Sunday, October 29, 2017

STEP: The Inspiring Story of Grit, Advocacy & Community Impact

Last weekend my family and I watched STEP, a powerful documentary featuring a group of high school seniors from a public charter school for girls in Baltimore City. Directed by Amanda Lipitz, Step follows the real life story of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women's step team and the graduating seniors from the team. The poignant portrayal led to an award at the Sundance Film Festival, and after watching it, I concur.

Disclaimer: Of course I'm a little partial to this story since Baltimore (pronounced Bal-de-more by natives - LOL) is my hometown. However, anyone with a heart for young people, for education and for witnessing others receive a "hand-up" in life would be inspired by this story.

Now before I list the reasons YOU should find this movie and watch it too**, I'll answer a question some of you might have right now...

What is a step team anyway???

I'm so glad you asked!

A step team is similar to a dance or jump rope team. Popularized by historically black fraternities and sororities, "stepping" is an athletic and artistic form of movement that includes dance moves, clapping, stomping, etc. The key to stepping is that the steppers moves are coordinated, as they step in sync. There is no music - the steppers create the rhythm and musical accompaniment through stomping, clapping and sometimes rapping or chanting.

Okay, I hope that clears that up. Now on to why Step moved me so deeply...

The thing that stirred me and moved me to tears about Step was the commitment of this school to its students. The administrators and teachers were willing to walk with every single student - up treacherous mountains, through thickets of scary forests and down into dark valleys.

One student in particular, Blessin Giraldo, had a fascinating story. Blessin is a student we've all seen - extremely bright, talented and totally possessing the "X factor". You know what I mean... When you meet someone and know immediately that he or she just has "it". The "it" is difficult to name or even describe, but most strong leaders, world-changers and culture-shifters have this quality. And dear Lord, does Blessin have it.

And yet, in spite of all the "it" Miss Blessin has, she also has a lot of unfavorable things wrapped up in that package. She lives in a broken and dysfunctional home. She has a hot temper. She misses a bunch of school. And she doesn't study hard nor apply herself in class. This girl is drowning in a self-fulfilling prophesy of failure and on her way to nowhere.

There's so much talent and potential in that girl, you watch her story and want to scream. But just when you think you might scream your head off, the teachers, administrators and counselors wrap around this young woman who's drowning in a cycle of despair and poverty. They pull her out of the raging sea she's resigned herself to, and the passion with which they grab her from the waters touched me in a deep place.

This school fought for this girl, and it's obvious that they've fought for others before and others after her. Somehow the folks at this school understood that THIS IS WAR - a war for the souls of our children and teenagers. A war that begins with experimentation and ends in drug addiction. A war that begins in curiosity and ends in sexual addiction and a string of unplanned pregnancies. A war that begins with despair and hopelessness and ends in suicide.

A war that begins with generational poverty and ends in generational poverty.

Yes, this is war y'all. And our mantra must be, has to be, "No one left behind."

This was the mantra I heard in my spirit while watching Step. No girl left behind. No family left behind. No community left behind. 

The leaders of this school were not satisfied that the majority of their students attended school every day. They weren't celebrating that most of their girls were earning good grades. They didn't hang their hats on nearly every girl graduating and planning to attend college.

This school ran after the ONE. 

The one wounded and bleeding. 

The one fallen on the battlefield.

This is the story of Step. The story that models how we too must run to care for the ONE. The story of why we must give, and assist and cry with the one who's hurting. This is why we must carry the one in risk of getting left behind.

This is why we must reach into the deep sea of despair in our own communities and cities, and grab the hand of someone - maybe a child or teen - that's drowning right this very moment.

Because it is unacceptable for even one to to fall.

For even one to drown.

For even one to be counted a casualty.

THIS is why our schools exist. 

THIS is why our churches exist. 

THIS is why the Body of Christ exists.

So what does this mean for you and for me? For the average folks that don't make laws or run the court system or hold a leadership position in the public school district?

