Ministry with Fathers

This Father’s Day week, I wanted to highlight ministries of justice and mission whose core was related to the particular experience of fatherhood. I found this article and simply loved the description of how the ministry “Young Dads” came to be. I will draw your attention to the way in which the leaders of this ministry first “listened” to the community. I also want to highlight the role of prayer and Scripture, as well as the engagement of a passionate advocate to help bridge between the church and a community of people who distrusted the church.

This article originally appears among the Reformed Church in America Resources

The Surprising Launch of “Young Dads”

About 10 months after launching Moms in Unity, we began praying about and exploring how to birth a companion ministry for men. Specifically, we felt a pull toward creating a ministry for dads who were not participating as fathers in the lives of their children.

Consistent with our ministry model of listening to the community before launching a ministry, we gathered a small group of dads. But what we learned was not at all what we had expected. The young fathers did not feel comfortable with us church folks. Likely, they did not trust us. Several of them had strong negative opinions about the church. Some of them thought Jesus was a weak man, while others thought he represented white society’s interests. Others did not trust us either because we lacked a “street rep” they respected or because no one they respected vouched for us.

At one point, Joel, a ministry partner, introduced Tony to me. Tony and his wife were friends of Joel and his wife. Tony was a tall brother who, when younger, held a state-wide ranking in basketball. He understood the world of work and was a dad himself. And Tony had a strong love for Jesus. We all shared together about our ministry idea on several occasions. Tony got what the ministry was all about, committed himself to our ministry model, and agreed to champion our desire to make a difference in the lives of fathers.

Together we fleshed out our ministry strategy and adopted Malachi 4:6 as our motivating Scripture: “He [the prophet] shall turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers; or else I [God] will come and strike the land with a curse” (NIV). We named the ministry “Young Dads” and proclaimed, “You cannot be the man you want to be until you are the father you must be!”

Tony went all over town recruiting young dads. He visited the jail, stopped by barber shops, mixed with brothers on the corner, shot hoops with men, and dropped in at coffee houses. Soon he had recruited a group of guys who wanted to hear more and who had an unspoken hunger to be a great dad but lacked someone to lead them through the landmines to the promised land of healthy fatherhood.

Our twice-a-month meetings were focused on answering the questions “How are you living?” and “How are things with you and your child?” We shared pizzas or other food together. Undergirding it all was our profound belief that these dads were image-bearers of God. Most of them did not believe that, so we held on to it for them, making our case for being image-bearers as we built relationships.

Very early on it became clear that each dad’s relationship with the mother or mothers of his child or children had everything to do with his access to his child. If the relationship was stressed and conflicted (and they often were), the dad felt he had little power to do anything. We knew we had to deal with this massive ministry challenge. We could not succeed with our mission if we did not help dads find a way forward.

Tony primarily, and I a little, began meeting with some of the mothers. We either met one-on-one or included the dad. We did not try to heal their relationship per se. We tried to get them to agree that it was better for their child to have a relationship with both parents rather than one. We tried to get them to agree that their child needed to see them supporting each other rather than fighting with or belittling each other.

In some cases, both agreed. For those men, Young Dads meetings became places where they could talk openly, even cry, over the profound and beautiful thing it was to parent a child. But all of them–the dads who developed parenting relationships and those who did not–faced a challenge they had known about all along, and that those of us in ministry discovered had to be reckoned with. Single moms have to assess the men in their lives by how they support her child-rearing efforts both with money and with other kinds of support. A dad who does not measure up faces the combined wrath of the mother and the power of the child-support system to incarcerate.

A Christian who ran a government program for a faith-oriented non-profit clued me on this challenge. His program was designed to coach and equip men who were looking for jobs. All the program participants had recently completed jail sentences for failing to pay child support. The chart below illustrates the issues he described.

We learned that many men who are caught up in these dynamics feel utterly powerless. When we tried to figure out how to deal with this, we could not find another ministry that addressed the system of challenges many dads face. With a systemic approach, we reasoned, we might be successful in helping more dads be the fathers they had to become.

