Sneak Peek--Chapter 1

Trip Start Jan 06, 2011
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Trip End May 24, 2011


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Flag of United States  , Missouri
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Here's the rough rough draft of Chapter 1, from the previously-mentioned book-in-progress retelling the accounts of those who have benefitted from the gift card ministry this year. Some things in this chapter may be familiar to you if you followed last year's blog. Some things are new to everyone at this point. Enjoy :)

Chapter One

Ministry Aboard the Northbound Train

 

Our work with Camfel took us deep into the heart of major cities, and out into towns with populations lower than your local Walmart on a Tuesday. One thing that became evident rather quickly was that no matter where we looked, we could see people in need. We saw people who were hurting—financially, perhaps, but also emotionally and physically. We saw hurt in the faces of some of the kids who attended our assemblies. We saw discontent on the faces of wealthy businessmen, and we saw despair in the eyes of the homeless behind their cardboard signs. Every community has need, and every person seeing it has something to offer.

Kelsey and I found ourselves in a neat position to encourage people with whom we interacted. This job, financially, was very liberating. Since the company paid for our gas, food, and lodging, we had very few expenses. That meant that nearly every dollar we earned went straight into savings. Now, we could have viewed this as a nice down-payment on our first home, but God challenged us to view this as His money to use as He directed.

When we opened our eyes, God told us where to look. It took some practice. We started by handing out cash to homeless people on the street, and engaging them in conversation. God stretched us to do more. On one Sunday in Chicago, we invited a homeless man to join us for lunch at a fancy restaurant in the park. Imagine the looks of surprise on the faces of the wait staff! Here was the man that they usually kept away from their doors now dining with a young couple from out of town!

But it wasn’t only homeless people that could find encouragement through giving. As we sat in Chili’s for lunch one afternoon, we saw at the table next to us what looked to be a father and young daughter eating together. Kelsey, very much a daddy’s girl herself, really appreciated this father-daughter date. Kelsey bought a gift card and wrote a note on a napkin saying “Thanks for being a great male role-model for the little girl in your life” (so tactfully written as to be appropriate even if they weren’t father and daughter). Kelsey asked our server if she would give the card and note to the man after we left. We didn’t stick around to see his reaction, but you can bet he was surprised!

One of our favorite encounters that first year occurred on one sunny afternoon in Amarillo, Texas. The following excerpt, written by Kelsey, is taken from our travel blog1:

 

We stayed in Amarillo last night and checked out today at noon.  With all the long drives this month, our van was due for an oil change before the month came to a close.  So we drove to Wal-Mart.  While we waited, we ate lunch in the McDonald’s in Wal-Mart and then wandered the aisles pretend-decorating our fake house.  We filled up on gas and pulled out of the driveway planning to drive to Colorado.  But we were stopped. 

Out of my window I caught a glimpse of a man squatting by the road with a cardboard sign.  I couldn’t read any of it but “God Bless You”, a common phrase on cardboard signs.  Michael hadn’t seen the man and so I told him to pull off into the McDonald’s parking lot behind him.  We did.

I grabbed a bag of nuts and granola I hadn’t yet opened and two water bottles and we jumped out of the van.

“Hey, Friend!  Are you hungry?”  I asked.

With blue eyes under his dirty Texas Rangers cap, he looked up and sighed heavily - “Oh yes.”  He examined the bag, “This’ll be fiber!  And look at all that’s in there - everything a human needs to survive.  Wow, thank you!”

We shook hands with David and sat on the grass to chat.  “This will be so good.  Definitely better for me than peanut butter and mayo sandwiches.  Oh, those taste good, though!”

Prompted by this, I asked if he wanted one.  We carry peanut butter and bread for lunches in our car.  And I recently stocked up on mayo packets from a Dairy Queen.  I ran to the car and came back with the goods and made David a sandwich.  He only wanted half - he didn’t have much of an appetite.  It was the first thing he’d eaten in four days, and after that long you forget you’re hungry.

