A Glimpse Behind the Scenes

(Miss Amy Work kindly agreed to pen this description of her children’s ministry.)

September  2014―Helping with the Bluff ministry is tough. It’s often dirty, smelly, inconvenient, time consuming, and physically, mentally and emotionally taxing. It’s not exactly the earth-shattering experience that we come to expect from mission works. I don’t see a lot of changes. The day-to-day, week-to-week plodding on is not quite as glamorous as the stories I’ve read and heard. But, the longer I’m involved in the downtown Atlanta ministry, the more I’m learning that it’s also one of the greatest privileges God gives: to be so closely involved in the outworking of His promises, to be on the front line of His kingdom building, and to be a participant in the manifestation of His sovereign will.

If you were to join me on a typical Sunday afternoon, we’d ride down Interstate 85 to exit 249D. We’d pass the impressive buildings of the Georgia Tech campus and the Coca-Cola headquarters until we found ourselves in the Bluff area. We’d see houses abandoned, burned down, overgrown, and dilapidated. Brightly colored corner stores stand at every other intersection. Mothers pushing baby strollers up the hill stop to chat with people on the street. Neighborhood get-togethers blast music. Stray dogs wander down the middle of the road. I’m pretty sure those folks over there are in the middle of a drug deal. That lady there in the power wheelchair used to be a friend and faithful attendee. She has since turned her back on us.

We’ll have our windows rolled down because it is hot this time of year, and we’ll hear the folks on the corners call out to us. Just ignore them. Smile and nod, but ignore them, eyes to the front. They won’t bother us. They’re just “salesmen” hawking their “wares.”

My first job is to play the taxi driver. It’s time to pick up Nathan. He’s an intelligent middle school student who loves school. I like to ask him what he’s learning in science and history because he likes those subjects. He wants to be an engineer when he grows up. Lately, he took apart some household items to make his own air freshener. He’s quite proud of it and likes to be asked how he did it.

Our next stop is to pick up Rose. She has been a great help each week setting up the tables and chairs and putting out Bibles and Psalters.

Now I need to call Pastor Smith to see if I should to pick up anybody else. There are at least three or four of us who go around picking up various people and bringing them to church. It takes quite a number of trips and some logistical juggling to get it all accomplished. A 15-passenger van would be a huge help and time saver. But, as of now, that’s outside our means. We’ll keep praying for one. In the meantime, I’ll drop off Nathan and Rose so I can go get Angel and Deon.

Angel and Deon are siblings. Angel is a normal middle schooler with normal pre-teen challenges but she studiously works at copying my notes during the service and blushes when I compliment her on her pretty singing. Deon is in high school and is a steady, level-headed young man who aspires to be a lawyer. He loves to have conversations and, unlike many kids his age, comes and initiates conversations with adults and kids alike. He’ll look you in the eye and give you a firm handshake. I like that about him.

When we get back to the church, Jenario, Miyani, and their mother are there. First, I have to tease Jenario about anything I can think of. I told him when he turned 16 that I get to tease anybody who is 16. He’s going to be 17 soon, so my teasing days are numbered. He rolls his eyes, but I can tell he’s eating it up. Out of all the people who come to church, I’ve known Jenario and Miyani the longest. They were my first students. I still have a hard time remembering that Miyani is 12 going on 13 instead of the little 8 year old she was when I first met her.

My job now turns to being the social coordinator. I want to make the kids feel welcome and valued. I try to talk to each one. I need them to know they are loved. One of the best ways to do that is to invest in them and what they care about.

Sometimes we have several other kids join us, sometimes we don’t. When my Sunday school partner, Jerusha, and I are pretty sure everybody is there, we corral all the kids to the front. It’s like herding cats.

“I need to go to the bathroom!”
“I need a drink!”
“Miss Amy, did you see my new shoes?”
“Do I really have to sit up there? Why can’t I sit back here?”
“Hey! She said to come sit down!”
“What are y’all doing? Can I play?”

I put my “teacher hat” on now. Goofy, playful Miss Amy takes a break. Serious, earnest Miss Amy takes her place. I don’t mess around. I can be rather strict. But, if these kids need anything in their lives, it’s structure, order, and predictability.

When we’re finally settled, we pray the Lord’s Prayer in unison. It helps to have something we all say together because it focuses our voices and, hopefully, our thoughts. Next, we work on our memory work, Psalm 146. If there’s time, we talk about what various verses mean.

Then, I take my group of middle and high school kids to the rear of the church while Jerusha keeps the younger kids with her at the front, and Miss Michele conducts an adult reading class on the side pew. The noise and activity of three different lessons going on in the space of a living room can get distracting. Adults who have arrived early for the service tend to sit around and chat as the lessons progress, adding to the general hubbub. Pastor Smith is continuing his search for larger accommodations since we are quickly outgrowing our current facility. The Sunday school crowd is only part of the group because Pastor Smith comes back every so often to drop off more adults that he has picked up for the worship service. It gets pretty cozy. We’ll keep praying for God to provide the space we need. What a blessing to have such a problem.

