizzed Deja about being a foster kid.

“So… do you like living with Clare?”

“Yeah. They’re really nice. I’ve had lots who weren’t.”

“Really? That must be tough.” (No kidding. Could I not think of something more compassionate to say?)

“Yeah… ”

“So… have you been in a lot of different homes?”

“When I was little. Some of them were really bad. Then I got adopted, so I’ve been in the same place since I was six.”

“Oh, that’s good — I didn’t realize you were adopted. But wait… you can’t stay there anymore?”

“No. They started abusing me a couple of years ago. So the courts took me away.”

[Awkward silence.] “But… it’s good at Clare’s house?” (Pathetic comeback.)

“Yeah. I hope I get to stay there. I have to go back to court in a couple of weeks, and they might send me someplace else.”

[More awkward silence. What do you say to that? “Gee, Deja, it must be awful to be 14 and have no stability in your life because as soon as you find a place you can call home, the courts might yank you out of it and send you somewhere that totally sucks.”]

But I didn’t say what I was thinking. I just mumbled a feeble, “I’m sorry. I hope you get to stay.”

And mercifully, the conversation came to a screeching halt along with the van as Brett squinted at house numbers in search of Ken and Tracey’s. He pulled over and parked along the curb in a cul-de-sac; we climbed out and looked around at dozens of modest, look-a-like, two-story adobe homes. Brett chose one and marched toward it. We followed, standing in the front yard as he bounded up the front steps and pushed the door bell.

No answer. Brett pushed it again.

Nothing. He knocked. And knocked again.

Shoulders slumped, we were in the process of turning away when the door opened and a tall, friendly looking middle-aged guy poked his head out. “Can I help you?”

He obviously wasn’t expecting us.

After a few awkward moments of trying to explain why we were standing en masse on his front lawn, and deciding whether we should come in anyway or reschedule for another time or just pray for them in the yard so as not to disrupt their dinner, Tracey intervened and saved us, yelling from some unseen location, “Honey, I forgot to tell you they were coming… let them in, for heaven’s sake.”

So in we went, the twelve of us taking over their small (but air conditioned — thank you, God!) living room, perching on the edges of couches and chairs or sprawling on the floor. Tracey was standing in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove and gently giving instructions to five little people who instantly stopped eating to stare at us. Our jaws dropped. There were five of them?

As the kids — three boys and two girls all under age 8 — giggled shyly at us, Tracey introduced them, pointing to each as she said their names: “The littlest one is Riley… and Summer is his sister… and that’s Ezra… and Cody and Crissy are siblings, too.” A squawk came from around the corner, and she quickly disappeared. Ken took over the introductions, explaining that they were in the process of trying to adopt Riley and Summer.

Tracey came back a moment later, holding a tiny brown baby with a head full of curly black hair. “And this is Jamal.” He smiled a toothless baby smile. Our hearts melted and we sighed in unison. Tracey told us that Jamal was four months old and came to them shortly after birth. Despite being born with five illegal substances in his little body, he was doing well. He seemed to be developing normally except for being a little stiff — for some reason, he held his body straight like a board. “Not jello-y, like babies should be,” she said. He was beautiful.

Tracey and Ken (mostly Tracey, as she seemed to be the talker in the family) joined us in the living room and shared their story over the next hour. They told us how they couldn’t have children of their own, so in their 40s (in their forties? That’s my age, and I’m already thinking about that retirement cottage on the beach!) they felt God telling them to foster parent. They were reluctant, but finally gave in and agreed to take one child. Tracey pointed to a photo of a beautiful little girl: “She was our first. We had her for a couple of years and tried to adopt her, but she ended up going to a relative instead.” I felt myself choking back tears, and as I looked around the room, I saw several teenagers doing the same. But Tracey and Ken kept smiling.

They had fostered more than 30 children over the past decade, some for years and some for a few weeks. They never knew how long a child would stay. They never planned to care for so many — it just happened. They never took vacations, rarely went out to dinner, struggled to pay the bills, and trusted God on a daily basis to provide for their emotional and physical needs — including the strength needed to tend to six children.

Brett finally tried to wrap up up the conversation by asking how we could pray for them.  And then we prayed, taking turns interceding for this incredible patchwork quilt of a family. We asked God to take care of their adoption process and give them Summer and Riley. We asked Him to grant them energy and patience. We asked Him to bless them with a new van (because their current one was on its last legs, and how do you transport six kids in Vegas with no van?). We asked that Jamal become more jello-y. As we prayed, I cried. (And as I write this, I’m crying again.)

When we finished praying, we talked some more. And as we talked, the kids gradually grew bolder. They hid around corners at first, playing peek-a-boo with Danny, one of our teenagers who sat at the bottom of the stairs. Danny became the gatekeeper: Once they decided he was safe, they tumbled all over him, and then all over us — sitting on laps and doing flips and letting us tickle them. The boys rough-housed with the older kids, who asked if we could stay over. (Tracey explained that they had hosted missions teams before and had a dozen teenagers sleep in their living room, so the kids were used to guests.) The teenage girls told the little girls how pretty they were and took turns holding baby Jamal.

