Last week I was in Chicago for the FSU Navigators’ spring break trip. This trip has been a major part of my life since this past November when we first started cooking up the idea. I was put in charge of the trip, mostly because I had made a couple of key connections with Chicago Nav staff this past summer. Today I’d like to talk about the trip and a little about the planning process that led up to it.
If you went on this trip, or when you finish reading about everything we did, you may think I had to network with a dozen different people to pull together all the different things we did. That’s honestly not the case. Up until two weeks before we left I had only spoken to one person: Larry Hope. I had met Larry this past summer when I did my fund raising training in Colorado Springs. We reconnected in St. Louis at the National Staff Conference, which is where we first started talking about the idea of bringing a team of students to the city over spring break. Our staff team made the decision to go to Chicago at the end of November, leaving us with about three and a half months to plan.
Larry and I are very different thinkers and workers. One of Larry’s strengths is his ability to see the big picture, whereas I deal best with details. Because Larry had the big picture in his head from the start I allowed myself to get pretty confident. Time pressed on, and as details remained sparse I began to worry. Initially I felt like Larry was communicating poorly with me. At one point it led to us getting into a pretty big argument. Fortunately we apologize to each other and were able to continue our partnership. After that incident I realized I just needed to ask for more information instead of waiting and letting myself get angry. From then on it seemed like I was calling or emailing Larry two to three times a day asking for more information.
I don’t think the average student who signed up for the trip had any idea what they were getting themselves into. We first announced the trip back in December, right before we left for Christmas break. At that time we didn’t share any of the details because we had just started working on the trip. But as time went on we still didn’t share any details. This was in large part because, like I said, I didn’t have any for quite a while. But it was also because the ministries we were partnering with were always changing. I didn’t really want to sell someone on going to Chicago because of a certain experience, then have to tell them that we weren’t going to working with that ministry after all. To illustrate my point, ten days before we left we had a ministry drop from our itinerary. The staff didn’t share the final agenda with the students until the Thursday night before spring break, less than two days before we left. I didn’t share the final agenda with the staff team until that Thursday morning (and even then there were a couple of changes between the morning and the evening). It sounds terrible, I know, but the way information was changing that was the way it had to be.
So that’s a bit of the behind-the-scenes action. Let me turn the attention now to the trip itself.
We left bright and early Saturday morning, March 8. We hit the road from Tallahassee a little after 6 AM and didn’t make it to Chicago until after 1 AM. We rented three minivans for the trip and also took two cars. My Malibu was one of the two cars. It’s a great road trip vehicle with its huge backseat and tailgate. It does pretty well on gas too. My car held me, my old roommate Aaron, Mary and her roommate Lauren. In my car if you weren’t driving you were usually sleeping. The trip there was pretty uneventful. Well, with one possible exception.
At this point in the trip we’re probably about halfway there, maybe a little more than that. Aaron’s driving for me. We’re in Indiana and the weather is great. The temperature is below freezing and my windshield washer isn’t working, so whenever we use the wipers it just makes it harder to see. There’s snow on the ground and there’s a snowblower truck out trying to get the snow on the left-hand side of the road over to the median. But there’s a strong wind, so the snow is being blown back into the road. Aaron gets into the right lane, doing his best to avoid it. Despite his best efforts we get hit with an avalanche of snow. He tries to pull off the road. The wipers still aren’t doing anything. After a few seconds I get worried that he’s about the hit the guard rail so I tell him to stop the car completely, figuring we must be off the road. We finally have enough snow on our windshield so the wipers will work. When Aaron uses them we come to find that we’re actually in the left hand lane, not off the highway! Not only that, but Kyle, who is driving one of our vans, is about three centimeters away from us to our right. So I tell Aaron to gun it and we pass the snowblower before the wind picks up again.
We were staying at Breaking Ground, one of our ministry partners. Breaking Ground is not in a good neighborhood, but it’s located next to three empty lots and a police station, so not a lot goes on around there without it being seen by the cops. As a result I don’t think anyone ever felt unsafe. We were sleeping in sleeping bags in offices and classroom space. Everyone went to bed immediately. Everyone but me, that is. I stayed up and talked to Larry about our plans for the week. By the time I went to bed it was 2:30 AM. There is one bit of good news in all of this. We lost an hour when we traveled, but we picked up an hour due to the time change, so we never had to get adjusted to a new time zone or “spring forward.”
