Guest Blogger Michael Hays:
For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. 'Why have we fasted' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?' Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers…Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?
-Isaiah 58:2-3, 6-7a
Today we had the opportunity to participate in that true kind of fasting—a purposeful decision to serve others with Christ's love. This morning our personal devotions centered on the essence of pure fasting. It is not merely an abstinence program coupled with prayer; it must also be accompanied by action. Reading from the 58th chapter of Isaiah revealed several things: the Israelites fasted with great sorrow and humbleness, yet God rejected their pleas because they still hung onto injustices that unfairly benefited themselves. Further verses expound of what God expects of the penitent seeker of His heart. Many speak of freeing the oppressed and assisting the poor. This proved to be an excellent source of contemplation as we engaged in the day's first tasks.
The main order of business this morning was to finish the cleanup efforts along the block, and corner of 24th and Pearl. After dividing into several work crews, our group set out to "Do Work".
Much of the remaining work was to restore the curbs to a respectable appearance, made difficult by years' worth of overhanging grass. Furthermore, sediment had accumulated along the curb and in the entrances to several driveways. A great many bags of dirt and grass were scraped and shoveled from sidewalks and the gutters. Another main work area was a nearby firehouse that 2nd Mile Ministry uses to host their youth group. A large pile of leaves had to be shoveled up and the yard needed to be cut.
This was made difficult because the lawnmower has apparently gone to the big lawn in the sky (probable cause: a mix up resulted in a gas/oil mixture being mistakenly placed in it). This, however, was not too daunting of a task for one Brian Metz, wielder of a weed whacker. Sheer manliness soon devoured the offending stalks of grass, relegating them to the ground in submission. The heat was still an issue of concern, but was combated with water and sunscreen. The fatigue that had been building over the course of the mission project was also a limiter on productivity, but, once again, the group pulled through to complete the task at hand by lunchtime. It was encouraging to see the stark improvement in the cleanliness of the neighborhood from when we first arrived. Sidewalks and yards overgrown with weeds and trash have been replaced with defined edges and trimmed grass. And far more importantly, our efforts today have hopefully opened doors for 2nd Mile to more effectively reach the residents of this neighborhood.
The completion of the cleanup project was certainly a cause for much rejoicing amongst the ranks of our team. Yet that victory's sweet taste was soon rivaled by the sweet taste of watermelon for lunch (God definitely had something going when He created watermelon). Though post-lunch drowsiness was an inescapable consequence of hard work and a good meal, we were still able participate in more passionate worship and further discussion of racial and poverty issues.
Evanda (aka Jolly) shared some of his testimony with the group, telling of his upbringing in the 'hood in New Orleans. While he underwent many struggles and temptations, he found the Lord through the ministry of Castle Rock Church. This is the same church that members of our youth group and many others partnered with in 2006 to help get the area back on its feet in the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was encouraging to hear about how the influence of his older brothers (one is now youth pastor at Castle Rock) and the church helped expose him to the changing power of Christ's forgiveness and love. He said that the original reason he got exposed to the ministry at Castle Rock is because they hosted basketball games in a court adjacent to the building. This helped put some of our previous activities on this mission project into perspective. While playing games like football and basketball, or hanging out at the pool may seem pointless or even lazy, God could very well use those opportunities to begin to draw people from this neighborhood towards Himself.
Later, in the evening, we gathered alongside the local youth group for their weekly Bible study at the fire station. We once again engaged in heated basketball games prior to the actual meeting. Brian delivered a message from the story of Jesus and the blind man, culminating in a summation of the salvation story. The time afterwards soon took a drastic turn downhill when a peripheral member of their youth group began getting too violent. Though this somewhat shocked us to have to leave so early, it ended up bringing up some pertinent issues. Brian called a meeting to debrief and discuss our ministry and its impact so far. This was a good time for people to share a bit of what God has been doing in each of our lives. A member of 2nd mile's youth group took the opportunity to pour out pent up emotions of hopelessness from the seemingly unbreakable hold that sin has over his friends and the community as a whole. The Lord gave us this opportunity to encourage our brother in the faith and hopefully spur him on towards further good works through our Savior. It was clear that he has a real heart for those without Christ, particularly one of his good friends—the one who had disrupted the bible study earlier in the evening. We were able to pray over our brother, and would like to request prayer from you for him and this community. Many strongholds exist, yet they are but smoke and dust compared to the healing power that is found in the blood of Christ. May His name continue to be proclaimed in Jacksonville, long after our time here has come to an end.
On a note that warrants much rejoicing, an eleven year old girl named Mikeasha came to the Lord today. She has many miles to travel in her faith, but she has taken that first and most vital step of trust. Praise God!!