When Alissa was only 16 years old, she met an older man at a Dallas convenience store. In the amount of time that it took for her to step inside for a Diet Coke and a pack of Newports, the man talked Alissa into giving him her phone number and walked her back out to the car, even opening the driver side door for her. Over the next few weeks he wooed Alissa, taking her to expensive restaurants and complimenting her fragile beauty. Those first few weeks were filled with expensive gifts and a promise of a better life. When Alissa’s new boyfriend asked her to move in with him, she said yes without hesitation, her eyes filled with the promise of safety and security.
Instead of finding security in her new home, Alissa slowly broke to her new boyfriend’s control. He began to beat her, forced her to watch porn so that she might become a “better lover,” and even made Alissa get a tattoo of his nicknames, further branding her as his own. Soon, this man convinced her to begin escorting other men on dates and having sex with them for money. Further expanding his enterprise, he posted prostitution advertisements on the Internet and demanded that Alissa have sex with the men who responded to the ads. This boyfriend turned pimp easily kept Alissa in line. With an assault rifle in the closet and a combination of verbal and physical abuse, he brandished complete control over his captive.
Alissa’s story serves as a mirror for countless others throughout the United States every day. The United States legal system defines sex trafficking as, “commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud, or coercion or commercial sex acts in which the individual induced to perform commercial sex has not attained 18 years of age.” The Polaris Project reports that though the number is largely indistinguishable, hundreds of thousands of US citizen minors are believed to be at risk for commercial sex exploitation. The same report noted that 40 to 70 percent of youth runaways fall into prostitution as a way to meet their essential needs. Most often, girls are only 12 years old at their time of entry and boys, only 11. In all, it’s been estimated that there are between 100,000 and 300,000 prostituted children in the United States.
The Pervasiveness of Human Trafficking
Human trafficking doesn’t only exist within the confines mentioned above or the boundaries of the United States. According to the Polaris Project, examples of human trafficking cases cover everything from sex trafficking in India and Latin America to exploitation of the workers in the shrimp industry in Thailand to the use of child soldiers in Burma. To further put things in perspective, it’s estimated to be a $32 billion industry and impact 161 countries across the globe.
We generally believe we’re safe here in the United States. We teach our children the basics — don’t talk to strangers, don’t take candy from anyone you don’t know, only play where we can see you. Yet, Alissa’s story is one that follows a common pattern learned by traffickers in the sex trade industry. When examined more closely, many follow similar recruiting and “seasoning” strategies designed to sell the illusion of love and security before conditioning their victims with a new lifestyle and belief system of blind obedience and abuse.
We’re making steps towards recognition. According to 2011 Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics, “2,945 victims of human trafficking were connected to services and support.” Of that number, “calls from self-identifying victims increased by 61 percent,” showing that the hotline number is reaching those people that need it the most.
These statistics help show that there is an increasing awareness and response to the human trafficking crisis. Just this past summer, a child prostitution crackdown — dubbed “Operation Cross Country Six” — occurred from June 21 to June 23 in 57 cities across the nation. Local and federal law enforcement officers worked with the FBI to arrest 104 suspected pimps in the operation. They also freed 79 children who were being forced to work as prostitutes. These children were found at hotels, truck stops and storefronts, some barely over 13 years old.
Overall, prostitution isn’t what it often seems. It isn’t a thrilling lifestyle chosen by women (or men) to expand their sexual portfolio or cash in on ritzy perks. As evidenced above, most barely even have a choice in the matter. Take Patricia’s story, for instance. As a child of Chicago’s South Side, she had witnessed her share of poverty and crime. Her father was a pimp; her mother, a prostitute. When Patricia was a suitable age, her father tried to purchase her. Finding this out, her mother took her and ran. Patricia was later molested by her mother’s boyfriend and forced out onto the street at only 12 years old.
With nowhere left to turn, Patricia engaged in “survival sex” for nearly two decades — very often by no choice of her own. With the help of advocacy groups like the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Patricia has worked hard to find a rhythm of normalcy in her life. Today she works in the food service business at her first job outside of prostitution.
Shining a Light on the Issue
A wide range of other organizations in the United States exists to bring awareness to the injustice of human trafficking and provide education and empowerment. Nicole Marrett, the owner and founder of Radiant Cosmetics, seeks to raise awareness by raising funds for victims and those involved in leading the movement forward through her cosmetic sales — 20 percent of her company’s profits go toward assisting victims and educating the public on the issue.
