“If Job weren’t in the Bible, I probably wouldn’t be a Christian,” says Aslan Youth Ministries co-founder Craig Bogard, whose personal tragedies have not stopped him from ministering to the needs of kids in the poor communities of central New Jersey and Haiti.
Craig and Lynn Ann Bogard grew up in a small, predominantly white community in New Mexico but sensed a call to minister to African American youth in central New Jersey after a short-term mission trip to the area in the early 1970s. Thirty-five years later, despite living through periods of relying solely on God for their next meal, the Bogards are still at it. They have faced the kinds of challenges that only a deep and abiding faith could pull them through — fundraising struggles, misunderstandings about their motives by both blacks and whites, and, most recently, the untimely deaths of their two beloved sons, Daniél, 28, in 2004 and Dustin, 25, in 2007.
I’ve been aware of the Bogards’ Aslan Youth Ministries for many years, but only just met Craig Bogard last month. As I listened to this slight, serious man recount Aslan’s history, what I really wanted to know was: How do you keep ministering to other people’s children when your own were taken from you?
Craig says he asks himself that question every day, and did so that morning before our interview. The still-grieving father opened up to me about his new life of “pain management” after I told him about the death of my own child. We shared our thoughts on the bittersweet experience of ministering to children who come from seemingly hopeless situations while our own cherished children seemed to have lost sight of the hope we instilled in them. “If Job weren’t in the Bible,” Craig says, “I probably wouldn’t be a Christian.”
He cites Lamentations, chapter three as a source of strength. It’s a difficult chapter that begins and ends with pain, but tucked into the middle are these words: “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD. I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lam. 3:18-24, NIV).
Quoting a long forgotten source, Craig says, “I’ve done so much with so little for so long, I can do almost anything with nothing.” These days, even with a drop in ministry donations reflective of the economic downturn, the “nothing” the Bogards make do with tends to be more spiritual and emotional than material. Still, God provides.
On the warm summer day when I visited one of Aslan’s three urban day camps, longtime volunteer Brenda Bouldin served both snacks and Bible knowledge to a group of campers while Lethea “Queenie” Ferguson, Aslan’s area program director, organized an outdoor game and the executive program director, Kat Eagles, pulled the threads together.
Queenie says what’s different about the Bogards is their passion for “kids nobody really wants or has time for.” She adds, “Their heart for children takes priority over programs.”
Relationships always have been the heart of the ministry, according to Lynn Ann Bogard (left), who was in Philadelphia straightening out passport issues in preparation for a youth mission trip to Aslan’s affiliate ministry in Haiti on the day I visited. By phone she later told me that program-driven ministry puzzles her and that Aslan’s success with kids has never been based on her or her husband having some intrinsic understanding of the African American experience. “We are not black and never will be,” she says. “It’s never had anything to do with things like that.” She says their ability to transcend barriers “almost underscores that we don’t have to be the same to care for others. We listen because we’re related, not because we’re the same.”
Much of what Lynn Ann contributes to the ministry nowadays depends on what needs to be done or what she feels competent to do. The 61-year-old says her lower profile is a result of both grief and age. Like Craig, she grapples with a spiritual conflict that, in the wake of her sons’ deaths, she doesn’t see ever ending “because there has been too much loss and what feels like betrayal.”
Still, her sense of calling is undiminished. “It’s not based on how I feel or what I’ve been through or anything else. As confused and disillusioned as I can be, God’s call is still written on my heart. Changing that would be like trying to take freckles out of someone’s skin. It is part of who I am.”
I didn’t meet Doug Eagles, Aslan’s chief operating officer (and Kat’s husband), on the day I visited because he too was preparing for the trip to Haiti by collecting donations for the personal hygiene kits that he, another adult, and nine teens would deliver.
Aslan’s work in the Caribbean nation, which began in 1996, was inspired by a youth mission trip that Daniél Bogard took to Uganda. It has three unique goals: 1) to introduce urban young people to their African heritage and to the rich African culture of Haiti; 2) to acquaint young people from difficult home environments in the U.S. with the often more difficult situations faced by young people in other parts of the world; and 3) to offer them the opportunity to develop leadership and personal skills through humanitarian aid projects.
In 2008, Craig told The New York Times that the only way he and Lynn Ann could emotionally survive the deaths of their sons is to be able to see their dream in Haiti become a reality. “Daniél and Dustin were the entire inspiration for it, pushing us every step of the way.” Lynn Ann says the same is true for their continued ministry in New Jersey. Her sons believed in the work “with their whole hearts.”told the Asbury Park Press, “We teach kids that you learn to lead through serving … to look beyond your need to others’ needs.” Not only do the Bogards model this value every day as they look beyond their own grief, but so do the Eagles, who joined Aslan full time after Dustin’s death so that they could support the Bogards and help assure stability in the ministry. Lynn Ann says she and Craig couldn’t have continued on without this young, energetic couple. Likewise, both Queenie and Brenda have been serving Aslan’s youth for more than a decade each.