Letters on the chart above show the points at which Young Dads created intervention strategies.

(A) Mom and dad are in conflict. The ministry assisted the mom and dad in resolving enough of their challenges so that their child could benefit from a relationship with both parents. Often the conflict was complicated and confusing. In some cases, the conflict clearly involved issues between the mom and dad. Sometimes it involved their child. Sometimes access to the child was used as a tool to get something else. Often the non-custodial parent felt powerless.

(B) Dad is required to provide money. The ministry needed to help young dads secure work. We did that in two ways: 1) referring them to job development nonprofits and 2) talking directly to employers, which Tony (mostly) and I did. While we did find jobs for some dads, several of them found their own jobs. They wanted to, they needed to, and they saw work as a way to do extra things with their child and as a ticket to being the kind of dad they wanted to be. A few dads worked two or three jobs at a time to achieve that end.

(C) Mom and child support agency are aligned. The ministry periodically would need to advocate with the child support enforcement office and ask that they not send the dad to jail so long as he worked with us. In some instances, the mother was so impressed with the dad’s engagement with their child, she advocated with us on his behalf.

  1. If the dad is not the custodial parent and can provide the mom with adequate funds, he normally can negotiate access to his child.
  2. Generally, the dad remains under a great deal of pressure to pay child support or face jail. This legal matter is often complicated by powerful conflicts with the mom. The dad may resort to going underground, either locally or by leaving for another state.
  3. As the mom and the child support enforcement agency align, the dad often is put under great pressure to pay child support or go to jail. Dad generally exercises one of the following options (4-6).
  4. Dad goes to jail. This often is an ongoing matter. Often, jail time results in court costs and fines–additional financial obligations for the dad. Depending on the jurisdiction, child support arrears may continue to accumulate while he is incarcerated.
  5. Dad goes underground. Some dads drop out of sight when the mom and the child support enforcement agency threaten to incarcerate them.
  6. Dad gets a job and pays support. If the child support averages are not too high and if the mom is open to it, the dad generally can be actively involved in parenting their child.

The goal: Dad gets along with mom and sees their child. Dad and mom negotiate how and when he can be with and actively parent their child.

Terry is one young dad who found fresh reasons for living during his time with Young Dads. He had four children by three mothers. He made peace with all of the mothers and became the father he always wanted to be with his children. Terry valued work and saw it as a critical means of supporting his children and their mothers’ efforts to raise them well. Terry showed the way to other young dads who became convinced that they could not be the men they wanted to be unless they became the fathers they had to be.


Talk Is Cheap

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 
― Frederick BuechnerWishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

There are a lot of opinions out there. There are a lot of different ways to use our reason and our intellect to convince ourselves that we are OK, or that we are doing the right thing. There are myriad ways to read Scripture and interpret faith so that our own prejudices, biases, inclinations, and desires can be found comfortable, faithful and otherwise pleasing to our own sensibilities; to the sensibilities of our family, friends and neighbors, and can still conform to the tenets of our “doctrine” and  our “discipline.”

I can’t help but wonder, though, how our world might look if we each spent as much energy actually doing something about those things we argue about as we spend consulting our favorite gurus and posting our favorite memes to facebook.

For instance, in Iowa, there is a shortage of residential treatment facilities. There is evidence of human trafficking in both labor and sexual slavery. School food programs are all struggling, while students whose families are under physical, economic, and psychological distress continue to fall behind in the skills necessary to navigate an increasingly complicated world of credit lending and temporary employment. Youth mentorship programs do not have enough mentors to supply their need. People suffering from ongoing mental illness cannot receive the treatment they require. Air, land and water quality are degraded and deteriorating. Women in Iowa earn only 77% of what men make. Our churches, schools and neighborhoods are built more along the lines of separate and unequal, than along lines of an intentionally cross-cultural integration. Laborers work 16 and 20 hour days, while part-time employees without benefits are fired for refusing to work overtime.