Marrett first dreamed about starting this social venture while spending time in Thailand for missions work with the World Race. “I became friends with a prostitute in Thailand, and my heart broke for this woman,” said Marrett. “Walking Bangla Road, home to over 200 bars and countless women who’ve been trafficked, I felt alive. A vision began to form.”
It was from that vision that Radiant Cosmetics sprung forth. With 80 percent of the sex trade industry comprised of women and young girls, Marrett hopes to rally this generation of women to fight for their fellow sisters, “one lipstick at a time.”
Many in the Christian community have been instrumental in calling attention to the sex trafficking issue. In fact, many local churches have added groups ministering around the issue to their missions budgets. And Christian academia has realized the important role that education and empowerment must play in fighting trafficking. Earlier this year, Moody Bible Institute announced a new four-year undergraduate major designed to equip students to work with victims of sexual exploitation. During their time in the program, students will learn about contributing factors (both societal and spiritual) and familiarize themselves with human trafficking organizations in the area. They’ll also have the opportunity to participate in a six-month, off-campus internship between their junior and senior years. Internships can either be with domestic or international organizations, depending on the student’s preference.
Courtney Fillmore, an incoming Moody Bible Institute student, is entering the program this fall. She heard about it from a friend who knew of her passion to fight this injustice.
“Last year, God led me to spend three months in Thailand with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). It was here that I saw first hand the tragedy that is sex tourism, sex slavery and human trafficking,” said Fillmore. “We would go into bars at night and just talk to the women that worked there. It changed my life. I knew that I couldn’t go back to America and continue to ignore the issue.”
Since being back in the United States, Fillmore states that she’s seen how human trafficking is just as prevalent here as it was in Thailand — maybe not as outwardly noticeable, but flourishing just the same. It’s a filigree of secrets and lies, a cobweb in a dark attic corner. Women like Alissa may be our neighbors, students, waitresses that top off our cup of coffee every morning. But darkness can’t survive once it’s brought out into the light. And just as Fillmore has refused to ignore the issue, it’s up to us to respond to the crisis.
How You Can Help
For more information on how you can directly take action, please visit The Polaris Project to find info about volunteering, attending events, advocating on the state or federal level, or even reporting cases of human trafficking.
For further reading on this topic, please check out these recent books:
LITERACY MISSION: With his tour across the nation, Acts of Love founder William E. Hall hopes to improve the lives of urban kids one book at a time. (Photo by Amanda Edwards)
How do you measure the impact of an act of kindness? Is it by the words that are spoken or perhaps by the response that you elicit? Or is it something subtler?
For William E. Hall, pastor and founder of Acts of Love, the measure of his organization’s effectiveness comes by counting the number of smiles he sees each time he hands out books to children.
Based on the mantra “Extending a Hand and a Heart to the Next Generation,” Acts of Love is a community-based, non-profit campaign founded with the goal of collecting and distributing 1 million books to marginalized and underprivileged youth. “Our ultimate hope is to improve the reading and comprehension skills of students across the nation,” said Hall.
Birthed four years ago on DePaul University’s Chicago campus, Acts of Love is an outgrowth of Hall’s civic outreach organization, Communigize. Along with several of his closest friends, Hall launched Communigize as a community program centered on educating, mentoring, and inspiring urban youngsters.
Hall was born and raised in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He grew up like any normal teenager, having fun and exploring the city and all that it had to offer. But he discovered early on how random acts of kindness can transform a person’s life.
“For me, it was always about how can we make lives better, for real and that’s no cliché,” he said. “As a kid, I saw so many examples of that right next door. My grandma and grandpa would wave or talk to strangers walking down the street and make their day.”
Hall added that his grandfather was especially interested in encouraging young people. “He just lived to see young people walk by, and encourage them by giving them pencils and raisins, and little cookies for afterschool treats.”
He carried those ordinary examples of kindness with him as he grew into adulthood. Now as a youth pastor, one can see how those principles have helped shape his ministry.
WORDS OF LIFE: At urban schools around the nation, Hall shares with young students about the importance of reading, learning, and making good choices in life. Here he meets with students at a Chicago grade school.
At DePaul, Hall always had those principles in mind as he pursued his studies as an economics major. While on campus, he was instrumental in starting several student organizations that shared that focus. Groups like Soul Food and Communigize were organizations designed to positively impact students’ hearts through the Word of God.
