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The passages below are taken from Thomas A. Shaw & Dwight A. Clough’s book “Amazing Faith,” published in 2003 by Moody Publishers.
This is it. I am toast.
The gang leader was walking toward me. Here I was, a young white Kansas woman, wearing a dress, all alone except for the little girl I was with, in the middle of Cabrini Green, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago.
“Are you Tammy ‘White?” he asked.
I nodded. How does he know my name?
“You’re mentoring my cousin,” he continued.
“Oh, really?” I said.
“Yeah, I had a tutor when I was a kid.”
I started to relax.
“I just want you to know that whenever you’re in the Green, you’ll always be protected.”
. . . .
I came to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute to become a foreign missionary. But I found my real calling two blocks away on the streets of Cabrini Green. I fell in love with the people in this neighborhood that was feared and avoided by most of Chicago’s millions.
As an organizer of a Big Brother/Big Sister program, I imagined bringing Jesus to that violent neighborhood. But when I got there, I discovered He was already there. He was alive and well, living inside people the rest of the world had forgotten. The women I met who lived in this war zone radiated a faith that transcended anything I had ever experienced.
Most people stay out of Cabrini Green because they don’t want to be robbed, raped, or worse. I went in. Though I survived without harm---the gang leader was true to his word---my faith almost did not survive what I experienced.
I wanted to tell these little girls that the love of Jesus would make their lives beautiful. I wanted to tell them that everything would be OK if only they would trust in God. I wanted to say, “Follow Jesus, and He will protect you.”
But those sayings didn’t stack up to the reality I witnessed.
The Christianity I had grown up with didn’t work in the inner city. As I walked into a world of unimaginable suffering, doubts piled high inside. Questions I had never before faced now screamed at me.
If God is so powerful, where is He when His people cry out to Him? If He’s so powerful, where is He when these children trust Him and then they are molested that same night? How am I supposed to explain to them who God is and why they should give Him their whole lives when He doesn’t protect them? Why would God give man free will when the city overflows with the trouble it has caused?
I really did not have good answers. The well-meaning platitudes of suburban Christianity just did not match what I saw day after day. God does as He pleases, and I couldn’t understand why He pleased to let people suffer so.
What kind of God do I serve? Does God, as I know Him, even exist? Or is everything I believe just a clever lie?
But I met people in the inner city who kept the faith, who loved God even though their circumstances were deplorable and they had little hope that those circumstances would change. And I met children and teens who really wanted their lives to be different, who were receptive to Christ.
What do I have to offer them?
My struggle intensified when I saw several of my friends become alienated from other Christians because my friends struggled with the abuse they had endured in their lives.
God, where are You in this? What can we count on You for?
I tried talking with some of my teachers, but the ones I turned to had difficulty understanding what was going on inside me. As I searched for answers, I traveled to Europe and studied at L’Abri. And I talked to many seasoned people who were in ministry. Some of them were honest enough to say they had felt the same way many times, not only in their youth, but also later when they suffered personally. One man served on the mission field for many years only to lose his wife. He struggled with doubt and anger over the goodness of God’s intentions.
I was honest with God. I argued with Him. I told Him about my doubts. God honored that honesty.1 As I revisited the Gospels, He convinced me that there was no one else like Jesus. There was no one else to turn to---whether I understood Him or not, whether I agreed with Him or not. I began to really believe what the Bible teaches: We do live in a fallen world. We’re not in heaven yet.
My struggle was not cleanly resolved with pat answers and nice sounding sayings. Instead my thoughts went something like this: I guess I don’t have God by the tail. I cannot make Him do what I want Him to do for hurting people. Sometimes I don’t have the answers. God has the answers. But He might not share them with me.
As I worked my way through these issues, God began showing me that He had designed me to work in the inner city. I love cities. I’m artistic. I’m musical. I love stories. People in inner cities tend to be culturally wired the same way. I have been intrigued with people who struggle with addictions and similar challenges. God had planted inner-city compassion and empathy in me.
After helping to start an inner-city ministry (HOME Ministries) in Chicago, I moved to Denver and started a ministry for homeless teens called Prodigal Coffee House. The volunteer staff and I did not post a sign. We did not buy advertising. We wanted to attract the right people by word of mouth. We prayed that God would enable us to reach gang leaders who would spread the word to others on the street.
We opened the coffeehouse, and no one showed up. That didn’t surprise me. Many people just assume that if you provide a service for hurting people, they will come fawning to you. But why would they? These teens are all very wounded. I knew they had no reason to trust me. I knew I had to take the initiative to reach out to them.
When no one showed up, I took to the street to invite people in. As I walked all alone down Colfax Avenue, I came across Beaker, Savage, and Psycho. They were gang leaders, very powerful on the street.
Exactly the people we want to reach, I thought.
I started teasing them. “Come on, guys, when are you going to come to my little coffee shop?”
“All right, all right,” they said.
I walked back, made some coffee, and Beaker and Savage showed up. We chatted for about a half hour; then Psycho walked in.
He was furious with me. “Why are you so mad?” I asked him.
