Sunday, November 22, 2009

Visit to a city mission

A few days ago I left a message for Lily, the head of one of the city mission agencies that I visited two weeks ago on the tour of outreaches to the poor, the immigrants, the drug addicts, the homeless, and the ex-convicts.

Lily and I used to work together more than 20 years ago, she as an engineer designing spectrophotometers, I as a technical writer writing the documentation. I worked freelance at the time, so I eventually moved on, but we stayed in touch through lunches and Christmas newsletters. But I never expected that we'd get back together in the basement of a church as we did yesterday.

Several years ago in her Christmas newsletter, Lily announced that she'd quit her job – retired she put it – and started an after-school program for city children where she worked for $1 per year. Wow, I thought, my curiosity piqued, I should visit her. But I didn't follow through for many years, not until yesterday.

I brought along Alexandra and Larissa so they, too, could get the detailed tour and to hear the story of how the mission began.

We walked into this large, brick church built in 1907. In the basement, the smell of food and the sight of dozens of rather bedraggled-looking people sitting at tables greeted us. I scurried around the building looking for Lily, peeking into the kitchen, the medical office, and the thrift store before I found her.

Lily's soft-spoken voice was sometimes had to hear above the ruckus as we toured the facilities for over an hour.

"You started all this?" I asked her, incredulous.

We saw over 100 people in the fellowship hall eating breakfast and dozens of volunteers cooking and distributing the meal. We observed a wheel chair bound woman coming to visit a social worker. We chatted with a medical technologist, who described how she serves the area's children with virtual medical visits via a computer and cameras, and a link to the local hospital where a doctor communicates with her. "He sees all I see via the cameras and equipment I have connected to the computer." We walked through the store in the church building that sold used clothing for a pittance. And we glimpsed into the food pantry supplied by the local food bank. We saw children darting through the halls, on their way to be picked up and driven on a day trip to an area park or museum, or apple picking. "We take them places every other Saturday that they'd never have the chance to visit with their families," said Lily.

Upstairs Lily showed us the rooms for the after-school day care program for grades 1 though 6. The videography classes for teens. Sewing classes. Bible studies. Men's Bible studies. My head swam with the details.

"How on earth did you start all this?"

"I didn't know what I was getting into," Lily laughed. "I first started the store that sells used clothing. I did that in 1998 while still working. In 2002, I quit my job and first started the after-school program for kids to keep them off the streets and away from the drug dealers. Many of these kids come from homes where the parents work and they would be coming home to an empty house – or to the street."

One thing had led to another as more and more people suggested additional ministries. In fact, we talked with the woman who suggested – and now heads – the weekly Saturday morning breakfasts. "And we also serve dinner once a month," she added. "By the way, Lily, I want to talk to you about an idea…"

"Oh, no," smiled Lily. "Another idea? Later."

Just then a stocky black woman insisted on getting food from the food pantry even though she didn't have the proper documentation. "I don't have any food at home," she claimed. She was kind of belligerent, not meek or polite as if asking a favor, but as if she were demanding a right. She did get her food, but frankly, I'd have a hard time working with people like that.

Still, you could tell by looking around that these people had been beaten down by life. We heard many stories, but the ones that touched Alexandra's heart most were about the Nepali immigrants. Bill, a tall, paunchy man with graying hair, had interrupted Lily's description of some ministry to tell us about these new immigrants.

"These kids get really picked on in the city schools. I would call them assaults. The first day in one of the city high schools, one Nepali was eating lunch in the cafeteria when someone threw a condom in his lunch! Hardly a day goes by when one of these kids isn't thrown up against a wall and frisked for money. One kid had a trashcan emptied over his head in the men's room! Welcome to America. The thing is, these boys come from refugee camps and they've had a life that is way rougher than any of the kids in school ever experienced. They're time bombs waiting to go off. Push one of them too far and they're bound to explode."

What a way to be treated in an unfamiliar culture. My heart broke for them.

Back home, Alexandra couldn't get this conversation out of her head. What school did this happen in? How old were the victims? How could this occur? This kind of thing never happened in their suburban public high school…

My main question was: How can we get involved with Lily's ministry?

The best option I saw was to come to the after-school program and give special presentations. "Show them something from Ukraine – dress in the traditional outfits, talk about the food, anything," Lily had suggested.

Although I've done many such presentations in the past for my kids' classrooms when they were young, my challenge will be to get the girls to do the presentations. We have to take it one step at a time. Perhaps it will be the beginning of something.

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What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)