But Hall quickly realized that by only working with kids while in classroom settings, his outreach was limited. He remembered a specific field trip where he and his friends took several students to Navy Pier.
“As a youth pastor, we used to bring young people up and would allow them to run around on campus. We would just mentor them and expose them to places they probably wouldn’t see. When driving past [Chicago’s] Navy Pier, one of the kids in the car did not know what it was, and looked at the big Ferris wheel and was like, ‘What’s that?’ And that’s when I knew how important it is to really love young people and to really help them.”
Over the course of the next four years, he would yearn to do more. Hall realized that although he had touched the lives of numerous young people, God had placed a greater mission field in mind that would extend far beyond his reach with Communigize and the city of Chicago.
He completed his bachelor’s in 2007, and then went on to further his studies at McCormick Theological Seminary, where he received his master of divinity degree in 2011. It was during his years in school that he says God inspired him to take the message of love and inspiration across the country.
“I told my friends, let’s do this. Let’s organize and begin to look at ways we can strategically build something to help young people,” Hall said. And that’s how Acts of Love was born.
“[We are] living out what’s required of us as Christian people created by God, and that is to love others,” he said. “When we do a kind act, that’s really saying to someone I’m giving you the joy and happiness that comes from God, abounding love.”
This summer, Hall and his team of volunteers hope to inspire 700 or more adults to join the “Love Young People Tour” in going door to door, visiting some of the nation’s poorest communities in cities like Chicago, Gary, Detroit, Miami, and Washington D.C., and handing out 7,000 or more books to elementary, middle, and high school-aged students.
THE POWER OF BOOKS: Hall loves counting the smiles that come as he and his volunteers hand out books to young people. After getting their books, these young students in Columbus, Ohio, were eager to start reading.
Hall says he wants to make love tangible, and wants young people to “fall in love with knowledge” and the wisdom that can be discovered on the written page. He believes that when a difference is made in a young person’s life, the world can be changed. That’s why he and his staff of volunteers have partnered with Chicago aldermen Pat Dowell and Roderick Sawyer in hopes of counteracting literacy rates in the Windy City. And he hopes to duplicate this in other communities around the nation.
He added, “We never know how the seeds of knowledge that these kids find in books or just in the art of reading will impact them 10 or 15 years from now.”
In addition to the ambitious goal of collecting a million books, Hall also plans to join with other community partners to provide new books for urban libraries, build 50 reading rooms centered on growth and development, and supply 50 urban schools with a comprehensive extracurricular reading curriculum to aid them in improving student reading skills.
With more than 6,000 books already collected and nearly 500 people that have already pledged their support, Hall and his team are seeking additional supporters willing to make the commitment of sowing a seed of knowledge into the lives of the next generation.
“I want people to understand the power of love, and the need to love young people,” he said. “That’s what I was created for. We want a million people to make that commitment; to take that pledge, participate, and pass the word.”
If you would like to partner with the Acts of Love campaign or the Love Young People Tour 2012, please visit the www.millionactsoflove.org for more information.
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Elevate Detroit staff members and volunteers serve area residents during one its CommuniD Barbecues last year at Detroit’s Robert Redmond Memorial Park.
Is Detroit coming or going?
The conventional wisdom is that the once-bustling Motor City is the epitome of a metropolis in decline, a remnant of a bygone industrial era. But for many of us who have decided to intentionally make Detroit our home, we choose to believe that the city has a future.
It’s in our nature, I guess. We love to root for the underdog, and Detroit is definitely that. As politicians, businesspeople, and sociologists ponder the city’s chances, it takes faith to see a bright future for a city that has lost so much of its luster. But over the last few years, the city’s been gaining notoriety as a business incubator (see Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright), a destination for good eats, and the slow (but steady) revival of America’s number one auto manufacturing center. It’s home to four professional sports teams, including the Lions who went from serving as the laughingstock of the National Football league to finishing with a 10-6 season and making their first playoff appearance since 1999. Most recently, Detroit was even rated as having one of America’s top ten best downtowns. Detroit’s full of previously unrecognized promise. It’s resilient, tenacious, and on the verge of exciting change.
VITAL SIGNS: An attractive waterfront, competitive sports teams, and fine restaurants give Detroiters reason for hope.
However, a lot is still broken. Detroit’s also been synonymous with present-day notions of urban crime, decay, and impoverishment. At the height of its powers in 1950, Detroit had 1.8 million residents and a thriving economy that helped drive the fortunes of the rest of the nation. Now, 60 years later, the population has dropped to just 700,000 and is in a desperate struggle to recapture its cultural and economical relevance.
