Archive for December, 2009

December 22, 2009

Gingerbread House Project

Every Christmas for several years, I have had the joy of making a gingerbread house with street kids. I do this as a group at the Lifeworks drop-in center. It teaches planning and cooperation and gives the kids a chance to practice expression and patience. It is so much fun to get kids ages 18 to 23 involved in something that is so child-like. They really didn’t get as much a chance to be a kid as perhaps they should have. Getting to see them enjoy making this house is something I look forward to at Christmas.

The project starts by my giving them cardboard flats (re-purposed from our stream of paper to the recycle center) and duct tape. They make the “plot of land” and then decide how big the house is to be and where it to be situated. Then I supply then with “siding material” of graham crackers, “mortar” of icing, and “roofing material” of cereal. And of course a wide assortment of candy, cookies, and other things that I’ve learned sometimes make for good gingerbread house makings.

As we do the project–this year it took 2 days–we talk about Christmas. Some hate it. Some love it. Some have fond memories. Some have terrible memories. But they all agree that building the house is making some good memories for this Christmas.

I also ask them to make up a narrative to go along with the house. It begins with how the house came to be in the hands of a former street kid. Then I encourage them to think about how this kid decides to help street kids all over by doing something with the house. And then I ask them to imagine how they live. And finally, I ask them to imagine how the town might react to so many street kids living there and what their plan to react will be. Here is this year’s story.

Enjoy the slide show and story. May you make a few happy memories for this Christmas. And may you enjoy relationships with your family, with your neighbors, and, perhaps, with a stranger or two. Christmas is all about relationships. It began 2000 years ago or so to commemorate the most important relationship ever–Jesus Christ as a little baby in relationship with the world he helped bring into being with his Father and redeemed by his arrival, death, and resurrection! Merry Christmas and peace to you.

A street kid got a plot of land in Oregon because it was abandoned and nobody wanted it. It was in a town of about 100,000.

He built a house on it. He didn’t need money to build it because he salvaged all the material for the house. He dived in dumpsters and collected used materials from demolition. The core of the house was made from cardboard box bales. It is sealed to prevent fires.

He lived there with other traveling kids and people who don’t have a place to stay. They lived together in sustainable ways. They made part of the roof into a solar collector. It looks kind of wild, but it works.

They compost and garden. They obtain food from local sustainable sources.

They built a composting outhouse for a toilet.

They collect rainwater from the roof and store it in an abandoned tank.

Some of the kids prefer to pitch their tent outside.

They built a skating rink and garden.

They have walking paths where people can enjoy nature.

The town didn’t really like the idea of all “those people” living in the house, so they became uncomfortable. The street kids responded by doing community projects for the town. They organized a neighborhood watch and begin to crack down on vandalism and theft. They cleaned up graffiti in the town and painted murals on abandoned buildings that were eyesores.

December 10, 2009


We are in the church season of Advent. I asked my street kids what that means. I got a series of declarations in response:

  • We celebrate Jesus being born.
  • You know there is no proof Jesus was born on Christmas Day.
  • It used to be a pagan holiday and it still is. We just celebrate presents now.
  • I hate Christmas. It’s never been good for me.

I told them it was a season of “waiting.” It’s what the word means. They all had stories of one of their worst times of waiting and shared a few:

  • I’m waiting now to try to get home. I just want to go home.
  • I waited to see if I would get out of jail or go to prison for a long time.
  • Even though I had the shakes, I had to wait all day yesterday for a beer. It was terrible.

I explained that we all probably hate waiting because we’re not in control. But I explained that we could experience this in two major ways: worry… or anticipation.

When we worry, we imagine all the things that may go wrong. All the things we should have done. All the things people may be doing to us. Worry feels bad. It’s natural. And a little worry might even be helpful, but more than a little isn’t. It changes our bodies and minds and can literally wreck us.

Anticipation is focusing on the possible good outcomes. Anticipation is an experience of joy and comfort and peace. Anticipation is good for us. It, too, has effects on our body and mind. They are positive. We heal better, we sleep better, we perform better.

So… back to Advent of Christmas. Which is it? Worry or anticipation? Well… it depends. If you make Christmas all about presents and parties and getting everything done, it can turn into an advent of worry. And it drags you down. If you make Christmas all about reliving your worst memories of Christmas, family, and terrible happenings, it becomes an advent of worry. If  you focus on renewing friendships, adding friendships, and being in the moment, Christmas can be an Advent of anticipation.

While doing Bible study with street kids the other day,we were in John 10 looking at “I am the gate” statement. It’s a little weird to simply say, “I am the gate.” But we examined it in the negative sense… what is He not saying? He’s not a fence. He’s not a wall. He’s not a fortress. He’a a gate, meant for opening… meant for passing through safely. And HE is the door. It’s not some place, some rule, or some body else. It’s Him. He’s involved very personally in entering.

But gates can be locked. Is this one open? Can I pass through? “Knock and the door will be opened,” another scripture promises.

Then we did an exercise. Imagine a redwood tree. You know… the big kind that have tunnels that cars can drive through. The kind that hurt your neck to look up to try to find the top. Now image a door in it. Closed. And with a little sign on it that says: “Jesus. All who want, may enter.”

At one point in our lives, we all waited outside that door. As we stood there, we probably worried: “Am I good enough? Am I willing to risk it? Does Jesus love me? Haven’t I done so many things the door is really locked?” Waiting… worrying… It’s an advent season in our life.

