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new girl

BY LAURA BELL

A few weeks ago, I peeked inside the After School Program to see what all the fuss was about. I watched as the staff and volunteers played pick-up basketball with several boys and as a huddle of girls gathered around and listened closely in admiration to one of the volunteers who simply noticed them. After a few short moments, I realized what I was really seeing. I saw time – a gift and an investment that not only creates, but sustains the relationships that are the foundation of this amazing place called Common Ground Montgomery.

As the “new girl” on staff I am discovering that only 10 years ago, this place and its small staff (at the time) was the new ministry in town. I find comfort knowing that CGM’s beginning and mine perhaps share similar experiences. A shared feeling of being unsettled combined with the effort of reaching and (sometimes) missing, along with the anxiety and discomfort of being in a new, uncharted place. That’s when the gift of time steps in and the places that felt so stark and new have a lived-in feel, like my favorite pair of tennis shoes. A sense of direction and a joyful expectation of good replace the nerves that once sought to overwhelm my peace and confidence.

Today, the children who are a part of the ministry of CGM don’t have to wonder what they are doing after school or if the staff and volunteers love them. The newness and uncertainty is gone and home has been found in a little building in the middle of the Washington Park neighborhood, and this new girl has discovered that the newness inside of her spirit is a beautiful season filled with God’s unending distribution of peace. I used to think that I understood honesty. I used to think that life wasn't complicated if you just “did the right thing”. I used to think that loving a person who didn't think like me was too hard. I used to think that I understood how to love people well, speak to them clearly, give honest answers, and share the gospel… I used to think a lot of things until I became the new girl at CGM. 

I've found a culture of people who think beyond my initial thoughts, a group that holds beautiful ownership of their values, and live out their hearts through service and love to a community well deserving of the Lord and His goodness.

In my 3 short months here I have learned the value of walking into places that seem awkward initially and discovering the places of my heart that have never been touched, but merely masked by the idea that faith is or should be comfortable.  Nothing is comfortable when it’s new, but nothing changes or becomes anything spectacular without journeying through the new places and finding home instead. 

"you of little faith, why are you so afraid?"

BY SUMMER WILLIAMS

"You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. (Matthew 8:26)

If anything sums up my December every single year, it has to be this verse. For the past three years that I have been at CGM - working as a fundraiser - I sweat the entire last month from the 1st to the 31st, all day, every day. This month is one of the most important determinants of how our fundraising year will end. It undoubtedly affects how 2016 will look – how many children we will be able to serve, the number of teachers we can hire, the types of programs we will be able to offer.  

There is a lot weighing on what comes in during December, not only for the month, but the year in its entirety. It is stressful to say the least. 

This is when I begin to doubt and worry. In the midst of all this, I pray and petition on behalf of the children, families and co-workers that I love. “Dear Lord, please see my heart and my efforts and use this year and the coming year to work in the neighborhood. Please see fit to bless us with the proper finances to enter 2016 so that we may love others well for yet another year.”   I plead, wrestle, and bargain. “If you just get us through this year, I promise I will work harder in 2016 and give you all I have.”

I prayed for a very specific amount during the month of December. It was a lofty goal and one that has never been raised in the final 31 days of prior years. But I was hopeful in November. The last week of December rolled around and I watched the deposits daily, checked online donations and went in to the office to review what had come in. And we were nowhere even close to the goal I had originally established. This when I felt like I was watching the giant storm on the horizon, knowing that it would pummel my boat all while Jesus sleeps. Everything would be flipped upside down. 

Thankfully I have a calm and understanding boss that is always there to listen to my concerns. I would talk to Bryan and throughout all of this he remained extremely positive and affirmed my fundraising efforts of the past 12 months. I, however, was still anxious and not looking forward to reporting our final numbers.

And then the winds calmed.

And the Lord showed me that the fear was in vain. He showed me that my faith was little. He showed me that He was in control. He is for Common Ground Montgomery and the Washington Park neighborhood and wants to see disciples made, trauma healed, people loved well, and families restored. 

I boast on His behalf, and His behalf alone, when I say that we met our December goal. I sit here today humbled by God’s provision and your generosity. Like the disciples, I find myself asking over and over again what sort of man is this? The kind of man that handles all of the storms of life and tells them to be calm. The sort of man that is constantly reminding us of His love for us. 

So these are not simply donations that I am entering into the database but gifts that are helping to grow the kingdom, investments in to people's lives. These donations are constant reminders of his provision and your submission to his calling.  Thank you to each and every one of you that listened to His voice prompting you to donate. It is because of you that the kingdom grows daily. 

on "the children network"

BY KEN AUSTIN

This new school semester working at Common Ground Montgomery has been the best, by far. And not only in working at CGM, but in being around the new school, Valiant Cross. I have been teaching for years that King David, in Psalm 100, was telling us to find out what noises the Lord likes to hear and then to make them. I believe that we are on God's favorite station now: "The Children Network." 

