What is Family?

Fam3Christmas is traditionally a time to be with family. April and I have great memories of times with our parents when we were children, and times with our own children when they were small. This year, we will all be having a bit of a reunion in Oklahoma, with all of our children, the in-laws and extended family.

As many of you know, the word “family” has been an elastic term in our household. First there were our biological blessings, Isaiah, Josiah and Alaina. And then God led us on an amazing journey to adopt Ruben and Abby. And then came LJ and Josh, our godsons who grew up across the street, and who we add to as many family gatherings as possible. This year has stretched our idea of “children” one more time, as we have become guardians for Anthony, Agustin and Gabriel.

“Guardianship” we have found is particularly difficult to navigate. It is this in-between stage that our society has never been able to clearly define. What do you do in a situation when children have biological parents, but those parents are not able to care for their children? Its difficult to have them call us “mom and dad”, yet these children have expressed the longing to have a “mom and dad”. We all don’t quite know what to call the current situation. Some of our other children struggle with thinking of them as “brothers”.  And what about the grandparents and extended family? We haven’t made it particularly easy on them.

As I look for answers, I have discovered that the scriptures are full of God redefining the word “family”. A few examples:

  • In Matthew 12:50, Jesus tells us that his own “brothers, sisters and mother” are not the biological ones, but rather “those who do the will of my Father in heaven.”
  • In Matthew 19 and Mark 10, the parable of the rich young ruler ends not with a statement so much about money, but a statement about family. “No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields–and with them, persecutions)”.
  • Paul starts off his first letter to Timothy with “To Timothy, my true son in the faith.”

God Himself appears to be on a mission to continually add to His own family. John 1:12 and Ephesians 1:5 tell us that those who have received Jesus through faith become the adopted children of God. (Unfortunately, not everyone wants to be adopted.)

Christmas is not really about Jesus. It’s about God the Father starting a family, a family that he wants to include YOU in and many others in. Romans 8:29, “That [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”  So, as you celebrate this Christmas, celebrate the birthday of Jesus, your older brother (or if he isn’t YOUR older brother, seriously consider changing that!), but also be like your Father, and open your arms bigger than you thought you could, and accept some new “family” into your home, into your goofy traditions, your Christmas meal time, your football game watching, etc., etc.  Look particularly to those whose families are broken (James 1:27).  I challenge you to search through the Bible and look for all the ways God calls us out on our sometimes selfish idea of what “family” is and post some of those on our blog or Facebook page. Our experience has been that children, all children, are a blessing from the Lord, however they get into the family.

Merry Christmas

Following God – What an Adventure

P8240019Clara Wong hails from Michigan and recently volunteered for 3 months with RYAA as part of a gap year between high school and college. Below is her final reflection on her time with us as she goes back to Michigan, and likely to Honduras for her next adventure. We miss her already! Follow her blog at http://clarasviajescondios.blogspot.com

Following God—what an adventure. Sometimes there is so much to say, so much that He’s taught, so much to be thankful for, that finding words is overwhelming. But I will try anyway! These past three months in East Palo Alto have been such an amazing time of growth and joy.

It probably seems foolish in the eyes of the world to coach soccer without an ounce of experience with playing soccer, let alone coaching it. And it probably is foolish. Soccer is not my strength.  But in this time, God has taught me more fully what it means that in our weakness, He can be stronger. I remember one time in particular, when my assistant coach, who has been a huge help, was last-minute unable to make it to practice. He usually lead the first half of practice, and I the second half, and I had prepared ahead of time expecting it to be that way. When I found out twenty minutes before practice that he wasn’t coming, I scrambled to figure out more activities to do, but came up rather dry. But the time came, and I had to go without much plan. I walked to the field, praying, “God, I really need you to come through tonight! I don’t know how I am going to lead this team well! I honestly feel like I really don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know a lot about soccer and I feel like I can’t improvise. Please, provide!” and He did. I asked one of the players dads, a former soccer player, if he would be willing to help out with some drills that night. He was more than happy to help and led the boys through drills until the sun was gone. I saw for one of the first times in my life what it means to rely on God. Honestly, in my life, most of the places I’ve been, I can handle everything. How many times have I said, “God, help me,” and then proceeded to do everything on my own power? But this time, God took me to a place that was actually beyond myself. I cried out to God and He provided. He didn’t magically give me knowledge about soccer or how to coach. Because He has something different in store. This is not ABOUT me knowing everything there is to know about soccer. It’s not about doing everything I can to keep from looking stupid! When I came to the end of myself, I saw a parent involved in his child’s life, and in the life of the community. I saw him engaging, I saw him living vicariously through the boys. And if I knew what I was doing, that wouldn’t be the case. God really moved that night, and it was in a great moment of weakness.

