Thursday, March 14, 2013

"We Need Boring Christians"

Recently one of my college pastors posted this on Facebook and, being a fan of Relevant Magazine, I decided to give it a read. It is an article titled "We Need Boring Christians" and struck me in ways I maybe didn't think possible through a simple online, rather short, article.

So often I struggle with what God has called me to and, for those that maybe follow, we have seen the change in my life over the past few months as I changed my area of focus at school to look at issues of child trafficking in Haiti and I got married. Lots of good changes, but I still struggled with where God calls me to be, what He calls me to do, and how Abbey and I can be open to God's calling for our lives. As the author states:

"Radical is in my resume. Radical is part of our calling. But radical can be dangerous."

 I too used to think I had to be radical to be the person Christ wants me to be. You read books such as Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne and believe that the only way to be part of the Kingdom is to sell everything you own, move overseas, and live a complete life of poverty. Granted, there is nothing wrong with that and if God calls us to it, we are open to it. But there is so much more to living a radical faith in our own lives, in our own towns.

I currently live with my wife and beagle in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. I am right on the outskirts of Akron and only 1/2 hour south of Cleveland. You know what? This area needs Jesus and needs help just as bad as Africa, just as bad as Haiti, and just as bad as any other place you can name. Crime runs rampant, homeless people are all over the street (even more than in Pittsburgh, where I'm originally from), and there is so much hurt in the world around me. I, along with working on my Ph.D., am teaching a lecture of "Physical Geography" to 105 students and, not surprisingly, these students need Jesus as well. I had a revelation the other day as I was so mad grading papers. The students don't listen, they don't follow papers, and I found myself sinking into anger which was vastly affecting their grades. I was not being Jesus to these students. In a world of broken homes, taboo religious subjects, murders, famine, and many people just need someone to be Jesus for them. Be the eyes, the ears, and the heart of Christ here on Earth so that, through us, the Light of the Gospel can begin to shine through.

Being radical can be as simple as serving on the parking team at your church, serving with students, getting a cup of coffee with a hurting friend, or lending an open ear or a helping hand to someone in need (whether you know them or not). We see a car stranded on the side of the road and we talk ourselves out of stopping to help them until, eventually, you're too far away or already at your destination and can't rationalize that "Oh, someone must have stopped to help them by now." Being radical means being Jesus in a world that doesn't know Jesus. Sharing the Gospel at all time. A common quote used by pastors (whether some say he said it or didn't), comes from St. Francis of Assisi to "Preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words." (I love this quote, especially in light of the fact that yesterday they chose the new Pope, Pope Francis I). There is this calling and this longing, regardless or whether you're Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, or consider yourself non-denominational, to be Jesus to people, to show Him in all we do, to be a living representation of the Gospel.

I can do it here in Ohio, I can do it in Pittsburgh, I can do it in Haiti, I can do it as I drive to school everyday and practice being a patient and courteous driver (which rarely happens, much to my sadness). Being radical doesn't take you to radical places, but puts you in a radical mind frame that everything you do it meant to further the Kingdom. To do anything other than that which God has called you to do, is a sin. I prayed for God to open up avenues and ways of knowing what I should be studying in school. He made it clear I am to look at child trafficking in Haiti. To do anything else, is a sin. 

We live in a mundane culture that normalizes us, controls us, and calls us to just be "part of the system." We are teachers, accountants, students, parents, siblings, friends....we get up and do our daily tasks forgetting that, first and foremost, we are the Bride of Christ, called to a life devoted to furthering the Gospel and loving the Lord. We are Christians, who happen to teach. Christians, who happen to be accountants. Christians, who are friends, siblings, students, and more. Being radical, in amongst the "mundane", can not only be eye-opening, but could also be our calling. 

Let me know your thoughts, friends.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Human Trafficking and Restavek

My last post was over a month ago, when God really beat me down and began to show me the things He wanted me to look at in school. The pastor at Grace Church, where I attend, said this during the "Wasted?" series I wrote about before (paraphrased), "If you pray for something and God gives it to you, to do anything else is a sin." I prayed for God to show me what to do, where to be, and that I would be a willing follower. He showed up. A heart for Haiti, a passion for children, resources in the university, and a fully-funded degree....these things are only the work of a God who is in control and knows what He wants. To study anything other than human trafficking in Haiti would be a sin. God has been saying, "Cory, I put you here in Kent for this reason. Not to look at natural gas issues or community design, but because I have a larger kingdom purpose."

