Thankful for the big picture

Public praise, private critique.

Perhaps that’s a New Year’s resolution. Oops, wrong holiday.

But maybe not. Thanksgiving is a good time for public praise.

(Private critique will remain that. Social media aficionados, take note. Chill out and be more positive. End of rant.)

In my first full year of retirement from paid work, I jumped into three significant volunteer projects. All three are worth a little public praise.

After-school basketball

First – and no doubt, the toughest – is an after-school basketball ministry organized by the youth director at our church’s new Lorain, Ohio, campus (which hasn’t even opened yet).

boys pray

In the spring, Joe sought volunteers to help him reach neighborhood youth through basketball. I’ve played pickup ball – never in a league – and our three sons all played recreation basketball as children, so I’ve been around the game for a long time. I try to keep myself in somewhat decent shape, so I decided to give it a shot.

The church building is an old YMCA that is still being transformed into a church, but we’ve been using the big gym all along. We enter through a side door now while the rest of the building is under renovation.

Sometimes, I wonder why I’m there. How does a retired white guy from the suburbs connect with inner-city kids of multiple races and ethnicities?

The answer: Slowly.

As the weather turns cold, I’ve been taking one or several of them home after the hoops is done. That might be where “ministry” is beginning to form. I’m seeing a window into their lives outside of the formal basketball program.

Some of them are hungry. Some of them have broken families. Some have values that I’m not comfortable with.

I don’t judge. I’m just listening at this point. Not probing too much – I’m not aggressive that way.

But I’m thankful to connect with these young men (and the occasional woman who comes with them).

This is a long-term ministry. Hearts don’t change overnight. First, we have to connect. That’s not in my comfort zone. But this is the kind of thing that the living God is doing.

I don’t have to do this. Yet here I am. Thank you, Lord, for this opportunity to serve You.

Food pantry

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Also this spring, I began volunteering at a food pantry in South Lorain. I’ve always had a soft heart for hunger issues – I’ve never been hungry in my life, literally. I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal is coming from. Many people can’t say that.

crop walk logo

In Saginaw, Mich., I was treasurer and off-and-on coordinator for the Saginaw CROP Hunger Walk, an annual walk that raises funds and awareness of hunger issues, for more than 20 years. We lived in Rockford, Ill., for a little over a year and I connected with the CROP Walk folks there too. Here in Elyria, the CROP Walk leaders have no passion for the ministry and I wasn’t up to the effort of trying to fire them up, so I looked for other opportunities.

Enter We Care We Share, a 12-year-old food pantry on a shoestring budget that serves thousands of needy residents every year.

The pantry’s volunteer coordinator attends the same church I do. He invited me (and others) to participate, since more volunteers were (and still are) needed.

He didn’t tell me he was going on vacation, so one Tuesday I just showed up. Didn’t know anyone there. Told them who I was and why I was there. They invited me to stay, so I did – for four hours that afternoon. Then, they invited me back.

So I came back. And I’ve been coming back, two afternoons a week, ever since.

We’re family. We laugh, pray together, rib each other, volunteer together, serve together, pitch in wherever needed. We’re on the front lines of fighting hunger. We hand out dozens of food boxes each day – non-perishable goods, meat, bread, fruits and vegetables – whatever Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Ohio delivers to us on Monday afternoons.

Young families just getting started. Senior citizens in poor health who can’t even carry their food box to their vehicle. Many adults with kids and grandkids in their household. Some say, “I wish they’d leave” – not to be mean, but to get out on their own and learn to support themselves, and to give the older adult a little peace. We are there during the transition.

Residents get evicted, and frequently change addresses. A few are homeless.

We serve them all, face to face.

As with the basketball kids, I can’t relate. I don’t have to do this.

I never want to take the material things of life for granted. God has given me a heart to serve folks down on life, struggling to make it.

There’s no quick fixes here, either.

All we can do is serve. And pray.

So that’s what we do.

I’m grateful for this opportunity.

