Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Crab Fishing Has To Do With Inner-City Missions Part I

It’s a funny show to get hooked on, but Andrew and I can’t get enough of the “Deadliest Catch.” Usually aired on the Discovery Channel (we don’t have cable) we get to watch old seasons through our Netflix subscription (thanks Mom and Dad), which, I must admit, occasionally results in several-hour marathons watching sailors with colorful personalities haul crab out of the ocean. It seems like an odd obsession for two inner-city missionaries, but recently while watching one of our King Crab Marathons I felt a strange kinship to their experiences.

Every episode I watch I think, you could not pay me enough to work on a boat in the middle of the Bering Sea hauling hundreds of thousands of pounds of crab out of the water 30 hours at a time. No way. But the guys doing it love it. I heard one captain refer to their work as a calling. Many come seeking the good money (an average season of a several weeks makes the crew about $30,000 each) but few make it a living. The physical and mental demands of long hours and hard labor drive many off the waters. It’s not uncommon to watch a “Greenhorn” (as the newbies on the boat are called) crack 20 hours into their first “grind,” leave the boat when back in harbor, and never be seen on the crab boats again.

For those of you who are not avid watchers of “Deadliest Catch” and are not yourselves Crab Fishermen, let me set the stage for you a bit. The Alaskan Crab Fishing Season runs from about October to January, but it is broken up into different species of crab seasons that are usually a couple months long a piece. Some crab fishermen only fish certain seasons, but many of the seasoned crew and boat owners also fish other things and are then gone from their families (who often live in other U.S. states than Alaska) most of 6-8 months at a time. Most crab fishing boats (at least the ones on the show—because that’s the extent of my knowledge of this field :) have about 5-7 crew members. They chart a course in the Bering Sea and drop big crab-catching cages called “pots” into the ocean through the use of hydraulic cranes and brute strength. The entire season includes them setting and hauling these pots until they catch their quota of crab poundage—which sounds WAY easier than the work really is.

At this point you’re probably saying, OK, Adria, but this still has nothing to do with Inner-City Missions—I’m getting to that part. As I sat and watched these men do what they love to do I could not help but identify with what that one captain referred to as their life calling. Andrew and I have seen many inner-city workers come and go and every single one that makes it in the city says it is their calling that tethers them to this place. There are breaking days where even the seasoned deckhands on these crab boats reach the end of themselves and feel almost too tired to go on, but in the end they are fixed to the ship by their love for their work and the surety that they are doing exactly what they are suited for. Most experienced inner-city missionaries I know say they must write down the calling God has laid on them as a place to revisit on those breaking days and it is that calling that fixes them to the city.

You might think that with all this talk of calling and of being part of an elite team of naturally suited guys, that there would be an air of superiority about them. They make a lot of money for doing manual labor, they sacrifice a lot to make that money, and there are hundreds of guys who don’t make it out there. Yet, most often you hear them say that they are so lucky and grateful to be doing what they do. They don’t despise those guys who don’t make it on the Bering Sea, unless they don’t make it because they’re not willing to work hard. The captains and crew share that they couldn’t imagine doing anything else, even if they know it’s kind of a crazy profession. Occasionally when we as inner-city missionaries go to missions fairs and visit churches to do support raising, people comment on the nature of our work. They kindly hold our hands and self-deprecatingly esteem our calling over theirs. Although they mean nothing but encouragement it often makes me uncomfortable. Knowing myself like I do, I’m certainly not the saint imagined by this well-meaning church member. All I know is that if you feel that by working in the city you’re doing what you feel suited to do then, like the crab fishermen, you’re just doing your job and grateful to do it.

The show quickly draws you into the stories of these men and their mission on the sea. Sometimes while watching the show I catch myself almost holding my breath, tense with the anticipation of each boat’s imminent success or failure. As they haul each pot out of the ocean it feels like I’m leaning forward with the crew as they wait for the top of the pot to appear over the rail, hoping to see it full of crab. When the boats set their strings of pots, often they have to blindly lay sets to locate good fishing waters. It can be disheartening for the crew when they spend several days setting and hauling pots only to have a handful of crabs to show for their hours of labor. Then other times, as the pot clears the side rail, cheers of victory erupt from the crew at the sight of a pot full of thousands of dollars worth of crab. I find myself empathizing with this process, identifying it with the process of working with people when the investment is so high but the results just seem so meager. But then there are those times that you labor and cry and come so close to giving up and then God does an amazing work in someone’s life and the joy buoys your spirits with hope and gladness.