So here I go. I have been knee-deep in the trafficking research, formulating my questions for my dissertation proposal, and making the contacts I need to make. This is research that will put me in Haiti multiple times over the next couple of years (which I hope my new bride as of 2/16/13 will be able to accompany me on). It'll put me in uncomfortable situations in dangerous places, meeting people, gathering stories, participating, and praying. God has a bigger purpose then this.

As I sit and gather the facts, there are a few facts that are astonishing to me and I want to just share these briefly, as well as a few resources for you to look at:

  • Of the 100,000 trafficking victims in the United States, we have only 100 beds in recovery homes. That is only enough beds to aid in the recovery of .1% of trafficked victims
  • Today, there is an estimated 250 million modern slaves worldwide. The majority are in the domestic labor industry
  • There are more slaves today than at any point in history, even looking at the Atlantic Slave Trade from Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • Restaveks (French for "To Stay With") are child laborers in Haiti who live with a host family as their personal servant.
    • It is estimated that 30% of Haitian households have a restavek child. This is 225,000 children in a country of 8 million people. 
    • 2/3 of these restaveks are girls under the age of 18
  • Through acts of violence and unkept promises, these children are forced to remain in the restavek system. They are social outcasts, viewed as societal "Others," and dehumanized.
  • Parents willingly sell their children into restavek for the promise of a better life for them in the city, but more often than not they just need one less mouth to feed in a country that has the average worker making less than $1 USD per day. 
There is hope, though, and this is the aim of my research. My specific questions look at:
  1. How are United States-based non-governmental organizations addressing the issue of restavek?
  2. How effective are their efforts to rehabilitate/reintegrate these children into Haitian society and in the eradication of modern slavery in Haiti?
Here are some resources I highly suggest you look at for more information on these modern day forms of slavery:
Keep this research, these organizations, and these modern day slaves in your prayers. Please, do not hesitate to contact me with thoughts, questions, stories, or anything else. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

An Update To Yesterday's Post....

It never ceases to amaze me how God intervenes just when you need Him and how, ultimately, His plan is shown. This happened yesterday only a short time after I wrote my blog about my journey to Ohio and some of the struggles I was having deciding to change my focus and path to look at issues of poverty, crime, war, etc. during my research at school. Let me explain.

I walked into church yesterday morning feeling a little crushed and defeated. I couldn't understand why I was not able to follow where I knew God was leading. I had been thinking over the past couple of days about the movie "Yes Man" with Jim Carrey, where a man is tasked with saying "Yes" to everything and seeing where life takes him. As I sat down with my coffee expecting a status quo service, Abbey leans over with the program and says "You need to look at this..." Here is what I saw:

I sat back, anxiously anticipating service and just praying to God, "I have a feeling You want to speak to me today, so let me have ears to listen." Our Senior Pastor, Jeff Bogue, started a new series called "Wasted" and the message was titled "Saying Yes To God". He spoke on 1 Samuel 3, where God begins to call Samuel, yet at first he doesn't realize it is God calling him and thinks it is just the priest Eli. When Samuel realizes it is God, he says "Speak Lord, your servant is listening."

Jeff spoke about a number of points I won't touch on, but there is one that sticks out and I need to share. He began to speak about following our passions in life and how there are two keys to knowing your passion: 1.) A passion will never go against the heart of God and 2.) your passions will be confirmed by Godly counsel (a group of your Christian peers). Here is where God intervened.

As I sat listening to Jeff speak about Godly counsel, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. I normally don't check it in church, but I just had this feeling saying "Just take a glance at it."When I checked my phone, I had a long text message from my brother-in-law, a Facebook message from a friend at my old church in Pittsburgh, and numerous comments and posts on my Facebook and on yesterdays blog from Christian friends affirming my decision, reminding my of my passion for the poor a number of years ago, and really spurring me on towards this decision. All of this at the exact moment that God used Pastor Jeff to teach my about the affirmation of Godly counsel.

Needless to say, I spent the rest of the service listening, praying, and, yes, weeping. I couldn't help it and personally, I don't care. God has moved me to tears more times in these past 5-6 months than in my whole life and I see it as an action of Him moving in my life, changing me, helping me grow, and helping me be more Christ like.

Jeff spoke one last thing that struck a chord with me, as I know yesterday I touched so much on my worrying about these decisions. When we are trying to say "Yes" to God, it is important to discern whose opinion we value and who we don't. I spend a lot of time seeking the affirmation and opinion of those who, personally, I don't care for or respect. Yes, I love them as a creation of God but their opinion doesn't matter and isn't needed. It was just another little eye-opener for me that I seek approval from everyone, even those who I don't even care about their opinion on anything else otherwise. It's wasting my time and the resources God has given me.

