Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Pray for Kate in Peru

After a long holiday break, a new post...though it is more of a teaser. I will be writing very soon with a longer update, but for now, I wanted to remind everyone to be praying for Kate deFuniak, as she is in Peru on a mission trip. Pray for safety from harm and illnesses, team unity, and most of all for the relationships they are building on with the kids as they show and tell of Christ's love! Another fuller update soon to come!

Friday, 19 December 2008

How to walk...

This has been one of those weeks for me where the "things" of life, and "life" itself, as we know it in this flesh-driven world, seem to grab for my attention at every single turn. The hard part is that these aren't even all bad things. They are the things that we surround ourselves with and must take part in: jobs, family, travel, holidays, relationships, details....and the list goes on. And yet it is so easy for me to lose sight of what matters in the midst of these things. And I would venture to say that I am not alone in this problem. How do I balance all of these things with living out my Christian walk in the radical way that Christ seems to demand? Or maybe a better question is, "What does my life look like when I am truly dying to self and living solely for Christ, not Christ and other things?" It seems to be something we all struggle with at times, and this week has brought these questions to the forefront of my mind. So often, I seem so preoccupied with the things that don't matter-the things that won't live past tomorrow. And I somehow lose sight of things eternal, or at least add them to the list of "important" things in life. As I have been reflecting on these struggles and questions, the Holy Spirit pushes me to The Word. In 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 Paul discusses the same struggle to look past the things of this world, whether persecution, material possessions, or any of the things that easily entangle us. In 4:18, he says "...we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." This helps bring clarity and even simplicity to many of my questions. Live for the things unseen, the things eternal. In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out his disciples to spread the Gospel. He tells them to "be wise as serpents and harmless as doves." Not exactly a clear-cut recipe or step-by-step manual. Yet, it is all we need- Keep my eyes on the eternal, walk in the Word and with the Spirit, and He will guide.

During this week, I have mostly been contacting and attempting to meet with supporters and visionaries for my position. It has been so encouraging to see the Lord provide, both financially and with direction for this role. And yet I am pushed to trust Him more and more for continual provision in both of these ways. Please pray for me as I trust the Lord to provide for this role, and to grant me discernment as I seek ways for our church to get involved. Yesterday I met again with people from Cornerstone, the Christian school in Woodlawn. We have been nailing down more specific ways that we will be working together in the New Year, and I am soo excited these amazing opportunities that I will be sharing more soon! Until next time,
Learning how to walk,

Friday, 12 December 2008

Morning Prayer

"Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground." Ps. 143:8, 10

This is my prayer today, as I seek to submit myself to the Lord's will for me today. That I may be of a mindset to listen where He leads. That I may have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the people and opportunities that He brings in my life today. That I will have the discernment to know how to follow Him and the courage to do so in spite of all that seems to stand in my way. May this be true for each of us today, as we seek to obey the Lord and redeem our own area of the city today. Lord, help us.

Monday, 8 December 2008

A week in Fairfield

On Thursday afternoon I had the opportunity to attend a special luncheon at Restoration Academy. This monthly meeting is part of an effort to promote the school and garner support. There were over 50 in attendance (as has been the pattern): local businessman, financial investors, educators, Christian outreaches, and church representatives. As a complimentary meal was served by several kind women in a local church, Carl Lynn (the Executive Director) explained the heart and vision of this mission to the young people of Fairfield. As I continue to learn more and more about this amazing school and the heart of its people to reach a needy generation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the crucial avenue of education, I continue to be blown away. This school that has now been around for 20 years has managed to continue to increase its vitality and effectiveness by being submissive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, learning from its past mistakes, and seeking partnerships with other "body parts" of Christ's church. Every year, they increase their ability to actively create lasting change in lives, as is evidenced in dynamic growth, improving testing scores, continual 100% graduation and college attendance rate, and continued provision from the Lord in every way. This school is helping to rescue children and youth from generational cycles of poverty, violence and gang activity, broken families, and alcohol and drug addictions. Most importantly, young people are being reached with HOPE-life transforming hope. Hope that changes their lives and gives them a suddenly new and bright look at the future. This hope is revealed through real relationships that offer a small picture of the love and relationship found only in Jesus Christ. I am soo excited about the beginning of our wonderful relationship with this school and its people, and the opportunities that we will very soon have so as to partner in this life-giving ministry. To learn more about Restoration Academy, visit their website here.