Craig adds, “Both Daniél and Dustin struggled for years with substance abuse, but this is not what defined them.
Ultimately, it was the drugs that took their lives away, but their lives were filled with service to Christ both in New Jersey and in Haiti. At the end, their hearts were just broken. What is discouraging is there still seems to be such a stigma attached to anyone with addiction problems.”
Earlier this year, talking about the Haiti work, Craig
I think God crossed my path with the Bogards’ at just the right time. A week after I interviewed them, my husband and I volunteered once again to serve in our church’s Vacation Bible School program. There was a charismatic young man who helped with the VBS music. He reminded me of my late son, and it hurt. At one point, I wondered if I could keep doing that type of ministry year in and year out. Then I thought about the Bogards, the Eagles, and Aslan’s other volunteers, and I said to myself, “God will help me press past the pain.”
Urban Family, circa 1965: Christine (right) held by her mom, Carol; her dad, Vinnie, holds older sister, Connie.
I’m alive today because God used an urban ministry to bring my parents together, and to lead our family to a more dynamic faith.
Raising one half-African son and one of mixed European descent posed both ordinary and unique parenting challenges for my husband and me. What was best for one child was not necessarily best for the other. Often, competing concerns led to less than ideal decisions. This is true for all parents, but it is uniquely so for white parents raising children of a different race.
Education presented a particular challenge.
Our boys, Gabriel and Michael, began elementary school in my affluent hometown, which had a school system described by our regional newspaper as the closest thing to private school available in local public education. If they had grown up there, they would have benefited from a great program of academics, but little ethnic diversity. Gabriel would have had to face puberty and touchy dating issues without the benefit of African American role models to help him navigate the landmines. In kindergarten, he was already facing juvenile bigotry from a peer or two. If we raised him in one of the few racially diverse communities in our area, he might fit in better, but would attend schools with less impressive educational outcomes. And, besides, there really was no guarantee that he and Mike would be accepted by their peers. Their cultural DNA was solidly middle-class, white and suburban. Michael’s sensitive temperament also made it unlikely that he would prosper in a high-stress environment.
My husband and I sought the Lord and weighed the issues carefully. After much prayer, investigation and discussion, we moved our family to a community that is diverse on multiple planes: economic, ethnic, racial, and religious. When we lived there it was equal parts white, black, and brown; Christian and Jewish; wealthy, middle class, working class, and impoverished. The schools could provide a decent education we navigated them well.
There was a stellar band program, for example, that began in elementary school and sometimes ended with performances at New York Yankees playoff games. There were also magnet schools that ensured integration and nurtured children’s unique potential. Conversely there were more discipline problems and less support for average students than for those who excelled or lagged behind. Michael was an average student.
In New Jersey, education funding is dependent on property taxes. High property values lead to superior resources. In our new hometown, resources were scarce. Creative financing sometimes closed the gap. For example, when students were classified with educational challenges, the school system received extra funding. Thus, many more students were “classified” than might be elsewhere. Creative funding came at a price, though. Such students were labeled early and taught separately in the same classroom as other students and teachers facing multiple sources of distraction.
I’ve often thought that if my husband had been black, we would have raised our sons in my hometown. It was small and idyllic. Both boys would have received a stellar academic foundation and Gabe would have had a role model at home to help him deal with identity issues. As it was, my husband and I were clueless about basics like what to do about his “ashy skin” or where to get him a decent hair cut. Living in a diverse community solved a lot of everyday problems and allowed us to develop socially and biblically responsible attitudes about race that we might not have otherwise developed. Still, there were costs.
Michael was in third grade when his teacher seated him between the three most disruptive students in her class. She told me she was using him as a buffer because she knew he wouldn’t be drawn into their behavior. I was finishing college at the time, and as I pondered the fact that I was pursuing higher education while my child was struggling for an elementary one, I decided that I could not continue allowing him to flounder in a sub-standard situation. The only private schools nearby were either too expensive or sectarian, so my husband and I made the monumental decision to home-school him –something we had never before envisioned. Gabriel was excelling in the “Gifted and Talented” magnet program at the time. Within two weeks of beginning to home-school Michael, Gabe asked to be home-schooled as well. We agreed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the “Gifted” education was brimming with creativity but lean on basics.