I highly recommend you check out yesterday's message. It can be listened to on the Grace Church website under "Latest Audio," as of the publishing of this blog it isn't up yet though. It will be listed at the "Wasted" series. Also, if you click on Podcast it will take you to iTunes where you can download it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The impoverished and my own inability to serve

I will preface by saying that this blog may be a little more personal than those that I normally post because I am going through a few things in my mind and am using this post as a way to sort those out. While to some these things may not seem like a big deal, to me these are some life-changing decisions that may be made...but let me explain

To those that know, in the fall of 2011 I left my job at Orchard Hill Church as the Sports and Recreation Coordinator for Michigan, where I was to be the Stewardship Coordinator for the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy. I thought this was my dream position and what God really wanted me to do, not realizing that my relationship with God at that time was an all-time low. I spent approximately 2 1/2 weeks in Michigan before I found myself back in Pittsburgh, at 24, without a job, and living with my parents. My parents were loving and kind enough to let me live for free and give me a job at one of their Subway stores with enough hours and making enough pay to pay my student loans, car payment and insurance, and still have a little left over to be able to do things. On Christmas Eve 2011, I had been bumming around Pittsburgh for 3 months, couldn't find a job, and I remember telling my mom, "Things aren't right between me and God and it's time I get them back on track." It had been a long while since I had found myself on my knees in prayer, but I was in my room and fell to my knees and told God, "You've put me through a lot of crap and I thought I was faithful. I'm sorry I strayed away from you and decided that, once again, I could do life on my own. I can't and I don't want to.  Help me." God worked wonders beyond what I could believe.

Within a week, it was brought to my attention that Kent State's deadline for fall admission had not passed yet for their doctoral program in geography (a program I had wanted to go to for my Masters and never finished the application, choosing to go back to Slippery Rock instead). I hastily gathered my application materials and wrote my essay about how I wanted to study connecting green spaces in urban areas to allow wildlife to move between these parks for mating purposes, etc. God showed up again.

Within 3 weeks, I had an offer from Kent State's Department of Geography to start my doctoral studies with (get this!) no tuition and they would pay me a salary to teach. Within days of hearing about this position, I found an internship in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park writing educational curriculum and I applied to it, never expecting to get it because, at this point, I had applied to around 300 jobs with only a few interviews (I realized recently I had fatal flaws in my resume that employers would throw it out at first glance, but more on that can be talked about later). Well, I got the internship within 2 weeks. Here is how God's hand worked in this. If I wouldn't have gotten the internship, I would have moved to Kent in August 2012, grabbing an apartment in the Rootstown/Alliance area, so I would be halfway between campus and home (40 minutes either way). God had a different plan. He put me in Akron, OH. 

Why is this significant? Well, my best friend had met his fiance online so I figured "New city, I know no one, why not give it a try?" Within a week, I was speaking with a lovely woman and made plans to meet her. If I was living in Alliance, this would have been out of my possible dating range because where she lived, I figured, was too far. But, as I said, God put me in Akron. I moved here in May and less than 24 hours after moving here, I found myself at a winery stepping out of my car and seeing a beautiful girl step out of hers and my awkward first words "Well, you must be Abbey?" 5 months later, I asked that woman to be my wife. 34 days from the time I write this, we will be standing at the alter in a church in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (where we first met and fell in love) and starting our life together. She is the most Godly woman I have ever met in my life and spurs me to pursue Christ in all I do. 

When I moved to Akron, I researched churches and Grace Church was the top one I wanted to check out. Imagine this, Abbey went to Grace Church and I got plugged in right away. Hmm...imagine this, we wanted to join a small group. God gave Abbey a new neighbor named Daniel, who also went to Grace. We were all invited to a neighborhood BBQ and decided to go. Daniel knew a couple of people from church, so introduced us. We met Caleb and Hannah and talked with them for a while. When we asked the church to pair us with a small group, they paired us with a new group Caleb and Hannah were starting (within walking distance of 1 block to where Abbey lived then). They have since become great friends and great leaders. We have built a great community here in Akron with great new friends and growing relationships

I put my faith in God, and realized I couldn't do life on my own anymore, and within these spans, here is what He gave me (and now us):
  • Doctoral Education (Paid for!): 1.5 months
  • Internship in the national park near Akron: 2.5 months
  • Met a woman who would now be my wife: 3 months
  • Got plugged in at a church that feels like home (today I am taking their membership class!): 3.5 months
  • Got plugged into a community and small group: 5 months
Who knew, a year ago, I would be living in Akron, back in school (a doctorate is one of two main goals I set for my life), getting married, and once again experiencing true Biblical community I thought I would never find after leaving my old small group. To say God had a plan is an understatement. All is took was me on my knees praying forgiveness and for him to enter back into my life and that I would be open to where He guides me. 