Bible study group leader

Third, I was asked to be a group leader this fall for Bible Study Fellowship, an international in-depth Bible study that this year is studying Acts in the New Testament. I attended the 30-week class for the previous two years, and the leadership there thought enough of me to invite me to step up my involvement.

bsf photo

As with basketball and We Care We Share, BSF is a major time commitment. There is “homework” for each class member to do before we meet on Tuesday evenings.

I’m at a satellite class in Avon, Ohio – one of three satellites around the main program in Parma Heights, just past Cleveland International Airport from where I live.

The leaders of all four areas – about 40 of us total – gather at 6:30 a.m. Saturdays to go over the upcoming week’s lesson, and to receive leadership training. I set my alarm at 5 a.m. to ensure I get there on time.

I wouldn’t miss it for the world. We begin our time literally on our knees in prayer.

I’m shepherding a dozen guys in my class every week. I keep in touch when they miss. Some have health issues of their own or of family members, and some travel for work. We pray for each other.

This week, three guys attended who had missed two to four weeks each for various reasons, and all three said they missed our discussions. They want to come every week. Circumstances sometimes prevent that. Life happens.

Again, relationships take time. As a leader, I have to be pro-active. I’m learning as I go.

The big picture

2019 has been a year of beginnings for me, changes and challenges. The honeymoon periods soon will be over, if they aren’t already.

That’s when ministry will begin.

Time to take the next step. Next steps, actually.

Hope you’re as thankful for the big picture of your life as I am of mine.

Together, we find solutions

“I’m hungry. I need a box.”

Several clients have said this to me as I check them in at We Care We Share, a food pantry and clothing closet on East 31st Street in South Lorain, Ohio.

Residents across the county can pick up a food box every four weeks at our food pantry. There are other pantries around and many of our patrons visit them as well. There’s nothing wrong with that.

People are hungry.

In the United States.

Food insecurity

One in five children in Ohio is “food insecure,” John Corlett, president and executive director of the Cleveland-based Center for Community Solutions, told several hundred of us who attended the inaugural Child Hunger Summit on Thursday at Lorain County Community College in Elyria.

Corlett defined food insecurity as “a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life.”

One in five children lives in such a household. 20 percent of our impressionable young people.

Hunger stretches beyond an empty stomach, Corlett continued. Children in food-insecure households have higher rates of asthma, depression, ADHD (which can lead to discipline and behavior issues in school) and hospital emergency room visits. Food-insecure parents have more stress, anxiety, depression and anger, Corlett said.

A comprehensive approach

That’s why the Lorain-based Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio hosted the Child Hunger Summit. The event brought together business professionals, educators, non-profit leaders, government officials and others to brainstorm ways to overcome food insecurity.

It takes a wide-ranging, comprehensive approach. Stagnant wages, unhealthy lifestyles and government programs that too often exclude those who need them all are issues that hungry people face.

Half of food-insecure families in Ohio don’t qualify for SNAP because they make a little too much money to qualify for the federal food assistance program, Corlett said.

Families seeking public assistance – and those who receive it – often are stigmatized as lazy people who sit around accepting handouts. But most people on assistance programs, including SNAP, hold down one or more jobs and still can’t make ends meet, Corlett said.

He advocated expanding basic programs such as SNAP and WIC – which assists pregnant women and families with infants and children up to age 5 – to reach more people who need them.

Living wages

He also urged employers to provide living wages.

While not a poverty issue, this is a main sticking point in the United Auto Workers’ strike against General Motors Corp., which began earlier this week. Many workers, especially new hires, can’t afford to buy the vehicles they make.

Autoworkers also are seeking job security, noting that GM made a big profit last year – $35 billion, according to some accounts.

At the We Care We Share food pantry, I see families – often with a single mom as head of household – who move frequently. It’s not unusual for the address in our computer to be different than the address on her driver’s license. It’s also not unusual for her to give me yet another address.

Food insecurity has many ramifications.

I don’t probe, but I wonder if at least some of these families were evicted. Or at least have trouble making a rent payment.

Improvements uneven

Statistics show that food insecurity has dropped a little since 2008 as the economy has improved, but Corlett noted that the economic gains have been uneven. Wages have not kept pace, he said. And in 2016, household food insecurity was twice as bad for families led by African-American or Hispanic parents than for families led by whites.