And yet . . . there is a United Methodist Church in practically every community in Iowa. I find it impossible to believe that we, as a church, do not have the resources at our fingertips to actually provide a powerful and faithful response to the evil, injustice and oppression whose forms we meet on a daily basis. What if we decided to measure our faithfulness in lives transformed?  What if we looked to measure our righteousness such that every community in which we live is notably more compassionate than communities in which we do not live? What if we loved our neighbors so deeply and so radically we had no room left in our hearts for judgment?

There is a song by Casting Crowns with these lyrics,

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?”

Maybe we would get some things wrong. Maybe we would break some church rules and raise some eyebrows. Maybe our neighbors would look at us strangely and whisper about us behind our backs. But maybe, just maybe, our world would start to look a little bit more like the place God promises us it can be.








When Faith Leaves the Museum


Samuel House
Samuel House

Ai Weiwei, perhaps best known for his exhibit Sunflower Seeds, is a conceptual artist who creates “social or performance-based interventions.” He is one of a number of artists who have decided to take art out of the museum and into society. For Ai Weiwei, these interventions are a way of “merging his life and art in order to advocate both the freedoms and responsibilities of individuals.”

‘From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society’, he has said. ‘Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.’   (Tate Museum)

The Women Are Heroes project is another example of an artist using the real world social order as a canvas on which to paint challenging ideas. The artist, JR, did this particular project “[i]n order to pay tribute to those who play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism . . .”*

When art leaves the museum like this, it is transformed into social witness. It becomes something publicly available.  It eludes censorship, yet is  exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

For these two particular artists, these interventions are also intentionally meant to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. Their works expose inconvenient truths and somehow point to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

I think that vital faith is faith which has chosen to leave the museum. It is faith which endeavors to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. It exposes inconvenient truths and somehow points to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

Vital faith, like the artwork of Ai Weiwei, JR, or Iowa’s own Rev. Ted Lyddon Hatten, shows the light of God shining through those cracks, and brings the world’s attention to it.

This work-this faith in the world work-this social intervention-is social justice.  It is faith made publicly available. It is faith which eludes censorship, yet allows itself to be exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

Social justice is a public faith witness which has the the power to break hearts and inspire people to moral elevation and awe. It paints compassion, grace and the irrational and extravagant love of Jesus on the canvas of the world.

On Earth As It Is in Heaven

250px-The_Civil_Rights_Memorial,_Montgomery,_ALI was recently asked, “What on earth or in heaven does ‘Climate Justice’ have to do with winning souls for Christ?”

This question has been sticking with me, mostly because the connection seems obvious to me yet clearly was not to the person who asked. I think the question also points to some of the other responses that come my way: suggestions that advocacy, mission, social witness, and civic activism are politically motivated rather than that they are rooted in a commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In searching for a response to this question, I googled social justice and evangelism to see what other people had to offer. There are a lot of perspectives out there, and a great deal of intellectual and theological debate. Not surprisingly, most of the articles I found suggest that social justice and evangelism are either/or forms of discipleship, and that to be for one kind of discipleship is to be against the other. But I think that assumption is a false one.

Maybe, then, I  need to turn the original question on its side. Maybe it is not so much a “what” question, as it is a “how” question. So how do I answer Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, and why does writing about [Climate] Justice matter?

My first motivation to do as Jesus asks is that I love God. That love was born at the bottom of a hill in my home town, from a completely irrational and altogether mind-shattering revelation of God’s prevenient grace. Even before I knew God, I heard the call to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. That call has only gotten stronger and more life-giving as I have pursued Christ.

As I look at the world I live in, I see not only that there are  poor, imprisoned, blind and oppressed souls that have not yet heard the good news, but also that  there are pervasive diseases and afflictions that continue to impoverish, torture, maim, and burden human beings and beloved creatures all across the planet.  Diseases and afflictions, evils, injustices and oppression, which would make a liar of God and a mockery of salvation.  So, while it is true that Jesus tells us to go and baptize, he also gives us power and authority to heal every kind of disease and illness.