Originally from Iowa, David’s goal is to escape cold weather and make it all the way to Mexico.  He traveled with his dog, Soldier, for 10 years.  That is, until 3 weeks ago.  David fell into a coma due to a stretch of pneumonia.  He left Soldier with a family he’d met at church when he went to the hospital.  Soldier, though, had a girlfriend across town—Elaine.  He escaped, got picked up by animal control, and was put to sleep before David ever got out of the hospital.  The man was broken up about the loss of his pet, travel partner, and best friend.  He was waiting in Amarillo until Bear—Soldier and Elaine’s puppy son—grew big enough to go with him. Elaine’s owners don’t want to keep the puppy, so when he’s grown, David wants to take him.  David was currently hoping to collect enough money from people to buy puppy food.  And cat food for his friends’ cats.  The cats have been eating Elaine’s dog food.  David said a mother cat just gave birth to six kittens.  She’d been eating dog food, so David joked, “I was worried the kitties would come out barking!”  So we couldn’t leave without giving him money for dog and cat food.

We were encouraged to sit and talk to David.  He was so genuine and so happy to talk with us.  He was tender when he talked about Soldier, and funny and lighthearted talking about his situation.  What’s more was that he had so much faith in the Lord.  He kept referencing the peanut butter and mayo sandwich as “God provided this!”  It amazes me how so often people who have nothing are the ones who see God as a giver, provider, healer and friend.  His constant acknowledgement of the ways God has provided for him touched and challenged me.  We were excited to hear him talk about the churches he visits.  He’s been welcomed and loved in church.  As he said, “Jesus said ‘come as you are’ and I might smell bad and look bad, but I still go to church.”

As we were planning to leave, David’s friend, Scott, aka Bradley, aka “Pooh” (he explained “like Winnie the Pooh, because I smell like poo”) walked up.  David showed him his new cash and said, “Hey!  Look!  I can get dog and cat food!”  And as if to verify the story we had just heard, Pooh replied, ‘Oh, that’s so good! Mama Cat just had six kittens; they need food.” 

David was surprised to hear about our lifestyle, that we have no home--just living in hotels.  He assured us we’d have a mansion in heaven someday.  He promised he’d bring Soldier over to play at our mansion when we all get there. And we’ll all eat peanut butter and mayo sandwiches.


 

 

            We found ourselves increasingly refreshed and re-energized through our conversations with people God placed in our path. I think we ended up more encouraged after each encounter than did our new friends. It became harder to knowingly pass up opportunities to serve.

            Our first tour with Camfel ended with the completion of a year-long mission. At the beginning of the year, we began to collect all the little shampoos, conditioners, and lotions that were in our hotel rooms. Our intention was to find a homeless shelter at the end of tour who could distribute them. Since we were in a different hotel practically every night, our collection grew rapidly. We initially stored them in a grocery bag. They soon outgrew the bag, and the subsequent shoebox. By the end of the year, we had collected hundreds of little bottles.

Camfel’s headquarters is based in Los Angeles, where there is no shortage of homeless shelters. Kelsey had done some research and found the Jonah Project2, right on Skid Row. Skid Row is the unflattering nickname for a not-so-hidden 50-block sector in the shadow of the Los Angeles downtown skyline. It has the largest concentration of homeless people in the entire country. Over 10,000 souls without a home make the most they can here. Our experience in Skid Row is recorded in our blog entry for that day:


We just turned one block to enter Skid Row, and we soon found ourselves in a completely different world. We parked our van on the outskirts, and walked into the heart of it, with our box of hotel samples in arm. Every stereotype of homelessness, plus dozens of sights not even imagined, lined the streets of Skid Row. We couldn’t walk long before being approached and asked what we were carrying. “You handin’ stuff out?” Sure enough, we paused and handed out little bottles of assorted care products. We quickly drew a crowd. You know what was the most requested item? Lotion. Just some skin moisturizer. But really--when your skin faces the elements 24 hours a day, you can bet even a little bottle of lotion would be most welcome. We knelt down to interact with Wolfie, a skinny woman with a big appetite for her food and even bigger appetite for the samples we were handing out. She rummaged through our box for a good five or ten minutes, taking out her favorites. As she poured over our box, I had to keep returning her fallen egg rolls to their original place on her lap. Meanwhile, other passers-by stopped and asked if there was any lotion in there. I found myself taking out some bottles when Wolfie wasn’t looking so I could hand some things out to others myself.