The federal government can help food-insecure families, Corlett said. The Earned Income Tax Credit is the best government program to reduce poverty by providing income through the tax system, he said.

Second best is SNAP, followed by the child care tax credit.

SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – reduces adult obesity by 16 percentage points and increases the likelihood of children completing high school by 18 percentage points, he said. (The median SNAP benefit for households with young children is $12.86 per day – often for a household of two or three people, so that money doesn’t go very far.)

And yet SNAP, WIC and Medicaid participation are dropping, for several potential reasons:

  • Those programs have been automated and not everyone has access to a computer. SNAP benefits are loaded on a card that recipients spend at stores that participate, for example.
  • Some needy residents do not speak fluent English, and there’s isn’t as much guidance from volunteers and government agencies to apply for and navigate these programs. (I’ve seen this at the food pantry as well. Thankfully, we have three Spanish-speaking volunteers who translate for us when a client speaks little or no English.) In the United States, Corlett said, more than 20 percent of families with children younger than 6 speak a language other than English at home.
  • WIC – a federal supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children – reaches about 52 percent of eligible participants in Lorain County, the same as the state average, said Marissa Wayner, WIC director for Lorain County Public Health in Elyria. That has declined in recent years. Fewer people are eligible, she said. Other issues include:
  • Lack of awareness of the program.
  • Not knowing who qualifies.
  • Federal immigration policies.
  • Stigma at the store: Am I buying unqualified items?

SNAP and other federal programs are not intended to provide all of a family’s food, said Sandy Moraco of Elyria-based Lorain County Department of Job & Family Services. The “S,” after all, stands for “Supplemental.”

Starting Oct. 1, Moraco said, eligible families may apply for SNAP benefits by phone: (844) 640-OHIO. That will save time and require fewer in-person visits by clients, she said.

Working together

The bottom line?

Food insecurity has multiple causes and requires multiple solutions. All of us in this country must work together to ensure that our residents have access to the most basic rights of human life.

A full stomach. Knowing where our next meal is coming from. Access to health care. A roof over our heads that we can afford.

I haven’t mentioned transportation, but that’s an issue too. We need a dependable way to get to work, to the doctor’s office, to the grocery store.

Most of us take these things for granted. We shouldn’t.

That’s why I volunteer at a food pantry. Perhaps there are other things I can do as well to help those around me overcome food insecurity.

Will you join me in this effort?

The reason we’re here: To touch a life

I scroll past the vast majority of memes I see online because they are shallow and often untrue. They are easily misunderstood. I speak from experience; I comment on them occasionally, and have been told I missed the point.

But this one caught my attention. For one, I hadn’t seen it before. For two, I like the message it presents.

I actually like it.

… touch the past, touch a rock

My wife and I recently spent a weekend at the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. We touched rocks, and other things.

creation 5

Both attractions were designed and built by Answers in Genesis, an organization that “advocates Young Earth creationism on the basis of its literal, historical-grammatical interpretation of the Book of Genesis,” according to Wikipedia. While there, I bought a book, “A Flood of Evidence; 40 reasons Noah and the Ark still matter” by Ken Ham, who founded Answers in Genesis in 1994, and Bodie Hodge, his son-in-law.

They use the Bible to prove itself.

If you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, which I do, that’s fine, but I don’t see this book convincing anyone of its truths who doesn’t accept the Bible’s inerrancy. That eliminates most Americans.

The book, the Ark and especially the Creation Museum use rocks to explain how fossils formed quickly when plants (mostly) and animals died. Plants and animals that die naturally don’t fossilize; they decay. It took a quick catastrophic event, such as Noah’s Flood, to bury plants and animals in a hurry, allowing them to fossilize.

Noah’s Flood also formed the Grand Canyon. That masterpiece of God’s creation was not formed over millions of years by a tiny river. The book and museum discuss this too.

And they mention Mount St. Helens which, when it erupted in 1980 and again in 1982, made rock formations in hours and days that scientists previously thought took millions of years.

Rocks, as this meme indicates, are a window to the past. We interpret the rocks differently, depending on what we’re looking for.

