Which part of the Easter story do you come back to every year? I have one. Though I have had to learn how to sit with the lament of Friday and Saturday of holy week and not hurry into the hallelujah of “Resurrection Sunday”… I come back to the place where the two men who glowed like lightening suddenly show up in the empty tomb and say to the confused and frightened women who loved Jesus, “why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Well, that’s my favorite part of the Easter story! The part where the desperate women are told there is only life here, no more death. Stop looking for death, it isn’t here. Don’t look down, look up.
We have been holding baptisms on Easter Sunday here at Neighborhood Ministries for over 25 years. Each year, I think about the many stories of those who have been baptized, those brave enough to make such a public proclamation, the bravest giving their testimonies beforehand. This year, I have been thinking about Big Luis, aka Booboo, who made the decision almost 25 years ago as a 12 year old to be baptized despite the derision of all the neighborhood boys. The church had a balcony and those boys were in the front row of the balcony, leaning over, cat calling and laughing nervously and Luis stepped into the water and began his testimony. Less than a decade later, Booboo would be in heaven already along with so many others, including some who were in that balcony. There was so much death in those early years of the ministry; today there is so much life. Many from that generation have been baptized in our ministry, making very sincere and bold proclamations as ones who are alive among the dead. That generation is particularly precious to me; Neighborhood Ministries is who it is because of them.
I am thinking about our son, Ian, this Easter, also. If you haven’t had a chance to follow his journey I would encourage you to read the blog that Shiloh, his wife, eloquently constructed. (https://iandanley.wordpress.com/author/shilohdanley/) Ian’s 2 ½ year journey with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma resulted in a stem cell transplant which took place a few days before Christmas.
Ian is by his very nature a fighter. Most days in the hospital he looked good, even when he was enduring really horrible cell killing drugs. And most days his spirit was strong also. This type of transplant has some predictabilities. The cells were his own, which automatically assumes there will be no rejection. When the cells start to rebuild the stripped down bone marrow, it is called engraftment. That usually happens between day 11 and 14 post-transplant; it is fairly predictable. But that wasn’t happening with Ian. Something was wrong, something wasn’t working. One Doctor said it looked like Ian’s stem cells were hypo-cellular, which means there were far less than expected.
My routine throughout the treatment was to walk and pray before coming into the hospital. I was praying through the Psalms of Ascent, which seemed appropriate since I was walking in the mountains. (I would recommend these psalms to anyone in trouble.) Anyway, the day I was thinking about Psalm 121 which reads in part, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth …” I realized how much I had been staring at Ian’s physical situation as if in looking at the realities as they were then, the strange and unexplained lack of engraftment, that I/we could fix something, could make something happen. No, by looking there we had only our futility and fear. I heard God say, “Don’t look down, look up, look at Me.” Kind of like how a parent lifts a child’s head gently when afraid of jumping off the high dive or giving a speech to a large audience, “look at me …keep your eyes on me.” For days, Ian and the rest of us had to endure the morning blood work which indicated whether or not something was happening. “Looking up” was a discipline.
It was day 22, and there was still no change. The doctors thought they would have to do another transplant, but for some reason chose to wait a bit longer. And then … the day after they said that it appeared as if the majority of the transplanted cells were missing, growth started to take place. For some unexplainable reason, engraftment had begun. Ian left the hospital a few days later. I want to pause here and thank you for journeying with our family through Ian’s cancer. You have loved Ian well, you prayed and suffered in prayer, you sent notes, some of you got tattoos … you were amazing! Right now, he and Shiloh and baby Tyler are getting ready to move into their newly renovated house in our ministry’s neighborhood, the very house they hoped and prayed for, for nine years. He continues to get stronger day by day. His is a story of life, restored new life with a testimony.
This Easter I am also thinking about the silo building we are trying to remodel to become a state of the art early childhood center and a youth drop in center. What does that have to do with Easter? A few things come to mind. We have been rebuilding this old feed and seed mill since 1998 to serve our community in all the diverse ways Neighborhood has always done. Since then, we have had two fires, though years apart. Each one felt and looked like a death only fire can create. Then there was 2008, the depression-like down turn in the economy which took hold just months after our first-ever big fundraising event. Many dreams died that year.
Yet, by God’s grace, significant growth still takes place in the mission year after year. Five businesses have begun, the old historic Judge Tweed house (which we call Hope House), was purchased and renovated for the development of young people while adding an adjoining urban farm. Federal and local grants have been successfully managed for mentoring, breastfeeding and employment, recently adding one from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) selecting us to love children from Central America. There is something about death and life taking place here, all the time.
A friend of ours, Jon Talton, previously an editorialist for The Arizona Republic, is capturing this story of life, death and rebirth in his blog (http://www.roguecolumnist.com/). You see, our site was once a prosperous feed and seed business, owned over 100 years by the same family, the Corpstein family, before we purchased it. Pete Corpstein (b. 1857) was the founder of the family business. According to documents and family lore, he fled Tombstone after the shootout at the OK Corral and built a life for himself and his family in Phoenix. He was one of Phoenix’s first mayors. By the 1980’s, the hey-days of agriculture in and near the downtown area were over and the property and the neighborhood slipped into dilapidation and decay.
Coincidentally, this was one of the very neighborhoods that Neighborhood Ministries loved and served during that same time period. Life has returned to this site since 1998; buildings have been built, rebuilt and restored almost all of them harken from the days when this was a seed mill, grass and trees have been planted, playgrounds, basketball courts and field lights installed. Today there is a center plaza space reminiscent of Latin American town centers. The iconic silo building is still waiting its transformation. The vision is quite Easter like … what was once alive with agriculture, business, railway cars and influence, it all died. Its shell carries this extraordinary story, you can’t mistake it for anything but a has-been grain silo. Inside its physical resurrection there will be a two-story classroom building full of love and life. The first floor will have all the early childhood activity we currently manage, plus a whole new initiative for babies and toddlers; the second floor, will be open six days a week with all the youth work we are famous for, from outreach to college access and leader development. This amazing structure will be getting its life back. We call this fundraising initiative “Seeds of Promise” … a new kind of seed, a new kind of prosperity. Come April 10 to hear the story of this silo building’s restoration. Come and help us make it possible!
Baptisms This Sunday
In our church this Easter, we will have the privilege of seeing an adult woman, one from Booboo’s era, baptized. A few years ago, as part of a collection of poems I wrote about the early days in the ministry, I wrote this one about her long and difficult journey to Christ. I called it, “The Last One”:
No one could hear
the quinceanera music was too loud
you shouted your God questions into my ear,
“what must I do to be saved?”
You needed to know
I don’t think you could hear my answers
but I know you heard my love.
You trust me;
I think it was because I was there for all their funerals.
and I trust you.
Easter … It is still as true today, as it was that first Easter morning when those fiery men proclaimed. He is risen! His life gives us life, eternal life, purposeful life, healing life, vision life, hopeful life … abundant life! We are called to the lost and forsaken because Easter has made us the people of the resurrection. Proclaim this life in word and deed that Jesus would be lifted up. Join us, we need you!