So glad you asked...

Do you know a child in your neighborhood, child's class or church children's ministry that needs a "hand-up"? Do you know a family that needs one? Do you support a school, ministry or nonprofit reaching the kids and families in your community that are drowning in despair and poverty? Do you volunteer for any organizations committed to leaving no child, teen or family behind?

If you open your eyes, the opportunities right in your own community are endless.

Come on y'all. 

No kid left behind. 

No teen left behind. 

No family left behind. 

No community left behind.

Let's do this.

** FYI - We found Step on Redbox

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

This Is Us: TRUTH about adoption and foster care

So... there's no denying one thing about me.

I am a huge advocate for vulnerable children.

This advocacy has led me to work for schools that serve lower income children, nonprofit ministries and today as coordinator for my church's adoption and foster care ministry.

It's led me to lead workshops and panels and write many, many blog posts about adoption and foster care.

It's also led me to become an adoptive momma.

Okay so... I'm kind of a fanatic about this issue.

So you can imagine my surprise and joy last year, when I viewed the first episode of one of my favorite shows and was immediately pulled into an amazing adoption story. For me the storyline of Randall, the adopted son of the leading characters in This Is Us, has brought the issue of adoption to prime time - finally.

For a girl that grew up on the '80s sitcom Different Strokes, that featured two black boys adopted by a wealthy white guy, I think a story like Randall's is overdue.

In Randall's adoption story we see the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the heartwarming and the heartbreaking.

In his story we see TRUTH.

Because adoption is the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the heartwarming and the heartbreaking. Take it from an adoptive mom of two like me.

As if last season wasn't enough, this season of This Is Us has peeled open a new layer of truth - the truth of foster care. Randall and his wife Beth have decided to enter into the world of foster care, taking in a teenage girl whose mom has been incarcerated. We watch their new life unfold, and while it's still a Hollywood depiction, we see truth.

Here I want to point out 3 TRUTHS that I've witnessed in This Is Us...

1. Love can't always move mountains, but it can get us over mountains together

One thing I love about This Is Us is Randall and Beth's marriage. They are honest and loving and real in a way that makes me love them both. They are educated and smart and successful AND they are absolutely and unapologetically African American. Beth rocks her natural hair with graceful poise, while telling Randall off like a million-dollar-an-hour corporate attorney.

So of course they take on their foster care placement with poise, authenticity and love. They take it on like they take on all of life - with ride-or-die togetherness.

When my husband Anthony and I decided to adopt, we did so while wearing our most fashionable rose-colored glasses. I truly thought that love would conquer all, and that no matter what challenges our adopted child faced, we would stare down and tear down those challenges together as a family.

Today, I realize that love does not conquer all. The love I have for my children doesn't take away the ache in their souls for their birth families. The love I feel for them doesn't make them feel less different from their peers and classmates being raised in their biological families. The love I give my children doesn't eradicate their feelings of abandonment.

And yet they desperately need our love. Adopted and foster children often worry that they were relinquished by their birth parents because they are damaged, unworthy - unlovable. After all, if they were beautiful, smart and perfect, their birth parents would have wanted to parent them.

For this reason, our children need to feel loved and accepted by us, no matter what.  They need to know that even when they mess up, we still love them. They need to know that we love them enough to stay with them - forever.

That we will never leave them.

Not ever.

2. Adoption and foster care will bring great highs and great lows

Last week in This Is Us, Beth spoke those words almost verbatim while she and Randall discussed their new foster daughter. She mentioned something along the lines of, "Well everyone said this is how it would be. They said we'd have lots of highs and lots of lows."

I can remember the joy of "Gotcha Day" - the day we brought our adopted children home - like it was yesterday. By the time we adopted, I had already experienced giving birth to my oldest son Kalin. I already knew the joy of childbirth and parenthood.

