This solid session kicked off with the Revelation Song, setting a powerful theme for the day with a heart cry of thousands of people in one place proclaiming, "Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord God Almighty! Who was, and is, and is to come!" Lanny Donohoe took that vertical praise and added the horizontal components of crowd interaction and a ridiculously funny video exploiting the word MO as it relates to momentum. One can never underestimate the power of humor to powerfully speak to the spiritual hangover many often experienced on the typical NYWC Sunday morning, but the point was well taken - youth workers (many of whom are volunteers) are challenged with the task of using their time wisely.
That's one thing I absolutely love about the unique style that YS "brings it" - they way they crack people up with laughter so life-changing truth can slide right in.
Next up were five ladies who were a part of a worship project called "Together." As Candi Pearson (one of the ladies) put it, "Our aim is to please God and reflect our unity in His Son and His grace." That exactly what happened, as all voices and hearts joined into Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone), and the ladies each took turns at swapping the verses with one another. Next, the song Agnus Dei took off and it felt like all the voices of those in room were soaring toward heaven - as if you could actually feel people releasing their burdens in a moment of abandonment. Third in the line-up was a worship song I wasn't familiar with - "From The Inside Out" (I believe) - that challenged "Let justice and praise become my embrace."
Then, Liz Murray was up to share. Known for her story that was made into the Lifetime movie "From Homeless To Harvard," here are some slices to chew on:
- Some introduction: Liz confessed to being a bit nervous, sharing "I never intended to do public speaking in my life. I never thought I'd have a story to share with people... I felt like I had nothing worth sharing. You can't plan on having a lifetime movie made about yourself - it took me by surprise." As a high school drop out, she began living on the streets of NYC, adding, "I have to remember that things are different now... The fact that I get to be here with you today is a gift... I'd gotten to such a dark place in my life because I'd given up on it."
- The perspective of hindsight on her journey: "It dawned on me - the reason my story has relevance is because it's not my story - it's the story of anyone who has wanted to give up on themselves and had someone come into their life and made a difference into it. Most people can relate to a sense of resignation - of hope - of life.... People often call me a boot strapper - that "I've done what I've done with my life." Nothing could be further from the truth."
- Liz' background as a child: (In the welfare community) we had the experience of watching our parents gets checks, and no one worked. As a kid, I didn't know anyone had a job. When I got to Harvard, I had some 'cultural differences' with my suite mates. Many families would use their welfare checks to pay the rent or buy groceries. "Our parents were drug addicted. So what do you think they did with their welfare check? We'd get the check and go to the drug spot." For us, it would be the first week of the month and the money was gone. The food was gone. And the question would be "How do we get to the end of the month?" As a child, you pay attention to how your parents solve problems... what they sacrifce, and how they indulge. So we learned that the highest possibility in life is to learn to "survive" - the idea of doing well wasn't even a consideration.
- The Bronx community. People fed us - took us inside. We smelled the doors of people in our building who were cooking, and we'd knock and they'd let us in. But the last week of the month, no one had any money left and they'd stop answering their doors. No one in my community was dealing with the bigger picture. Try to imagine if you went home and didn't take care of your trash for two months. Or the windows are broken and the cold air comes in. Eventually, your household implodes.
- Love will change someone's life. I felt deeply loved by my parents. That's surprising to many, but I didn't have anger toward them for their drugs. "That disease took my parents and ate them up from the inside out. They never meant to be the people they were at that time." Nothing replaces the experience of seeing something first hand. I thought I was hungry, but then I realized Mom hadn't eaten in days longer than I had. I wanted a new coat, and then I saw how Dad's sneakers were duct taped together. "People can't give you what they don't have... They weren't running off to be better parents to someone else during the day and then come back to stick it to us... before I went to bed, my mother would kiss me and tell me her kids were the best thing of her life."
- The ripple of circumstances. When your parents don't step up to the plate, there is a deep impact of loneliness. "Have you ever been in a situation where you don't recognize yourself? I knew this wasn't supposed to be my life." We have a sense that our lives are supposed to be better, but it's hard to summon up the courage to change it. "I kept telling myself the lie of 'later'" - that the conditions will create themselves for things to change on their own.
- Looking at the possibility of something more. Being in a Gothic phase, I would interview with schools and they would judge me when I walked in. In my heart, it felt like a brick wall - society was against me. So I showed up to interviews closed off. Someone gives you a look over, and you know what they're thinking. I was rejected by so many places that I finally hit a breaking point. Standing in midtown, I thought, "I should ditch the interview and go get some pizza." The "What if?" voice spoke to me- the part of you that dares to dream. That came up so intensely, "What if you get it?" There is no later. It's gotta be now. I went off to the interview, got accepted, and met the most amazing person. You never know when you're about to meet the most amazing person in your life. You're almost at your knees, ready to give up, and then something changes.