Over the past few years, Detroit has become a case study in what ails American cities. In 2010, Time magazine set up a special outpost in the city for a year to chronicle the city’s challenges. And a new book, Detroit: A Biography, finds former Detroit News reporter Scott Martelle analyzing what led to the city’s current misfortunes. Though a sobering read, a strength of the book is that it doesn’t live in the past by romanticizing the bygone glories of the auto industry or the Motown era. Instead, Martelle drills deep into the troubling factors that contributed to Detroit’s decline. Endeavors like Time’s reporting project and Martelle’s book are important reminders of Detroit’s challenges and possibilities.
Detroit is a city begging for educational reform and financial restructuring. And though Michigan’s unemployment rate has steadily decreased over the past year, Metro Detroit’s rate remains higher than state and national averages at 9.2% as of April.
Still, we hope.
Let the Sonshine
With unemployment rounding out at over 50,000, Detroiters have begun exploring other employment options. Detroit residents have begun to reimagine how to create a more sustainable economy — one that isn’t dependent upon a single industry. Through the diversification of business endeavors, some see slow progress.
Historically, a bottom-up, micro-level approach to local economic development has proven to be the most effective. According to the World Bank in a recent report, “Local economic development is about local people working together to achieve sustainable economic growth that brings economic benefits and quality of life improvements for all in the community.”
THE ROAD AHEAD: Downtown Detroit as seen along Woodward Avenue. Strapped with the fallout of crime, poverty, and political corruption, city leaders are in a desperate search for answers. Meanwhile, a cadre of Christian visionaries hope to become part of the solution. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Newscom)
Some Detroit entrepreneurs have even begun to use their business ventures in order to combat joblessness in their individual communities. Take, for example, Café Sonshine, a local eatery in the New Center neighborhood which employs local residents and provides a community gathering space. Or examine Wayne State University’s Tech Town, an organization that trains and equips fledgling local entrepreneurs with the tools they need to foster a successful business.
Following are the stories of three entrepreneurs who are working to address poverty and stimulate the metropolitan Detroit area through local business. Though all significantly different from each other, these individuals share the same passion and enthusiasm to eradicate poverty, share the love of Christ through community, and see Detroit become healthy and whole.
GO-GETTER: Elevate Detroit’s Mike Schmitt
Mike Schmitt, director and community architect at Elevate Detroit, has a very intentional vision for his corner of Detroit. He’s firmly planted himself in the geographical area called Cass Corridor. The neighborhood — a small grid of streets located in the Midtown district — has been coined by some as “the Jungle.” It’s a high crime area rife with prostitution, drug dealing, and a strong gang presence that dates back to the early twentieth century. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was even partially plotted in Cass Corridor by Detroit’s Purple Gang, associates of Al Capone.
“It’s entirely likely that the same people who may have smiled at you earlier in the day have been up all night making drug runs, selling crack and heroin,” said Schmitt. “Though there are more churches per capita in Detroit than in any other city, there’s an unfed hunger here for community and love.”
Four years ago, Schmitt started Elevate Detroit and a related outreach event called CommuniD BBQs. To date, Elevate Detroit now organizes five BBQs in four different cities — Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Mount Clemens. Each week, people come from across the metro Detroit area to join in fellowship with people of different ethnicities and socio-economic positions. On these Saturdays, it’s a piece of God’s kingdom here on earth.
“I’ve tried to move away a couple of times now, but Detroit is my home. Once you see God moving in so many different ways, it’s impossible to leave,” he said.
SERVING THE WHOLE PERSON: Community residents wait in line for food and other resources during Elevate Detroit’s CommuniD Barbecue and mobile health clinic events.
Schmitt also is the primary visionary behind Dandelion’s Café, a new business and community outreach model in the heart of Cass Corridor. Though not officially off the ground yet, Schmitt and his team are in the process of raising capital and hope to get started soon. The hope is for Dandelion’s Café to serve the dual purpose of a coffee shop and concert venue in the building directly adjacent to the park at 2nd and Seldon in Detroit. Schmitt dreams of hosting open-mic nights, karaoke nights, local music nights, and even bring in national acts for concerts. Schmitt and his crew envision this venue becoming a center for community in the neighborhood and creating jobs for those who are in disadvantaged situations.