And yet adoption brought a different kind of joy. On the day we officially adopted Christian I looked into his big brown eyes, and I marveled at the beauty of my new baby boy. He was gorgeous, and we had nothing to do with it. He was a mystery, and I was thrilled, knowing I'd have a lifetime of discovering who God had created him to be. It was exciting in a new way, and I couldn't wait to begin this new adventure.

I felt a similar joy, excitement and wonder when we brought our Joelle home two years later. Who is this precious baby girl? I wondered. Again, I couldn't wait for this new adventure.

Both times, however, I was ill-prepared for the challenges of this adventure. I wasn't prepared for the heart-wrenching conversations, for seeing my child crying himself to sleep, for the contagious angst and sadness of abandonment and separation from their first families.

I was ready for the highs, but dear God, so unready for the lows.

And now I lean in to God DAILY for the strength to make through the lows, knowing He is able, even when I am not.

3. Adoption and foster care requires ALL of me - FOREVER

When Beth pulls out their ancient baby monitor, to keep tabs of their newest family member throughout their first night together, I smiled and nodded. I get it. They know they will grow to love and accept this young girl, but on that first night, she is a stranger to them and their precious biological daughters. This small gesture reminds me that parenthood, and all its weight and responsibility, never ever end.

We don't put away the baby monitor when the baby grows up.

If I've heard one thing over and over again from older parents, it's that you never stop being a mom or dad. No matter how grown our kids become, we still love them and want to the best for them and kinda want to do it all for them - forever.

Case in point... Monday night my son went to a Tennessee Titans game. The weather had just taken a turn for fall, and Anthony said to me, "Did you check to see if Kalin took a jacket to the game?"

I chuckled and said, "You know I was dying to text him and see if he had a jacket, but forced myself not to. At some point my big boy's going to have to figure out when to wear a jacket to a football game."

So if Ant and I are any indication, we parents have to release and allow our children to grow up and become adults. Yet we still want to guide them, advise them, help them find their way. We still pray as hard for them - maybe harder than when they were little, when we could trace their every move.

Adoption and foster care are no different.

You never stop having the conversations about their birth mom's choice to place her was a loving choice. How she chose life for him, when she certainly had other alternatives. You never stop reminding them that their moms probably think and wonder about them every day - and a whole bunch on their birthdays. You never stop reminding them that they were placed for adoption because of sin and imperfection in the world and in their birth parents' lives, not because of their personal sins and imperfections.

And sometimes, it seems like you'll never stop wiping tears.

But just like we have become the number one supporters in our 20-year-old son's life, instead of holding his hand and clearing his way, we will one day move to the sidelines of our adopted children's lives. They will move away, build lives for themselves, delve into their passions and callings, and we will hopefully be consulted occasionally for advise and support. They will always be our children, and we will alway fight for and with them. Yet, we will do it by invitation only.

And we pray they invite us often.

After all, in our hearts, we still haven't put the baby monitor away either.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Legacy: What Will We Leave the World?

I've been thinking about one word a lot recently... LEGACY. My thoughts can be traced to a recent event in my life.

This past week I spent time in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. I traveled home for my Uncle Alvis's funeral on this past Monday. His funeral was one of the most precious I've ever attended. The room was filled with people whose lives have been touched one way or another by Uncle Alvis. Family members, colleagues, neighbors, fellow church members -- we all crammed into his A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) church home to reminisce and illuminate a life fully lived.

My uncle spent his life serving college students as a professor in the School of Social Work at Howard University in Washington D.C. (my alma mater, by the way - HU!!!). As the president of Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina for a short time. As a member of the peace corps in Liberia, West Africa (which my family and I visited when I was only 4 years old). As a social activist for African Americans in our nation's capital and beyond. As a political enthusiast (and Republican, like my Dad, believe or not). As a family historian and writer.

As a man who constantly searched for opportunities to lift up the poor, the hungry, the outcast. 

As I sat, reminiscing over these things that I already knew he had accomplished, an interesting thought came to me. I had always wondered about the origins of the "Mother Teresa" deep in my soul. I know my beautiful Mom and Dad had great influence for sure. Interestingly, I believe my Uncle Alvis did too.