He looked at me and said, “Because this is a very dangerous street. I’ve been looking for you. You shouldn’t have walked back by yourself”
There was an immediate connection between the four of us. They trusted me. We felt like we had always known each other. They stayed and drank coffee and told me their stories. They told me how long they had been on the street. (They were fifteen to seventeen at the time.) We sat out on the porch, and they showed me the knives they carried for protection. One of them showed me the pockmarks all over his chest from his mother throwing hot grease on him.
. . . . .
About one million teenagers are homeless in America. They roam the country. They live on the streets and sleep under bridges and in abandoned buildings. They jump trains or hitch rides with truckers.
Many people think that these children are runaways, disgruntled boys and girls who get angry with their parents and leave home. In Denver, we see some of those in the summer; the real homeless kids in Denver call them “summer flowers.” But the real homeless teens are not runaways. The more appropriate term would be throwaways. In some cases, parents have abandoned them. In other cases, the kids are fleeing incest, abuse, domestic violence. Their parents are satanists, drug dealers, prostitutes, in and out of prison. Some parents are homeless themselves. Some of these kids have never been to school. They live a gypsy existence.
There are public and private services for these kids---mental health, education, housing. But, from their perspective, why bother? They have no hope. They are being raped. They are being molested. They are starving. They are invisible. They have every reason to believe that nobody cares whether they live or die. So why bother?
. . . . .
That’s why I opened Prodigal. We don’t provide housing, medical care, or any of a whole array of services already provided by others. Instead, we provide what I call redemptive relationships. Our goal is to be companions to these kids. We believe that if we put volunteers and staff who know Jesus among these kids, we will create a ministry of Christ’s presence. Then it’s up to God to woo them, to pursue them in the way and at the pace He chooses.
Our job is to listen. We listen to their stories. We listen, and we tell our own stories as well. I tell our volunteers, “Why should they come in and tell you about their father molesting them when you don’t tell them anything about you?” Abandonment, addiction, and poverty are difficult for anyone to talk about. We earn their trust by being appropriately honest with them, sharing our struggles as well as our faith.
We don’t expect to show up and solve all their problems in a ninety-minute meeting. We understand that redemptive relationships take time and long-term commitment.
The sordid activities that many of these kids are involved in would make the average churchgoer cringe. We could tell our kids they are sinners, and that would be true. But these kids already know they’re sinners. It wouldn’t be helpful to them to march in with a message of condemnation before they’ve had a chance to see we care about them and love them. They’ve already heard of God’s wrath; now they need to know of His love and mercy.
One night, a few months after I met Psycho, he came in and told me he wanted to get some dynamite and blow up the Mile-High Stadium. I asked him why.
“There’s a Promise Keepers meeting there. I want to blow up all those born-agains,” he said.
“But, Psycho,” I said, “I’m a born-again.”
“No, you’re not,” he said.
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re not,” he insisted.
We went back and forth. Finally, he came behind the counter where I was standing and very gently pushed me up against the wall and started wagging his finger in my face.
“You’re not a born-again,” he said, “because you don’t do this. You don’t get in my face like this.”
The only Christianity most of these kids know is a religion of condemnation. A nine-year-old boy from our ministry has come to live with me. I hope to adopt him if the legal and custody issues can be worked out. The first week he was with me, I wanted to share with him what a privilege it was to have him in my home. I wanted to tell him how the Bible calls children a gift or reward from God (Psalm 127:3). So I asked him, “Do you know what God says about children?”
He hung his head. “I know,” he said. “They are evil.”
No matter what age they are, these kids have no trouble believing in their own depravity. What they struggle with is dignity. How can they interpret their lives from a point of dignity?
Sometimes we spend a weekend with the girls where we talk about sexuality and being a woman of dignity. In their world of prostitution and abuse, we begin to show them who they really are in God’s sight.
Some of our teenagers are satanists or survivors of satanic ritual abuse. Others are into wicca or witchcraft.
We occasionally serve Communion as part of a worship service at Prodigal. One time, the son of a satanist mother was present. As we started serving Communion, he quietly got up and left. Later, he came to my office and said, “Can I talk to you?
“Sure,” I said.
“I just wanted to apologize,” he said.
“Apologize for what?”
He explained, “I left during Communion, and I know that’s very sacred to you. But Mom told me if I was ever in the presence of it, it would destroy me.”
So we look for ways to convey Christ to people who have been ostracized by society, ostracized by the church, ostracized by their own terrible experiences.
When we talk about God, we use the language that they give us. Many of these kids went to Sunday school once upon a time. But they weren’t able to connect with God. Perhaps no one in the church understood the depth of their suffering, and no one could offer them a Jesus who knows and cares. Whatever the case, we don’t feed these kids Christian clichés. We learn their vocabulary and use it.
. . . . .
One night some teen boys came to me and said, “Tamara, we think we killed a man last night.”
Sometimes teens can be grandiose in their stories. So I listened to what they said. They were high on methamphetamine. So they beat a man down by the river for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of doing it.
Shortly thereafter, they came to a Bible study with a newspaper article describing the crime they committed. The man they had beaten was alive---barely.