To complement this model, Schmitt hopes to purchase a nearby house or small apartment building for his previously homeless employees to live in with other residents — families, singles, and the elderly alike. He sees this partially as an antidote to the “No ID” problem. Without a permanent residence to reference on employment applications, it’s impossible for many transients to nail down a job. And without a source of income, the cycle of poverty repeats itself.
“I believe that by doing life together, we’ll create a support network for those who don’t have one,” said Schmitt. “The more that I came down to Detroit from my suburban home, the more I started to realize how much we all had in common and I wanted to do something to help cultivate a support network for those who didn’t have one.”
Harriet Tubman in Detroit
Similarly, Mark Wholihan of The Car Whisperers, LLC yearns for Detroit’s “second chance.” Wholihan began praying for a purpose from God immediately after he became a Christian. After praying for more than eight hours straight one day, he began to envision a new kind of auto repair service, an opportunity that would allow him to use his business to employ people in his community with a lack of resources.
VEHICLE FOR OUTREACH: In this ad for his auto shop, Mark Wholihan stands out in his red suit. He launched the business as a way to connect with people in his Detroit community while aiding the city’s restoration.
The Car Whisperers, LLC opened in February of last year in Livonia, Michigan. This mobile mechanic auto repair facility services western Wayne County. Because it’s largely connected to other cities through an infrastructure of highways, the city of Livonia is an ideal base of operations for any largely mobile organization. Additionally, with easy access to cities such as Farmington Hills, Detroit, Canton, and Allen Park, its socioeconomic range of customers is widely varied and diverse.
“When God put this business on my heart, I nicknamed it The Harriet Tubman Mission,” said Wholian. “Through using this business, I’m trusting God to help me bring people from slavery to freedom.”
Like Mike Schmitt, Wholihan envisions his auto repair service as a stepping stone to a larger organization designed to provide clients with total rehabilitation. In the case of The Car Whisperers, he has dreams of founding a residential long-term rehabilitation program in Detroit for people in need of holistic recovery. This projected program, called Second Chance at Life, will include a homeless shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, job placement services and an education center. As they continue to develop the micro-economy that will help to fund such an endeavor, Wholihan and The Car Whisperers are partnering with the YWCA community centers in order to expand how they meet the needs of their community.
“Reducing drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, homelessness, crime, poverty and the return to previous lifestyles will make the program successful,” declares a blurb on the ministry’s website. “[It is our hope] to help Detroit and the surrounding communities to become a better, safer place for everyone.”
Repairer of Broken Walls
Like the Wholihan and Schmitt, Lisa Johanon and her non-profit ministry, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC), are targeting poverty and joblessness in Detroit through a grassroots movement. Johanon lives and works several blocks north of the burgeoning New Center district in Detroit. Located adjacent to the Midtown neighborhood and about three miles north of downtown, New Center was developed in the 1920s as a business hub that could serve as a connecting point between downtown resources and outlying factories. Today, New Center is slowly developing into a commercial and residential success. From the summer-long event series in New Center Park to the growing headquarters of the Henry Ford Health System, New Center is making its mark on the Greater Detroit area.
FRESH VISION: Lisa Johanon (right) and her daughter Emma. (Photo: Cybelle Codish)
But blocks away in the neighborhoods north of New Center where Johanon lives, it’s another story. Though only separated by some city streets and skyscrapers, this area hasn’t been able to grasp the same commercial success that its evolving counterpart has enjoyed. Rooted in a chronic, generational poverty, these residential neighborhoods have more than just economic obstacles to overcome. The community’s struggles with drug abuse and mental illness are visibly prominent. It’s been calculated that up to 72% of the households are single-parent families. Johanon said the amount of tragedy and injustice has led residents to ask God, “Why?”
“You can’t talk about Jesus when your neighbors are hungry and don’t have a job,” said Johanon. “Long term impact happens because someone is walking beside them.”
So, that’s what Johanon made plans to do. She moved to Detroit in 1987 after helping plant a church in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. During her first seven years in Detroit, Johanon established and oversaw the Urban Outreach division of Detroit Youth for Christ. From there, she went on to become the executive director of the CDC, which she co-founded more than 15 years ago. She’s been planted there ever since.
The CDC aims to be a well-rounded resource for the central Detroit area. They organize and administer educational programs, orchestrate employment training, and create opportunities to spur job growth in the area. With their outreach initiatives and organic structure, the CDC takes Isaiah 58:12 to heart — “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
“The CDC is the model for economic development in our community,” said Johanon. “Walmart isn’t going to come to our neighborhood, so we have to create the job opportunities ourselves.”
