2017 Posts

Faces of the Mission :: Reginald

Reginald looking upI stare downward at the sidewalk as we step past people living in homelessness standing and laying beside walls. For some, the walls act as support, providing a foundation to rest on, to sleep beside. For others, the walls provide a space to interact, to have conversation and ‘just kick it’ with her/his street family.

Despite their many differences, people experiencing homelessness all have something in common; two things in particular. They are all human, and they are all waiting, waiting on something, waiting on anything.

Our walk takes us beside the community garden. I lift my head and glance at the thermometer clinched to the side of the fence. The mysterious red liquid inside the thermometer is stretching toward the 95 degree line. Despite the heat, Jennifer (my colleague), Reginald, and myself are on a walkabout, headed for the nearest coffee shop.

As we walk, Lower Downtown’s lunch time traffic zooms and vroom’s past us; the breaks on a woman’s bicycle screech for attention; a Boston terrier, to our right, howls for someone to pet him. Amid the noise of the city streets is Reginald’s voice.

“I met my father when I was 18 years old, but he was a good role model to me. When I met him he didn’t want me selling drugs. He didn’t want me [out there] gang banging. He made me go back to school. He taught me how to read and write when I was 18. It was nice; he was a good man; he is a good man. He always taught me to be better, to strive to be a good man too.”

Reginald pauses. We’ve arrived at our table, located outside on the patio of Snooze. “I have two salted caramel lattes and a regular latte” says the barista, setting our drinks on the table. Reggie reaches for his, a salted caramel latte. He also reaches for a napkin. When he talks about his father he gets emotional; he wipes the tears from his eyes, and continues his story.

“My father was a mother and a father to me; my mom was a drugee, she lost custody of us when I was a child. I lost contact with everyone in my family…I only stopped talking to my father because of what I was doing at the time. He heard I was doing drugs and when he found out his face looked like he was disappointed…I feel like I messed up, like I ruined his name…I want to make my father proud. I would like to help juveniles like I was. I think that’d make him proud. A lot of them are in a big haze that they can’t get out of. I want to give them chances, give them opportunities. They need something to do, because in the neighborhoods that’s why we turn to gang-banging, because there’s not [anything] to do…I didn’t have no help either. I turned to what I could, and what I thought was right. Turns out gang-banging wasn’t right.”

“I used to be a drug dealer too,” Reggie says. “That’s all I used to do…the drugs I sold I turned to for some kind of comfort. I felt when I was doing drugs that I was happy, then, in just a short amount of time, I watched everything I had go away. My wife. My step kids. My job. I lost everything. I never wanted anything else in life than to be clean, again. I mean its like I told God when I was selling dope. ‘If this ain’t what you want me to do, give me a sign.’”

“He took everything away from me, everything, and now I’ve started to participate and actually do something with my life…I mean I’ve been down here [at the Mission] for three weeks and I’ve done no drugs…He hasn’t given [everything] back to me, but instead he’s saying to me, ‘you messed up kid, but you still have a chance. You can either fix what you’ve done and become better or you can continue to go downhill.’”

“When you talk about youth, you get excited, you get passionate.” I say. “Where does that passion come from Reggie?”

Reginald “Nobody helped me when I was a child, I went through [a lot]. If somebody would have stepped in I wonder where my life would be. I wonder the individual or the man I would have become. I wonder what accomplishments I would have already succeeded in, just what I would have been able to do with my life. It’s not right for anybody to suffer like I did. I mean, not many people survive being shot too many times, or being stabbed, or having your finger cut off. Why should people go through what I went through? We all grow up in bad places and in areas and situations that we can’t control, but we shouldn’t have to stay there. That’s why I get passionate, because why should a child lose their life because he or she has no environment from which to succeed? Why should a kid think ‘this is all I got?’ Why should they be like, ‘you know what, since I ain’t got [nothing else] I might as well give up.’”

“What about people living in homelessness? What do you want people to know about homelessness?” asks Jennifer.

“Not all of us are drug addicts. Some of us do have problems that stretch more than just drugs. A lot of us have mental health problems. A lot of us have trust issues. A lot of us have issues because we’ve never had nobody to back us up or to say you’ve done a good job. [A lot of us] have turned to the drugs because not only are we now homeless, but now we have lost everything. Some of us have lost the willpower to live, so we turn to what we can to find comfort…some people turn to God. Some people go to their family, but some people turn to the streets. Everybody has their own coping mechanism to deal with their stresses, and homeless people are no different.”

He’s right. The people we stepped past to get to this coffee shop are no different than Jennifer and I. We’re all humans. We’re all waiting, looking forward to experiencing something greater than our own story.