“You need to turn yourselves in,” I said to them.
I gave them twenty-four hours to turn themselves in or I would. When they came back the next night, I asked them again to turn themselves in. I begged. I pleaded. I started crying in front of everyone.
They just laughed.
So I called the police. All five boys were arrested. The nineteen-year-old was given a long sentence. The father of one of the boys put out a death threat on me, and I needed to move out of my home for three weeks while the police dealt with that.
One of the boys was a sixteen-year-old named Carlos. He was a very tough boy. He was good at avoiding any overtures of love that we tried to give him. He went to prison. As he sat in prison, he hated me with every fiber of his being.
Last summer he was released. Moody students named Josh and Pete were here on an internship. They met Carlos downtown, and they ended up leading him to the Lord.
Then they brought him to my office. We talked for a few minutes about what had happened. Then, right there, he asked for forgiveness. This summer, he was baptized in my church. He is hoping to join a YWAM (Youth With A Mission) six-month discipleship training program, go to Bible school, and become a full-time missionary.
Sure, he struggles with issues from his past. Healing takes time. But if you would have told me years ago that Carlos would be a believer, I would have said, “No way.” He was probably one of the few kids I thought, never.
. . . . .
Psycho was right. Colfax Avenue is a dangerous place. I’ve been stalked. My life has been threatened. My home has been broken into. I’ve been punched in the face.
People ask me, “Do you feel safe?”
I do. I feel safe, even though unsafe things have happened. When I lived in Chicago, for example, I was walking down the street one day when I felt the Lord’s presence and a sense that I should move away from the curb and closer to the building. As soon as a I did so, a car came tearing around the corner with kids hanging out the window, shooting up the neighborhood with Uzi submachine guns. If I hadn’t moved, I would probably be dead.
When I worked in Cabrini Green, the gang leader promised I would be protected. During the next year, on at least three different occasions, someone I didn’t know ran up to me in Cabrini Green and said, “You need to leave---now.” Each time I left, and minutes later gang warfare broke out on the very spot on which I had been standing.
The summer before I left Chicago, there were twenty murders within a three-block radius of my apartment. The sad thing is, I remember thinking, They won’t kill me. I’m a white woman. My murder would bring the media and the police. Those who were murdered were people of color, poor people who “didn’t matter” in the eyes of society.
God has protected me. But I also realize that He is under no obligation to spare my life. I could be harmed. I could be killed. It could happen here. But then again, it could happen in the most tame suburban ministry setting.
Not that we don’t take precautions. We leave in groups. We have our teens check their weapons at the door. If a teen does bring a gun into the coffeehouse, someone will tell us, and we will politely, but firmly, ask the teen to leave and return without the gun. When we have people from rival gangs in there at the same time, we welcome them. But we explain to them, with respect, “If you’re here to start something, then you need to leave.”
. . . . .
Hope is the most dangerous thing we offer these kids. It removes them from the anesthesia of depression, chaos, and survival that they are in. Hope stands in sharp contrast to their world of abandonment, mental illness, addictions, and violence. We can’t offer them hope, then take it away. As the Bible says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12).
Hope is deferred a lot for these kids. Yet, without hope, people collapse. We have a delicate balancing act. On one hand, we offer the hope of who Christ is and how He wants to work in our lives. We tell these kids the truth: “You are loved and valuable.” But we also have to tell them the other side of the story. “There is no magic pill.”
I don’t think God is as opposed to suffering as we are. He knows what it brings out in our lives. But I often argue with Him on this, because I see suffering that I really think He should have done something about.
. . . . .
For years, before I made that walk down Colfax Avenue, Beaker, Savage, and Psycho had been praying, in their own way, for someone to come and help them. Now that I’ve been there, now that I’ve seen God’s heart for the poor, it would be impossible for me to walk away.
“God created Prodigal as much for me as He did for these kids,” says Tamara White. “When our volunteers and staff come here, their world is rocked and, their faith is challenged.
“’How do I explain God to these kids?’ we ask ourselves. ‘I believe in a God who provides for you and takes care of you, but I can’t find any place in this kid’s life where He’s been doing that. How do I speak of God.’ Having to wrestle with those kinds of categories---at first it seems like it will crush your faith, but, in the end, it enlarges it. It makes your faith real and deep. This struggle makes you love God for who He is and not just for what He does.”
Prodigal Gatherings, the ministry founded by Tamara White, consists of a downtown Denver coffeehouse aimed at homeless teens, as well as their coffeehouse and club house in Aurora, Colorado, aimed at teens and children of families living in ratty motels, infested with crack, prostitution, and child molesters. The staff and volunteers of Prodigal play games, talk, take kids on outings, and hold Bible studies in an attempt to form relationships and create a ministry of Christ’s presence among hurting youth.
Plans are under way to expand Prodigal to New York City. “I could put one hundred volunteers and one hundred staff to work tomorrow, says Tamara.
Tamara lives in Denver with a nine-year-old child from her ministry that she hopes to adopt. She attended the Undergraduate School 1982—84, 1985—87. (151-163)
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