That is why, for me, the commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is a call to systemic, social transformation, “to build a world where love can grow and hope can enter in,” as one of my favorite songs puts it. [Welcome (Let’s Walk Together)]

And I do not think we are left alone to do this. The Holy Spirit and God’s grace not only make us right for this work, but also make us holy to do it. And by actually living into Christ’s call on our souls-a plea to go to the prisoners, the sick and dying, the broken and demon-ridden among us and to love neighbors, strangers, enemies, and creation itself so much that we would give our only child simply to set it right-we might actually see the Reign of God.

So, to offer an answer to the question as to what on earth or in heaven  ‘Climate Justice’ has to do with winning souls for Christ, I want to answer that for myself, I see the connection most strongly every time I pray the prayer we have been taught:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done,
in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.

What Are We Going to Do About It?


A significant part of my job involves travelling long distances in my car, and I have found that I really enjoy listening to podcasts of TED talks during those times.  Here’s why: they expand my world, and they make me aware of the amazing capacity of human beings for doing marvelous things. The ideas and perspectives of the speakers can sometimes hurt because they are so different from my own. It is as if my own ideas have been running barefoot on a treadmill and suddenly find themselves out on Bear Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park in the early Spring: the view is amazing, but it is steep, rocky, cold and their feet hurt.

Across Iowa, there is a sense that people are really struggling to make ends meet. Churches have seen increases in the number of people coming to food pantries and free meals. Food banks are asking for more donations. Especially in rural and bedroom communities, more of us are unemployed, underemployed or precariously employed. I don’t know the statistics. I am simply reporting what I have been hearing: “People are hungry and hardshipped, and my church can’t seem to get on top of it.”

So, what are we going to do to get on top of it? There are ideas out there. There are Bible verses and trained theologians that can help us out. There are connective structures in place so not one of us has to do it alone. There are city, county, state, and local agencies that want our help. So, what are we going to do about it?

I think it may be time we started expanding our world a little bit. Let’s start celebrating the marvelous ingenuity of God’s creatures in God’s creation, and look for the startling and unexpected possibilities in our midst. Can we challenge ourselves to reach beyond the narrow scope of the NRSV and steal the coolest ideas from disciplines outside the church: architecture, zoology, and biomendicine? Is there a way to transcend our own biases toward particular economic or political models to simply gather concerned people together and start having conversations? Asking questions? Discovering skills, abilities, and ideas for engineering solutions for our eroding economies?

What would that look like? Who would you invite to the conversation? Are we prepared for the discomfort and adjustment that may occur? What’s God got to do with it? What might it look like for something to change for the better, and what would we feel like when it did?

Why Can’t You?

Green MangoIn his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, neurologist Oliver Sacks shares case studies of people who have suffered right brain injuries.  One of the histories which most stands out to me is that of Madeline J., “a congenitally blind woman with cerebral palsy” in her sixties. Madeline is unable to use her hands, but Dr. Sacks cannot find any physical reason that should be the case. They start experimenting with ways for Madeline to “discover,” “acquire,” “to achieve” her hands. She does and becomes a sculptor at age sixty, living out the last stages of her life in a Catholic hospital.

What sticks in my mind is that the simple assumption by others that “she can’t” led to a life where Madeline was never asked “to,” and to such an extreme degree that she had never used her hands to do anything her entire life. It wasn’t until a stranger, looking at the facts from a different angle, questioned that assumption that her hands were transformed from “Useless, godforsaken lumps of dough” into sensitive tools for shaping clay. I wonder at the simplicity of that change: the basic shift from “I can’t” to “Why can’t you?”  A movement from “Do it for me” to “Show me how.”

It is the same story we read in the first verses of Acts 3 where Peter and John heal a man “lame from birth.” The one about whom everyone believed “he can’t” suddenly “discovers,” “acquires,” “achieves” his legs and, not only walks, but leaps into the temple. In the story, the man looks at Peter and John “expecting to receive something from them,” but they respond by lifting him up instead. They say, “You can. Let me show you how.”