Sunday we started pretty early. We took everyone to the Moody Church. We stayed for their service and for their tour afterward. All my life I’ve heard my pastor thank the choir for a special piece of music, but it’s strange to hear the pastor thank the choir and the orchestra. Oh yeah, they’ve got an orchestra, and they’re good. Before we heard the sermon there was someone whose name I now forget (I think it was Manny or something like that) who spoke something our group really needed to hear. He said that, as Christians, “our job is not to meet anyone’s needs. We are to point people to the Cross.” It’s so true. No matter who we are, we don’t hold the solution. We can give them aid, and as Christians we should be the first to offer, but in the end their need is much deeper than anything we can provide.
The pastor actually wasn’t there that Sunday, but we heard from one of the professors of Moody Bible Institute. Bryson said he reminded him of me, at least in the way that he spoke. His name is Dr. Louis Barbieri and his message was on Mark 11, specifically the bit on moving mountains with our faith. Again, this was a great way to start off the our week.
After church and after the tour we went back to our cars. As we exited it started to snow. I was really hoping it would snow a little bit on our trip just so we could get to see it. Amazingly this was the only precipitation we had until the drive home. We drove back to Breaking Ground and ate lunch: Chicago-style deep dish pizza from Giordano’s. By the way, for those who don’t know, Chicago-style pizza is basically lasagna with a pizza crust. It’s completely ridiculous.
We had free time after lunch (which for most people was nap time), then some team building time, then dinner. The evening closed with Larry Hope sharing his testimony with us. Larry has an incredible story. He is the child of an interracial marriage. He grew up in a white community, but moved to a black community after his parents divorced. He’s been homeless, on all kinds of drugs, and has hit bottom more than once. But Jesus transformed his life. That’s the really short version, and I’ve left out a lot of powerful events, but this entry is already very long so I’ll leave it at that. Before coming on staff with The Navigators this past summer he worked with Emmaus Ministries, a group that ministers exclusively to male prostitutes. Larry’s story changed the feel of this trip. Until then everything was conceptual. We all had our own expectations of what ministering to people in the city would be like. Now we had heard from a man who had been that guy being ministered to and the guy doing the ministering, and he told us exactly what it was going to be like.
Monday was a bit of an awkward day in terms of schedule. We split the group into two teams. The first team would be ministering in the morning at Breaking Ground, then spending some extended time reading the Bible in the afternoon at Larry’s house. The second team would start their day doing their extending time in the Bible at Larry’s house and finish by ministering at Uptown Baptist Church.
I was apart of the first group. Breaking Ground has a lot of different parts to its ministry. We were doing adult education, working with people who needed to bring up their reading and math level or who needed to work on their computer skill. Most of the people there had been in jail at one point or another. Many had dropped out of high school. I spent most of my time talking to a guy named Reggie. He was very kind to me and genuinely happy that I was there to lend a hand. We started talking about what he hopes to do with his life and about his son. What kills me is that Reggie isn’t unintelligent or undetermined. He likely has a similar story to many others. Something happened (or didn’t happen) in his family. He looked to his peers to tell him who to be, but they weren’t any more mature than he. As a result he made some mistakes. It breaks my heart when I start to multiply that story across such a large scale.
Our extended time in the Bible was a study I had first done during the regional staff meeting last month. It’s on the Kingdom of God. I chose to offer this for a couple of reasons. First, I thought it would be wise to give everyone a little extra time with Jesus since they’d be doing some spiritually and emotionally draining work over the next few days. I also liked the topic. The world says the people we were ministering for aren’t worth anything. But what does God have to say about them? Our team had some good discussion afterward, especially on Matthew 7:1-6.
I didn’t get to go to Uptown Baptist, but here’s the basic idea of what went down there. Every Monday night they serve a meal to the homeless and poor. But it’s not like a typical soup kitchen where you go up for your food, eat and leave. It’s a fancy sit-down meal where you are served your food. I was immediately attracted to their ministry. The people eating there don’t just need food; they need to feel like they’re worth something. The team that went there cooked and served the food. They were also part of what they call the Lemonade Team, who go around refilling drinks but also starting conversations and praying for people.
That evening, when we all got back together at Breaking Ground, we had lots of stories to tell. We also had a little surprise that Larry had put together. He arranged for the singing duo Andi and I to perform for us. They are apart of Emmaus Ministries and go around performing their music to bring awareness to the need to share Christ with male prostitutes. They sing folk music and have tremendous harmony. Andi has a fantastic voice and Al is a great guitarist. I bought one of their CDs. Dave even asked if they’d consider coming to FSU at some point in the future.