I home-schooled Gabe and Mike through eighth grade and then they returned to public school. Culture shock from being out of sync with current fads may have been more of a challenge than any race discomfort either of them had previously faced. It was short lived though. The summer before Gabriel’s senior year and Michael’s sophomore year, we decided to go on a grand adventure and moved to Southern California. The boys bounced through a couple schools until we finally settled on a public school that was similar in ethnic and economic make-up to their diverse hometown.
One would have thought from our earlier experiences that we would have had the good sense to intentionally seek out racially diverse secondary and higher education. But, instead we slipped back into a white suburban lifestyle without really trying or noticing. Perhaps we assumed the job of diversity training and identity building was done. Perhaps it was done to such a degree that our children no longer meshed with their suburban peers. With the move, I was eager to make up for lost academic ground. When it came to college, my husband and I shared the concerns of many Christian parents that our sons’ education stretch and reinforce their faith rather than chip away at it.
Gabriel, who was a member of the National Honor Society, chose a competitive Christian college in the Midwest. Without giving much thought to the fact that Christian colleges tend to have low minority enrollment, we sent him halfway across the country. For the first time since kindergarten, he faced overt racism both among the student body and in the surrounding community. What bothered him more than fried chicken jokes and his inability to find an off-campus job was the apathy of his Christian peers when it came to systemic racial injustice. Because of his history of educational upheaval, he chose to slug it out there for four years. And I do mean slug it out. He struggled academically and socially, but was also a provocative campus voice regarding race issues.
I wish we had understood Gabriel’s continued need for an educational environment that was as supportive of his unique humanity as it was of his academic potential and Christian faith. By the time he graduated in 2007, we did understand and were making plans to move from Orange County, California, to Long Beach, a more diverse community. Gabe died tragically before we could make that move. I wrote about his death and my family’s ongoing journey through grief in a recent issue of Christianity Today.
It’s a cliché to say that hindsight is 20/20, so instead of outlining what I would do differently if I had it to do over again, I offer this advice to parents whose children are a different race from them:
1. Do not underestimate your child’s need to connect with and affirm their identity, especially as he or she begins to approach adulthood.
2. Recognize that part of your child’s inner struggle very well may be your lack of awareness. They may lash out at you and/or romanticize their absent heritage. They love those who’ve loved and nurtured them, but need room to grow into their unique selves. Their perspective on life will be fundamentally different from yours — as it is for all children, but especially for them. This is something to encourage and celebrate.
3. I do not suggest that every family raising a child of a different race pick up roots and move to an integrated community or join an integrated church (obviously, this will not be possible for everyone). Despite the negatives, for us, having done so was one of the best parenting decisions we ever made.
4. What I do suggest, however, is that you take your child’s racial identity (and difference) seriously and that you become a lifelong learner yourself.
Throughout his life, Gabriel was educating us simply by his experience in and of the world. That we did not see our own convictions about diversity through to the end of our parenting responsibility is something I regret. It was only after my Gabriel died and I was reflecting back on his funeral that I realized the only racially integrated element it included was the presence of his eulogists and friends. In the midst of our shock and grief, we didn’t think of Gabe as an African American man, but as a son. He was both.
Justice as an Act of Worship: Christian anti-poverty advocates joined together to pray, praise, and lobby for social justice during Sojourner's Mobilization to End Poverty last month in Washington, D.C. (Photo: ryanrodrickbeiler.com)
Jennifer Otterbein is a first year Master of Divinity student at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York. In late April she did something she’d never done before; she went to Washington D.C. to lobby her congressman and senators on behalf of the poor.
Otterbein traveled from her home in New Jersey to attend the Mobilization to End Poverty (MEP) event hosted by Sojourners at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. For three days, some 1,153 people assembled to rally against poverty and hear a lineup of prominent speakers that included Congressman John Lewis, TV and radio host Tavis Smiley, World Vision president Richard Stearns, evangelist John Perkins, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Dallas pastor Freddy Haynes, and urban ministry activist Alexie Torres-Fleming.
Organizers made appointments with hundreds of legislators so that activists could advance three action items designed to “protect and defend budget priorities that will reduce poverty.” These items included: 1) A call for congress to cut poverty in half by 2020; 2) to fully fund President Obama’s foreign affairs budget; and 3) to support passage of health care reform that protects the most vulnerable citizens.
Although Otterbein was nervous the night before her first foray into activism, she received support and training from the Sojourners organization and was energized by the experience. She says it was “a great way to see how advocacy works” and to see that “we do have a voice and can express it.” Now Otterbein is trying to figure out how her gifting and passions can lead to service in the care of her neighbor.