After extended goodbyes that took nearly a half hour, we ambled back to our van with a melancholy mix of emotions that were hard to sort out. “Ken and Tracey are my new heroes,” I told one of the teenagers. I meant it.

I felt like I finally understood fully what Jesus meant when He said these words:  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Matthew 16:24-27)

I think we Christians all think we’re doing that. I think we think that if we read the Bible enough, and pray enough, and tithe enough, we’re good to go. That idea has left me unsettled for a very long time… and now I know why. Because I’ve now seen people who are doing what Jesus said. And I know that most of the rest of us are not even close.

THIS is what it looks like to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus: It’s to give up your time, your money, your vacation, your retirement travel plans, your home, your peace, and your quiet so that you can obey God’s voice telling you to take in little children who need a mom and a dad and a safe place to stay for however long the courts decide. It’s to enter into a broken system like foster care and be a light on the inside instead of picketing or petitioning or complaining from the outside. It’s to give from the deepest part of yourself to love others in a purely selfless way that can only come from God.

I hope one day soon I can do that, too.

My niece, Kylie, holding baby Jamal.

Becoming Uncomfortable

My comfort zone is fairly wide. It has been stretched, twisted and beaten into submission over the years by experiences God has dragged me into or that I’ve unwittingly plunged myself into. (Unless we’re talking bodily harm here, in which case the zone is significantly smaller, although still probably bigger than the average 45-year-old woman’s. Chaperoning mission trips gets me into all kinds of predicaments — rock climbing, caving, whitewater rafting, rappelling — in an attempt to save face before a bunch of teenagers. Yes, I’m still vain enough to care what they think.)

However, this summer God forced me to confront new levels of discomfort I didn’t even realize I had. And, of course, He did so via one of His usual methods — the mid-summer mission trip.

When our new youth pastor, Cory, asked if I’d chaperone once again, I didn’t even hesitate. I’ve co-led our church’s winter weekend and summer week-long trips for teenagers for the past few years. I love watching the kids experience God in new ways and learn to serve Him by loving on people whom our society considers “the least of these.” By now teenagers, homeless people, earthy 20-year-old mission guides, soup kitchens, public prayer, and driving our church’s 15-passenger conversion van on urban freeways or Appalachian mountain roads are all within that comfort zone of mine. So I said, “Sure. I’d love to. Where are we going?”

And he said, “Vegas.”

Vegas. In July.

I wanted to ask a lot more questions, but I think I just said something like, “K. Sounds good.”

So off to Vegas we went — six high school seniors, one college sophomore, Cory and me — to spend a week in Sin City with an organization called Youth With a Mission (YWAM). Things were about to get uncomfortable. Rather than try to recap the whole trip, I’ll explain each episode by the level of discomfort it caused, from mild chafing to serious churning.

Discomfort #1: Vegas itself. There really is no other place like it. The Strip is a superficial Mecca for pleasure seekers of all kinds — a strange blend of glassy-eyed gamblers, wide-eyed foreigners, stressed out parents with toddlers in tow, and upper middle class vacationers with maxed-out credit cards. In contrast to the strip’s massive casinos and cacophony of lights/sounds/people, the neighborhood surrounding the YWAM base on F Street was barren and silent. Blocks of flat-roofed beige buildings on dirt lots bordered by rusted metal fences. Dust-coated people sleeping in alleys or camped out under highway bridges. Abandoned cars. Glass-ridden playgrounds void of children. I felt like our group was part of some bizarre social experiment, traipsing through the world’s largest H&M and dining at the Bellagio buffet one day, then eating day-old pastries and rice & beans at the Vegas Rescue Mission the next. We criss-crossed these two worlds all week, retreating to our bullet-proofed, gated base at night. I found myself wondering where my daily life fell on this continuum and wrestling with the discomfort of that question.

Discomfort #2: Heat. One of the first things I did after learning of our Vegas destination was Google the average summer temperature, so I went in prepared for it to hit a hundred degrees, or maybe a little more. But since everyone knows Vegas has a “dry heat” rather than the dripping humidity typical of summers in my home state of Ohio, I figured it couldn’t be that bad…right? Our first night there, the YWAMers took us to the top of a mountain for worship overlooking the city. It was 10 o’clock at night, and it was still 104 degrees. The steady wind felt like a full-body blowdryer set on “high,” and we squinted to keep it from blowing dust into our eyes. By Tuesday (the day that, of course, we were outside for more hours than any other day) it was 117 in the shade, and locals were complaining that it was the hottest day in five or ten years. That was the day we had a dance party with 50 or so kids on the unshaded playground of a local housing project and fed them spaghetti for lunch. (Yes — spaghetti. The perfect food for a blistering summer day.) Fortunately we were drinking gallons of water, and no one went to the hospital. But that night, while we cooled off in front of air conditioners back at the base and slurped tepid water from our Camelbacks, I thought of the very pregnant homeless woman I’d prayed with in the park that morning and wondered how she was staying hydrated and where she was sleeping that night in the miserable heat.