As I sat in my uncle's funeral, I also thought about the word LEGACY.

This one word makes me go deep, makes me do a heart-check and makes me ask some hard questions. When I leave this world, what will I leave in my absence? Will I have made the places I frequented better than when I arrived? Will I have encouraged, supported and loved the people I'm blessed to have in my life - even the ones that might be difficult to love at times? Will I have changed the world for the better, even in my little corner of the world?

I am in a period of rebooting of sorts. I'm forty (eh hem...) now. For me, it is time to focus on making this life count, on making an impact for God's kingdom, on seizing opportunities to lift up others in my little corner of the world.

One way I'm wanting to do this is to WRITE. For over a decade, I've focused on ministry and nonprofit work. This I will continue to do, for sure.

But the one question I heard over and over again when I was in Maryland/Washington D.C. was this... "Are you still writing?"

Apparently God's given me a mission here, as small as it may be. I may not have a huge platform. I may not have thousands of Twitter followers. I may not have droves people that would flock to to purchase a book written by me. But God keeps giving me something to say. He keeps encouraging me through others to persist and press and prod. He keeps exhorting me to sit my rear in a chair, put my fingers on my laptop keyboard and WRITE.

And so I have. And so I will. Even when everything in me tells me that it's not enough. That there are more important things that need doing. That I should spend my time and energy elsewhere.

The things that God puts in us are the things that He wants us to give back to the world. What has God put in you? What has He given you to do? Think of all the books that would be written, paintings that would be painted, words that would be spoken, ministries and business that would be birthed - if only we examined our hearts to find the thing God has placed in us. 

So many things can impede us... Fear. Discouragement. Busyness.

Yet so many things can propel us... 

A calling from God. 

Family and friends cheering us on. 

Knowing that someone, somewhere needs to read, see, feel, experience whatever it is we have to give.

What else propels us? LEGACY. Knowing that this life on earth is brief and short. That we will have - at most - 80, 90, 100 years here to make a difference.

Even the Bible speaks to the brevity of life...

"Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes."*

Life is short. One day we will all walk the road my uncle, my mom, my dad and many, many others have walked. We will leave this earth to join those who have gone before us in heaven. For those who know the Lord, it will be a day of celebration for sure. 

When that day comes, may it also be a day of remembrance. A day that our family and friends remember a life lived to the full. A life lived for others. A life lived pouring out the things that God has placed in us not to hoard or preserve, but to share with the world.

A life lived with the end in mind. 

That, my Friend, is LEGACY.

* James 4:14

Saturday, September 9, 2017

DACA - Speaking Up for the Dreamers


Also known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

There's been a lot of talk on both sides about DACA recently. The loudest voice has been that of President Trump, who this past week rescinded the DACA program, charging Congress with the task of creating policy to fix the program.

I could say so much about this.

I could list the many scriptures that encourage us to welcome and care for the alien, stranger or immigrant, depending on your favorite translation of the bible.

In fact, according World Relief Global...
"The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration. In fact, the Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone."
I could also quote what pastors, leaders, politicians and entertainers are saying about DACA. 

Again, there's so much I could say about this issue.

But today, I'll keep it short by sharing a poem I saw hanging on the walls of The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta

It's a poem written by Martin Niemoller, a prominent German Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

This poem is a reminder that whenever I have the opportunity to speak up for the rights of another human being, I must speak.

It's a reminder that whenever YOU have the opportunity to speak up for the rights of another human being, you too must speak...

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me -
And there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemoller, Holocaust Survivor

The day may come when we desperately need someone to speak for us. 

Until then, may we speak out for those who need our voices today.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Hurricane Harvey: A Wake Up Call for a Divided Nation

Hurricane Harvey is a national tragedy. 

If you're like me, you've watched the footage through tears - footage of ravaged homes, destroyed landscapes and lost lives. Raising four children of my own, I struggled to watch an interview with the mom who lost four children in Harvey. My heart breaks for her and so many others.