By the time we left Wolfie’s patch of concrete, our box was significantly lighter.

We had trouble finding Jonah project. We knew we were getting there after hours, but we were told someone would answer the door and let us in. We asked a few locals if they could help us find the right door. We were directed in a number of different directions. We once thought we found it—the doors were open, and a Bible study was being conducted inside. However, it ended up being a Church of the Nazarene.

After searching for a few more minutes, we gave up on the Jonah Project, but we needed to put these hotel samples in the hands of a ministry who could use them in conjunction with the gospel. Our simple handouts were only softening hands, not hearts.
It was starting to get dark, and thus starting to get potentially dangerous (but not for the reasons you might think--more on that later). So we just made the decision to re-visit the Church of the Nazarene. We met with Brother Maurice, who gracious accepted our now-slightly-diminished gift. We spoke for a little while, and then we all prayed for each other’s ministries. Kelsey and I had great respect for this little church right on the corner of two of the most down-trodden streets in the country. “I believe if Jesus were to build a church,” Bro. Maurice explained, “it would be right here.” Among the least of the least of these. His prayer was that the church would find a partner elsewhere in the city—even in the suburbs—that could join forces in ministry. Not just some “mother-church” that gave money, but a true partner. Like he said, that chuch could benefit and learn a lot from the little Skid Row church itself.
But all too many people assume that it’s a dangerous environment. To which I say, first, should it matter? But second, I echo what Brother Maurice said about those with whom he interacts on a daily basis. “These people here are just as nice as anybody else you could meet in the city.” Kelsey added, “And even nicer.”

Homelessness does not necessarily equate with violence and unpredictability. They just don’t have a home. And because of their lifestyle, bonds can actually be closer between homeless people than between suburban white-fence neighbors. Kelsey and I did not feel unsafe during our visit there. But as night settles, it would still be wise to take caution. Because even though the residents there aren’t volatile and dangerous, the drug dealers who swoop in under the cover of darkness are. And it’s not unheard of to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But that’s not the picture with which I want to conclude this description of Skid Row. It’s not the best nor the most accurate taste.
Skid Row is a melting pot of folks who have either been subject to some unfortunate circumstances, or faced the consequences of two or three bad decisions. Without a safety net. You and I, ourselves, are no more than a couple unfortunate events away from this place. These people aren’t necessarily lazy. Telling them to “get a job” doesn’t fix the problem.

Even more appalling, by the way, is its location. It is literally a turn away from some multi-million corporations, just a short walk or drive away from the concrete stars of today’s most influential and wealthy public figures. The comfortable population of the city knows exactly where to drive as to avoid even seeing Skid Row. They literally ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s a forgotten piece of real estate that is cut out of the socio-economic map of Los Angeles.

The same city that boasts the high-rolling status of Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard also houses the polar opposite expanses of Skid Row. It is a shame that it’s not even considered a burden? That people just choose to envision Los Angeles as the City of Angels? Of stars and materialistic affluence? Jesus would, of course, want to live in LA so as to get the most face-time on television and mainstream media!
Well, true... Jesus might want to live in LA. But he wouldn’t be looking and smelling like Brad Pitt. More like Skid Row. And he might want a tiny bottle of lotion.


 

With one year under our belt, we handed in our keys for the summer. Now, we weren’t even intending to do a second year living out of our white van. I had received another job offer, but it was retracted the day before we returned to California. Kelsey and I had a couple other job leads which all fell through over the summer. Meanwhile, Andrew was back in California saying, “Hey guys, you’re always welcome to come back for another tour if you want.”