Inner-city work is much like crab fishing; it’s a high stakes, high rewards lifestyle. For us there isn’t a $30,000-$50,000 paycheck awaiting us every few months, but there is the knowledge that God’s Kingdom is presently advancing in the lives of people in the city. That is true reward indeed, and in the end all the work and all the struggle is worth the joy of watching God’s plan for the city unfold. But it’s not for the timid, for the faint-of-heart, or for those who aren’t ready to commit all their loyalty and all their strength to sail midst the storm and put faith in The Captain to navigate the waters.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Harvest is Plentiful...the Workers are Few and Wornout

Inner-city ministry is long, hard work. Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything else I would want to be doing and there is such joy in uncovering the glory of God in a place where people often say it doesn't exist. The city is full of beauty and joy if you look for it. Yet, I think people see movies like "Freedom Writers" or "Lean on Me" or the like and think that it is the usual reality to work long hours and see an equal or more abundant return for your labor. That is not the nature of inner-city work. You can't do inner-city work if you aren't dedicated and able to see very, very small incremental progress as success.

Andrew and I just found out that a couple who has also been doing inner-city church planting in North St. Louis for ten years is leaving the city. I don't know the couple very well, but we occasionally partner with them and always see each other at local missions fairs. Although they are not with World Impact, it's always been somewhat reassuring to know that they are out there striving for the same goal in the same city. This announcement has come on the heels of a long list of people leaving inner-city St. Louis. The reality is that the average inner-city worker lasts 1.5 years. I don’t know if that speaks to the nature of the work or the ideology and expectations people bring to the work or both, but that’s the reality.

Although I don’t know this particular couple well, their leaving hit me in the gut. Every time someone leaves I question: Does no one have the ability to see it through? Will I be one of these stories one day? How can the harvest be so plentiful and the workers always be leaving?

One of the things that helps me in these times is the community I have with World Impact. I love that within World Impact nationally there are people on staff who have dedicated their lives to the inner-city…20, 30, 40 years of self-sacrificing work. I have so much respect for and am encouraged by these people who have committed themselves through good times and bad, through burnout and joy, through successful church plants and times of no response, and have lived and raised their children in the city. There are faithful workers who can go the distance—albeit only through the continual submission of their lives to the grace and power of God.

This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about as of late. Just yesterday I was at a family’s house in the community and they were asking about past staff. The young girl made the comment that “Every body leaves.” I couldn’t necessarily correct her because very soon, Andrew and I will be the only ones left on staff that she has had any connection with. That both breaks my heart and hardens my resolve to commitment.

There is such a harvest here if you have the eyes to see. God is building His kingdom even in the midst of human failures. I’ve heard it said that we live in an upside-down Kingdom…the Gospel flips our earthy views on their heads. There’s no place better to experience this than in the city. We’ve got to check our worldly expectations at the door and respond with faithfulness and dedication and let God reap the Harvest He sees fit. Although I have only been here 4 years, I’ve learned some pretty big lessons:

• If God calls you to the city you have to write down that calling, make it your Ebenezer. You’ve got to know God called you and be able to revisit that calling when times get hard.
• Camaraderie is key. If you aren’t willing to hold onto the people who God has given you as co-laborers and pour into them then you will eventually feel too alone in the battle. It can still get lonely and isolating but it is the knowledge that there are others laboring faithfully for God’s Kingdom that encourages you on.
• We all come in with grandiose ideas about our impact on the city. I have to continually purge those for the reality that all I’m responsible for is to labor faithfully where God calls me to work…the rest is up to Him.
• God is always faithful. It doesn’t always look the way I’d like it to but God’s provision is sovereign and He can and does transform lives in the city!!
• It is through long-term commitment to the city that an impact is made. This is not to say that people cannot serve the city well for a short time or that God does not call people on to other places to work (none of us knows what God has for our futures—He may yet call Andrew and I somewhere else one day) but being able to commit yourself until the day that God calls you on is so important.
• You’re going to get tired; there will be a time (or times) when you feel burnt out and it is here when you most understand and cherish God’s faithfulness and the greater body of Christ. I have come to understand the church on a very basic level…it is our life-line while here on earth. We must cherish the Body of Christ and cultivate it on a daily basis.

Praise God that His work in the city is bigger than us. He can still accomplish His work and bring new people to the city to labor for the harvest. We pray for this. This is our hope on stormy days.