Yet I had a thought while watching the many Texans that stepped up to the call to help their fellow Texans during the storm and in its aftermath...

Hurricane Harvey might be a wake up call.

I believe Hurricane Harvey, and tragedies like it, could be a wake up call for a nation that's becoming more and more polarized. You see this polarization everywhere...

CNN, Fox and MSNBC news. Our Twitter feeds. And should I even mention the vicious comments and fights on Facebook these days?

Just name the topic, and folks are fighting over it - Black Lives Matter, Civil War monuments, immigration, Alt-right marches and demonstrations, and on and on...

Gone are the days when we can discuss, even debate, an issue and say, "You know I totally hear you. But let's just agree to disagree."

People are no longer agreeing to disagree.

People are no longer agreeing about anything, it seems.

Everywhere we look - especially if we look to social media with any regularity - someone is drawing a line in the sand. Standing back, crossing their arms and saying, "Okay so... which side do YOU choose? You are either for me or against me."

I often wonder, why can't we walk together, live together, worship together when we have differing political and social views? Why do we have step on, stomp on others, when their views are different from ours?

Yesterday I read these words from rapper Lecrae in Relevant Magazine, discussing the opposition he faced from brothers and sisters in Christ who disagreed with his position on various social justice issues...

"Why can't I talk about what it's like to be a black man in America? 
Because people say, 'Oh, no! That's too black.' 
If you suffocate my blackness, you've got to realize that's supremacy. ... But because of the tension within American history with blacks and whites, you talk about blackness too much and in some people's minds, it means you're anti-white or if you talk about police brutality, you're all of a sudden anti-police. We don't do well with complexity." 
Amen Brother.

Our country is more complex than ever. And yes, "we don't do well with complexity".

...Until a catastrophic event unleashes on a city, state or nation - a catastrophic event like Hurricane Harvey.

When floods rise and winds tear through brick walls and people fear for their lives, it no longer matters whether the person clinging to life beside you is black or white. Rich or poor. Democrat or Republican. Documented or undocumented.

All that matters is that I am a human soul that wants to live, to thrive. And when I see you next to me, clinging to your life as well, I want you to live, to thrive. I want to do everything I can to help you live and thrive. I am willing to sacrifice my own life to protect you, to lift you up.

It no longer matters how we are different. It no longer matters what opposing views we hold. It no longer matters what side of the line in the sand you stand on.

In tragedies like Hurricane Harvey, people of all colors, cultures and political camps, come together for one purpose, one goal. For the sake of survival, for the preservation of the human soul, all kinds of people walk across the line in the sand and choose to stand together, hand in hand.

Imagine if we, the Church, chose to walk across that sand every day of our lives.

We can learn a lot from Hurricane Harvey.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Stand Sunday - A Day to Stand Up for Foster Children

There's a movement rising up...

A movement that will address a huge issue in the US. 

An issue that affects over 400,000 children each year.

400,000 plus children and teens. That's more than the population of New Orleans. 

The issue? 

Foster care.

For many years now, Christians around the world have dedicated one Sunday a year to address the issues of orphans around the world. This Sunday is Orphan Sunday - dedicated to the over 140 million orphans around the world.

I've been blessed to participate in Orphan Sunday in my local church for many years now. I love speaking about this issue. I love calling the Church to rise up and "defend the cause of the fatherless".

Well this year a new movement has begun. 

It's a movement to call the Church to continue to rise up for orphans - the "orphans" in our cities, our communities, our own backyards. The local "orphan". We know them as foster children.

I've had the pleasure of working with a fiery pastor from Texas that's been working for the cause of foster children for decades now. Bishop Aaron Blake, pastor of Greater Faith Community Church is the kind of man who does more than preach sermons about the cause of foster children in his community and around the country. 

He lives his sermons.

