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 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 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