Monday, January 4, 2010

December Happenings

Although out of chronological order from our January Update, I wanted to share some of the exciting things that happened in December (time is just moving too quickly for me to keep up!)!  It was a whirlwind month of ministry, activity, family, and even though there was rarely time enough to pause and reflect, there was much to reflect upon!

The beginning of December was filled with a lot of sewing for me (Adria), one of my new-found hobbies.  I made purses for most of the women in my life as Christmas presents because I fancy myself original and thoughtful in gift giving...but really I'm just CHEAP!!  :)  Well, maybe I could be all of the above??
I also got to visit my good friend Amber in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for her baby shower and help decorate her baby room!  We put a decal on the baby's wall with the verse in James that says "Every good and perfect gift comes from above."  I love that little Blake will come into the world knowing he is a gift from God. Pray for his arrival coming in March!

Mid December brought about a long-awaited and celebrated day:  Bruce graduated from college!  Bruce grew up a block from World Impact and has known Andrew for many years.  Andrew mentored him in high school and he was a graduate of World Impact's L.I.T. (Leadership In Training) program for high schoolers.  It was so special to share in his day of celebration and to see what a solid young man of God he is!  He is now in the process of applying for med school so keep him in your prayers as he still has a long road ahead of him!

Then we had the privilege of sharing Christmas with Stephon in Kansas.  Stephon was a part of Bridge of Hope's youth group and has also known Andrew for many years.  He is now attending college at Missouri University in Columbia, Missouri, about two hours from us.  We picked him up on our way out to Andrew's parents' house in Topeka, Kansas, and he spent the week with us.  It is a joy to spend time with this young man who exudes such resiliance and joy even in the face of the trials he has experienced.  Continue to pray for him as he goes to college and grows in mind and spirit!

Then came Urbana 09!  The largest missions conference in North America (with over 15,000 students) held here in St. Louis between Christmas and New Years!  Our St. Louis staff were the point people for our National booth at the conference and Andrew was one of our representatives!  So we kept very busy builing displays, putting together literature, giving tours of our facility and trying to recruit, recruit, recruit! 

Andrew and I also hosted number 18-25 of the people who have stayed with us since we moved into our new (larger) home in October!  Dad told us that if the missionary thing didn't work out we could open a bed and breakfast (those of you who know how much I love to cook and clean, feel free to laugh now).

Phew...December was a busy month, but one filled with many blessings and in the moments when I get to pause and reflect I am so grateful for the family, the friends, and the ministry that God has seen fit to place in our lives.  We love you all...and Happy New Year!!

January Update

January 1, 2010

Dear Team,

Grace and Peace to each of you this new year! We hope this letter finds each of you doing very well. Well, I have good news and I have bad news. OK, bad news first: St. Louis just received the award for America’s 2nd most dangerous city. The good news is: Adria and I are exactly where God has called us to be!

Since I arrived in St. Louis nine years ago, St. Louis has consistently been in the top five America’s most dangerous cities, but, God has still done so many amazing things in this city. Since Adria and I have moved into our new neighborhood (about 5 blocks from our old house) several months ago, God has been helping us to develop some really great relationships.

Across the street from us is a house we call the four-flat. It is a big house with four apartments in it and it is rented out to several families. Our block is always active and very loud because of this house. A few months ago, the FBI came in and arrested ten people for drug related activity. Needless to say, I am a little intimidated by most of the people coming and going from this house.

There is never a dull moment from this house—whether it is mothers arguing on the front porch, people drinking and partying in the front yard, or guys shooting dice on the sidewalk. However, a big thing happened the other day. Adria and I were walking to our car and one of the guys who lives at the four-flat waved to us before we had a chance to wave.

Now that may not seem like a big deal to some of you, but this comes after two full months of waving every time I exited my house and getting nothing. I have been over a few times to spark conversation and it had not taken off.

What this wave meant to me was a chance to earn their respect and an opening to possible relationships. That house and the people in it are constantly in my prayers. Hopefully there are future Church leaders living in that house! Christ has a burden for this house and I am praying that God uses Adria and I in a mighty way to show them that there is something way better than their present life. God is mighty to save!

Adria and I host a Bible study at our house every Sunday night from 6-8p.m. Our intention is to eventually start a house Church from this Bible study. What potential there is right across the street for future leaders of this Church. Please be in prayer that our neighbor’s waves will turn into conversations, and those conversations will turn into conversions. St. Louis may be one of America’s most dangerous cities, but we are here to see that this city be won for Christ!

All for our Glorious and soon coming King!

Andrew & Adria Medlen