My Sunday school lessons are taken from J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. I do a lot of “dumbing down” of Packer’s language and illustrations, but the book begins with very foundational truths about God, and that’s what these kids need right now. I want them to know who it is we worship each week and why we worship Him. I want them to know how much they need His grace and mercy and how much He loves His people.

So, I read from the book and we talk about it. I try to make the lessons interactive and include some kind of activity to do together. Did you know that middle and high school students really go for opening flaps like in lift-the-flap books? If I hide half the lesson under flaps, the kids will get so excited about trying to guess what’s under the flaps. Then we read part of the book, and they get to open the flaps up to see if their guesses were correct. Who’d have thought they’d enjoy something so simple?

As we end our lesson, I ask the kids to write a prayer, meditating on what we’ve just learned about God. This can be successful some days and a huge flop other days. Sometimes they write beautiful prayers. Sometimes they can’t think of a thing to say and I have to pull teeth to get them to do anything. But, we persist because I think it’s important to reflect on what we’ve learned and even more important to learn to pray God-centered prayers. It’s a matter of practice and forming habits.

With Sunday school concluded, we make an inordinate amount of noise and commotion trying to get settled for church. I have to poke and prod the older kids to sit up closer to the front. I supervise who sits where so that the kids under my responsibility are within easy smacking range. Just kidding. I don’t smack the kids. But I am particular about where I let them sit. Certain combinations do not make for a good learning environment.

Once seats have been assigned, I hand out notebooks and pens for the older kids to take notes. Jerusha has to settle her brood of little ones. Three people will need to go to the bathroom. Several will want water. Nobody will have bulletins, even though they were just passed out. I’m sure I saw somebody putting bulletins at everybody’s place! Once bulletins have been distributed (again), two people will have lost theirs and need help finding them under their Bibles or behind their chairs. Pastor Smith will pass out popsicle sticks with numbers on them which indicate which question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism each person gets to read. Popsicle sticks will be dropped, stepped on, used as swords, and sat on. We’re working on that. We’re getting better at using the popsicle sticks only for their intended purpose and reading the right question at the right time. There’s a lot less lag time between when the question is called for and when the spaced-off child holding the popsicle stick with that number realizes it’s his turn.

Prayer requests will be taken and the memory work will be read/recited. And then, after much wiggling, giggling, and shushing, we’ll be called to worship.

Now my job is to make sure everybody is paying attention, behaving, and engaged. This means I shush the whisperers, separate the misbehaving, permit or forbid bathroom trips, track down those who have been in the bathroom for a suspiciously long time, tell the kids to get their Bibles, help them find the right page, tell them to follow along, tell them to put the Bibles away, tell them to get out their Psalters, tell them to sing—to stand still and sing—tell them to close their eyes and bow their heads, then to sit up and get their notes ready. I think you get the idea. Some kids are pretty independent and require little supervision. Some require a lot. Some days all of them seem to be misbehaving and using up my last ounce of patience. Crabby Miss Amy comes out then.

Right now, most of the older kids are pretty well established in the habit of taking notes. It’s kind of a big expectation to have for kids who generally perform far below their grade levels, but I think it’s important for the kids to know that the sermon is not a time to space off, fall asleep, doodle, or play. It’s an act of worship. God speaks through His Word and the preacher, and we actively engage in the sermon by listening and taking in what is said. The more capable kids are allowed to take their own notes; the less able copy mine. I try to write simplified, summarized notes to help them better understand what is being said.

The kids know the drill when the sermon ends. They gather around me with their notebooks so that I can review their notes. I compliment progress and evidence of effort. I encourage some to try harder next time and give suggestions for how to improve. Everybody gets asked the same question: What did you learn in the service today? Sometimes their answers are pretty narrow and off topic. I try to bring them back around to something that was actually mentioned in the service. Sometimes they impress me with their summaries of what the sermon was about. I didn’t think they were getting that much out of it!

Now my job changes to recess monitor. They’ve sat for about two hours by this time and need to move! Keeping them out of the street and off the landscaping is a challenge. I’m always being pulled in three different directions at once. Deon wants to talk with me, a couple of the kids are being too rowdy, and some small girl dearly wants me to hold her hand. I sit on the steps where I can holler at the mis-behavers, talk to Jenario and Deon, and let the little girl braid my hair.

When she’s finished, she stands in front of me and cups my face in her small hands. She really wants my attention. “Miss Amy, your eyes are like mine,” she says.

“Really? How do you mean?”
“I dunno. You know somethin’? You look like my teacher.”
“Did you know that I really am a teacher?”
“No! You are? Oh. Welllll, I like Hello Kitty.”
“That’s awesome! So do I!”

