Urban Youth Mission Blog
A Lesson in Love
Seeing through the Eyes of a Child
My UYM Experience
The Joys of the CTA
Exploring Questions—and a City (Final Reflections)
Where: The Question—and the Answer (Week 3)
Part of Something Bigger (Week 2)
Quality = Dignity (Week 1)
The Urban Mission Landscape
A Lesson in Love
Scrolling through my inbox on my university email one September day, I came across a message from my Chaplin advertising a chance to live and work on Michigan Avenue for the summer in Chicago. My initial thoughts were what an amazing opportunity! I get to experience life in a big city with the beautiful Lake Michigan down the road and eight Starbucks in a mile radius, a stark contrast to my rural life in Clinton, South Carolina where I am down the street from cow pastures and horse farms.
When I found out I had gotten the internship at Fourth Presbyterian Church I was overwhelmed with excitement and a little uncertainty. God had opened the door to being able to explore the city of Chicago, and do his work leading youth and inspiring them to live lives of service. Once the reality of my mission this summer sunk in, I began to question was I truly up to the task? In my time as an Urban Youth Mission Summer Staffer, I have realized that my mission has been so much more than inspiring service in youth, but God was teaching me how to truly love my neighbor.
It is easy to be blinded by the skyscrapers, stores, and fancy restaurants and not see the needs of the city when in Chicago. When you allow yourself to see past this mirage you begin to realize the reality of urban life for many of the cities citizens. Homelessness, segregation, and lack of accessible fresh produce for many persons are some of the systemic injustices that my time working with UYM has pushed me to seriously reflect on.
We live in a society where the lives of people of color are criminalized, where to live in poverty is indicative of laziness or lack of sound mental health, and where it is normal to put walls up to keep people who are different than ourselves at a distance. This is the exact opposite of how God intended us to live in community with one another. The free and unearned grace of God calls us to look to our neighbor with love. Paul tells us in Romans 12: 9-13,
“Don’t just pretend to love others. Really Love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other… When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality,” (New Living Translation).
This passage is something I have been able to study with our visiting youth as a model of how we as Christians are to live in community with one another. It has shown me that it is important, to be in right relationship with one another, to serve with humility and an open heart. We are to love “with genuine affection” and “practice hospitality.” Love and hospitality, Paul explains, are essential to living in God’s grace.
As I traveled to our service sites I saw at every corner how our partners were sharing love and hospitality with their community. Three sites that highlighted these values to me were La Casa Norte, Cradles to Crayons, and the 65th and Woodlawn Community Garden.
La Casa Norte is a shelter for youth ages 18-24 who are experiencing homelessness. They have a new state of the art facility, and I was amazed at how incredibly thought out their living spaces were. These apartments not only had the essential items for life, but they were designed in a modern and youthful style with color, decor, and even brand new Starbucks coffee mugs in the cupboards. The volunteer coordinator explained to us that the reason they have spent so much time and resources into their new facility is because, while these youth may be experiencing homelessness, they are people too who deserve nice things. La Casa Norte extends love and hospitality to youth experiencing homelessness by providing shelter and services that are extraordinary. They give these youth more than an opportunity to get back on their feet, but build their confidence as well by showing them they are worthy and loved.
At Cradles to Crayons, I was taught that love and hospitality can be shown by providing quality essential items to children in need. This organization services newborns to age 12 who are living in poverty with items such as diapers, clothes, shoes, school supplies, etc. Cradles to Crayons goes above and beyond merely providing necessities to these children but also makes sure the quality of these items is high. No items are accepted that look too worn, have stains, holes, etc. Additionally, the organization provides high-quality books and toys to each of the children they service. Their philosophy is that a child should be supported with both items of necessity and items of play. This component of their work is where I saw God the most; where children were not only provided for but shown they are valued.