Of the three Detroiters highlighted, Johanon has the most business experience to date. The CDC has launched five businesses in their community — Peaches & Greens Produce Market, Higher Ground Landscaping, Café Sonshine, CDC Property Management, and Restoration Warehouse. Each business has a twofold goal — to meet the needs of its community members and simultaneously provide them with jobs.
ON THE MOVE: Lisa Johanon (far right) and her Central Detroit Christian Development Corporation team received a May 2010 visit from First Lady Michelle Obama, who was encouraged by CDC’s Peaches & Greens venture, which provides Detroit neighborhoods with access to low-cost fruits and vegetables through a produce truck and store which are clean and safe. Mrs. Obama, whose “Let’s Move!” initiative targets the problem of childhood obesity, hailed the CDC’s efforts.
But it’s not just about providing community members with a sense of dignity that financial stability can bring. Johanon understands that there needs to be a holistic approach to the restoration of dignity – an approach that includes attention to a person’s physical, social, and spiritual needs.
“The CDC believes that education empowers our community to grow and thrive. Employment equips our community to sustain families. [And] economic development transforms our community,” said a source on their website.
It’s easiest to understand what the CDC aims to do by looking at individual stories. “When we hired people from the neighborhood to work for Higher Ground Landscaping, not a single one could pass a drug test. Now, we only have two who still fail,” said Johanon. “The minority has pressure to change their lifestyle. We want to show that we’re committed for the long term.”
And she’s right — it’s consistent commitment that’s going to change the DNA of Detroit. Each of the entrepreneurs featured in this piece have committed their time, experience, and vision to making their little corner of Detroit more sustainable. In essence, they’ve surrendered their lives to God and His mission for them. And this is something that no politician or urban developer will ever be able to replicate — God using ordinary people to bring about change and renewal. Ultimately, Detroit’s revival — and the resurgence of any ailing city — will start and end with these kind of committed efforts.
Those time-honored words have emanated from the pews of black churches in America for decades. They are often uttered by the congregation in response to what is being presented from the pulpit or the altar. Depending on the deliverer, the inflection of his voice, and the temperament and maturity of the one for whom the words are meant, the phrase can take on a couple of different definitions.
The first part — “That’s alright now” — can either be considered a show of affirmation (a sort of verbal cosign), or it can come as an encouraging, nonjudgmental admonishment.
The second part — “take your time” — can either be a plea for one to slow down so that the congregation can savor what is being offered or it could be a gentle nudge coaxing one to slow down and take corrective measures as they may indeed be heading in the wrong direction.
One part of the church service where these words are often heard is the music ministry. From the first note belted by their beloved black church soloist, parishioners can be heard heralding choruses of “that’s alright, nows” and “take your times,” reveling in the sweet spirit that the note is invoking. The phrase can also be heard when the children come forth to make a joyful noise that is sometimes as equally proportioned with noise as it is with joy. When a young soloist or instrumentalist comes to present their weekly or quarterly musical offering, their presentations are usually far from flawless. To these young pieces of artistic clay, the choruses of “that’s alright nows” and “take your times” are welcome words of encouragement.
The youngster is usually keenly aware that their offering isn’t the most polished or pristine, but after hearing those words they are encouraged to not only continue but to persevere and strive to get better. These youngsters and their accompanying church families aren’t the only ones who have benefited from these words as it relates to the ministry of music.
The Crisis in American Music
Historically, the music charts have reaped the rewards of musicians who have cut their artistic teeth in the black church. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and countless others got their start singing and playing before a black congregation. As a matter of fact, a significant number of black musicians have received part if not most of their early music training in the church. The black church has traditionally been both a training and proving ground for musicians. I would go so far as to say that all American music can trace its roots to the Negro Spiritual, and as such all American music and musicians in essence owe an artistic debt to the black church.
Let’s be honest, the majority of artists that occupy the top of the R&B and hip-hop charts today are not musicians at all. Most can’t play an instrument, and in the unusual case that they can, it’s often mediocre at best. A computer program, not a human being, is producing most of the music that we hear today. Why is this?
