A young woman and her three year old daughter huddle in the darkened doorway of a vacant storefront, wrapping themselves in a piece of stiff carpet they retrieved from a nearby dumpster. The chill of the December air will require them to cling tightly to each other but the cold will not be their biggest worry this night. A much more serious concern is their exposure to the street and to the police and predators who will be passing by. If they can remain very still within the buckles and folds of the carpet, they might avoid drawing attention to themselves and survive the night without incident. A cough or movement at the wrong time and their presence will be discovered. And that can spell real trouble. They shiver silently into a fitful sleep. Suddenly the young woman is awakened by footsteps and muffled voices only a few feet away. Her heart begins to pound so loudly that she fears her sleeping child will hear. She can feel people approaching and can now distinguish both male and female voices. She tightens her bearhug on her little one and prays that the child will not stir. And then a voice, a man's voice, clearly asks, "Are you OK?"
The young woman does not move a muscle or make a sound. She can hear someone moving closer and braces herself for a poke or kick from the inquisitor. Again the man's voice inquires, "Are you OK?" Then a hand reaches down and unfolds the edge of the carpet and the young woman stares eye-to-eye with a stranger she has never seen before.
At that moment the young woman does not, cannot, know that the good news of Christmas - Immanuel - has found its way into her life. Over the next few hours she and her little one will experience the unexpected wonder of God's rich gift of grace. They have been found by Ben and Phyllis Lawrence who live just down the street. Soon mother and child will be sleeping clean and safe, stomachs full, between sheets and warm blankets in the Lawrences' home. A downward spiral of drug use, abusive relationships, lost jobs and bureaucratic mistreatment that pushed them to homelessness has been intercepted by a family whose personal experience has prepared them to be dispensers of a special kind of grace.
Earlier in the year the Lawrences were able, through much hard work, to save enough money for a down payment on a large, rundown home in one of Atlanta's rougher neighborhoods. Their vision, born out of the pain and struggle of overcoming their own brokenness, was to create a secure haven for mothers and children who need the nurture and structure of a stable home environment. Their new home is far from renovated but they have enough clean, dry, heated space for their own needs and they have prepared one special bedroom for a mother and child - just like the ones they happened across this night.
Immanuel comes to the city. In various disguises, His presence slips into the lives of unlikely people with unexpected bursts of joy. In dark places hope breaks through like streams of sunlight and graciousness finds its way into cold and heartless circumstances. Immanuel comes with fresh visions to implant in the hearts of wounded healers, with dreams that bring meaning into the lives of the dreamers and grace to those whose lives they touch. He comes bearing gifts for the poor in spirit, for those who do not have to be reminded of their unworthiness.
In unexpected ways, the Spirit of God is stirring a new generation to minister in our urban centers. I see scores of eager young servant-leaders in our city who, like the Lawrences, have heard the call of God to gather and tend the wounded that eke out an existence in forgotten inner-city communities. I see these committed young visionaries, under-resourced and often under-trained, rising before dawn and working long into the night to fulfill an inner imperative to serve. They spend themselves in sacrificial service without expectation of personal gain or recognition, choosing to follow their hearts rather than the call of mammon.
I am especially joyful this Christmas season for it signals the beginning of a new vision God has brought to our ministry. Betty Palmer, an extraordinarily capable African American woman who has directed FCS' economic development division for the past five years, has responded to a call of God to support younger grassroots workers like the Lawrences. She is a visionary with superb abilities to assist fledgling ministries with much needed practical tools that will enable them to grow to self-sufficiency. Betty herself was born in poverty, struggled to gain an education, eventually earned a master's degree in economic development, launched a highly successful school for urban children and then became CEO of an urban economic development corporation. Now God has implanted in her spirit an inescapable vision to be an equipper of young ministers and ministries throughout the city.
Stepping out on faith, Betty has let go of the security of a steady paycheck and, like many of those she will serve, she ventures forth with a confidence that only comes to those following a clear call. Her ministry will be known as Resources for Community Ministries, Inc., part of the FCS family of ministries. She will provide to front-line urban workers much needed expertise, consultation and connection to resources. Love gifts from small ministries will not begin to provide a living wage for Betty. Thus, she must rely upon the favor of the more resourced family of faith to help make up the difference. Even in the face of these uncertainties, her faith in the God who has called her is unwavering. How inspiring it is to see God's gifted ones putting themselves at risk for the sake of the poor!
Immanuel. God is surely with us. The signs of His presence are abundant. And there is great joy in the city!
Warm Christmas wishes, Bob Lupton