Jenario plops down next to me after having chased his sister around the building. Miyani comes panting up to us. Angel hangs on the step railing and shouts a teasing taunt at Nathan, then turns to me and says, “Miss Amy. Why your eyebrows white?”

“They’re not white. They’re red, like the rest of my hair. They’re just so light they look white. See? Look. My eyelashes and the hairs on my arms are all like that. It all matches, just like your hair matches your eyelashes and eyebrows.”

“Oh. Well. You look like Miley Cyrus.”
Deon snorts. “No she don’t!”
“Yeah, she do!” Angel insists.
I laugh. “Is that a good thing?”
“Yeah, it is!” Angel says. She loves her pop culture icons, that girl. Then she asks, “Is your hair real?”
Now I’m belly laughing. “Yes, it’s real!” They want to know if I’ve got a weave—fake hair extensions woven into natural hair.
All of it is real?”
“Of course!”
Miyani looks incredulously at me and chimes in with, “And it’s all yours?”
“Every bit!”
“You sure got a lot of hair!”

Now it’s Jenario’s turn. “Miss Amy. Do white people really turn colors? What’s it like to get sunburned?” It’s never dull in the Bluff. We have cross-cultural experiences all the time!

We often stand around talking long after the service, but I’m sure you’re ready to go. Let me gather a group of people to take home. We’ll make our last trip or two, then head back to the interstate. It will be late by the time we get home, but even later for Pastor Smith and Penny. They have to put things back in order, close up the church, and drive one family to their home which is well outside of our ministry area before they head home themselves.

This drive home is where I do my reflecting about the day. I go over what I wish I had done better and what I’m excited about. There are some days that are beyond frustrating. Progress and growth seem so slow. Nothing bothers me more than when we’re trying to teach the kids about spiritual matters—the most important things they’ll ever hear—and all they’re interested in is the fuzz in the hair of the person next to them. But, there is progress. It’s in the little things. Miyani sang with the rest of the congregation for the first time this past week. She only sang one song, but for her, that’s a big deal. She was paying attention long enough for an entire song! And I didn’t have to elbow her in the ribs to get her to do it! I see progress in Jenario when he takes the initiative to move himself to a different spot so that he will be less distracted by the antics of his peers. The group as a whole is showing signs of growth. When asked how they can apply what they learned in Sunday school to their worship habits and to their lives, I’m getting better and better responses. We’re starting to move beyond the “Ummmm…I can…love God?” answers, to “Well…I can be serious and pay attention to the service.”

To an outside observer, there’s nothing earth-shattering going on here at the Atlanta ministry. The progress I can describe is not going to impress you overly much if you’re looking for grand transformations, hordes of people flocking to the church, and entire communities overturned. That’s not always how these things go. God is not limited by our expectations, perceptions of reality, or timetable. We’re working in a challenging environment. We’re doing the best we can with the limited resources we have. It’s not pretty, it’s not glamorous, and it doesn’t follow the patterns of other mission works. Does that make the mission work here invalid, doomed to failure, or somehow less important than those that do follow the usual pattern?

It makes me think about the ministry this one Man had a long time ago. People expected Him to bring about grand transformations and overturn the way things had been. They wanted Him to work according to their expectations and on their timetable. Seems to me that He was too busy with the sinful, the needy, and the messed up to be bothered much by people’s erroneous perceptions of what He was there to do. And there were times when He didn’t have the resources we might think He’d need. And, boy oh boy, the progress He made with the closest people around Him was ridiculously slow. They just didn’t get it. Sometimes, instead of focusing on the task at hand, His self-centered students were fighting over who would be the most honored. Sometimes He had to deal with some very unattractive people. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t glamorous. And, it certainly didn’t adhere to the pattern the leaders of the time thought should be followed. But, it was God’s work, accomplishing God’s will, done for God’s glory.

The Atlanta ministry, in all its fallibility, attempts to mimic the earthly ministry of our Lord. And that’s what I have to remind myself every time I get discouraged at the slow progress of my students or the fact that yet another person who “promised” to attend did not show up. As Pastor Smith once told me, we don’t do this for ourselves. Ultimately, we don’t even do this for the people. We do this for God’s glory. And when we go and do what God has put before us, He is glorified.

The timing of the progress in the people is not in our hands. Neither is the amount of fruit that will be produced. But, we are seeing fruit. There is progress and growth. God is accomplishing His will. We don’t have a van or a bigger meeting place or all the personnel we could really use. But, I do happen to know the One who is sovereign over this ministry. And I happen to know that He is intimately aware of our needs. And, no matter how frustrating those kids can be, I know that nothing they—or I—can do will stand in the way of God’s perfect will in their lives. So, maybe what’s going on in the Atlanta ministry is actually pretty earth-shattering after all—not because of anything we’re doing, but because of all the various things, seen and unseen, that God is doing.

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