Some things I think you can take away from these stories:

  • Are you or your faith community being asked “to” something?
  • If there is an “I can’t” in your life, or the life of your faith community, try a different angle; ask instead, “Why can’t you?”
  • Seek mentors, teachers and friends who, though they won’t do it for you, are willing to work with you and help you figure out how.
  • Exploring the reasons you think you can’t will lead to discovery, acquisition or achievement of skills and abilities you never knew you had.
  • The reclamation of Christ’s hands and feet to shape and leap your way into a new tomorrow.

Youth Strike for Christ

YSfCThis weekend, I got to spend a few hours with a bunch of United Methodists between the ages of 13 and 18 along with various mentors, youth leaders, event planners and pastors. The event is called Youth Strike for Christ, and I was asked to lead a session titled “My Name is Justice.”

I have been reading and watching a lot of amazing things recently involving young people: an interview with Malala Yousafzai, a speech by Madison Kimry, a response to a culture of meanness and bullying by Jeremiah Anthony of West High School in Iowa City, and an amazing project by Katie Meyler whose foundation, More Than Me, is taking on child prostitution in Liberia. Like John Stewart, I am left with an idea of “I don’t know where you come from, but I am glad you are here.”

So I decided not to spend  time telling my groups about injustice, unfairness, and the United Methodist Social Principles. Instead, I invited them to speak from their own hearts and experience; to start imagining ways to respond, and to name the things that may be holding them back. Because the power to make change does not reside in the hands of others. It lives inside each and every one of us, and when we invite the Holy to inspire us, we can rely on that change to be good.

Issues they see in their schools, towns, churches and world: racial discrimination, judging attitudes, terminal illnesses among young people, a lack of respect for the gifts we have (taking abundance for granted and disregarding the cries of those who go without), loneliness and a lack of meaningful work and community building for young people, hunger, poverty, inadequate education opportunities, inability to dress for success, lack of clean, running water, war, lack of respect, rudeness, illicit drug use, alcoholism, misuse of aid offered in good faith, unprotected and premature sex, pregnancy among peers, drug dogs and security cameras at schools, cynicism about people (hard to have faith in others); strong pressure to participate in behaviors which are not good for us (social drinking, drug use, mean-spirited relationships), depression, suicide, potential violence (bomb threats and hit lists: wars and rumors of wars).

Some strategies they proposed: find friends to stand with you; take it one step at a time (don’t try to fix the entire situation); collect “nice” suits and shoes to offer to people who may need them for an interview, etc.; talk to everybody; don’t avoid personal interactions with people who say mean or judgmental things about you-directly address their behavior as it relates to you; overcome your own F.E.A.R. (False Expectations Appear Real); go to the Bible and see what is said there; grow deeper in your own faith so that you have hope, courage, and endurance for the “bad” stuff around you; use the lens of faith and the example of Christ to look for the positive transformations that are happening, rather than focusing on the “few bad people.”

Some costs to doing any of these things that they named: it is hard work and there are other things we may rather be doing; you may lose your friends; you may lose your life like Martin Luther King, Jr. did; you may have to give up family; by crossing the line and spending time with people [who are doing drugs], you might be pressured to behave like them, or teachers/parents/others might start distrusting you-think you are doing “bad stuff” even when you aren’t, what you try might not work

Some reasons why you would do something to change “the whole mindset” of a school, town, or church: you will be respected; you will have respect for yourself; you will reflect God out to the world; you will lose your fear; you wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore; people who are struggling wouldn’t have to work so hard; people could have dignity, people could have more choice 

Some of the gifts I witnessed: respect, caring, engagement with one another, willingness to make room for strangers, giggles, awareness of people who are weaker, poorer, hungrier than they are, supportive and positive interpersonal actions, desire to be of benefit to their community, diversity (of perspective, socio-economic class, and background), leadership, gentleness, shyness, patience, grace, energy, earnestness, confidence, knowledge of the Bible, personal relationship with Jesus, depth of commitment to their community and a desire to meet that commitment through their youth groups/church, readiness to participate in hands-on mission and service, knowledge of Imagine No Malaria, sophisticated opinions regarding economic and political realities, empathy, self-discipline, strong work ethic, positive and supportive family structures and connections, strong self identities, sweet dispositions, sense of set-apartness (Christian identity as a special identity they have in common)