I was also privileged to attend a block party in Fairfield on Sunday afternoon. To the best of my knowledge, the afternoon was spearheaded by Dawson Baptist Church, with the help of Christ Episcopal Church, and some other local churches and individuals. This community event provided live music (compliments of Dawson's youth choir), fun games for the children, face painting, a free dinner, and a Gospel message. Many people from the churches came out and were able to interact with the people from the community. During this time I was able to meet several more people with these churches and ministries, and discuss possible means of partnerships. It was a cool event to reach out to the community, through the established faces of Christ Episcopal, Restoration Academy, and others.

As we move into the new year, we will begin to act on some of these new relationships and partnerships and find opportunities for our church body to help in Fairfield. I look forward greatly to these coming moments, so stay tuned!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Girls Inc. Opportunity

We have a second opportunity to get involved in the community around us as a church body! As most of you know, we currently meet on Sunday nights in the Girls Inc. building in Crestwood. While we are attempting to grow our relationship with our leasers and find ways to serve them, we haven't had a lot of opportunity...until now. Girls Inc. has let us know that they will be having a holiday assistance program for some of their young girls called "Giving Tree". This event is for girls ages 6-18 who are involved in the Girls Inc. program and whose families do have have the necessary funds to give their girls Christmas presents. Individuals can sponsor a girl by either agreeing to shop for some specific items on the girl's wishlist or by simply giving the money for that specific girl to Girls Inc. and they will shop for you. The program estimates that sponsors will spend around $125 (possibly less) per girl if you do your own shopping, or asks that you donate this amount for them to purchase the gifts for the girl.

While individuals in our church may sponsor girls on their own if you wish, we are encouraging this to be something that we do as community groups. Therefore, we ask that this week each community group discuss and pray about sponsoring at least one girl together. You can choose to shop for the items on your girl's wishlist as a group (or elect a group representative to shop) or to bring the money on Sunday and Girls Inc. will buy the gifts for your girl. On Saturday, December 13th, they will have an event at Girls Inc. where all of the presents will be given to the girls. Additionally, there is a need for female volunteers on the day of this event, if anyone is interested.

While Girls Inc. is not a Christian organization and thus, this program is not Gospel-oriented, we have the opportunity to display the Gospel through this situation. As a church, when we sponsor young girls through the Giving Tree program, we not only reach out to the needs of the less privileged and love these young girls, but we are also sharing a great testimony with Girls Inc. Therefore, by making this our Christmas outreach, we not only bless these girls and their families, but we also show our leasers that our church reaches out to those around us with the love of Christ.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Fairfield, part 2- Restoration Academy

One of the coolest and most exciting things going on in Fairfield is a relatively new and very unique Christian school called Restoration Academy. I quickly learned that this school and the people involved in it are unlike any other school or ministry I have ever seen. To start, it is located in the heart of Fairfield, easily accessible to all. It is a K-12 school that is opens its doors to any young person who is simply willing to put forth effort and allow themselves to be loved. As long as the student shows effort and discipline and abides within the behavioral boundaries, Restoration Academy will spend all for their growth and success, educationally and spiritually. All of the teachers at the school are required (and thus willingly choose, in order to be a part of such a unique program) to move to the area. I found most of their homes to be in and very near the roughest parts of the community. Additionally, every faculty member goes above and beyond the normal "call of duty", allowing the students' lives to infiltrate their own. Benjamin explained that he knew several teachers who allowed students to live in their house, for no cost, and without any compensation from the school. Such was necessary to keep the kids off of the street, much less to be sure they are fed, clothed, out of trouble, diligent with school, etc etc. This is only a tiny picture of how the teachers have literally chosen to give up everything to invest in the lives of their students, far beyond the classroom. I found that Restoration Academy can brag that not only have they graduated every single senior, but also that 100% of their students have gone to college. Not only this, but large numbers of the students are coming to personal relationships with the Lord. How much have these people sacrificed to guarantee true, lasting change in the lives of these students? This is radical.

While there is soo much more that I could share about this needy area and the people who so desperately need to learn of Christ, I can only share so much. I have tried to explain a general summary of the area and an introduction to the people and groups we will be partnering with (Christ Episcopal Church, CityWorks, Restoration Academy). However, as I draw this to an end, I want to share the most convicting and eye-opening part of my visit. It was in a conversation with Benjamin, in which we discussed opportunities for Redeemer to get involved in Fairfield. Through this, I realized that the last thing that this area needs is another church hoping to do a good deed, that comes in and then just as quickly, goes out of the lives of the people there. So often, individuals and churches alike, come into an area like Fairfield with the goal of solving all of their problems. We tend to put ourselves in the superior "giving" position and allow ourselves to feel a sense of accomplishment, accompanied by a warm feeling inside that we have "done our part". Or at least, even if we have pure intentions and a genuine desire to help and serve, we are still noncommittal, short-sighted, and undeniably selfish in our efforts.