Tuesday morning we had breakfast, broke into smaller groups and went off to a Starbucks (or other location) for some Bible reading time. At around 10 AM we drove over to the house of Dana Stevens. He and Jeremy Holmes are the co-founders of the Shelter of Hope Foundation. I had met Jeremy out in Colorado Springs the same time I met Larry, but I don’t think he realized that the guy he’d been talking to over the phone for the past couple of weeks was the guy from iNFO training. Both Dana and Jeremy primarily reach out to youth. Dana is a seminary grad. Jeremy is a rapper with one album out and another in the studio. We started our morning by listening to a man named Joe talk about how Dana had invested in him when he was younger.
Our entire group worked for them that day, the only such day while we were in the city that we were all together the entire time. Notice I said we worked for them, not with them. Monday we worked with Breaking Ground and Uptown, plugging into what their ministry does on a regular basis. Shelter of Hope needed us to do some of their ugly work. Last May they received 44000 lbs of food to distribute to people who needed it. Yeah, that’s 44000 lbs of food! They had the food delivered to an old warehouse they own (that they’re eventually going to tear down and turn into their ministry center). We were asked to do two things. First, they had a lot of empty cardboard boxes from that last shipment that needed to be broken down. Second, they had a lot of food that they had never passed out that needed to be thrown away. No, this was not all canned food. Yes, there were rats and mice and their droppings (thankfully it was too cold for roaches).
So yeah, it was messy and there were a lot of screaming girls. This is the only time during the trip where I believe I failed as a leader. I knew the condition of the place we were going to but I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell the students or the staff. I knew on Monday people were going to be expecting the worst and they were going to see that it really wasn’t as bad as they had imagined. I wanted the reverse reaction on Tuesday. But I should have at least said to wear clothes you’d be willing to throw away at the end of the trip day. But even though the work was gross our entire team worked very hard. In fact, I didn’t really even hear any complaining.
The week before the trip Jeremy told me that there was more than enough work for our entire team and that we would likely not finish all that needed to be done. When I told that to everyone the Thursday before the trip a lot of the students took that as a challenge. I couldn’t have been more proud of everyone. It really demonstrated the power of team. If only a couple of us had walked into that building we would have been completely overwhelmed. But because it was all twenty-five of us we had a sense from the very beginning that we were going to finish. And we did.
We went back to Breaking Ground to sanitize ourselves and eat lunch. We later went back to Dana’s place where we heard them talk a little more about their ministry. We also heard Jeremy perform a track from his new record. He’s a very talented guy. I heard him perform last summer too and was impressed. He gave me a copy of his first CD — Somethin Like An Oasis — which is pretty dang good.
Word of the Day: hooty-hoo [n] – a general call for assistance, typically made to a large group such as an entire neighborhood
Tuesday night after dinner we heard from two Chicago Nav staff: James King and Nan Miller. Larry describes James as the brain of the Chicago ministry and Nan as its heart. The original schedule did not call for them to speak on the same night, but I’m glad they did. James offered us a very analytical look at our trip expectations. Nan offered a very vulnerable testimony of her own life. It was a perfect pairing. Afterward James had to take off pretty quickly, but Nan was able to stick around. At one point every woman who came on the trip had circled around Nan, wanting to hear what else she had to say. Brokenness is attractive, and God turns it into usefulness.
Wednesday began with a pancake breakfast, which was of particular interest to a handful of the men as evident in the video below.
Once again we split up into two groups. My group was going to the suburbs to Roger Matthews’ house. Roger is the man in charge of the Chicago Nav ministry. When Larry was putting together the trip itinerary he thought it would be a good idea for us to bless the leadership in some way. I agreed with him, and it just so happened that the Matthews had moved in to a new house not too long ago and had been looking to paint its interior. So that’s what we did all day. We painted the entire first and second floors.
The other group worked with a Nav staff guy named Ethan Chan. He lives in Albany Park, a neighborhood that is more than 50% foreign-born. It is the 3rd most diverse zip code in the United States. There are over 100 countries represented and 70 languages spoken there. That area is one of a few in the country that has been designated as a refugee area, which is what accounts for the incredible diversity. Ethan is trying to create a community center there. Right now he’s gather information about the people there, figuring out what they’d want out of a community center. The team that went there did some fact-finding using Ethan’s survey, though from what I hear they ditched the survey after a while and just started up conversations with people. They prayer-walked around town for awhile, asking God to bless Ethan’s ministry. I’m glad we partnered with Ethan. I think it’s important for people to see what a ministry looks like when it’s just forming. Sometimes it’s a lot of hard work before you ever see any fruit.