            It became very clear that God certainly wanted that to happen. And if God wants something to happen, you can bet that it’s going to happen—along with some other really cool surprises. You might as well hang on for the ride.

 

            Over the summer, Mom Domeny talked with us about an idea she and Dad had. “Michael and Kelsey, as we were reading your blogs this year, we were really touched by your heart for helping people, especially the homeless. Listening to the pastor’s sermons recently, Dad and I realized that we need to take care of the poor, too. There’s just not very many homeless people in southern New Hampshire” (she’s right—not to say they don’t exist, but your basic commute doesn’t expose you to much poverty). “But since you’re running into so many people, we figured we could provide the finances and you can be the hands and feet. We’re going to buy a bunch of $10 gift cards that you can give out as you think best. Just let me know where I should buy them!”

            Cool! It sounded like a great idea for a giving ministry. Since gift cards can only be redeemed in the intended place, they are better than cash to address specific needs. And, if we had a stash of gift cards, we wouldn’t always have to make sure we carry enough cash with us.

            When deciding which kinds of gift cards to carry with us, we considered a number of factors. Which venues are easily found across the country? Where can ten dollars be stretched the furthest? Are we going to focus on poor people only? Or should we prepare to be an encouragement to people of any financial situation? All things considered, we concluded with five venues that we hoped would find applications in a wide variety of encounters—Walmart, Subway, McDonald’s, Chili’s, and Applebee’s.

            Mom, crafty as she is, even gave us a little box in which to store them. On the lid were the words, “Michael and Kelsey—May your Journey continue in blissful love as you impact His kingdom together!” And the journey did continue. Armed with newfound inspiration and resources, we flew back to California at the end of the summer to start round two.

 

            In a pre-season meeting with all of the technicians, Camfel’s CEO Michael Ziegler charged us with something to think about as we did our job in the coming year.

He said, “I like to think of Camfel as a train. Now this train is heading north. North, east, south, west—it doesn’t really matter which direction, but the point is that is has a specific destination. For sake of argument, that destination is north. Camfel is trying to gain access into schools across the country and show this video with hopes of encouraging and inspiring students to make good decisions.  It’s a seed-planting ministry. We may never see the personal impact in the students’ lives, but we hope God uses the messages in the video to get students thinking about a better life—ultimately, with Him. That’s Camfel’s northbound train. And you all are now on that northbound train. This is your job, and as long as you’re aboard this train, we expect you to invest in Camfel’s ultimate goal.

            “Now, we certainly don’t want you to feel stuck on this train. Each one of you probably has a different reason for joining Camfel. Some of you want to travel the country. This is a great way to do that. Some of you have a heart for youth ministry, and you want to work with kids. Great. We encourage you to do that. Maybe you have a gift of evangelism, and you want to tell restaurant servers and hotel clerks about Christ. You’ll meet a lot of new people this year. Whatever your passion is, feel free to exercise it while you’re aboard our northbound train. Use this unique opportunity. If at the end of the year you feel like your pursuits require to you transfer to another train, then that’s fine. But while you’re aboard, we can all help each other achieve our goals.”

 

            It didn’t take much imagination to realize that this year, our ministry aboard the northbound train was to use these gift cards as keys to encourage people, provide for them, and hopefully even open up some deeper conversations. This would be our side-mission as we drove through Camfel’s itinerary.

 

            Everyone is aboard some sort of northbound train. Consider your job. You may be a business professional, a mechanic, a teacher, whatever. As you work faithfully to do your best in the workplace, don’t neglect your primary responsibilities to encourage, serve, and love the people God places in your life. Find creative ways to do this as you are aboard your train. Serving and ministry aren’t reserved solely for pastors and missionaries. Giving isn’t sequestered to a three-minute plate-passing session on Sunday mornings. These actions should be characterizing a Christian’s daily life, and God has great blessings for those in store who take his commands and promises seriously.
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