Mission: St. Louis 2017 - The Move North

A couple weeks ago we took a team to serve with Mission: St. Louis. A lot's changed since serving with them in 2014, for the organization and the city, so this provided new opportunities to learn.

Before diving in, this is a continuation of my reconciliation and development series. You can click those words to see all related posts and how God's guiding an STL lifer through these concerns. With that in mind, here's where He took me next...

On our last trip we served in The Grove. Founder Josh Wilson told me that neighborhood gentrified (read: the trendy spots got middle class popular), families they'd connected with moved out and they had to develop a more regional approach. In November M:STL moved into the old YMCA building on Grand Ave. in North City's JeffVanderLou neighborhood, and the former home of World Impact. While they're partially renting with hopes to purchase the structure, they just had a grand opening May 11.

Checking out the classic original pool.
This area was once very active and fairly wealthy. The YMCA was built in 1918 across from Sportsman's Park, a former home of the St. Louis Cardinals. It's near Fairground Park, which has its own intriguing history, including the 1949 race riot when the pool was racially integrated. We also weren't far from Grand Center, a popular arts and entertainment district. On a personal note, my grandparents and at least three great grandparents once lived on streets like Penrose and Kossuth, giving me specific ties to the region.
The old Sportsman's Park across the street.
It's also an area I've generally learned to avoid, either via negative news reports or stories that if you're white the police think you're only around for illicit reasons. So though we'd often pass this way when I was younger, I hadn't been through in years and was excited to see all this history with an adult understanding.

Monday: Foundations
On our first morning we heard from Josh Wilson, who shared how Mission: St. Louis came to be. Josh was once moved by a student's answer to the question of who she'd like to spend time with, dead or alive. She wanted more time with her brother who had died in her arms in their front yard. While this shocked him, he sadly realized it was not shocking to other students, but was reality for many. This motivated him to want to do something in the city.
Josh Wilson
Josh gathered 200 volunteers but quickly burned them out, doing more harm than good in just 3 months by working with a charity model, spewing out resources with no plan or understanding of needs. A principal at Adams Elementary in The Grove helped him better understand this, and a partnership was formed with the school. He developed relationships with guys in that neighborhood, and listening to their needs created Beyond Jobs as a bridge between businesses and those who might be considered unemployable due to troubled histories. The hope is to cultivate the next generation, changing families and neighborhoods over time, leading to the healing of our city.

Josh said if we understand the Gospel of Jesus rightly, it will change how we view the world and our city. We who are wrecked by our sin and changed by God's grace should want to be part of God's restoration in our world today. Gospel transformation includes being involved, loving culture and city while holding fast to biblical truth.
What they do now: The M:STL Program Map
Josh also told us teams like ours are relationship ambassadors for M:STL in the community, plus we would help in the building as they get set up in this 90,000 square foot space.

And that we did. Our guide, Beau, gave us a partial tour and cut us loose to start painting, clearing rooms, and moving an incredible amount of furniture, tools and equipment to different floors. Despite dust and sweat, most of us found this organizational work pretty satisfying.
Stuff got put "wherever" during the move.
We made short work of this area at least. (See left side above.)
Tools and equipment began being sorted on a higher floor.
Later groups will continue to organize and inventory.
Tuesday: Systemic Issues
Katie Bench, AmeriCorps VISTA Services Manager, spoke today. AmeriCorps is the Peace Corps in the U.S. through which M:STL gets many short term employees. Katie, a New Jersey native, quickly noticed the race problem in St. Louis, and primarily discussed some history of systematic issues here.
Katie Bench
Katie highlighted that St. Louis was the country's crown jewel during westward expansion as everyone stopped on their way, and the 1904 World's Fair kept us on the map. In 1876, the city split from the county over tax and other concerns. In time, wealth began moving to the county. African Americans were largely relegated north where they were allowed to buy property. In the 1950s, white folks began leaving the city for suburbs. Red lining, or only showing certain properties to black families, was heavily practiced by realtors in the 60s and 70s. The county today has 90 municipalities and 10 unincorporated census-designated places, creating issues in resource sharing. The Ferguson Commission specifically called for "consolidation of police departments and municipal courts" among other reforms. (For more history, visit the City of St. Louis website, especially the "African-American Experience.")
A view of downtown St. Louis and our iconic gateway symbol.
Katie then focused on some encouraging areas of change.

• Schools - City schools are now accredited and doing well financially, but are primarily affected by poverty. Kids often come from less educated families and are not as cognitively ready when they start school. The Beyond School program can help kids gain 3 months of reading skill level for every month a student is involved. They also provide any physical resources students need.

• Economic Opportunity - For those who need employment but did not learn job skills, the Beyond Jobs program provides training.

• Food Deserts - Many city areas lack convenient grocery stores. VISTAs are working to get farmers markets in the area to provide better access to fresh fruits and vegetables, while offering food training classes. I was also excited to learn the International Institute has purchased city land to allow farming immigrants to raise crops.

After her talk, the team visited South City to work at St. Louis College Prep, a free charter school for middle and high school students. Executive Director Mike Malone told us when they inherited the building they also inherited a lot of stuff. We moved much of that stuff from garage to dumpster, then collected gym equipment to organize in the garage. We also hauled things out of their amazing (and deep) boiler room and assembled furniture.
Most of the contents of the garage at back ended up in the dumpster.
A scrapper was happy to take as much as he could haul too.
At lunch, we heard from Erin Malone, Director of Youth Development for Beyond School and wife of Mike. They give a hand up in education by partnering students with success coaches, who form deep relationships with the families, helping kids get on track for high school. To decrease drop outs, they give individualized academic support, intentional social and emotional support, community service learning and enrichment experiences, along with eliminating as many barriers to education as possible.
Erin Malone and success coaches.
As we learned and worked, students went about their school day, allowing us to see some of the faces we were quietly supporting with our labor. I pray for the success of every one, and through them future strengthening of families and communities.