But the past is gone. We can’t change it. We interpret it and try to re-interpret it (are some people truly trying to say the Holocaust never existed, or that man never walked on the moon?). We study the past to learn how best to live today. Or, that should be why we study the past.

… touch the present, touch a flower

I’ve been on a weeding kick recently. Our yard and gardens are full of them, unfortunately. It seems like it’s a never-ending battle. Weeds choke off plants and flowers.

flowers

I’m not an expert on flowers, but I see them bloom for a time, then disappear. Annuals bloom for one season, then die. Perennials bloom year after year, going dormant during the winter, then re-emerging in all their beauty in the spring.

I think this is what the meme is trying to say. Flowers are beautiful today. We enjoy them in the present. We’d better, because tomorrow they’re gone.

Even perennials don’t live forever. They have to be replaced with other flowers eventually, if you want to keep your garden colorful.

A sunset. A rainbow. Sparkling ripples on a slow-moving lake or river. A fall color tour. A gentle breeze.

Such beauty. Nature can be so wonderful.

Then, it changes. The beauty is gone.

Night. The storm that precedes the rainbow. Crashing waves. A frigid winter snow. No breeze at all in 90-degree heat.

We endure, hoping for the touch of a flower once again.

… touch the future, touch a life

People matter. We so often forget this.

If you’ve read this far, hopefully I have touched you at some level.

But touching a life involves so much more than words on a printed page.

wcws 2

I volunteer at a food pantry twice a week. I’ve met an 18-year-old girl who is head of household for her family of six. Her mother passed away a year ago, and now she’s in charge at home. At 18.

We at the food pantry can help her for a day or two. What then?

I also volunteer at a once-a-week after-school pick-up basketball ministry that our church youth director organizes. After playing for a couple of hours on a recent Thursday, one of the young men told us how he’s trying to build a life for himself and lead his teenage brother down the right path, even though both of their parents – who are separated – are drug addicts.

Can we make a difference in the lives of either of these families? Are we touching the future when we connect with young people at these events?

I come home to a nice house in a decent neighborhood. No one is forcing me to touch a life.

Actually, that’s not true.

Since I call myself a Christian, and since I try to live by the Bible, God Himself commands in that Bible that I must connect with other people at some level.

You are watching. I know you are. If I call myself a Christian, what do you see?

I must serve.

Far too many “Christians” use the Bible to try to justify sinful lifestyles. Jesus was crucified for saying exactly this. The apostle Paul was stoned, flogged and beaten for saying exactly this.

What does it mean to touch a life?

It’s not about me, trying to justify myself at all. That’s an easy way to identify “fake Christians.” What’s our motive? Is it to serve others? Is it to touch a life?

This will be our legacy. If we want to touch the future, we MUST touch a life. That life will continue on after I’m gone.

Already, I’ve lived in South Euclid, Ohio; Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; New Kensington, Pa.; East Lansing, Mich.; Ridgewood, N.J.; Pickford, St. Ignace and Saginaw, Mich.; Rockford, Ill.; and Elyria, Ohio.

I touch people, and I’m gone. You touch me, and I leave. I take part of you with me wherever I go.

Because you have touched my life.

Thank you.

I hope I am worthy of your time. I hope I have helped you get just a little closer to God because I was there.

Don’t be too hard on me when I let you down. I try not to criticize when I see others fall. We’re in this life together.

The future will change because both of us are here in the present. That’s a given.

How will the future change? For good or evil?

May the rock and the flower guide us as we learn how to touch a life. No matter where our lives take us.

The story continues

Tell me your story.

Such a simple thing, really.

Actually, it’s not.

But instead of me trying to tell you how to live your life, I’ll just listen.

Tell me your story.

Don’t give me your politics. I want to hear your story.

Your real life.

This isn’t about immigration, unless you are one. This isn’t about Washington, unless you live there. This isn’t about race relations, about what other people did or didn’t do to you.

Just tell me your story.

Could you do that?

I’m a private person in many ways. There are some parts of my story I won’t tell you. Thoughts I have, things I’ve said or done (or not said or not done that I should have).