Finally, at 65th and Woodlawn community garden working together to grow fresh produce for those who otherwise would not be able to afford such items is a measure of hospitality for community members to share love. This community garden is located on the south side of Chicago. The Woodlawn neighborhood is considered to be a food desert; these are areas in which there is a lack of affordable fresh food. Residents in these areas often resort to eating primarily fast food which can lead to detrimental health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. The community garden began as a way to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to community members. Our youth worked alongside a diverse group of gardeners, connecting with each other and the earth to promote food justice. It was a soul-filling experience being in community with the gardeners at Woodlawn and together working to provide fresh food to those in need.
As I leave Chicago I am overwhelmed by how much I have grown in my faith in Christ and understanding of social injustices that plague our country. We as Christians must push one another to love each other more fully by breaking down social constructs of poverty, racism, heterosexism, etc. to live more fully in grace. I have learned through my work this summer that it is through love that we can find justice.
Seeing through the Eyes of a Child
I found out about Urban Youth Mission (UYM) through my church in North Carolina. We came on a mission trip last summer and I was an adult leader for our group. Our group loved learning about social justice issues and serving in the city. Since then, I knew that I wanted to apply for a summer staff position for UYM. After turning in an application and a Skype interview I had finally gotten my dream summer job. I remember calling my mom in tears when I got the email that said I had the job. I was ready for a summer filled with growth and learning.
During the two months that I worked here I enjoyed working at a variety of service sites, like Chicagoland Methodist Senior Service Center where we spent the afternoon playing bingo with the residents and Cradles to Crayons where we sorted donations and put together baskets for children in need. But my favorite site that I worked at was at Second Presbyterian Church. At Second Pres. we did a summer day program for at-risk children and youth, which means they come from families with low income or are living below the poverty line. This site had a special place in my heart because I am studying to become and teacher for students who are at risk. I was nervous to work with these kids at first because I was worried that it would change my mind about the degree I am getting. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to handle working with children who had been through so many tough situations. After the first week of planning VBS-like lessons and then teaching the lesson to the kids, I began looking forward to spending time with them every week. My experience working with these children reinforced that this is what God is calling me to do.
I think one of the most important things I’ve learned from my experience working with these kids is how to see the world as they see it. It was refreshing to spend time with children who can be so authentic, vulnerable and show pure joy without fear of being judged by others. I think adults need to spend more time doing things that make them happy rather than doing things to please people, or because they are afraid of what others might think or say. Another thing to learn about to seeing the world through the eyes of a child is that to a child; gender, race, financial situation, and background are not an issue. They just want to love everyone and be friends with everyone. This is something that adults can learn from children. God wants us to treat everyone with kindness and equality yet, we often find ourselves discriminating against others who are different from us. We are all children of God, so why don’t we treat others the way that God would want us to treat them, with kindness, love and fairness. Children are optimistic and are always able to see the best in people. We need to be more like that. Instead of judging our neighbors and trying to find something to dislike about them, we should be more open to trying to find the good in everyone.
Matthew 18:2-5 says “Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.’” I think that what Jesus meant by saying this was that adults need to change and start treating others the way that we should. We should to love our neighbors and be more willing to help them out. We need to humble ourselves and stop thinking that we are better than others who are different from us. We need to be authentic, vulnerable and experience pure joy more often. We need to see the world as a child would and find beauty in simplicity.
My UYM Experience
Growing up in Chicago, I have been able to see the city change over the years. Neighborhoods have drastically changed physically and economically and by taking our participants around the city, I have been able to discover amazing organizations that help people take steps forward in their life every day all around the place I call home.
The parts of Urban Youth Mission that I love the most are the variety of programs we volunteer with and how we do our best to reach out to every side of Chicago—even the east through beach clean ups! However, the key ingredient that makes this experience unique is the history and story of Chicago that we weave into the program. We learn about the history of literal structural racism that we see every day while using the public transit system. We teach our participants about the reality of homelessness, redlining, food deserts, and privilege. My favorite worksite that we have worked with so far is Sarah’s Inn, an organization that helps those facing domestic violence as well as educating the communities around them about healthy relationships. Since they changed from a shelter to a resource center, they are able to help every side of domestic violence. From helping the victims and their families with resources and counseling to offering counseling to perpetrators to help make sure they do not repeat their actions.