One of the main reasons is a lack of training. I believe that the lack of music training and the resulting lack of trained musicians in the black community today can be traced back to the failures of two institutions: public schools and the black church. We are painfully aware of what has transpired in American public schools. Dwindling resources, lack of funding, and shifting priorities have all but removed music and instrumental training from many public schools, especially those located in under-resourced urban communities.
And what does the black church have to do with the lack of trained musicians in the black community today?
Aside from the obvious benefits of exposing young people to a variety of different musical styles in worship, the church also can provide young musicians with the opportunity to hone their craft on a weekly basis in a nonjudgmental environment that offers unconditional encouragement. But sadly, today’s churches are offering fewer opportunities for young people to develop their musical skills.
Look around your average black church today and count how many “musicians” are actually playing on Sunday morning? Of those musicians, how many are under the age of 18? How many are playing traditional acoustic instruments where the musician himself is instrumental in making the sound? In fact, how many of today’s churches even have an acoustic piano?
Are you getting the picture? Now contrast that to a picture of the black church of yesteryear that spawned Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.
Technology, the changing landscape of popular music, and the scarcity of qualified musicians coupled with supply and demand are responsible as well. With the advent of digital music technology record companies and churches alike have found it economically advantageous to pare down the size and scope of “the band.” In the digital realm, one person can now do what used to take a team of people. Churches are now able to get the same sound from fewer musicians or no musicians at all through the use of digital instrumentation or digital tracks. This pervasive digital sound that permeates the R&B, hip-hop, and now the gospel music scenes can place a tremendous amount of pressure on churches to acquiesce to this standard in an attempt to stay relevant and meet budget.
Adherence to this new standard is not necessarily conducive to the development of a high level of musicianship and has resulted in fewer qualified musicians with the chops necessary to be effective in a dynamic church-music environment, which is why many of these coveted few musicians are being constantly shuffled from church to church, usually to the highest bidder.
The Church’s Responsibility
Now, let’s make it personal. Does your church provide opportunities for young soloists to share their gifts during the service at events other than the annual Christmas program?
When the black church gets back to its roots and recommits itself to sowing the seeds of training young musicians vocally and on traditional instruments, then I assure you that the church, the black community, and even the music industry will reap the benefits. No other institution can do a better job of providing children and teenagers with an opportunity to develop artistically, in an environment that gives them the foundation of encouragement needed to foster greatness.
We would all be closer to achieving greatness in whatever our particular pursuit in life may be if we had a regular opportunity to practice it and if we heard the words of folk who love us encouraging us when we mess up.
“That’s alright now, take your time!”
For the sake of today’s youth and the generations to follow, we should relish the privilege of sharing that advice every chance we get.
The World Series is over, which means no more baseball until next spring. But forgive me for still having a little baseball on the brain. You see, I just recently caught the new baseball film, Moneyball. From most accounts, Moneyball is a pretty good movie. Fans of baseball, Brad Pitt, Aaron Sorkin, and underdog stories in general all have plenty to love. As a historical drama, it does play a little fast-and-loose with the facts, but it captures the emotional essence of the subject matter. And as baseball movies go, it’s decidedly less crass and more inspirational than many of its counterparts, which could make it popular among conservative, faith-based audiences.
Seems like the only people who aren’t that enthused about the film (which adapted Michael Lewis’ 2002 chronicle of the same name) are the actual baseball executives whose stories are depicted in it, primarily Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his stat guru assistant Paul DePodesta (fictionalized as Peter Brand, because DePodesta didn’t consent to allowing his name to be used).
Their main complaints of the film stem from what DePodesta and Beane believe to be an overly dramatized schism between the GM’s office and the rest of the scouting and management. In the film, Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as Brand/DePodesta are continually at odds with the A’s grizzled corps of veteran scouts, most of whom have a rigid sense of orthodoxy concerning what good draft prospects look like, and who resent Beane for discarding their sage advice and picking players using advanced statistics. This conflict is a source of constant tension, especially because it pits general manager Beane against manager Art Howe, who refuses to fill his lineup with any of Beane’s recent draft picks.
If baseball were a religion, Moneyball would play out like a classic faith-versus-science debate. In this sense, the divide between traditional scouts and the proponents of advanced metrics in baseball mirror the divide between conservative Bible literalists and liberal scholars who view the Bible only as literature. In both cases, the generalizations that depict the former as backward and the latter as enlightened are just that — generalizations, more useful for establishing a dramatic narrative than for arriving at an accurate assessment of the truth.