And Jesus is also waiting… but on the other side of the door. This is His advent, too. However, Jesus isn’t worrying. He anticipates each and every person who knocks at the door. He celebrates every one.

Now imagine finding the courage to knock on the door. With quiet and trembling voice, we say, “Jesus… I’ve done terrible things, but I want you to be my personal Savior. Let me in.” The door opens a bit. You slip through, wondering what will be on the other side. On the other side, you find another sign on the back of the tree. It’s a much bigger sign. It’s in bright colors and announces a celebration. It has your face on it. And it says, “Chosen from the beginning… Welcome home!”

I do celebrate Christmas! And this year part of what I celebrate will be the anticipation of people knocking at the door, the door being opened, and them going through. Amen.

December 4, 2009

Blankets of Love

We’re having our first cold snap now in Austin. The temperature has been working its way down for a few days now. One of the clients came up to me, a little drunk, the other day, and asked, “Terry. I don’t usually ask for things. And I know you don’t have stuff with you, but can you please find me a blanket? I know you’re a good guy. If you find one, I know you’ll give it to me.”

I said, “Sure. If I come across one, it’s yours!” Even though I had no blankets, had asked for no blankets, and wasn’t thinking of asking for any in the near future. “But you better keep looking for one on your own, too. It’s going to be near freezing in a couple of nights and it’s going to snow by Friday. You’ve got to get ready.” (As I write this blog, snow flakes are coming down. No accumulation, but it’s rares to see flakes of snow in Austin.)

Street-dependent youth need lots of things. But most of all, they need Jesus and love from an adult, like me or you, to work through their choices and options that will honor God. I focus on these latter two things in my ministry efforts and rely on volunteers to give me whatever can be found in the way of relief goods. This way, I hope to rarely lose my way in terms of ministering to the kids. It is far too easy to get lost in the huge sea of need: clothes, food, medicine, housing, education, counselling, healing, etc. And if this happens to Street Youth Ministry, I lose sight of the unique good that it can do. Faith is a huge strength that most of these kids have rejected. And they need to turn back and rediscover it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to give out stuff. I just don’t want to get lost in worrying about how much, which stuff, costing what, paid for how, etc. I believe that volunteers can supply the stuff, at least for now. And so far, they have done so and love to do it! A good friend of mine wisely says, “It’s all God’s stuff. We’re just moving it around.” (He’s the lead worker in a ministry that takes second hand furniture and moves people into housing when they finally get housed. It’s called Movin’ and Groovin’ and is paid for by members of Covenant Presbyterian Church.)

So, as the really cold weather became a reality yesterday, I thought about this request for a blanket. I figured someone would be meeting such an obvious need, but after a bit of asking around, it wasn’t happening in the area I work. So I posted on FaceBook about needing blankets or guiding any blanket ministries to the area where these younger folks stay in Austin. (Please become a fan of Street Youth Ministry so you can see these posts in future.) Amazingly, someone had a dozen to bring by my house within hours. They had been in their closet looking for a place to be used. And a couple of other people brought a few more. And even a few more today.

I was tied up until 9pm last night helping my wife with her jewelry show. (It was a success, but it was a little late by the time I was able to go out and deliver blankets. You can still order jewelry online). I wasn’t sure who I might find on the streets at such a late hour. I hoped no one because everyone had made arrangements to be safe and inside, but I knew better.

I found a group of three kids left at a popular hangout. They said most kids were in hotel rooms, but these guys hadn’t had any money to kick-in for the room. Or they had been away when people left. In any event, these were left behind. I imagine that it felt lonely and abandoned. They were SO glad to get blankets when I rolled up. And I gave them some cookies to fuel a higher metabolism for the night.

I was about to get back in my truck, when up walked the guy who had originally asked for a blanket. I couldn’t believe his timing. And he couldn’t believe I had really come through on a night like this!

I stood with him and several others for a long time out in the 40 degree weather. Talk turned to Christianity. They somehow decided I was a “practical Christian.” I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I liked the sound of it. I asked them about it. They said it meant: “You don’t try to make everything perfect. You just get out here on your own and help us, just like we are. And we know you don’t get paid. We know you’re using your own resources to be here. You have no idea how much what you do matters to us. And you still believe what you believe. It’s obvious your ministry is truly ordained by God.” (I promise… they really said this. I was blown away.)

Wow! They hit the head on the nail! But by their definition, can’t we all be practical Christians? I know those who donate to me are being practical. I know those who volunteer are being practical. I know those who donate relief items are being practical. Then who are these “other Christians” the kids seem to be comparing me against?

To tell the truth, I think they are all of us. It’s us whenever we don’t take the time to notice. It’s us whenever we don’t take the time to smile, It’s us whenever we don’t give a little so that everyone can have something. It’s us whenever we think that someone needs to conform before they can belong. It’s us whenever we think tremendous differences on the outside translate to insurmountable differences on the inside.

The kids set the bar very high. But then, so did another person in history. And he’s the guy through whom everything came into being. And through whom everything will be judged. But through whom, anyone can be redeemed. Thank you, Jesus!

This Christmas season, do what you can to live up to the idea these kids posed: Be a Practical Christian as often as you can. I think we’ll all like what we are becoming, through Jesus, if we open ourselves up to this idea.