Urban Youth Mission has not only helped me see just how much Chicago has grown, but how wonderful the city and its neighborhoods truly are.
August 10, 2018 | Final Reflection
The Joys of the CTA
When I first got the job as a Summer Staffer at Urban Youth Mission, one of the aspects that I was most excited about was the prospect of living for free on the Magnificent Mile for a whole summer. And while my fellow staffers may mention our cozy basement on the corner of Michigan and Chestnut as home in their reflections, in my opinion, our true home for Summer 2018 was the CTA, or Chicago Transit Authority. The CTA includes all busses and trains that run throughout the center and surrounding areas of the city, and was the primary mode of transportation for all the visiting groups that came this summer. While primarily used as a mode of public transportation, navigating the color-coded routes of the ‘L’ and the confusingly numbered busses also served to teach me about what it means to actively be with the people I am with and truly see those who are around me.
I specifically remember one morning riding solo on the Red Line, and hearing a voice above the shoulders those squished around me, penetrating past the music blaring in my headphones, asking for any money that could be spared. It isn’t uncommon to see this on the ‘L,’ and while part of what we talk about here at UYM is how to interact with and serve those experiencing homelessness, I still was hesitant to interact with those asking for help, especially if I had nothing to give. After we passed the Lake/Washington transfer, a woman approached him and asked what his name was, and if he had heard about Fourth Presbyterian, and the services that they offer to anyone who needs assistance. She talked about what they offered and told him to mention her name when he went. After that, I spent the next half-hour or so mentally kicking myself for not thinking of doing that earlier or even acknowledging his presence. As the summer went on, I kept being reminded of the fact that just because I may not have anything concrete like money or food to give, there is always something to be shared. Whether it may be a simple recognition or greeting, or the joy of dancing with a child on the Blue Line platform to the music of a busker, the privilege of being seen is something everyone deserves, especially for those that the world chooses to ignore or label as ‘the other.’
A lot of what we aim to do at Urban Youth Mission is to expose our groups to environments and communities that they may have never experienced and encourage them to see the beauty and of the people and organizations that are here. More than once, I found myself frustrated, feeling that my point was not fully getting across. But, every time I started to think in such a manner, I was reminded of the fact that the just like our groups, I was here to learn as well. Last semester, I took a class that focused on social justice and issues such as education, corruption, and toxic charity, and always left the classroom overwhelmed by stats and facts, with no idea how to even begin pursuing justice. However, all of that confusion was cleared with a simple statement made by a chaperone while I was leading morning devotion. “All it requires is a single question” is what he said, encouraging us to look at the places and people we had met and seen working at the volunteer sites during the week. Each organization had started with someone taking a look at their community, and upon discovering a question or issue that they could not ignore, set about finding a way to answer it. As a middle-schooler, high-schooler, or even college student like me, it is hard to feel like we can do much to make a solid and long-lasting impact on society. But as Meg, my very sage contact at SOS Children’s Village, once told me, all one needs to do is “find what [they] love to do and figure out how it to do it in a way that helps others.”
That’s really what we as staffers and Urban Youth Mission as a whole want to do. We are not trying to save the world, instead, we hope to show all who come that it is possible to work towards justice in their own community, and to get people thinking about issues in our society that they may not have thought of before. We go to all these different sites to demonstrate that one doesn’t have to do hard manual labor to affect others; that the act of simply being or seeing is just as much an act of service as clearing and planting a community garden. Another wise chaperone once told me and her students that “love is the quality of attention that we give to others.” And whether it may be riding back with on the blue line with my contact and her daughter or talking to my seatmate about the philosophy of happiness while heading north on the 66 bus, serving with Urban Youth Mission has taught me to extend the care and attention I have experienced at our volunteer sites into all aspects of my daily life.
August 2, 2017 | Final Reflections
Exploring Questions in Community
Engaging a World Both Beautiful and Broken
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Today is a beautiful day!” or that is what we would like to say. In reality we said things like, “Pay attention to your staffer in the ‘L’” or “Please go all the way in the back of the bus” (we were surprised by how many people actually follow public transit etiquette). We said things like that to the various participants all summer. The summer may have seemed short on paper, but it wasn’t that easy in reality.
