Last Saturday, I drove all through the night to Chicago, to spend a week with one group of YWAM Tyler’s discipleship and missions training program for teenagers (SST). These young people were beginning their week of outreach after spending the previous week in training, living in community and getting to know God in a deeper way. I thought I was just a bus driver, but God had some things to teach me as well.
Story 1 – Approaching the basketball court in Chicago’s Westside, I could tell I might be out of my element. I was going to be playing basketball. Everyone knows, I’m a soccer fan, not a baller. However, I quickly realized the most important aspect of this game was not how well I could put the moves on my would be 14 year old opponents, but rather would I and could I show them value. After borrowing a basketball from a Muslim mother and her son from Senegal, the game against my new Iraqi friends began.
I can’t shoot. Let’s just put that on the table right now. Chunking the ball toward the hoop time and time again, very few points were scored for my team. But after a ton of laughs and ridiculous looking layups by yours truly, our game halted and our friendship began. I looked around the park where nearly every tribe on the planet was represented, and I thought, “Is this still America?”
Tamem, Moon, and George spoke decent English and shared about their plight from Iraq to the USA as refugees. Leaving their aunts, uncles, and cousins behind to defend for themselves, these three young men with their immediate families began a new journey in a new place. Their eyes lit up when talking about their homeland and the hope they have for their future return to Baghdad.
I loved these kids. My expectations were blown away by their sincere hearts to share a tiny bit of their lives with me. They won’t easily be forgotten. We prayed together for safety, provision, and peace for their time here in America and for their extended family they will not see for many years to come.
After my exchange with those at the park, I now thought I had a grip on how to start conversations with folks from other nations as I went strolling down diverse Devon Street. Over 160 different nations are represented in this neighborhood. Gazing at storefronts, traffic patterns, and people’s dress, it was hard to believe I was still on American soil.
I met people from India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Iraq, who all held different and very distinct faith preferences. I struck up conversations with young and old to get a sense of what I see on the news everyday is really true. I got a mixed bag of answers, but for the most part, I started to realize people of all backgrounds have the same intrinsic need. They want to be heard and they want to be loved.
Story 2 – Not all my conversation starters went so well. One thing you can’t say when desiring to learn about someone’s obvious non-western heritage is, “So what ethnicity is your background?” I learned real quick that was the wrong thing to say, when an older Philippino-American lady scolded me in front of others for my ignorance. I took it like a man and gently apologized and asked some different questions to my disciplinarian. With a grey-green quaker parrot nibbling crumbs from the handle basket of her rusted bicycle, she explained her disdain for not being accepted as a “true American.” I listened.
My take away may not be as she had wished however. I really longed to share with her how our cultures can be beautiful stepping stones for seeing the creativity of the Creator. There is a loving God who sees backgrounds and history as pillars for others to stand on. Should we not remember with strong conviction the love of those who have gone before us and paved a path easily walkable for us now? I am what I am by God’s grace and by those who saw far enough into the future to believe there is freedom for everyone. Our cultures are redeemable. I believe that.
Story 3 – The smell of the Hindu temple, however was something I’m not sure was redeemable. I’m not a huge fan of incense and this odor was peculiar. Our host sat our 56 wide-eyed youth on the wooden floor of the Hare Krishna Temple for a cultural introduction to Hinduism. After a wonderful exchange of questions and answers from our young students, it was clearly obvious the lack of hope expressed through the Hindu faith. From this dialogue, our students were reminded of the hope they have in Christ. There’s nothing like a taste of real freedom when staring directly at the chains of legalism.
Our Muslim friend at the The Islamic Mosque didn’t offer any solutions to the despair humanity finds itself in either. Islam means struggle, and the struggle involves gaining some type of mercy from God by accomplishing good deeds throughout ones life. It saddened us all when asked about his hope in the afterlife and his response was, “I don’t know that I would be accepted by God. We just hope there may be mercy for us.” A deep sadness hit my soul as I wanted to jump up and shout, “But there is GRACE! Grace for all who believe in Jesus. Doesn’t that sound good?”
Neither Hinduism nor Islam offers grace to those who follow their path. For some the idea of a free gift seems impossible to receive, especially when it’s of great value. I’m beginning to understand people seem more apt to want to “work or earn” the right to be loved, rather than to be loved unconditionally. It seems a strange paradox in our society. We scream tolerance and “love all” from the media sources of our time, yet forget we need authentic unconditional love ourselves and then reject the God who gives it.
I have peace knowing God’s grace through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Following Jesus isn’t about me doing good stuff, hoping he won’t be to hard on me for not doing better. The gift of grace compels me to listen, obey, experience, fail, love, and at the end of every day know I’m accepted as his child because I believe He is enough.
America may not look the same in our cities as it did 100 years ago, but one thing hasn’t changed a bit. People are people and they need to know they are loved. Jesus loves and wants all to trust in Him alone. Our little team of high school students went to Chicago to make that known to as many as possible. Some listened and some did not. We prayed for the grace of God to impact the city of Chicago and the light of Jesus to reach all who live there.
Thanks for partnering with us as we reach the world for Jesus — one person at a time. Want to join our team? Visit our partnering page here.