“You know, a lot of people look at us like we’re just a nobody. Most people don’t care who we are; they could not care less. They just look at us like we’re a face. I just want people to see that I came from a grinding area to a place of being loved, and that’s all I want. That’s all I’m waiting for; that’s what I look forward to. I just want to be loved…”

Faces of The Mission is a blog series written by Jordan Smith, a Next Step Coordinator at the Lawrence Street Community Center, offering insights and real life stories from people experiencing homelessness and hardships.

Finding a New Home :: The Family Refugee Services Program

While many are familiar with the Mission’s emergency services and long-term programs, fewer are aware of how the Mission serves refugee families in the Denver area. Arrival in the United States certainly provides a degree of security for those fleeing turmoil, however a new home brings new struggles for employment, affordable housing, and healthy community. The Family Refugee Services (FRS) program was created to fulfill the Mission’s purpose of serving individuals’ physical and spiritual needs within the refugee community.

 
FRS began in 2003 and is part of the Mission’s permanent housing program. The program works in partnership with Lutheran Family Services, and most frequently serves families from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Families receive assistance with their first month’s rent and are paired with long-term mentor teams, who help them integrate into our Denver community. The program also provides monetary incentives for families to achieve self-sufficiency goals, such as maintaining employment, opening a bank account and enrolling in ESL classes. Additionally, the Mission organizes youth programming for refugee children and encourages families to access its Ministry Outreach Center for basic necessities. While financial and material assistance are important components of the program, the principal goal of FRS is to provide a welcoming community for our refugee families and show them the love of Christ.

Jose Portait

José Kabeya, Director of Family Refugee Services

 

José Kabeya, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, became the program’s coordinator in 2011, having spent nearly a decade reaching out to refugees through his church. Under his leadership, the program has expanded its volunteer base with local churches and, as a result, has grown from serving 20 families to 60 families annually.

 
A natural storyteller, José is quick to share success stories of families at the program. He recalls how one family from Burma achieved stable employment and housing over time despite a large language barrier. Beyond gaining stability, they embraced the Mission’s efforts to show them community and “became like family to [José] and to the mentor team.” Personal relationships with mentor families helped the parents restore their marriage, and the family witnessed the healing power of prayer after everyone rallied in prayer around their son’s illness. José is glad to add…

 

“The children were so excited to learn about Jesus!” 

 

FRS also hosts interns every summer and semester. For interns Lauren Stoner, Jenna Randolph, and Anthonia Irechukwu, the most rewarding experiences have come through building relationships with the refugee families. They each note that conducting check-in and mentorship meetings with families has challenged them to communicate across language and cultural barriers. Lauren laughs in describing her efforts to teach cooking skills to a single mother from the Central African Republic, whose English abilities are very limited and whose five children make every moment eventful. The family enjoyed the chicken and roasted vegetables, but the greater victory was seeing the mother gain confidence with her oven and stove.

 

Lauren S Jenna R

Lauren Stoner & Jenna Randolph, Family Refugee Services Interns

Despite the challenge of helping families adjust, Anthonia says that visiting with the families is the highlight of her week. Lauren adds that many of her relationships with families have progressed from service provision to good friendships. Jenna notes that working hands-on with refugees has given her a “fresh perspective on the refugee issues that we see on the news.” Assisting with youth programs, such as the recent Denver Broncos Jr. Training Camp, has also allowed them to make the refugee children feel included in their community.

 

Bronco refugee photo -- edited

Family Refugee Services kids hanging with Miles the Mascot at the 17th Annual Denver Broncos Jr. Training Camp

 

The interns have also been impacted by refugee families’ struggles to afford basic necessities. José says that refugees’ greatest material needs are furniture, baby care products, and clothing. One of the most difficult costs for refugees is furnishing their apartments after they find affordable housing, while families with multiple children often struggle to afford diapers, wipes, and other early childhood necessities.

 
However, when asked about the future of the program and its greatest needs, José emphasizes above all else the power of churches to make collective efforts in welcoming refugee families. He notes that across Colorado, individual Christians and faith-based organizations – such as Lutheran Family Services – have led the way for decades in serving refugees. But as his continual efforts to engage churches demonstrates, José hopes that church bodies will rally around refugee families to invite them into their larger community. José powerfully sums up the importance of community networks:

 

“If you were in a completely new country, and you did not know the language or culture, even one person inviting you into their community makes all the difference. Imagine if it were not just one or two people, but a whole community that welcomed you in!”

 
Interested in becoming a mentor with one of our refugee families? Learn more here

Faces of The Mission :: Shavon

Shavon

 

“Everyone has a story of why we’re here…it’s not like what everyone thinks. Not everyone is homeless because we’re doing drugs or drinking; not everyone is like that. Not everyone in this situation is here because we want to be, or because we have a habit. Like for me, I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. I was running from an abusive relationship.”