We saw our own truth when it comes to a small array of problems in the city, and we try to make everyone see their own truth in as unbiased a way as possible. Urban Youth Mission and its partners show their perspective in a small way. Some participants may think that an organization’s approach causes problems, and some may think that an organization’s approach is a solution. As staffers, we just really do what we can. This job is not easy.
It is beautiful.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I only came to the city for various concerts, events, and art exhibits to which I was privileged enough to be able to go. But going to school in North Carolina, it’s a lot easier to tell people that I am from Chicago rather than explain which small suburb I am from. However, it wasn’t until this summer I realized that there is a lot about Chicago that I did not realize before.
To call Chicago home means being able to hold the beautiful parts of this city—its diversity, culture, innovation, and physical beauty—in one hand, and the more difficult parts of this city—Chicago’s painful history of “redlining” people of color attempting to buy a house, the “north/south divide,” food deserts, and the city’s response or lack of response to the demand for affordable housing—in the other. Chicago is a conglomeration of both the beautiful and the broken.
Because I had only been exposed to the more palatable parts of the city before this summer, conversations with UYM participants about the Christian call to justice were particularly meaningful for me. There were times this summer when I felt a sense of helplessness about the work we were doing, and there were times when I felt unqualified to talk about the issues facing Chicago, since I was struggling with these questions myself.
But I am very thankful for different insights from high schoolers and the leaders of the visiting youth groups about our response to these injustices. I am also thankful for the Fourth Presbyterian Church staff that helped me wrestle with the tension of the good and bad in Chicago. And I am thankful that I will carry these conversations and these questions with me when I go back to school.
But most of all, I am thankful for the reminder that Jesus holds both—the good and the bad—at the same time. I have become more comfortable with the realization that these questions will persist and so will the tension. But I am thankful that these questions can be talked about in community with other people who care and want to lovingly respond to the world around them—a world that is both beautiful and broken.
As the 2017 UYM summer program comes to a close and my tenure as a sous-chef-mechanic-sociologist-guide-security-logician-summer staffer approaches its conclusion, I can have a sigh of relief. This relief comes with a heavy heart as the short two months wrap up and I prepare to head home and back to school in my little college bubble. This beautiful, stressful, controlled chaos that is UYM has been the experience of a lifetime that will continue to resonate with me as I end my college career and enter the “real world.”
The experiences I saw, heard, and felt have profoundly shaped my experience as an ever-growing Christian in this crazy world. I was able to see the city for what it is: a complex and noisy symphony of history, growing pains, and diversity. This city is by no means an idyllic city on the hill; it is an ever-changing experiment of ambition and determination that embodies the spirit of this city and its people.
I am glad to say that I was able to experience the real Chicago. Serving on the UYM staff this summer has been an incredible opportunity and an unforgettable blessing.
July 14, 2017 | Week 3
Where: The Question—and the Answer
Giving and Receiving, Teaching and Learning
Urban Youth Mission
Urban Youth Mission is a complicated program that works with more complicated programs and sites. Nothing is simple here; it is a cycle in which we give and we receive, we teach and we learn. This last week, we interns experienced that cycle with the sites that we visited, where we learned that we have to be ready for any problem that may occur—most of the times, aspects that we cannot control, like the weather and the amount of public transit that will pass through a certain spot at a given time! In my perspective I have learned to be prepared for anything, if it is soaking rain that will permeate all the way to your socks or the Red Line being packed enough for you to wait for the third train in a row. The cycle is present at our sites as we learn from the people we help and they learn from us, as we give our time and effort and they reward us with knowledge and life lessons.
This most recent group of visiting youth was impacted the most by Pacific Garden Mission, the largest homeless shelter in the Midwest. The youth saw what we interns saw the first time all of us visited the site: the need of people from around Chicago. They saw a system that works on volunteers and donations primarily. They saw a gruesome schedule of meals and sleep time that would tire anybody else that didn’t have the necessity to commit to such short moments of rest. The groups gave their effort to help feed the overnighter visitors that Pacific Garden Mission helps during their programs, and in return these youth learned to think in a different way, to reason the comings and goings of food that they eat everyday, where does everything go after it is expired, or where would my life be if I didn’t have a roof to sleep under? Where, is the question. Where, is the lesson.
