There are plenty of times I miss running a legitimate ministry organization like Mission Year. Like when I'm breaking down my "office" every night so my family can eat at the kitchen table, or hand-addressing the envelopes for our donation receipts. (Don't get me wrong; I love having to send out those receipts). Or when I'm desperately bribing Roman and his buddy with combo meals at Wendy's to help me move yet another apartment-load of stuff for yet another family in crisis, instead of simply assigning the job to some interns. Trust me, being small-time is hard on the ego.
But then there are those magical moments when being small-time means you get to make things up as you go along.
A few months ago I found myself sitting in the sparsely-furnished, HUD-subsidized apartment of our beloved Bobbie Williams, trying to figure out how such a tough and strong-minded woman got into such dire straights. I won't trouble you with the details, but suffice it to say that in her nearly 50 years, Bobbie has seen more than her share of bad breaks and worse men. Indeed, she feels quite certain she's better off hungry and alone in this little place than cared for and abused in half a dozen others. Still, she knows she could do better.
On that day I visited her, while Bobbie was wearily describing her latest attempt to land a minimum-wage job at a restaurant downtown, I noticed a brochure lying on her coffee table, advertising one of those big-rig truck driving schools. "Where did you get that?" I asked casually, hoping she wasn't back to entertaining men.
"Oh that," she said, her voice brightening as a big smile crossed her face. "That's my dream, which I've been dreaming from the time I was a child. All the other girls wanted to be singers or actresses, but all I've ever wanted is to be a long-haul trucker."
I laughed at first, and Bobbie laughed too, but before long we were deep in conversation about the hard life of a trucker, and about her father forbidding her to pursue it after high school, and about what kinds of resources it would take for her to pursue it now. She told me all about it, the way a lifelong sports fan tells you all about their team, but I didn't mind. In this kind of ministry, genuine dreams are few and far between.
Over the next few days, I kept thinking about Bobbie Williams and her dream of earning a secure living by driving a big rig all over the country. The more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed.
Bobbie couldn't even pay her rent most months, let alone save $4,000 for tuition. When she wasn't taking care of her grandson, she was out hustling food for herself. She didn't even have a driver's license, for crying out loud.
You know where I'm going with this, don't you? You know Bobbie's in trucking school right now, almost ready to test for her CDL, and you know who loaned her the money (or gave it, if it turns out she can't pass the test). A ghetto grandmother with a GED and a sketchy past might not be a good enough risk for a legitimate ministry organization, and trucking school might be too expensive to build into an ongoing employment program. But none of that matters because we're just the small-time Walnut Hills Fellowship, and Bobbie's been with us since the beginning, and this feels like as good a time as any to take what any lifelong sports fan would recognize as a Hail Mary shot at giving a dear sister a much better life.
If you haven't yet stopped to ask whether or not Bobbie is a certified Christian, or to calculate the chances of us actually getting paid back even if she gets the job, then I think you're connected to the right little faith community. If what you're wondering about instead is how she felt about finally getting behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler ("Incredible!"), or whether everyone else in our fellowship is excited about her opportunity ("Hey, did you hear Bobbie got three out of four on her straight-line backing test?"), or if we're all feeling the pressure as the test day draws closer (Absolutely), well, maybe you should start thinking about moving to Walnut Hills yourself.
We don't have a real office yet. We're always having to move stuff. But we get to make things up as we go along, and take chances on people that nobody else would take chances on, and hold our breath together. And we get to do all that with the almost giddy confidence that all the love in the world is on our side.
Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks, writes, and blogs (www.bartcampolo.com) about grace, faith, loving relationships, and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship (www.thewalnuthillsfellowship.org) in inner-city Cincinnati. He is also founder of Mission Year (www.missionyear.org), which recruits committed young adults to live and work among the poor in inner-city neighborhoods across the U.S., and executive director of EAPE, which develops and supports innovative, cost-effective mission projects around the world.