I get to see the answer to many, many years of prayers now being fulfilled in the Washington Park Community. I get a chance every day to hear joyful noises out of the mouths of babes. I hear generational curses being broken through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

I see young men unraveling potential they didn't know they had through math and science. I see books and reading becoming their friends and companions transporting them into places they only dreamed about, far beyond the destructive influences of their physical realities. I see Technology being used by them instead of using them. Instead of technology paralyzing them, I see it motivating and causing them to reach for new heights. 

I hear chains falling from the future of a new generation of men. I hear the sound of freedom coming, and it is a page turning in the after school tutoring program. I see fallow ground being broken up and walls being broken down by love, kindness and accountability. 

I get a chance to see hope in its infancy.  

I watch it being planted. 

I see every day what faith truly is. I see that faith is the ingredients or substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. I see young scholars with hope in their hearts for things they have never seen before, now with the ingredients they believe will make those things come to pass. I see boys wanting to become men, and I mean God fearing men that will raise their sons, protect their daughters, love their wives, and provide for their families. 
The noise I hear is not the old neighborhood train of drug dealers, high school dropouts, gangbangers and fatherless homes,  but it is the noise of men coming up who will take  lead and not follow the crowd but change their surroundings. 

I believe dreams come from the work you do. I can see after a hard day's work at Valiant Cross Academy that young boys' dreams are changing.  

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" is the new dream. 

I see a new brotherhood being formed that neither heights nor depths, pride nor selfish gain will break. 

"Who's got your back? I got your back I got your back, Bro!" 

I hear a new sound: "Excuses! No, we don't make those."  

"Work: anything worth having is worth working for."

Valiant Cross Academy is a place where young men will Rise Above!

rivers of love

BY CHAQUANA TOWNSEND

This past weekend I, along with 5 interns, had the privilege of going to Camp Chandler with the 1st through 3rd grade children. We spent 3 days in the backwoods of Wetumpka with young children who were excited yet ready to break free from structure. This past weekend was fun, challenging, and sanctifying, but one thing stands out the most in my heart: despite the challenges and difficulties of the weekend, my love only grows for the children I work with.

As a single woman, I get to participate in training up a child in the ways of the Lord. I get a glimpse of the labor, pain, and joys of being a parent as I work with children on a regular basis. It blows my mind how my heart will do anything to see them prosper, to see them thrive, to see them really walk with the Lord. However, as I think of the God-given love I have for these children,  I think about how much God loves me and stops at nothing to see me blossom and prosper in Him.

When I think about the faces of the babies I work with, my heart leaps for joy. They have literally changed my life and continue to push me towards the Lord. Moreover, I see more of God's love for me because He stops at nothing to pursue me and capture my heart. My love for the children I work with is imperfect and flawed, but His love is perfect. He never gives up on me and nothing can pluck me from His hand. He separates my sin as far as the east is from the west. He offers forgiveness when I turn to Him instead of condemnation. He shows kindness instead of impatience. My imperfect human love for the little ones is just a small glimpse of God's overwhelming love for me!!

The children remind me that God is fighting for me as I fight for them. They remind me that I am a sinner and need of a Savior because of my flawed perspective. I am constantly reminded that God is a loving Father,  yet His discipline is for my good. I am reminded daily that God is a Father whose love flows like a river; it never runs out. As Job so eloquently put, "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes..." (Job 42:5).

I see God in so many ways, and it pushes me to repent and turn to Him. I am so thankful for His amazing, overflowing love, and the conduit of the children at CGM to see it.

a new breeze and a new direction

BY JUSTIN HAMPTON

There is a very long story that is summed up in two words. Here’s the short and sweet of it: I QUIT! 

Okay, okay, hold up before you flood your hearts with judgment and criticisms of how I’m running away from social responsibility or abandoning the kids that look up to me so much. Give me a chance to explain why. 

Last July the brother of a Tuskegee classmate of mine accompanied a volunteer group down to CGM for a few days to assist in their service project on our campus. It was my first time meeting him face to face, but the Facebook chats and profile pictures I’d seen of him clued me in on one thing about him; he worked at Harvard.

As you can imagine, a position at a university of that magnitude raised all sorts of questions on my end. Many of which were addressed in our conversation. He told me about his position and the potential for people to apply to that position. He shared how it affords him and his family the chance to live on campus and avoid the hefty rent prices of the local Boston area, all while serving as administration and pursuing a graduate degree.

My response to him was, “I’d love to do something like that.”

To which said, “Really? Because Harvard needs people just like you!”