Not all MEP attendees were new to activism or to Sojourners. Sensing a deeper call on his life, Mike Kennedy came from Bradenton, Florida, to his second Sojourners conference looking for inspiration and direction. What this local Habitat for Humanity board member found was worship and fiery preaching, activism, instruction and camaraderie — and that was just on day one! By 9 p.m., he was still searching for direction, but not for inspiration.
Kennedy was one of a couple hundred young people who attended a Monday night session with bestselling author Donald Miller. Miller, best known for Blue Like Jazz, said he was there because he likes to surround himself with “people doing cool things.” He is founder of The Mentoring Project, whose goal is to provide aid to single mothers and role models for boys growing up without fathers. Miller also prayed the benediction at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He talked about growing bored with his literary success and deciding to write a new story for his life. He encouraged his audience to do the same. Good stories, according to Miller, are those in which a noble character overcomes conflict. The more conflict there is, the better the story is going to be. He said good stories adjust our moral compass. He concluded: “Your life, your story must not be one of compromise. It’s that important.”
Taking It to the Beltway: During the conference, attendees took part in meetings with Washington legislators to encourage them to make social justice and outreach to the poor a priority. (Photo: ryanrodrickbeiler.com)
Rudy Carassco is a World Vision board member and, through July, executive director of the Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, California. Carrasco was in town with Harambee teacher Glory Okeke to hear what the Obama administration is planning for its Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and to network with friends and benefactors in the urban ministry community.
Joshua DuBois, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was one of three Obama administration officials to offer Carrasco insight. Dubois outlined three goals President Obama has for the office. First, to “get the economy back on track and address domestic poverty”; second, to “encourage responsible fatherhood”; third, to “support maternal health, support adoption, reduce abortions, and find areas of common ground”; and fourth, to “increase inter-religious dialogue and action.”
Carrasco says, “It’s good to hear people like Josh DuBois and [special advisor to the president] Van Jones who represent the administration, just to hear how they describe the initiatives. … It’s important just to get a feel for things.” He likes what he hears so far. “Having areas of focus seems really practical and pragmatic in a good way. I think the equal access emphasis that the prior administration had was critical. … That’s something that can be leveraged now. …I know a number of people on the faith counsel. I trust them.”
For organizations like Carrasco’s that don’t solicit government funding, networking is vital. He says, “A lot of it [MEP] for us is the relationships with the people we know. … We have a lot of relationships because of the work I do, but also because of our past directors of Harambee [John and Vera Mae Perkins], so we maintain those relationships.”
Urban Strategies president Lisa Cummins served in the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based initiatives. She says events like MEP inspire and energize workers because “a lot of folks in the trenches feel like they’re doing it themselves. Coming together is a reminder that they’re not by themselves.” Cummins thinks great things were accomplished over the previous eight years by the Bush office, but that the work isn’t finished. She’s excited about what the new administration is doing and is supportive of its “monumental commitment” to objective goals.
There were over a thousand dedicated and enthusiastic attendees like these at MEP. Faces of every age and hue filled the downtown convention center. UrbanFaith briefly chatted with a couple Sisters of Charity from Leavenworth, Kansas, who had been reading Sojourners newsletters since the 1970s. These senior citizens said they’d heard a lot of voices since then and the ones at this year’s event were especially inspiring. A young, hip Mennonite from Pennsylvania said he felt as if this was a transformational moment in our nation’s history. He wanted to be “part of the changing wind and broader agenda in the political arena.” MEP surpassed his expectations. His friend, a Lutheran pastor, was interested in “speaking into existence a new American dream,” one for a “post capitalist” society. Still another young man, this one a youth pastor from Florida, was at MEP in search of ideas to expand his affluent teenagers’ vision beyond themselves. When UrbanFaith talked with him, he was toying with the idea of creating a tutoring program for the children of migrant farm workers.
Not only were attendees pumped, but Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, was moved to tears by what he sees as a new political climate. In his inaugural address Wallis said, “More than any time in my lifetime, this is movement time.” He rejoiced at the fact that “poverty is now on the agenda of churches” and said that although we may not agree about theology, we can agree about the need to eradicate malaria and hunger. Wallis also rejoiced in his new found position as advisor to the president. (It was this opportunity that had brought him to tears.) He reminded attendees, however, that “access doesn’t make change by itself.” He said, “This town is known for giving access without results. As long as 30,000 kids die every day due to hunger and poverty, access doesn’t mean a thing.”
Whether someone was a student, an unknown urban worker, or an activist with friends in high places, they were at the Mobilization to End Poverty event to make a difference on behalf of their fellow citizens and that is something to celebrate.
Photos courtesy of ryanrodrickbeiler.com.