Remember those old television ads for The Hair Club for Men, which ended with a well-coiffed gentleman proudly proclaiming, “I’m not just the owner of the company…I’m a member too!”? Well, when it comes to EAPE, I feel a lot like that guy. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still just as bald as a, well…as my Dad. What I am trying to say is that I’m not just the Executive Director of EAPE. As a neighborhood minister with The Walnut Hills Fellowship, I’m one of our front-line ministry workers too!
As most of you know, I serve EAPE on a part-time basis. I still earn the rest of my income from speaking engagements, but the rest of my time and energy is really focused on street-level outreach in my adopted hometown of Cincinnati . My family and I have lived here for four years now, together with a handful of like-minded friends who share our commitment to loving our neighbors whether or not we can help them. In the beginning we mainly just walked around a lot, and volunteered wherever we could, but after a while we began inviting some of our more vulnerable neighbors to eat meals with us. Eventually, we ended up with an incredibly motley crew of more than 40 regulars who gather every week for a big, home-cooked family dinner and lots of love and laughter.
For some folks, our fellowship is hard to understand. We often pray and share our faith with one another, but we are not a church. Some of us are very poor, but we are not a soup kitchen. We often help each other in practical ways, but we are not a social service agency. What we are is a collection of close-by friends who have decided to deepen our relationships by regularly spending time together, the same way some families do. Of course, just as a family doesn’t allow people it doesn’t know and hasn’t invited to come to its gatherings, neither are we open to all comers. On the contrary, we are increasingly careful to add to our fellowship only those people we think will fit in and add something to the group. Otherwise, in a neighborhood like this one, we’d be overwhelmed by more people than could possibly become our true friends.
Actually, we are already overwhelmed, or at least it feels that way to me. It is one thing to manage a program for poor people in bulk, but it is something else altogether to live with and love them, one at a time, as friends, especially when most are as broken as our friends here. Still, bad as the statistics are in this place, I always have lots of good stories, as long as by ‘good’ you mean truthful. If you are interested, I email (or mail) one of those stories out every month (they are collected at www.thewalnutnillsfellowship.org), and you need only ask to get on my list.
My father tells me that our little fellowship is a new model for urban ministry, but to me what we’re doing seems old as dirt. We are not professional missionaries, after all, just aggressively good neighbors in a place that badly needs them. We who came to Walnut Hills on purpose support our families with regular jobs, which frees us to use the money we get from EAPE and others on food, medicine, tuition, YMCA summer camp, and fixing up decent housing for our most vulnerable members. It may sound sacrificial, but we know we’re the lucky ones for getting to follow Jesus alongside our closest friends this way. Of course it is hard sometimes, but we are sharing the good life here.
I think being a front-line ministry worker has helped make me do better in my role as Executive Director of EAPE. For one thing, I have become a whole lot more sensitive to and understanding of the everyday concerns of the rest of our frontline workers, at Urban Promise, Beyond Borders, Haiti Partners, Cornerstone Christian Academy , Mission Year, Oasis Zimbabwe , Cabrini Green Legal Aid, REACH, and all the rest of our supported ministries. The better I understand what they do out there, the more amazed I am at how much they accomplish daily for the Kingdom of God . For another thing, I am more obsessed than ever with making sure EAPE spends as little as possible on overhead so that as much of your support as possible goes directly to meeting to the needs of the poor and the oppressed.
Most of all, however, being back on the street in inner-city Cincinnati has taught me to appreciate just how wonderful EAPE is, and in particular just how wonderful you are. The hardest part of ghetto life, after all, is not the poverty itself but rather the realization that you are alone in a dangerous world, where nobody who could help really cares who you are or what happens to you. Our world may be just as dangerous sometimes, but we have all of you behind us every single day, caring for us with your prayers and your notes of encouragement and your relentless, sacrificial support. You are the ones who keep us in touch with all the love and beauty and goodness and Grace that is forever all around us, thanks to Jesus. Trust me, none of us, and especially not my father and I who know most of you by name, ever take all that for granted. Or rather, we do just that. We do take your being with us as an incredible, generously granted gift.
ABOUT TONY + JUNE 2009