Friday, July 17, 2009

Leadership Oasis

Are you thirsty? Are you in a desert? Sometimes the heat of leadership can leave you dry. What you need is to be refreshed.

This need for refreshing is a main thrust for a FREE Leadership Conference taking place on September 26th at the Glory of Christ Church in the Bronx, NY.

Save the date and come find a Leadership Oasis at the "Setting the Gold Standard" conference.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rikers Island (Part 3)

L & M.S. didn't really share much else. But S did. S is a 23 yr old black woman with tats on her arm and on the top of both her hands. She had a red combing brush in her hand. Because her release was approaching in two weeks, I asked her, "When you get out of here, what are you going to do?". She talked about having two young children and needing to get a legit job so ACS would leave her alone. She said, "After I get my short money job...". She paused. "To tell you the truth, I'm gonna be a stripper." She explained that having a felony on her record would prevent her from getting a real job and making real money.

One of the volunteers began to speak with her about stripping not being the best choice. S acknowledged she had low self-esteem and didn't want really to show her body but she needed a way to make good money. She shared how she would never prostitute herself like some other women at the facility have done. M.S. joined in, "Once you get accustomed to making fast money, slow money is not an option."

After some time I jumped in and began encouraging S on the possibility of braiding hair on the outside. She shared how she enjoyed it and how at least half a dozen ladies in the yard were sporting her work.

At this time the music started and we slowly maneuvered our chairs towards the front. Just like the morning session, we sang some praise songs, listened to a female pastor share her life story, followed by another female pastor preach the Gospel message of Jesus' love.

My heart was delighted as M, M.S., S, L & Z all made a confession of sin and asked Jesus Christ to be both Lord and Savior of their lives. I assisted them with their paperwork and had time to pray individually with Z. Z told me she knew nothing about the Bible or church. I encouraged her and we prayed.

Afterward I found M, MS & S talking with one of the retired COs. He was advising them on life on Rikers with Jesus Christ in their lives. All 5 of us prayed. I saw the hope in their eyes. It was different. They were different. It was as if the "On" switch was flipped. I could see it in their eyes.

When we finished praying, they were called to line up. They had to go back inside. We watched. Some volunteers waved. Some blew kisses. I looked down at the response cards which were filled out. One read, "Thank you for coming today." Another read, "Now I know God loves me."

I sat on the bench just trying to process what transpired. God showed up in a powerful way. I really understood God's love for me by saving me from the destructive path that I was previously on. God used seven lovely women to show me His love.

As I am writing this part 3, it has been seven days since this Hope Festival happened. I still think and pray for these women and the many others on Rikers. Every time 11pm beeps on my watch I think "Lights out!". I know when 5am blinks they are waking up to get ready for breakfast.

There is no other way to say it. My world was rocked @ Rikers Island during the Hope Festival.

If you have never visited a jail or a prison, I highly recommend you do so with your church or some community organization. Be encouraged by the words of Jesus:

"I was in prison & you came to visit me...when you visited one of the least of these, you visited me." (Matt. 25:36,40 paraphrased)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Rikers Island (Part 2)

So E & C and the rest of the morning session went back inside for lunch. I and the other 40 volunteers sat around a little before we were served lunch by Officers for Christ (Correction Officers ministry).

Truly I was so thrown I did not have any words. E & C really caught my heart. I needed time to process what had just happened. It went by so fast. I love conversing so in a short time I was asking pretty specific questions and getting really raw answers.

We were not allowed to take pictures. So I am attempting to show you pictures with my words in these blogs.

Lunch proved a great distraction. I talked a lil with one of the other volunteers. While eating I witnessed a 19 yr old-looking inmate pass by a door and call out to her former youth pastor who was in our group. This girl was rocking a white t and light colored pants and blue prison slip-on shoes. With permission from a guard the former youth pastor talked with the girl. From what I overheard, she used to attend the youth ministry of one of the BX churches represented there. At some point she fell away from God and now she was in Rikers. Some of the ladies prayed with her. I could see the youth pastor broke up inside. He had heard about her incarceration when she wrote a letter to the church. I just sat there and watched the whole thing unfold.

After that I went to another part of the yard and just sat on a bench. I saw the big blue sky with beautiful white clouds floating around. I saw the two full court basketball courts in front of me inside the yard. We might as well have been in the projects because only two of the four rims were actually there. And the two there had rusty/grimy backboards. To the right of the courts were two poles connected by a long wire high enough to be a volleyball net. Just one piece of string going across. I imagine a net would probably be a safety hazard.

And way back in the corner was the only piece of life in the yard, a huge vibrant green tree. When I say huge I mean like Rockefeller Center looking like tree. It was a full tree, full of life. And such a vibrant color green. It was such a huge contrast from the off white and dull off-pink colors represented on the walls of the yard.

Occasionally you would hear the sound of seagulls doing their squawking thang as they passed by from roof to roof.