Discomfort #3: Social awkwardness. YWAMers, I soon discovered, are quite comfortable with social awkwardness. They can rapid-fire unfunny jokes and go unphased by the groans of teenage listeners. They laugh loudly and often and at everything. And they will talk to anyone on the street about Jesus, even if it brings on public ridicule. After giving us a crash course in street evangelism, the YWAMers loaded us 17-deep in their 15-passenger, poorly air conditioned vans and dumped us in the parking lot of a nearby outdoor mall, where in pairs we gave belief surveys to unsuspecting shoppers until security politely but firmly asked us to stop. The next day, we did “free prayer” on Fremont Street in the older section of Vegas, approaching street vendors, tourists, and others passers by, asking if we could pray for them. (Surprisingly, about half of them let us.) There we managed to draw the attention of a very angry and slightly crazy religious zealot who harassed us off and on for more than an hour and told us we were representing Satan. The next day, we did similar stuff at an enclosed mall, which was by far the worst place to approach people. My teammate and I got lots of rejections but did have an interesting conversation with an Orthodox Jew; however, our only actual prayer was with an elderly black woman sitting on a bench who turned out to be sleeping behind her dark glasses. That same evening, we did “cross walk” on the strip; this involved two of us carrying a giant wooden cross back and forth between the Harley Davidson Cafe and the MGM while the rest trailed behind looking for people to talk with and pray for. (Believe me, there is something really disturbing about seeing people mock or even run from the cross.) Finally, the grand finale of social awkwardness — our team led a worship service on the Strip in front of Bally’s. With less than 30 minutes of prep, we prayed, sang, shared testimonies, and preached — sandwiched in between an amazingly talented hip-hop dance troupe and a professional grade Motown performer. (I found myself interpreting what was happening for some Norwegian tourists, and also had a great conversation with a slightly high homeless woman who thought the blond girl in our skit was Jesus’ girlfriend.) Although every single one of those experiences challenged us (and I would probably never try any of them at home), I realized by the end of the week that we had all been forced to get over ourselves and our fear of what others think of us. Instead of dwelling on our own insecurities, we started hearing people’s stories and having positive conversations about faith. It was still awkward… but we were okay with it. And by comparison it was a piece of cake to initiate conversation with the man sitting beside me on the flight home.

Discomfort #4: Humility. I met so many different people that week whose spiritual strength made my faith look flimsy. There were the Foster Connect people who talked to us about their ministry of supporting foster families (for more on that, see my next post — People Who Have Wrecked My Life, Part 2) and who sacrificed personal time and comfort for the sake of kids with no place to go. There were the YWAM staffers: Sara, who grew up Muslim until her father died, who led a Bible study for 50 teenagers in her basement (while a teenager herself), and who was struggling to help her family get back on their feet after they lost everything due to her mother’s illness. Kenny, the bearded biker and spoken-word artist who shared his life with us through poetry. Lauren, who as a teenager was the go-to prayer warrior in her school and who challenged our kids to do likewise. There were the often nameless folks at the rescue mission who so willingly came forward to let teenagers pray for their deepest needs: “That I could stop drinking.” “That my son will stop having seizures.” “That we can become citizens.” “That my baby will be okay.” There were the “Burners” (as we dubbed them) — a group of teens and 20-somethings who stayed at the YWAM base with us doing street ministry in Vegas as part of their summer-long journey across the Southwest. These people and others helped me realize how superficial my spirituality can be, and how little I’ve sacrificed.

Discomfort #5: True freedom. Our last night in Vegas, the YWAMers held a “commitment service” for the kids, and the Burners joined in the worship time. About a hundred of us crammed into the YWAM base common room where we prayed and sang, and sang and prayed, and prayed some more. I don’t know what it was — the uninhibited way the worship leaders played their music, the Burners praying passionately in a half circle behind us, the kids sprawled all over the floor… or if it’s just that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — but I have never felt such freedom in worship. A few songs in, even jaded, middle-aged chaperones (like me) were jumping up and down, waving our arms over our heads, singing loudly, “We were made for – we were made for – we were made for love….” We didn’t care who was watching. We were celebrating an amazing week of seeing God do incredible, uncomfortable things through us. And it just felt right to worship Him with everything we had. So I danced, and I sang, and I prayed for kids in ways I never had. And I found myself wondering why worship in church was never like this, and wishing I could stay in that moment for a very long time. Because I felt free. And if that was what freedom felt like… then what was holding us back the rest of the time?

But perhaps the most uncomfortable experience of all was returning home, and easing right back into my life like I would a well worn pair of slippers. Realizing that, just six weeks after one of the most powerful weeks of my life, I had started to forget the lessons I learned and retreat back into my old comfort zone. (We’ve all done this, haven’t we?)

So my prayer today is that when God expands our comfort zone, we don’t let it shrink back to its former size. That we learn, and we keep learning, and we put into action the stuff that we learn.

And that we stay uncomfortable.

Our youth summer mission team in the Vegas airport.