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June 29, 2017 | Week 2
Part of Something Bigger
A Corner of the Greater Picture of God’s Kingdom
Urban Youth Mission
The second week of Urban Youth Mission programming was filled with more volunteer opportunities, education on Chicago’s history and trajectory, group games, and morning devotionals. With this week’s participants hailing from Charlotte, North Carolina, the other members of the summer staff and I were excited to show this group the art of the Chicago style hot dog, spend our lunch breaks at Oak Street Beach, and point out landmarks like the Bean and Wrigley Field.
But this week was filled with many more meaningful experiences than the tourist attractions. I decided to ask the chaperones and students what stands out to them as their most meaningful experiences and why.
One student told me that his favorite volunteer site was the Night Ministry. The group that visited Night Ministry prepared sandwiches for the people in the communities that the Night Ministry serves. The teams that worked at the Night Ministry carried the food from Fourth Church to the Night Ministry offices, located many miles north. This student expressed that he enjoyed this experience because he believes in the mission of the Night Ministry and “carrying the food from one place to another made me feel the fruits of our labor more fully.” Not only does carrying the food supplies and materials across town make us feel accomplishment, it is also a reminder that this is a common occurrence for many in Chicago. For folks that live in communities without a grocery store, the commute with forty pounds of groceries is a weekly, if not daily, reality. While it may feel like a hassle, these moments help create a sense of empathy for the lived experiences of many of our neighbors in Chicago.
Another student told me that Sarah’s Inn was their favorite volunteer site “because we made a fort out of hygiene products.” Employing creativity not only makes the work more enjoyable and efficient, it creates memorable experiences. One student told me that her favorite experience was simply spending time chatting with the residents of the Chicago Methodist Senior Services. Our group found that sometimes the most powerful forms of service are the gifts of time and a listening ear. These gifts can be both given and received.
One chaperone’s words stood out to me in particular. She said that while you don’t always get the opportunity to meet the people you are serving, it is a meaningful experience to serve the organizations that are serving the people in their communities directly. The people who work in nonprofit organizations can establish relationships and long-term connections with those they serve, while the groups that come for the Urban Youth Mission program unfortunately are only here for a week.
At times the brevity of the time that the groups get to spend in Chicago for UYM can be discouraging. The tasks that we are given in serving the organizations can feel monotonous and tiring. Sometimes I ask myself, what impact does shelving books at Open Books have? Or tearing down boxes at World Vision? And what impact does it have if these youth groups are here for such a brief time?
I am comforted by the reminder that we are all living members of the Body of Christ, and this reminder brings me hope that each small task is a part of something bigger. Each time our groups prepare a hygiene kit, paint a staircase, or sweep a warehouse, we are painting a small corner in the greater picture of God’s kingdom—a picture where no one is left on the margins, where we care for one another compassionately and work to serve one another wholeheartedly. I am happy that the group from Covenant Presbyterian Church could help us continue to fill in the gaps of the small corner we are painting through UYM.
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June 24, 2017 | Week 1
Quality = Dignity
Serving Wholeheartedly, Giving Abundantly
Elena van Stee
Urban Youth Mission
Each week at Urban Youth Mission: Chicago, we introduce high school groups to Fourth Church’s partner organizations around the city. These organizations are incredibly diverse in both their missions and their methods. We work with providers of school supplies and hygiene kits; medical services and sack lunches; housing and rehab. These nonprofit organizations are state funded, federally funded, and privately funded. Some are faith-based; others are not. Some have large staffs, while others rely primarily on volunteers. We work with groups that are located as far north as Howard and as far south as 79th street. There’s no one-size-fits-all model for nonprofit work in Chicago.