I think by the time Wednesday night rolled around we were all pretty tired. Roger Matthews came and spoke to us that night. His goal was to help us process through some of the things we’d seen and done that week. His vision for the Chicago Navigators is for there to be 3000 people laboring for Christ, 100 of those people being on staff. Currently there are approximately 100 laborers and 30 staff. They have a long way to go, but the beauty of spiritual multiplication is that, if you live according to 2 Timothy 2:2, it should get easier as time goes on.
Before I move on I need to mention something that three of our students did instead of sticking with the normal Wednesday schedule. Bryson, Jacob and Patrick each volunteered to spend 12 hours on the street and take up the role of a homeless person. They started at noon and ended at midnight. Larry acted as their guide. They went to a variety of locations: soup kitchens, shelters, ministry houses, etc. They would walk in separately. From there they would each have their own experience. They brought nothing with them but their ID (and a little toilet paper). The goal was not to share the Gospel; the goal was to talk to people and learn. I have to say I’m really impressed by these three guys for doing this. They’re still processing everything they went through, but I may ask them to type up some of what they learned so I can share it here.
Thursday was our day to be tourists. We rode the El train into the city, starting off at the Sears Tower and breaking into smaller groups from there. I love big cities. I don’t know why. I just feel so much at home amidst all the hustle and bustle. Most of my day was just spent walking around taking pictures. I went to the top of the tower, over the the pier, then over to the Bean. I wasn’t in my normal culture vulture mood that I typically get into when I’m in a city like that, which was just as well since no one was really all that keen on spending a lot of money to go to a museum or to the Shedd Aquarium or anything like that. I was content just to be with our people and, best I could tell, so was everyone else.
We came back to Breaking Ground for dinner. I haven’t mentioned this yet but it is an incredibly important point. Alyssa’s mother Debbie came to Chicago from her home in Iowa with three of her sons to be with us during our trip. All week long she made our meals for us. Not only that but she did everything without a stove! She worked with one fryer, two crock pots and two microwaves. She was amazing! But wait, there’s more. She also got a lot of food donations for us, meaning we didn’t end up spending all the money we had earmarked for food (it’ll probably end up going to pay for gas). I can’t understate this. It was such an incredible blessing to have someone totally devoted to that part of the trip, such that we didn’t have to pull one of our staff away from what we were doing to make our meals. I credit a large part of the overall success of the trip to her being willing to serve us.
The night ended with about two hours of group share time. I shared last, and I had two things to say. First, the students made this trip easy. It was really easy to serve them. Second, I commented on how this was my first experience being on full-time staff with The Navigators. (I’m normally part-time, but since I was away from my job all week it felt as though I was full-time.) My heart felt full all week as I was working with these students. I said that I had been considering walking away from collegiate ministry in a year or two but that now I would have to re-evaluate that. I think my plan for next year is still set in stone, but we’ll see about the year after that.
Friday was the long trip home. Honestly, it didn’t seem that bad. The weather wasn’t great for the first six to eight hours. There was an awful lot of rain. I almost had a semi change into my lane twice. Thankfully I was able to get over to the far left lane each time without incident. At dinner time we stopped off in Alabama to where Helen and Mary’s brother lives. He ordered barbecue for all of us. We cruised into Tallahassee well after midnight. I honestly don’t remember what time it was, but it was late.
The trip was an overwhelming success. I’m not even sure what that means, but I know it’s true. I know it’s a success when people are already talking about going back to Chicago next year for spring break. I know it’s a success when Larry wants to bring in other groups to do what we’ve done. I want to thank each of our ministry partners for allowing us to come into their city and be apart of what they’re doing. Many thanks to Larry, Garry, Connie, Mrs. B, Dana, Jeremy, Joe, Ethan, Roger, Andi, Al, James and Nan for sharing your lives with us.
This was a very special trip. It was easily the best spring break trip I’ve ever been on, probably the best FSU Navs event I’ve been apart of. Our relationships with each other were deepened, that’s for certain. My hope is that each person came away with a lot to process. Maybe because of this trip someone from this group will end up moving to a city to minister after they graduate. Maybe someone will be reinvigorated to be Christ to someone on FSU’s campus. This I know without a doubt: God showed us each something new this week. For that I am extremely thankful.
Check out these photos from the trip.