I know this, not only because I have seen it, but because I do these things myself. Even in my past ventures in helping the needy in such settings, I realized that I rarely was committed to go beyond my one or two days a week involvement. I have been the very person who, as Pastor Gates described, "comes into their lives for a few months, and when my schedule isn't conducive with helping anymore, or I get frustrated, or even just bored, I edge out of their lives." He explained that the people are used to that type of church involvement, and as a result, they are not only skeptical, but often embittered. What they need is something more real, more committed, more sacrificial. Maybe some of us at Redeemer are in a place to consider moving into an area like Woodlawn or Fairfield in order to really be part of the community and truly invest in people's lives in a lasting way. If so, then be obedient- do it! If we are not led (or willing) to do something like this right now, then there are still ways for us to give wholly of ourselves to the spiritual and physical needs of "the least of these". As we begin, as a church body, to discover and take hold of these ways to help affect real change in lives in the areas surrounding Crestwood, and in Fairfield, we must determine to rise above this expected minimum sacrifice. If we are going to enter into these people's lives, we must determine to be committed, consistent, and selfless. Then we can truly allow Christ and the Gospel to break into the darkness, not just through word, but through lifestyle. I ask the Lord to help me to know how to be this, as I ask him to show us, as His Body, how to be this also.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Welcome to Fairfield, part 1

On Monday, I was introduced to the area of Fairfield...and I think I am still processing all that I saw. Actually, it may take quite some time. To be completely honest, I have delayed writing about my experience on here because I am not sure that I can actually describe much of what I learned. It wasn't just the poverty. It wasn't just the decrepit homes. It wasn't just the drug houses, or the gangs, or any of the many visible signs of decaying life. Neither could it be easily described by hopelessness, anger, bitterness, or any of the imperceptible factors, though they were just as real and distressing. The things I saw, learned, heard, and felt in Fairfield struck me to my core, really shook up my sense of order. It is forcing me to reevaluate what I want in life, what I deem as important, the things and places and people that I place value on. And so I offer this disclaimer from the start: No matter how descriptive or meaningful or true anything that I say here may be, it will be inadequate. To truly know and understand all that I now speak of, you must also experience it for yourself. No amount of words or pictures can replace seeing it with your own eyes, feeling it deep in your heart and being. So I hope that you will not be satisfied with my (necessarily) brief, disjointed summary or take my word for it, but that you will come know for yourself what Fairfield is like, and how much need and opportunity there is. In order to not overwhelm you with too much information, and to help process my own thoughts, I will write about Fairfield in a two-part update.

As I mentioned in the previous post, there is a handful of people that go to Redeemer who are closely tied or involved in Fairfield. One of these people is Benjamin Smith and he was gracious enough give me an in-depth introduction to the people, churches, schools, and area as a whole. Benjamin not only works part-time for an organization in Fairfield called CityWorks, but also is involved in one of the most active churches in the area-Christ Episcopal Church. This is the same church that we came alongside with to help more than 20 families have an adequate Thanksgiving meal. This church (as well as CityWorks) is led and pastored by an amazing man named Gates Shaw, who has given many years to the people and community of Fairfield. We can certainly expect to partner with Christ Episcopal and CItyWorks in much of the work we will do in Fairfield.

As Benjamin took me through the heart of the area, I quickly realized that Fairfield was nothing to be taken lightly...in many ways. First, I heard the description of the vicious cycle of unemployment, poor education, lack of monetary resources, broken families, rampant crime, gang activity, drug dealing, and much, much more. Then, as we drove around, I saw these truths before my eyes. An odd but problematic issue in the area is apparently the prevalence of packs of wild dogs. They are known to run around freely and attack children and adults alike. We even saw one member of the Christ Episcopal jogging through the neighborhood, armed with pepper spray in case he came across the dogs. Several other huge issues are drugs, violence, and crime. At one point, we passed a house with about 10-12 youth hanging around it. Benjamin explained that these guys, all dressed in red, were the local armed, drug-dealing, gang members. The vandalism and poorly maintained houses in the surrounding area made it easy to see why no more-reputable people were anxious to move in. However, only 1 street over, Benjamin pointed out that CityWorks (the community development organization he worked with) had purchased several houses and duplexes to provide affordable housing for locals, as well as for mixed-income housing. Most of the houses are bought in various states of disrepair and are repaired in order to be sold for a lower price.