Later I found out that he said that to many other people besides me, but in my naivety I just believed him. His small statement led to what became a yearlong pursuit of admittance into a school that has a 95% rejection rate. His little paradigm shattering statement that made me believe I was more valuable to them than they were to me, initiated months of GRE prep, essay writing, resume polishing, personal visits, phone calls, test taking, emailing, and prayer, that each would log in an entire book chapter should I divulge the details of God’s hand throughout. Suffice it to say, I applied in December 2014 with a GRE score that was comparable to Harvard grad students so I was at least hopeful. 

Now I had to figure out how it was going to get paid for. I began researching ways to fund an education that would tally an excess of $50,0000 per year and came across a fellowship provided by the former owner of BET. America’s first black female billionaire, Ms. Sheila C. Johnson had, just one year prior to my application, established a scholarship that was designed for “under-represented groups that are seeking to close disparities in under-served communities.” It was like she was looking at my CGM profile and made a scholarship just for me. One that could potentially cover tuition and my health insurance for the duration of my Masters in Public Administration program. 

The fellowship had its own criteria. Essays, personal CV, face to face interview, recommendations, and a process that shaved down their applicant pool from over 400 to only an eventual four chosen fellows for the 2015-2016 school year. Again, because I felt like my background and current work fit their expectations so perfectly, it seemed as if it was meant to be. So… I applied for that, too. 

The limbo between both application deadlines and being accepted or rejected was a little nerve racking. With the admission application due in December and the fellowship application due in February, I didn’t have much downtime between the latter and the early March release of the school’s decision. I waited in eager anticipation, prayer, fasting, and an unusual calm more akin to a kid who knows Christmas is in the morning and that something good is under the tree. 

I was at work on March 11, when my email from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government admissions committee came with the headline, “update to your admission status.” I knew exactly what the link in that email was going to direct me to: a day of exuberant celebration, or one of disappointment and re-strategizing my family’s future. I called my wife and said, “Baby, I think this is it, it's yes or no.”

With her on the phone I clicked the link that sent me to a video where the headline and the first words of the video were the same: CONGRATULATIONS!! I erupted in the office with shouts like my team had just won the Super Bowl. I high-fived my coworkers, accidentally hung up on my wife, and within seconds was back in my chair streaming tears of pure joy and gratitude toward my heavenly Father. I put my head down on my desk for a few minutes and just wept. It was an emotion unlike any other. One that brought together both the climax of the hard work I’d put into the application process and the personal development I’d undergone at CGM through no compulsion of my own. I realized in that moment that my qualifications were intellectual, professional, and academic. However, my application was approved not so much by a large committee assessing my life and character, but by a committee of one. I know I’m not Jesus but in that moment it felt like God was saying, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” It was a deep affirmation knowing that ultimately God opened this door and it was He who really thought me worthy of the opportunity.

The trials, losses, failures, triumphs, relationships, programs, and personalities that have poured into me intentionally and unintentionally over the course of the last four and half years had qualified me. Every death or imprisonment of a student, every victory, every graduation, every day was a classroom, training ground, and an experience that was unlike anything else Harvard had seen. That’s no credit to me. I didn’t create the circumstances. I just tried to learn from them. 

A few weeks after getting this life changing news another email arrived. It was news that I was a finalist for the fellowship. They flew me, along with 13 other applicants, up for personal interviews with a panel that grilled us with questions in the quickest interview I’d ever been in. During which time another interesting revelation occurred to me. I hadn't been on a competitive interview since college because I’d always worked in places no one else wanted to go. Strangely this revelation gave me the freedom to just “do me.” I could be myself knowing that truly this wasn’t a competition per se. It was just them, getting to know me. And when they asked me about a time my program didn’t work, and the ensuing explanation of the loss of one of my kids brought tears to my eyes and to the eyes of one of the panelists, the facade of professionalism was broken for the remainder of my 20 minutes. I was a bit embarrassed having cried in my interview. I emailed them a thank you for the opportunity and an apology if I was too unprofessional. But, in spite of my emotional response they must have liked me, because when financial aid decisions came out, they awarded me the fellowship. 

So basically The LORD has given me admittance to arguably one of the most prestigious schools on the planet, and paid every scholarly expense and then some. IT’S CRAZY!! All that to say, my time at CGM is quickly coming to a close. My family and I are slated to move in June with classes beginning in July. By this time next year I, the middle school bible study guy, will be finishing up a Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration degree alongside classmates that are current international diplomats, government officials, former special forces, and future prime ministers and presidents. What specifically the Lord has in store for me is anyone’s guess. All I know is that at this point it is pointless to doubt the possibilities. 

Please celebrate with my family and I, but most of all pray for our transition and for the transition of CGM and the youth that my heart is so attached to. God has amazing things in store both for me and for all of them. But for now I must humbly, and with mixed emotion, submit my letter of resignation to an organization that has indelibly shaped my life and destiny.

Thank you Common Ground Montgomery, you and the people that comprise your heartbeat will never be forgotten.