After lunch the afternoon session started. A number of other "houses" came down to the yard. I believe there are 19 houses where the ladies reside in this one facility. This session also included teenagers. Some of these adolescents were young enough to be my child. That was not a cute sight at all.

This time I sat down with another volunteer and some of the ladies sat with us. In our circle we had 3 volunteers and 5 ladies. Of the 5, the youngest was 21 and the oldest was 36.

The first question came from M, a cute, short Dominican girl. She was a little chunky and was wearing a shirt from the college where she graduated. This 21 yr old CPA said, "So why are you here?" The volunteer answered, "We are here today to give you hope". M.S., a thin pale skinned 22 yr old with a tat on the right side of her neck responded, "We could use that here" in a joking manner. The volunteer went on to share a little about the love of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

M shared about having attended church on and off. How she was a good girl who got caught with the wrong crowd that one day. She was arrested when she entered a car to hang with her friend and two guys. A few blocks later the cops pulled them over and she found herself arrested.

The other ladies pressed the issue looking for more details. M came across as the college girl educated type. She didn't seem like she was doing her dirt.

This was a contrast to Z. Z was straight up. She's from South America and was doing her dirt for a while. DTs were watching her & her peoples for almost a year. They got her for numerous counts of drug possession. She knows she's going to have to do somewhere between 3 and 7 years. She was happy they let her give birth to her baby before they arrested her. Her newborn is one month old.

Z's life had not been easy. She was on and off drugs for a while. At one point she was in a coma for 62 days. In light of all the things she was sharing, I pointed out the fact she was still alive. I stopped her just enough to consider how God kept her safe, alive, and her newborn was safe and alive too.

(End of Part 2)

Read Part 3

Rikers Island (Part 1)

Today was the first time I ever went to jail. No, I did not do a crime. I actually attended the "Hope Festival" sponsored by various churches in the NYC area. This was done in conjunction with Prison Fellowship.

I was in the parking lot of Rikers Island @ 7:30am. Although I drove by myself, I was comforted that I recognized other volunteers in the parking lot. For most of the time I was quiet. I really had no expectations of what it would be like on the inside.

The day was split up into a morning and an afternoon session. As one of the handful of male volunteers in this all female facility, I was unsure how my presence would be received.

Before I knew it, we were in the yard. We went through security, the hand stamping, the gates, and then this door which led to the yard. I was transporting music equipment so I let myself get occupied with that.

When we arrived in the yard, some women were already there seated in chairs. I helped set up the equipment. Thank God I had something to keep me busy. :)

After some time, I made my way to a group of 5 women in chairs, 3 of which were volunteers. One of the inmates was sharing how God had touched and transformed her life. Her name is C. She's a short light skinned Latina in her 20s. She's a passionate woman who loves to talk with her whole body. It didn't sound like she knew God for that long but you can tell God has been working in her life. She shared some experiences inside and how she looks forward to her time of departure which is coming real soon.

Most of the rest of the conversation centered around a short caramel colored 30 year-old lady named E. Yeah, E has a heroin addiction. Her history is not the most encouraging, yet it is very familiar. Her dad was incarcerated so she never grew up with him. She has a step-dad who abused her in various ways from the age of 12 to 17. By 17 she bounced from home and went to live with her boyfriend for the next 14 years. The boyfriend provided safety and stability. He took care of the bills and provided for her. 9 years ago E had her first child, a boy. After her son was about 2, she started messing with drugs, especially heroin. Over the last 7 years, the longest she has been clean was 2 weeks. Fortunate for her she has a brother who prays. He's a minister. Also fortunate for her is she had to detox when she got to Rikers. We prayed for C & E and their families. Life ain't all roses, and these women have hurts and pains that were very real.

After the other 3 volunteers and C stepped away, I got to share more with E regarding a scripture that is dear to my heart. Psalm 34:18 says, "God is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who are crushed in their spirit." I encouraged E that the truth that "God is near to those who have a broken heart" is for everyone. I'm happy to tell you that after we sang some praise songs, and after the powerful testimony by one of the pastors, and after a powerful preaching by another pastor, E gave her life to Jesus Christ.

E's face is stitched in my memory. Her scar on the middle of her forehead. The eyebrows which needed to be threaded. Her small frame sitting in her green jumpsuit with the black socks with small white stripes. E is not a dumb lady. But she has made poor choices. Her boyfriend died from an asthma attack three months ago. I could tell that really bothered her. She blames herself for not being there. While she was getting high somewhere else, he had a little party in his home with a bunch of customers...I mean junkies (He sold dope). He caught a bad asthma attack which led to death. After the junkies took his money and dope, they then called the cops. When E found out, she never went back home.

Two months later (this past June) she was en route to meet her son after his little league baseball game. She stopped off in to a store and got arrested for petit larceny. The saddest part is she had the money in her pocket. Why she stole the items she never mentioned? What she did mention is she will be processed to another facility in a few weeks. Please keep E & C in your prayers.

(end of Part 1)

Read Part 2