Wednesday: Engagement
Beyond Jobs Director Jason Watson, known in the rap world as Json, shared his story. An STL native, Jason began selling drugs at 12, was kicked out of school and did some jail time. When he became a Christian at 21, he wanted to help guys with similar backgrounds. He returned to St. Louis 2 years ago and was asked by the former director to work at M:STL. He now works primarily with guys 22-35 who get paired with a mentor and work a paid 8-week internship. If they prove themselves, they're often employed full time. Mentors continue with them for 10 to 12 months, developing authentic relationships. He loves seeing these guys overcome so many obstacles.
Jason Watson
Jason discussed the need to enter into other people's narratives. Get to know them. Differences between city and county or worship styles aren't right or wrong, just different. Ask questions to understand someone's context and why they feel/think/act as they do. He suggested using the internet to learn how others think, or documentaries and books that give snapshots of people's lives. Better yet, really be with people and do what they do. Racial reconciliation is when you really enter into someone else's world. It's not just a church service with people from different backgrounds, but knowing them in their world.

For our work today, we went back and finished up what we could at the school, including the assembly of some rather frustrating tables. Afterward, we toured more of the YMCA building, checking out the former World Impact apartment which they hope will house work teams, and spent some time on the old, elevated gym track. Every bit of that 90K square feet has so much potential, as does every person we encountered, each one created in God's image.
Assembling those complicated tables. Or trying to.
Hanging out on the elevated track.
Those rails just don't seem quite high enough for today's standards.
Thursday: Fatherhood
Today we heard from Chris Hill, Beyond Jobs Student Relations Coordinator who serves as Jason's right hand man. Requested to speak on fatherhood, Chris was hesitant as he approached, but his story was powerful.

Having gone from career thief to drug dealer to rapper, Chris explained how Jesus called Him through some amazing circumstances. Now 41, he didn't expect to make it past 25. He said much of what he went through came from not having a father around. He wanted guidance from the man he knew as dad, but got a poor example instead. He hated the man, but obeyed when he felt God saying to tell him he loved him. When he developed cancer, Chris cared for him and they grew close. Chris was able to treat and forgive him the way God had treated and forgiven Chris.
Chris Hill
He later learned this man was actually his adopted father, and wanted to find his biological dad. Chris located him about 3 years ago and began a surface relationship. They recently reconnected through a deeper discussion, and he was so relieved to hear his dad say he loved and was proud of him. He was hopeful to get to know him better. Sadly, just days later he learned his father passed away.

"Honor your parents, cause once they're gone, they're gone," Chris said, reminding us to tell people we love them while we can. He's trying to do right by his own kids now, two of which didn't see him much when they were young either. Don't wait until it's too late to have that relationship.

While Chris' story was fresh and painful, it was also full of Gospel redemption. I pray the Lord comforts Chris, using him powerfully in the lives of other men with similar stories who need to know the love of God as Father. This is an important topic, and one of many discussed with guys in the program.

Our work today led us again to the south side. Our team split to weatherproof a couple ADA compliant decks installed by Home Services. We reunited at a home on Chippewa to scrape paint from a large garage. I spent time with resident JoAnn, learning about her life and living in the area. She said it's not so bad as you hear on the news and she loves the community. She even showed off some of her doll collection. I was thankful to engage in ways Jason suggested the day before.
Weatherproofing a ramp.
Paint scraping. Another team will paint after us.
Friday: Local Impact
We went straight to work today, picking up trash around the neighborhood, then doing yard work at local homes. It was amazing to see these old, beautiful houses, some in fine shape and others just shells needing to be torn down. Residents told our group much of the issue in this area is the city needing to provide proper services. Just days later local media covered a forum for residents to speak on the abandoned building problem and need to remove these structures, which are dangerous and attract crime.
A damaged home right next to one well kept.
An unfortunately common sight.
Cleaning the streets in front of a once beautiful home.
Tearing out brush along the fence line.
And all cleared. This team just knocked tasks out.
We got to try some local cuisine at Bing Lau Chop Suey just across the street as recommended by Jason earlier in the week. They serve the STL classic St. Paul sandwich, a large egg foo young on bread. Our food guide was also awesome enough to rap for us a Json verse from "Struggle" off his new album "Foreign." We wrapped up our week with a debrief at M:STL and headed home.
A St. Paul sandwich. In case you're wondering.
Our team spent evenings at four host homes, my own included, and debriefed daily highs, lows and takeaways. We had a more diversified group than one might realize at first glance, with a variety of cultural backgrounds represented, including black, white and hispanic, so it was really interesting to hear everyone's views.
The team mostly represented. Some switched out during the week.
(Photo credit: A. Maxwell.)
I'm thankful to have any part in restoration as informed by the Gospel. Jesus died to give us a relationship with God, to make me new and one day make all things new. How can I help in working toward the restoration of relationships and places around me now? One way seems as simple as sharing stories like these to help others broaden their own views. Another is to enjoy relationships as the Lord brings them, gladly entering into those narratives, plus watching for ways to leverage God-given resources and gifts to help empower others and meet actual need.

Thanks to Mission: St. Louis for allowing us to serve, connect and learn, and for all they're doing to restore our city.

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