- A new friend and a willing mentor. Perry was a teacher in NYC - I wish we had a photo of the two of us the day we met - a study in opposites. I walked in with gothic clothes, and the man looked like he lived in the library. You know when someone cares about you, just like you know when they don't. Perry created space for me, opened up, and told me, "Why don't you trust me and tell me what's going on?" When I finally did turn my chair and had the courage to look at him, and started to tell him my story, I saw that while he wasn't crying I could see his eyes were glassy. I first thought he pitied me, but he turned to me and touched my arm and said, "You have a lot of work to do... are you willing to do that work?" I never had someone address me that way - teachers would let me sleep.
- The challenge of a youth worker. Perry said, "I'll give you what you're asking for under one condition. You're accepted to this school if I could mentor you." Will our school be a better place with you in it? (Yes, sir) "Then you're accepted." Sure enough - he wasn't kidding. All the days I was there, he'd challenge me and encourage me. "Do you want an A or not? I'll show you how to do it. You're going to work hard, right?" I signed up for night school, morning class, independent studies, extracurriculars.
- Perry's intentionality as a mentor. There's a difference between setting a goal and living the reality. (i.e. Going to a gym, versyus actually going to a gym) Perry was someone who helped me understand that difference. Perry would say, "Hey you look like you want to have lunch with me." And he'd give me his lunch hour. "As long as you're willing to work, I'll be with you till the sun comes up." As much as he was a part of my life, he had no idea I'd ride the subway back and forth for sleep. Maybe all that separates you from someone you look up to and admire, is the work they've done that you haven't yet.
- The community that began to form around Liz. I found a scholarship opportunity in the N.Y. Times that asked me to "please attach a brief autobiographical essay involving any obstacles in your life." All in one day, I walked into welfare to apply for food stamps, I walked into my Harvard interview to apply,and I walked into the NY Times. The welfare appt was the only one that didn't go well - the lady made fun of me. At the NY Times, I didn't know to be afraid. There was a tray of pastries, and no one touched it. I took every last donut. When they found out my story, they began to come around me and care for me.
- The public after going public. A group of us appeared on the cover of the Metro section of the NY Times, and I knew my secret was out, and Perry would read it. I wish you could have seen that my community showed up on my first day at Harvard - dozens of people who read the article and showed up to help and give me brownies. They said, "We only want to help." I thought, "Really?" I didn't know people could be good. These people were "angels" who showed up and pulled together money so we wouldn't have to live on the street. They built beds for us... we didn't have to sleep another night on the street. They taught me that angels are real.
- Implications for youth workers: The good news is you don't have to solve the problem - you only have to do your part. Perry said to me... "You're the luckiest person I've ever met." I wondered - is it luck? Is it perseverance? Here's what I believe: You put your best foot forward, and the universe responds. It's faith in action - the angels show up. Perry said to me: "It was so easy, Liz. I had a mentor... and he had a mentor, and so on. A long time ago, someone helped someone, who helped someone else, who helped someone else, who helped me. And I helped you."
Liz really was compelling. From the moment she began by asking, "Is anyone here afraid of public speaking? There is hope." Along those lines, she added, "Once you figure out what you want to say, the rest is easier."
What is most intriguing about that to me is that while Liz has a message - one that received a standing ovation and an endless number of tears - she is on a journey. Perhaps she's aware of pieces of it. Perhaps there are other components she's only just now beginning to understand. She nor her mentors are Christians... yet. But you can feel her life asking questions in that direction, as if she is about to take a step of courage toward God.
Maybe that's why Mark Matlock was the best person to come up and summarize a few thoughts at the end. He put the arrowhead on the line she'd drawn and pointed it straight at Jesus. Speaking of the hardships she faced, he illustrated how the enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy - but Jesus came that we may have life to the full.
It's important that we recognize this - that the people we put in front of students or those whom we receive our own insights from are all on a journey. They can share in a book or a talk where they are at in one moment, but it is always so much more. And when we look for God in every story, we understand how powerful it is to clearly show Christ for who He is - the hope of the world.
Or as Mark put it, we have a beautiful love to share with the world - the One who died on the cross for our sins. His closing prayer: "For whatever reason, you choose to use us in the lives of these kids and we have no idea what you're up to and what's really going on in their lives. God, you've shown us your love so we can show it to the world. Please help us to be that salt and light in wherever you've placed us."