I believe that God has also begun to make me a more honest person. In my time here, I played with kids during recess at Cesar Chavez school. I quickly saw much brokenness and many kids in difficult situations. The sense of hopelessness was strong. At first, I tried to fend off this hopelessness through optimism; I would use one positive interaction or one “good day” to assume that everything was going to turn around and be alright. But God broke through those walls of over-optimism and made me more honest with myself and with Him. When I let the hurt and the heartache get to me, it really did. It was hard to believe that a few minutes of playing could do ANYTHING for the amount of brokenness in that place. It was even more hard to believe that God was actually PRESENT there. I began to doubt if He was moving at all. Turns out that place of doubt was the first step in God teaching me what it means to live in a world that is “still trembling in the wake of the fall” and yet to never forget that we serve a God who is ultimately going to wipe away every tear. We are living between the already and the not yet. Christ already did what it takes for us to live with God; but He hasn’t come back yet. He is going to bring foretastes of redemption, yes; but final redemption has not come yet, and until it does, there will still be tears for all those hurting. And our job is to keep letting our hearts be broken for the brokenness, so that we hunger more for Christ to come. Through time and many wise, encouraging people, God brought me to a place of peace, where I realized that He hears the cries of His afflicted ones and will surely finish whatever work He started. This is perhaps one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since being here.

I am so grateful for the three months I’ve had in East Palo Alto, to get a bigger glimpse of life and of the God we serve. It has been an immense privilege and I hope I never stop thanking God for it.

Youth Group from Tulsa, OK serves the East Palo Alto community

If you had visited Cesar Chavez field for the first week of our summer sports camp you would have seen 13 Oklahomans sporting matching jackets with E.P.A. in bold letters printed on the back. This team was such a blessing both to RYAA and the community as they ran a week long soccer and basketball camp for over 84 youth. The mornings allowed them to gain training on Christian community development, working with difficult kids, and other topics. The afternoons allowed them to apply that training. The leader of the group Michael Terwilliger (Twiggs) talked to me about the teams’ experience in East Palo Alto.

What were your goals in coming here?

We had a few goals in coming here.  One was to join Jesus and the people that He is using in this subcultural context to see biblical mission lived out.  In order to do that we would try to encourage the Pekarys and other Jesus followers to continue in reaching the lost, discipling the new believers and sending out the maturing disciples with the message of the Gospel to impact individuals, homes, communities and the world.

What were some of the most memorable moments of this trip?

One memorable moment was the night the student team had a 10:00pm Starbucks craving and went out to a local shop.  Upon finishing their drinks they felt it appropriate to make a tunnel of hands and arms and make any passers by use the tunnel as they were cheered for by our team.  One of the pedestrians was Gene.  Gene had just recently returned from deployment and was now a homeless vet bound to a wheelchair.  After telling us that he was a practicing Muslim, we had all sorts of non-religious conversation with him and at the end of our time Gene asked us(told us) to pray for him.  Without a moment passing the team surrounded him and placed their hands on him and began to pray.  At the end of the prayer Gene asked us if we would do him a favor and take him to church with us in the morning.  We agreed.  Early the next morning we picked him up for church and was a little late getting there.  We ended up sitting center isle last row.  The message was on the rich man and Lazarus.  At the end of the message when all were asked to stand, two of our team remained seated next to Gene who demanded that they stood up.  Putting on his gloves he said that the two needed to stand because he was going forward to give his life to Jesus and walk away from being a Muslim.  It was an incredible moment.       

What encouragement would you give to other people who might want to volunteer with us?

I would tell them that it is a great place where they can live with and serve a predominately Latino group of youth and families under the umbrella of a family who has been doing this type of ministry for over 20 years.  They also will be able to work alongside the next generation of disciplers already in place sharing the gospel with youth and families of EPA.  Training sessions that they provide allow for some fresh perspective on what mission looks like and how it works in small communities.

You are the first youth group I have ever heard of, who has come on a mission trip to East Palo Alto. Most of this is probably due to the reputation that East Palo Alto has as a violent city. Why did this not deter you?

We try to model what it looks like to “go” to our youth here in Tulsa.  We operate from a definition of mission that offers a challenge, adventure and reward that we encourage the youth to pray about.  We were not deterred, because all who went on this trip sensed the Spirit of our Lord leading them. 

How have you seen members of your team grow and learn from this experience?

Team members have grown in their understanding of what their relationship with the Lord looks like and how and when they “need” Him.  They have grown in their relationship with other team mates by living in close quarters together, working with a common goal and purpose, and serving each other and the community they have been called to.  They have learned what it looks like to relocate and “live among the people” they are called to serve and point towards Jesus.