This was all part, he explained, of the greater plan to help redeem and revitalize Fairfield's struggling community through wealthy and caring middle/upper class people moving into the area and joining forces with the responsible, less affluent people in the community. As these individuals move into the area and dedicate all of their selves to the betterment of the people, they become one with, part of the community, instead of being an outsider. This is how lasting, meaningful, and sustainable community improvement and ministry begin.

Soon to come...Part 2

Monday, 24 November 2008

Fairfield Thanksgiving

This week we have one of our first opportunities to help in our communities of focus. Fairfield is an extremely needy area of west Birmingham where several people in Redeemer have been investing their time and lives. Because there are so many opportunities readily available for us to help with in this area, we will begin some of our ministry in this area, as well as the area directly around our church. There will be another post very soon with more a more detailed description of Fairfield and the needs there

However, as Thanksgiving approaches, we have an immediate opportunity to help 20+ families from Fairfield to have an adequate Thanksgiving meal. We are partnering with one of the prominent, active churches in this area, Christ Episcopal, to help get this done. This church has been developing relationships and working with the people of Fairfield for quite some time and have compiled a list of around 20 families that do not have the resources to have a proper Thanksgiving meal. I am happy to say that we already have raised enough funds to buy each family a precooked, premade meal, at the price of $30/family. Christ Episcopal will buy and organize these meals, but we would love people from Redeemer to come help us pass out these meals on Wednesday, November 26th (Thanksgiving Eve)! Those who help with this food distribution will have the opportunity to personally deliver one or several meals to families and spend time getting to know them as well. This will be a great chance to see the actual people who are being helped through such an event!

If you are interested in helping with the distribution on Wednesday, and have not already signed up, you can email me at castledwight@gmail.com or call me at 336.831.4489. Benjamin Smith will be heading up the distribution for Redeemer people and can also be reached at 205.873.0653. We look forward to seeing the visible fruits of such an exciting opportunity.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The Grand Tour

Yesterday I was able to take a big step in familiarizing myself with the communities around Redeemer and making good contacts! For most of the day, James Kling took me around all of the surrounding areas and educated me just about every facet of life there. He has lived and worked in this area for quite some time and so has proven to be a knowledgeable and willing informant. We began with a windshield tour in south Crestwood, making our way through the edges of Forest Park and into Avondale. After checking out the grand Avondale Library and Park, we made our way into some much rougher areas through Woodlawn, Gate City, and East Lake. It was very interesting to see the sudden progression (or rather, digression) from nice, large houses and neighborhoods to housing projects, crack houses, prostitution centers, and other typical components of the east Birmingham hood. This graffiti on one dilapidated, barred up house spoke volumes on life in this area:

We finished up our tour by literally crossing the tracks into the suddenly more appealing and less disconcerting north Crestwood area. I was amazed again by how close in proximity the worst sections of town are to the more affluent, with little more separation than trains and little more connection than persistent, petty crime. At the end of this time, I felt I had had my eyes opened (though briefly- no less potent) to a whole new world, literally on our doorstep and in our backyard. As I learned of the alarming crime statistics, saw the abject poverty, and spoke with the hurting and hungry, I felt a rush of conflicting emotions. My compassion and concern were immediately tempered by fear, selfishness, and pride. The sheer weight of the need both inspired me and overwhelmed me. I was discouraged and yet excited, cynical and yet hopeful. As the commands of Jesus to care for the poor, feed and clothe the orphans and widows, and share hope with the lost rushed to my mind, so did my busy schedule, my fear for my safety, and my lack of resources.

Surely all who have endeavored to obey Christ's simple and challenging example have faced these sentiments, from the time of the early apostles until now. Then more Scripture continued to come to mind: "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some..."(1 Cor. 9:22); " I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing power of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things..." (Phil. 3:8); "...who being in very nature God...made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant...he humbled himself and became obedient to death..."(Phil. 2:6-8); "He who despises his neighbor sins, but happy is he who is gracious to the poor"(Prov. 14:21,31); "He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered."(Prov. 21:13). Then I went and read Is. 58, as I encourage you to do. Things seemed to fall into their right places and my perspective was better aligned.