“One night he hit me over the head with a bat and tied me up with one of those metal coat hangers and left me in the closet for four days. I tried to call the police, but he’d be in jail and have someone bail him out and he’d come back and the beatings would be worse. One time he stabbed me. Right here in my leg, I’ve got a stab wound. I was kicking to get away from him and I was running and he took the knife and he stabbed me.”

Shavon’s voice fades, overshadowed by the music from the speakers above as we sit in a local café and she continues her story.

“So one night he left for work; he had to work overnight. I decided I was done. I packed, put whatever clothes and stole some money from him. You know… please, don’t get me wrong. I feel bad about that. I’m not a thief, but I took some money to get away, enough to buy a bus ticket out here, because it would be the last place he would look for me.”

The walls in the café we are sitting in are bleak—off white with a yellow hue. There are windows to my right; big windows, so big they allow in enough light to shift the mood. Shavon, staring out of them, comes across a thought.

“You know, I’m honest. I work hard. I work from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. unloading trucks and stocking shelves. Then, I work a second job from midnight to 4 a.m. I’m saving up for an apartment. I have half I need saved up so far. I try to be respectful of everyone. It’s kind of hard sometimes, [because] everyone is so negative out here, but the most difficult aspect for me is not being able to go home to my own apartment and sleep. I have to find a table at the [Lawrence Street] Community Center to try and get some sleep, to lay my head on the table for an hour or two and take little cat naps.”

Shavon’s New York accent is becoming more and more noticeable, and with it, so too are her convictions.

“You know, anything can happen. Anyone can be in this situation. If you live in a million dollar home, you could be in this situation in less than a minute. I came from a really good background, you know. I graduated high school. I graduated college. I used to be a medical assistant.”

“Now I fill out applications and put them out there but no one calls me back…it makes me upset. They’ll look me over faster than they would you. But I’ve got to stay positive, you know.”

Shavon’s words slow down. She pauses, looks down at her half-eaten bagel, nods, and then nods again. “Yeah…I’ve got to stay positive about it.”

“Shavon, how do you do that?” I say. “How do you stay positive in this situation?”

“My daughter. I’ve got to stay strong for her, and a lot of it is my belief in God. I believe God will always open a door for me if something else doesn’t work out. I pray to Him, and I know He has my back.”

Faces of The Mission is a blog series written by Jordan Smith, a Next Step Coordinator at the Lawrence Street Community Center, offering insights and real life stories from people experiencing homelessness and hardships.

Hope and Helping Hands :: Harvest Farm’s Mission Trip to Whiteclay

 

A Group of New Life Program participants serving on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

A Group of New Life Program participants serving on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation


Like most visitors to Whiteclay, Nebraska and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, New Life Program (NLP) participant Kris Wise was shocked by the alcoholism and poverty that plagues the local Native American community. Every year, NLP participants at Harvest Farm go on a mission trip to Whiteclay to serve and minister to the Lakota Native Americans who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation, located two miles north across the South Dakota border. Whiteclay exists primarily to provide alcoholic beverages and groceries to the reservation, where the sale of alcohol is prohibited. Kris notes:

 
“What stuck out the most to me was how the town with the population of 14 had 4 liquor stores [and] the streets being flooded with drunken people who consumed a lot of alcohol.”

 
As many as 80% of adults in Pine Ridge suffer from alcoholism, and roughly a quarter of newborns on the reservation suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome (The New York Times). Most of the alcohol consumption occurs on the town’s sidewalks, resulting in what The New York Times has called a “rural skid row.” Barred from drinking on the reservation, customers often huddle together against the elements, sleep on mattresses in nearby fields, or lie incapacitated in the open air. Poor health, domestic violence, and lack of opportunity has led to a sense of hopelessness and resentment among the community.

 

Pine Ridge residents on the streets of Whiteclay (Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Pine Ridge residents on the streets of Whiteclay (Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

 

That’s where our New Life Program comes in. The power of the NLP participants, such as Kris Wise and Luke Cooper, is to share their own experiences with members of the Pine Ridge community and to serve the communities’ physical needs. In working with local ministries Lakota Hope and Hands of Faith back in June, participants have been able to share their own struggles with substance abuse with the Lakota community. Living and serving in Whiteclay allows participants to witness how a long history of alcohol dependence can impact families and whole communities. In contrast to the therapeutic refuge and tight-knit community at Harvest Farm, Whiteclay demonstrates how isolation and substance abuse frequently becomes a vicious cycle. Our NLP participants speak into the experiences of Pine Ridge residents and have helped construct new homes for families living in cramped conditions, completed landscaping projects, and gathered firewood among other projects.