Ahhh, but this brings me to my current dilemma. Done reading by this point, that's ok. This next part explains what I'm currently going through. 

I entered Kent with the idea of studying urban planning, parks, green space....the same things I've studied for the past 5 years. Seemed great and, almost easy. Well, let me backtrack.

Yesterday was the 3rd anniversary of the Haiti earthquake. Shortly after the earthquake, I met with a friend at Orchard Hill and said "I will do whatever it takes to get myself to Haiti this summer." Well, God got me to Haiti that summer for 2 weeks, another week that fall, and back again for 2 weeks the following summer. My eyes had been opened to the impoverished world that lies only a few hundred miles off of the southern tip of Florida...the bacteria filled water, burning trash, emaciated children, the violence, the drugs, the struggles, and, most importantly, the hope in the eyes of the Haitian people to see a difference in their country. 

Got put my in a church in Akron that does their main ministry in each week as I hear about their ministry there my eyes filled with tears. During my class in Geographic Thought (essentially, philosophy and social theory), my eyes were opened up to a number of political issues looking at war, violence, drugs, etc. (all that I struggled to process in Haiti). God is calling me....and I'm scared.

Things weren't sitting right when I thought about doing urban planning, as I knew God has called us to do big things in our lives to served the "least of these," "care for orphans and widows in their distress," and "love your neighbor as yourself." Here is what I believe God has been telling me, "Remember that passion you had to help Haiti? I haven't put you here in Ohio to continue studying parks. I want you to study poverty and I want you to continue the passion I put in your for Haiti. I put you here because here are the resources, opportunities, and experts that can help you do that for Me." And I can't get it off of my mind. I have been meeting with a professor in the department who is one of the nation's leading scholars on war and violence (and, conversely, peace geographies). He lit up at the notion of studying the role of Christian non-profits in addressing structural issues of violence in Haiti, especially related to child labor slavery (in Haiti, these child slaves are called "Restavek").
No longer do I feel uneasy about what I want to study (as I did when I couldn't decide on a topic related to parks and urban planning), but I feel scared. Scared that God is going to call Abbey and I to something bigger than we can handle, scared that He may use this to put us in uncomfortable situations, and just in general scared of the situations this may put us in. Scared of the future and employment opportunities that come with this. Scared of a number of things, but yet God puts in my mind the eyes of the children I met in a poor house in the northern Haiti town of LimbĂ© and I weep and realize that, yes, God does want me here. 
A child in Limbé's poor house. Photo by Rob Norris, 2010

He has a plan, but once again, I am scared to do it. Even with Abbey by my side pushing me to follow His calling, I am scared. A life devoted to serving the poor and the needy (whether in the US or abroad)? God, really? Why this? Why not study something that will give me a cushy office job, a huge salary, and a 9-5 that will get me home to my wife and kids? What are you calling me to do? So, this is where I currently sit, 24 hours before the start of the spring semester, and still not being able to decide on a class because of the fear that changing this one class will set that research in place and that I will slide down this path towards poverty research. Living God's calling for my life, I believe. But also a path I prayed He wouldn't send me down. 

He had a plan for me this spring and He still does. I need to follow it and I know this. As Abbey told me last night (paraphrased), "You get so many ideas, yet every week you come back to wanting to study Haiti. When will you just realize this is what God wants you to do and stop fighting it because of your own fear? We will be fine, we will go where He wants us to go. The only true way to succeed is by following His plan."

I have been re-reading Richard Stearn's "The Hole In Our Gospel" about the need for the church to serve the needy. He was the CEO of Lenox China (dinnerware) and former CEO of Parker Brothers, yet God called him (I mean, wouldn't let go of the idea! You need to read the book) to take a position as President of World Vision. A drastic pay cut, moving family cross country, and finding himself spending a lot of time in some of the biggest slums in the world...yet he did it. If a corporate CEO can do this, why can't I?

So, I ask for prayers and I thank you for taking the time to read this and see what is going on in my life as of recent.