Bishop Blake and his wife Mary have opened their home to several young men over the years -- young men that very likely would have bounced from foster home to foster home. Or they may have landed in group homes or shelters. Instead, the Blakes opened their home. They have loved these young men, trained these young men and raised them as their own.

Bishop Blake has called his church to do the same. Aware that not everyone is called to foster a child through the state system, he has challenged his church members to do something for foster children in their community. Every year he makes a fervent call to his members, asking them to "Stand Up" for children in local foster care.

One such Sunday, he posed this question to his congregation: "Who will stand with me to defend, care and support abused, abandoned and neglected children in our community?"

At the end of this charge each year, Greater Faith church members literally stand up - one by one. They commit to foster or adopt. They commit to support other families that foster or adopt. They commit to serve foster children through local ministries. They commit to pray. 

They commit to CARE.

A new movement has grown out of this passion to care for foster children - STAND SUNDAY. Stand Sunday is an Initiative newly formed by the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO). Stand Sunday will coincide with Orphan Sunday on Sunday, November 13 this year, and will provide churches and Christians with a heart to serve children in US foster care a platform, resources and a message.

So... I end this post with the same question that Bishop Blake posed to his congregation...

Who will stand with me to defend, care and support abused, abandoned and neglected children in the United States?

Will YOU stand?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Diversity and the Olympics

In July I shared a post titled "The US Racial Divide - Where Do We Begin?" that began with these words, "This week was one of the most discouraging in our country in some time." I wrote this post in the aftermath of glaring racial tensions around the country. In the aftermath of several African American men gunned down by police officers. In the aftermath of police officers being murdered in the same city streets they had sworn to protect and serve.

Since that posting, there have been more mass shootings, more hatred and more racial tensions in our country. More lives have been lost in senseless violence. We are a long way from solving these issues.

Yet today I wanted to share some good news in the midst of all the horrible.

Last week I was excited to share a perspective of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games that I'd heard bits and pieces of leading up to the Games. I love a wonderful foster care or adoption story, so in "Foster care and the Olympics" I shared the backstories of Olympians Simone Biles, Tori Bowie and Carlin Isles. Backstories that include time spent in foster care during their childhoods. Backstories that also included loving people that came alongside them to raise them, love them and become the parents they were all desperately needing.

And now I must state the obvious. EVERY child needs loving parents. 


I won't rehash last week's post again today, but I do want to illuminate something else I've noticed about the Olympics this year in Rio. It's something else I'm very passionate about. Something that our country forever struggles to get right.

It's something that even the Church doesn't get quite right. Something that Christian nonprofits struggle with even more, with minority people hugely underrepresented in most Christian nonprofits, especially in leadership roles.

The thing I want to discuss today? DIVERSITY and the Olympics.

As I watched the US Olympic trials and celebrated with the five girls chosen to flip and twirl on the Olympic gymnastics stage, I noticed something quite beautiful. These girls were a beautiful representation of the various hues, ethnicities and cultures of our country. 

The Amazing "Final Five"
Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, Aly Raisman. These girls are diverse in every way. They are amazing athletes. They are strong young ladies. They are each amazingly beautiful. 

And I couldn't be happier for them.

Olympic Swimmer Simone Manuel

One more highlight during the Summer Games... another Olympic rock star named Simone.

Thursday night, I screamed as I watched Simone Manuel stroke her way to first-place in the Women's 100-meter Freestyle. I thought she'd clinch a silver or bronze maybe, but that baby girl pushed through the last seconds of that race and tied for a gold.

Simone made history with this win, becoming the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in individual swimming. Swimming has been a largely Caucasian sport for multiple reasons, like those highlighted in a recent BBC article.

The magnitude of her win wasn't lost on Simone who said, "This medal is not just for me, it's for some of the African Americans who have been before me and been inspirations. I hope I can be an inspiration for others. This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport."

Despite racial disparities that still exist in the US, seeing these young people of color represent Red, White and Blue did my heart so much good.

We've got a long way to go, but we've come a long way too.