Over the past week, I’ve found myself comparing the pros and cons of these many organizations. Beyond the practical variances, (location, funding, etc.), I am interested in the attitudes and ideologies behind the services provided by these groups. Looking for more perspectives, I questioned some of last week’s students about their impressions of the sites that they had experienced. I asked them which qualities they thought were most important for nonprofit organizations.
As we discussed the organizations that we had visited, a common theme became apparent. The students had been impressed by Cradles to Crayons, an organization that provides household items and school supplies to kids. This organization asserts that “Quality = Dignity.” In other words, Cradles to Crayons believes that giving high quality items to a person who needs them affords the receiver the dignity he or she deserves. The students and I agreed that this attitude should be shared by all who provide services for others.
Sadly, this pursuit of excellence and dignity is not characteristic of all organizations with which I’ve worked. I still remember a troubling conversation that I had with one volunteer a few weeks ago. While I helped this volunteer sort packages of donated Starbucks sandwiches and salads for guests of an overnight shelter, he complained that the guests weren’t grateful enough for this food. “They forget where they come from,” this volunteer told me, embodying a beggars-can’t-be-choosers attitude. In this man’s mind, guests of the shelter don’t have the right to have preferences or standards; they should be grateful for table scraps.
I’m convinced that “Quality = Dignity” is an attitude that we can—and must—internalize for each week of UYM. But what does this look like in the context of our short, one-time work shifts? The nature of UYM means that the volunteer work we provide is temporary. What does “Quality = Dignity” look like when each new week brings a set of volunteers who need to be newly trained and oriented for each task? Perhaps UYM work shifts will never be as efficient or effective as work done by experienced, local volunteers. Still, I believe that we can benefit from trying to live out the idea that “Quality = Dignity.” As we work this summer—whether we’re serving lunch or organizing a closet—let’s hold ourselves to higher standards. Let us serve wholeheartedly and give abundantly, without expecting anything in return.
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June 18, 2017
The Urban Mission Landscape
Exploring Service Sites
Urban Youth Mission
Over the past week and a half, I had the opportunity to begin exploring and interacting with a variety of different service sites and organizations across the Chicago area. I have only begun to scrape the surface of this incredible city and all its intricacies and nuance. The city is a unique land with hard working individuals determined to dismantle the scourge of poverty and homelessness and to revitalize the area with dignity and hope.
One of the organizations I had the opportunity to visit was the Night Ministry, which serves the homeless population all across the city, particularly homeless youth in Chicago. The Night Ministry is an exceptional organization, providing health care, meals, and safe beds for individuals to utilize at no cost. I was able to continue their mission of service by creating health kits that would be distributed to the homeless youth within the city.
Another service site I had the chance to engage with was the 65th and Woodlawn Community Garden. Nestled between residential apartments on the South Side, this communal garden offers a unique and enlightening experience. Combatting the difficulties and scarcity of affordable food and nutrition, this community garden is designed to subsidize the community with fresh vegetables, fruits, and other plants used in creating nutritional meals. The garden is in constant need of combatting weeds and harmful agents within the garden, and I was able to assist in preserving the garden by removing weeds, maintaining beautification projects, and continuing the process of growing vegetables to be harvested later on.
One of the other sites I visited was the Pacific Garden Mission, a large homeless shelter that serves the Chicago community in the Lower West Loop. This massive program and facility can house and feed up to 1,400 individuals per night and continues to be a light for many who are involved in the Mission’s work. This service site is also in constant need of support from volunteers to assist in making 1,400 beds, serve meals, attend to maintenance within the kitchen, sorting food donations, and more. The massive operation allowed for me to dip my hands in a variety of service, ranging from food service, cleaning, and stocking donations from local restaurants.
Although this is only a snapshot of the organizations and programs I visited, I found that the programs all carry a common theme, a common goal: restoring dignity and prosperity to the city of Chicago and serving individuals across a variety of dynamic barriers. I am immensely excited to continue working with these organizations as I continue to uncover the inspiration that is all around the city of Chicago.
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Connect with us!
For more information about UYM, contact Allie Green, Urban Youth Mission Director (firstname.lastname@example.org; 312.274.3831).