Truth is, there are plenty articulate, enlightened Bible traditionalists, and plenty of close-minded so-called progressives whose view of the Bible is woefully ignorant. Likewise, plenty of older baseball scouts use quality stats to back up their intuitions, and plenty stat geeks are led astray by faulty or incomplete data sets. The best talent evaluators rely on both what the computers say as well as what their eyes tell them.
As a matter of fact, Billy Beane has said on the record that he never set out to revolutionize baseball’s decision-making process. He just needed to find ways to stay competitive against teams with larger payroll budgets. But the larger story of how the Oakland A’s front office changed baseball remains a compelling story, and church leaders in particular would do well to find the lessons that go beyond the typical Hollywood platitudes.
Avoiding False Choices
Despite the magnified conflict in the film, one lesson that the fictional Billy Beane manages to get right over time is avoiding the false dichotomy, or as I like to call it, the Dis-Or-Dat trap. This is the fallacy that assumes that two traits that appear dissimilar can never inhabit the same space. Getting caught in a Dis-Or-Dat trap causes people in pressure-filled situations to ignore the nuances and hastily choose between extreme contradictions in thought or behavior. So women are viewed either as virginal girl-next-door types or slutty femme fatales. Bosses are either rigid taskmasters or softy pushovers. Blacks are either the noble oppressed or immoral and degenerate.
(You get the idea.)
Over time it became clear to Billy Beane that he couldn’t simply rely on either his eyeballs or his stats; he had to do both. This is the kind of thinking that more church leaders should use. It’s not enough for pastors to either know the Bible well OR be great communicators. They need to do both. The same goes for speaking grace and truth. And the worship leader shouldn’t only have to choose between traditional or contemporary music, as if there is no one under 25 who appreciates a good hymn or no one over 40 who appreciates good hip-hop. If the church in America is to thrive, there must be room for both.
Value in the Refuse
Another kingdom value on display in Moneyball is the idea of finding value in hidden places. The main way the Oakland Athletics were able to compete with a smaller payroll was by picking up players that others had overlooked or discarded. And there’s nothing quite so Hollywood as watching a group of misfits and oddballs beat the odds together.
Given this, how amazing would it be if American churches were identified primarily as places where people’s lives and contributions were valued, regardless of class, talent or achievement? Pastors and worship leaders would feel less pressure to become multimedia superstars, because in God’s economy, everyone brings something to the table. And material success would be the default standard in ministry, because defying the odds is nothing new for God.
Doing more with less? Please. He invented that with five loaves and and two fish.
The most significant lesson of Moneyball is, interestingly enough, the one most up for interpretation, like that spinning top at the end of Inception.
At one point in the film Beane laments that winning 20 games in a row doesn’t matter if you lose the last game of the year. As a postscript, the film notes that Billy Beane is still searching for that final win.
However, it also says that after he turned down their offer to hire him as GM, the Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series by adopting Beane’s statistical approach.
So the lingering question is obvious … was he successful, or not?
Well, how does one define success?
Pitt played Billy Beane as a man whose life goal was to win at baseball, yet he never really achieved that goal in a meaningful way. Walking out of the theater, I couldn’t help but notice his resemblance to another cinematic tortured soul — Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Both men, flawed as they were, experienced a measure of redemption.
But it required accepting a different definition of success, one that measured influence and relationship higher than the more tangible signs they’d been waiting for — for Mr. Holland, his final musical masterpiece, and for Billy Beane, a World Series title.
This is the lesson that pastors, worship leaders, and other church ministers need to receive the most.
Our success at ministering in the church must be defined first and foremost by our ability to know God and be in right relationship with Him. There’s a reason why Matthew 6:33 doesn’t tell us to seek God’s kingdom and his achievements … because outward signs of success are included in the “all of these things will be added unto you” portion of the verse. His righteousness is the thing we are instructed to pursue first.
That doesn’t mean that outward signs shouldn’t follow. After all, James tells us that faith without works is dead. But it does mean that if we truly trust God with everything, then we’ll allow Him to set our agenda and allow Him to change our definition of success if it derails us from His.
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The irony for Billy Beane in Moneyball is that his professional success was about maximizing output with minimal money, yet his personal success brought him the opportunity for so much money that he was in danger of losing his sense of self and relational significance … which was what drew him into baseball in the first place.
The good news for believers in Christ is that we don’t need our stories retold on the silver screen in order to have peace and prosperity. And we don’t need to collect trophies or achievements to have personal significance.
All we need to do is receive the gift of salvation,