 

NLP participants working on a home’s foundation

NLP participants working on a home’s foundation

 

In addition to the tangible benefits that their service has for families, our New Life Program participants have shared how serving the Lakota families has impacted their own perspectives on poverty and self-sufficiency. Luke Cooper writes:

“As a group of guys from the Farm and I were helping pour a house foundation for a family of ten who were living in a single-wide trailer, I looked around to see FEMA trailers surrounding us and felt fortunate to be at Harvest Farm with all of its resources and people. The Lakota people do not have the opportunities for employment or the stable income that we have here in Colorado, which is apparent when we drove through Pine Ridge and saw the number of people walking around or hanging out in the middle of the day. Being able to help a couple families get new homes built for them, replacing the old, beat down trailer homes that they were currently residing in was a great feeling and experience that I will always treasure.”

 

Luke Cooper (third from left) and the rest of the mission trip group

Luke Cooper (third from left) and the rest of the mission trip group

 

Although the participants note that the impact of their service is limited within the grand scale of the Pine Ridge reservation, they were glad to have provided long-term change for those two families, who now have suitable homes.

 

Kris Wise (right) serving at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Kris Wise (right) serving at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

 

Participating in mission trips together likewise strengthens the NLP community and the bonds between our participants. They are able and encouraged to work on several different projects throughout the week. Kris Wise writes:

 
“I chose to do a different [project] each day. By doing that I got to work with different people every day. I got to know some of the Native Americans who had a few stories to share with me… I also got to work with different guys from the farm who I didn’t really hang out with before. That was nice because I got to develop new friendships.”

 
The synergistic impact of the Lakota and NLP communities is the reason why the Whiteclay Mission Trip continues to be one of the most meaningful weeks for Harvest Farm each year. In paying forward the hope and help they have received at Harvest Farm, participants expand their personal growth and bear witness to the power and possibility of attaining new life. We hope that through continued prayer and missions to Whiteclay, our men at Harvest Farm can continue to bring healing to this community every year.

Faces of The Mission :: Thomas

thomas 3

“I woke up to a girl screaming.” Thomas says. “I sat up to see what was going on, to see where [the screaming] was coming from. She was getting beat on. Two of my friends bolted over to help her. Then, more guys came running from the side and started jumping on my friends. I pulled one guy off my friend. That’s when he stabbed me, twice; once in the chest and once in the thigh. I got a large portion of the blade stuck in [me]. That’s when I really got permanence into the family, though. Until then it was just…I was there, they helped me, they accepted me, they watched out for me, but [the stabbing] is when I got inserted into the family permanently.”

We’re in a bakery at the corner of 22nd and Larimer. Thomas is across from me, mid-sip of his orange juice. “I don’t like being out on the street. It’s a big blow to the pride to ask for things.  I was more or less raised to work for things. I have to rely on the shelter for a lot, but it’s necessary, and I’m grateful for the bed… [But, in a way,] as far as growing up goes, being homeless is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

I sit back and think this doesn’t sound like the best thing to happen to someone. Perhaps he’s joking, I think. I expect laughter to ensue, or at least a smile and a “just kidding.” Instead, his eyebrows are beginning to furrow. He looks up, then to the right. His movements are slow and thoughtful. He’s trying to remember his past, a past he’s chosen to forget.

“[I had] a lot of trauma in my childhood. I never really had a true family. I don’t talk to my parents, my relationship with them is complicated. I have one person I consider family back [home], in Mississippi, but he doesn’t even know where I’m at. [Out here, on the street,] I’ve actually got a family. There’s 10 to 15 of us; it’s a pretty large connection. They’ve definitely made it easier because they are people who help watch your back. Plus, they are people to talk to. You can’t do the homeless thing alone. Being homeless and alone, you go crazy. That’s when you get the people on the sides of the street screaming and [talking to themselves, saying crazy things like], ‘Pumpkins are the reason the government is flying to Africa!’”

Thomas’ comment about pumpkins and crazy people causes him to laugh, at least for a brief second. “Ugggggarrh, that hurts!” he says, grabbing his chest. “Every time I [laugh] it feels like my stomach is being ripped open.”

Thomas pauses, trying to catch his breath.

“And every time I breathe it feels like I’m being stabbed again. He nicked my diaphragm when he slashed my chest. I’m all sorts of screwed up right now.”

He lifts his shirt up, revealing what Thomas calls his “holes.” We didn’t ask to see them, but to Thomas these wounds are not just soon-to-be scars; to Thomas, his wounds are sacraments, remembrances to those around that he is committed, and connected, to something greater than himself.

“You lost everything, and this experience (I point toward the window, to the street) is the best thing that’s ever happened to you?”

“Yeah, just yesterday I lost everything in my storage and I could not care less. It was all material things I lost.”

I take a sip from my coffee. I’m trying to put the pieces together, trying to make sense of Thomas’ experience on the street. I set my latte down. “In losing your material life, you’ve gained family,” I say.

“A true family,” Thomas says.

Faces of The Mission is a blog series written by Jordan Smith, a Next Step Coordinator at the Lawrence Street Community Center, offering insights and real life stories from people experiencing homelessness and hardships.