For the last several hours of the day, we visited local schools, ministries, churches, non-profits, and other groups that would be helpful to create initial contact. While we certainly will be limited in our partnerships and commitments at outset, it is important to watch and learn from those who have paved the way. Several of these stops were the Dept. of Human Resources (for the unemployed), Cornerstone Christian School, Workshops Inc. (on-the-job training for mentally handicapped adults), Girls Inc. (our current landlord), and many more. As we form more relationships with such people and groups, we will begin to discover opportunities for future partnerships and coordinated outreaches. I have a lot to process and follow up with after such a great, eye-opening day, and I look forward to the fruit that will surely come from such discoveries!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Crestwood Fall Festival

As a church body, we are currently coming together for Sunday services at the Girls Inc. in the Crestwood area of Birmingham. Since this is the area where we meet together, we have decided to strategically begin our outreach to the people of the Crestwood, Avondale, and Woodlawn general area. We hope to grow deep roots in our ministry here as we form meaningful relationships with the residents, partner with community ministries, aid local schools, and allow the Body of Christ to permeate lives. As we grow as a Body, we hope to continue to expand the breadth of our outreach to other areas, but never at the expense of depth in our ministries. We believe that to best live out the Gospel, we must, as a church body, have consistent and genuine interaction that goes beyond surface level "duty", impersonal programs, and occasional events. As we develop this continual, personal presence in these areas, the Gospel will go forth and Christ will be known.

This weekend we had the opportunity to take a step in this direction: the annual Crestwood Fall Festival (held just down the street from where we meet and a block over from where Joel, our pastor, lives). For the past couple of years, the people in the neighborhood have put on this fun event for families and friends to come to and have a great time. It proved to have a substantial draw since there are so many families with young children in the area. There were booths with games, toys, giveaways, free food, and info on community events and happenings. This year Redeemer had the chance to have a booth and it was tons of fun! In the spirit of equality and peace, they did not declare a "Most Awesome Booth" award, but there is no doubt that we would have easily taken it! I am sure that our appeal had nothing to do with the fact that we had a large inflatable bouncy castle, stellar face-painting, and unparalleled balloon animals.

While Joel and I made a plethora of unique balloon creatures, Amanda Blake designed miniature Sistine Chapels on the faces of little children. All of this while we tried desperately to keep our bouncy castle, full of kids, from literally flying away in the blustery winds (despite being held down with stakes and bricks). It was a great opportunity for the neighbors to gather info on who we are as a church, but also to see us as part of the community. We were very excited to see several Redeemer members come out to enjoy the festival with us. I personally was able to meet several locals and look forward to developing these relationships more! And to finish it all off, I came away with a free Subway sub, a toothbrush, and a 2008 Fall Festival plastic cup. Can this be topped, you ask? I submit no.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Church Gathered Becomes the Church Scattered

Well, as the inaugural post on our new blog, it may be best to explain the purpose of having this blog. As a church body, we have been learning about the importance of reaching out to those around us with the Gospel. We are not meant to simply hear the saving, freeing news of the Gospel and keep it to ourselves. Nor are we meant to simply go on with our lives, oblivious to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of those on our doorstep. Rather, this life-transforming Gospel requires a complete life change- a sacrifice of our own desires, comforts, time, and money. As we reach out to those around us, we help fulfill Christ's mission for His people to bring redemption to this world.

As we grow as a church, we want to make it our main priority to help redeem the city of Birmingham with the Gospel of Christ. This may be by sharing the story of Jesus directly, but it will more than likely begin with playing soccer, donating school supplies, giving away food and clothes, listening to someone in need of a friend, or tutoring and mentoring a young child. These simple acts of love show the people in our communities that we are not simply people who go to church on Sundays or claim to believe in a higher being, but we are an imperfect, sinful people made new and forever changed by the unchanging love of our Saviour, who gave himself up wholly for us and for them. And so we will seek to wholly give up ourselves to mirror this redemptive love and grace to those around us who are literally dying to find such love and acceptance.

As we seek to grow and minister together in this way, I will be helping to head up our urban ministry as a church body at Redeemer. This is a new and exciting role and stage of life for me. After returning from my last year ministering in Northern Ireland, I have been seeking my niche and place of ministry here in Birmingham. After many, many months of frustrating job searching and seeking of the Lord's will, He graciously blessed me with this new role. It is exciting to think of how the Lord has led me here and how He will guide and bless His work from here. This will initially begin as my account of discovering the people, places, and needs in our community, but will quickly become a place to see how the body of Redeemer becomes the hands and feet of Christ, and how YOU can join with us!

Another update to come soon! Until then, be Christ to those around you TODAY!

Learning to serve,
Dwight Castle