What are some of the challenges that your team faced?

Some of the challenges were exercising discernment in certain situations that dealt with “giving” to those in need.  They had time to discuss and practice and see things put into practice pertaining to how best to help people who have needs.  Another area of challenge was how to become enmeshed with another team of leaders in a personal healthy unified way and not just operate together but in autonomous teams.  These were some challenges that after our debrief have proven to be beneficial to their growth in understanding more of the Kingdom of God and their place in it. 

A couple weeks after this interview, I talked again with Twiggs. He was happy to report that the youth who went on the trip have begun to see their own communities with completely new eyes. They now see that opportunities to serve the Lord and help the needy are all around them. The boys in the group have recently started playing basketball every week with some guys at a neighborhood park with the intention of sharing their faith and discipling them. The girls from the group are going to be juniors next year, and are already making plans to befriend and disciple underclassmen at their High Schools.

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Why did you move to East Palo Alto? An interview with Steve and Amy Joh

In a previous post we introduced the idea of “relocation” as a beginning step towards community development and spreading the Kingdom of God here on Earth. Like the Pekarys, The Joh family is another family who have moved to East Palo Alto after having learnt from Dr. Perkins’ promotion of Jesus and divine relocation.

In the beginning…

Before they were married and before they were even dating, Amy and Steve separately heard about the value of relocation and incarnational ministry while working with Bayshore Christian Ministries (BCM). For both of them this was right after college. Amy had moved straight to East Palo Alto in order to volunteer with BCM and quickly discovered the practical aspects of living in the city she was serving. In reflection she described how, “…you see more of the needs of the community as they start to become your needs.”

Having grown up in Los Altos, Steve recalls that the only thing he knew about EPA was that he was told not to stop on his way across the Dumbarton bridge. Yet after graduating Steve’s interest in social justice and ministry resulted in a job with BCM and he soon found himself in EPA all the time.

While working together at BCM, Steve and Amy began to date and the two began to become increasingly familiar with the families, youth and city of EPA. After Steve got a job with Highway Community church the two married and moved to Sunnyvale.

Relocating back to East Palo Alto!

“Being away in Sunnyvale made me realize how much people care about this city and it made me realize the real depth of the community here in East Palo Alto. People are more connected; they fight more for their community and have pride from being from here. The people of this city have worked hard for this place and they love it here, this is their community.” –Amy

After a year of living in Sunnyvale, Steve and Amy were compelled to move back and onto Beech Street. Steve was initially hesitant but eventually came to a place where he felt peace with the move. Steve commented that, “not only was it very convenient, with our current house being so close to BCM, but we knew it was both good and right.”  Aside from the practicality of Amy working just a few blocks away from home (an increasingly important detail since the arrival of their second daughter), both Steve and Amy have described the move and relocation as a step of obedience for them.

Steve remarks that, “Biblically speaking, there’s a constant theme of there being something special about the poor. God is with the poor.” Amy added that, “God cares about the poor. We felt that we should go where God is, and God feels more visible here than in the surrounding suburbia. Hard things happen here but being part of a community that suffers, forced to be aware, to participate, to live through that suffering has forced us to have a deeper faith and hope that is in your face.”

The Joh family

Thoughts on Relocation.

Both Steve and Amy have remarked that the step of relocating and living incarnationally has benefitted their ministries. Amy has found that it is easier to connect to the people she serves at BCM and that living in the same community helps to ease barriers. Kids and parents alike respect and treat her different. The act of merely living in the same community, Amy has found, “demonstrates the depths of how much you care in a way that words can’t.” Steve has found that living in EPA has made it easier for him to challenge and change perceptions that people in the church may have regarding the city. The house has served as a sort of “bridge home” that serves a safe place for Christians from outside EPA to begin to think about serving those in more tough situations. It also has forced him to think about living out what he preaches as someone on staff at Highway. Living in EPA has enabled him to live out what he teaches when it comes to loving the poor and underprivileged.

In moving to EPA the Johs are trying to follow the footsteps of Jesus, who himself relocated from heaven to Earth in order to share with his community the love of God. Since doing so they have learned new things about themselves, about God and about what it means to be a part of a community. It’s not always easy, as the couple have described the grief of seeing friends and acquaintances go through difficult times that have included gangs, drugs and death. They also add that they are very much still trying to figure things out and know that they will eventually have to decide where to send their daughters to school. In the meantime, Amy’s concluding thoughts on the manner is that, “While relocation is not for everyone, for those who are working with the poor, it’s very important.”