When I was job-searching as an older adult, I had trouble with this. I didn’t come across well, or maybe my story wasn’t what a prospective employer wanted to hear.

There were times I was passed over for a job when I said to myself, “I could have done that job. I’m more qualified than the person they hired – and I’d have stayed longer than that person did.”

I’ve never felt comfortable tooting my own horn. Look at me, how special I am.

That’s not my story.

So, what is my story?

The secular and the divine

I’m a child of the living God.

That underscores everything I am. Employers don’t care about that, but that affects my mindset, the way I think, the way I work, the way I relate to people, the way I live my life.

Some days, like today, I’m home alone for a good chunk of the day. I’m OK with that. In fact, I like that. I don’t mind being alone for long periods of time.

I went for a jog this morning. Finished a Bible study lesson for tomorrow night. Had lunch. Am writing this blog now. May read a book or magazine later this afternoon.

That’s a good day for me.

As a child of the living God, I have time these days to read and meditate on things that matter. I do things that are meaningful. Not always, of course, but that’s the goal.

What else is my story about?

I’m a husband and father. And a son – my parents live about 2.5 hours away from here, and since they aren’t getting any younger, I need to make an effort to see them every so often. We saw them two weekends ago.

I’m a journalist. Even though I’m not working in the profession any more, I still think like one. And I write – just not for a specific publication. I am my own editor. I learned how to do that during my working days.

I try not to judge you. I have opinions, of course, as you do, but I try to respect you, whether I agree with your stances or not.

You won’t catch me using derogatory language in reference to anyone. If I ever do, I hope you’ll let me know.

This is the journalist and the Christian converging in me, the secular and the divine.

“Separation of church and state” is impossible. Oops – I made a political statement, which I said we shouldn’t do. But the divine influences the secular in a multitude of ways.

You know this is true.

I am a journalist and a Christian. I cannot separate them. This is who I am.

I’m not an expert in either role, but I’m learning. Still. I’ve been at it for awhile now. I worked as a journalist for about 30 years, and I asked Christ into my heart as a teenager, more than 40 years ago.

Am I tooting my own horn?

Something new

I’m not afraid to try new things.

When my long-term job at The Saginaw News ended, I took a job at Morley Companies in Saginaw, Mich. Morley, among many other things, contracts with various companies and governments to operate call centers.

I hate the telephone. I have to interrupt whatever I’m doing to answer it. I’m an introvert, so I’m not big on talking anyway.

Therefore, I worked in a call center, wearing a headset for eight hours a day. For two and a half years.

That forced me out of my comfort zone. I had to learn how to talk, at least a little bit.

A couple of months ago, I decided to volunteer with a local food pantry. One day I just showed up. A friend volunteers there but he wasn’t present that day. So I spent four hours with about a dozen people whom I’d never met before.

Introverts don’t do things like that. But I did. And I enjoyed it.

I serve there twice a week now. I guess they like me – they even made me a name tag. And I’m taking an online class to learn new skills that hopefully will help the organization in other ways.

But I’m not interested in padding the resume. It’s not like I do things just to do them.

During my working days, I enjoyed getting up in the morning. I liked my job. A lot. I was part of a team, and we got along very well together. We put out a great product, every day. Subscribers bought the newspaper, and interacted with it.

These days, I also enjoy getting up in the morning, but for different reasons. Many days I schedule activities to keep me busy and interacting with people. Since I’m an introvert and my stamina isn’t always strong (I had pneumonia a long time ago and I tire easily), I don’t mind the occasional day of rest. Sometimes more than occasional.

Attending a funeral of a family member recently, I talked with a cousin who lives in Washington state. I don’t see him very often. He asked me what I’m up to, and I told him I’m retired and enjoying being a volunteer.

“I’m tired of the rat race,” I said.

“I enjoy the rat race,” my cousin told me.

That’s cool, I said. And I meant it. He does enjoy the “rat race,” and he’s good at it. He owns a business that is thriving.

That’s his story.

And that’s mine.

We’re wired differently, even though we are related.

It’s all good.

The story continues.

What’s your story?