The whisper of summer breeze caresses my face as I perch on the concrete steps of New Creation Lutheran Church. This has become a daily meeting hour. After dinner, my fellow team members and I linger outside with the neighborhood kids. They’ll pop wheelies, zig-zag on skateboards or just sit and chat. Some days the girls and I chase bubbles. Some days we all get wet to abate the haze of summer.
It is fun. It is life. It is Gospel. I never want to leave.
My home, this summer, is a two-story brick church on West Tioga Street. It’s located in an area of Philadelphia called the Badlands. Here violence is just a block away. We have experienced the good in the people and the bad in crime. One day we return from downtown and find someone attempted to burn down our church.
And yet, here is where I have come to call ‘home’. I smell gasoline mixed with stale smoke and too ripe fruit and it is comforting. I play kickball with fast running neighborhood boys until my lungs scream and love every second of it. I make crazy singing ‘Father Abraham’ in front of a hundred kids and with a gigantic smile. I look in eyes and give hope. For nine weeks I tell little lives of big love. I learn the size of God’s heart through my own. I give everything I have.
It is the summer after my sophomore year of college. My heart is just beginning to beat for God and His kingdom.
Last year I had a ‘grace awakening’, coming alive to the gospel in ways which made it feel like I had just begun to believe in Jesus. As I then began to think about missions, during my sophomore year, Bart Campolo came to my college’s chapel and talked about his ministry in Philadelphia called Kingdomworks. That day, I knew this ministry was for me and a few months later I came to Tioga Street.
Now I am here, full of faith. Unafraid. I am ready for anything. I know God is with me and He loves the city. I vow to dedicate my life to urban ministry.
I hug the tear-stained children on my last day. I promise to write. I promise to visit. I promise to come back.
A few letters I write. I visit once. I don’t come back to stay even for a little while.
In the end, I failed. I left and never came back. Tender hearts would not trust easily again. The pressure of drugs, gangs and despair would weigh heavily and I wouldn’t be there to guide them towards the good.
I have wandered this earth ever since, remembering Tioga Street. Twenty-two summers have come and gone. How could I? How could I leave and just…leave?
I remember the chain-link fence lining the alley next to the church. I sat against it flower-covered journal in hand. I remember writing of a love for the city and the desire to commit my all to it. I was sincere as far as I understood my own heart as a sophomore in college. And yet I failed to make good on my words and what seemed a genuine calling.
Looking back, I am still unsure where I went wrong. Did the fear just creep in? Was my capacity to love limited to nine weeks? Did I lack the faith to raise support for my mission? Did the fear others had for me affect my own?
More importantly, how could I keep going after I failed?
It was a hard question to answer.
One summer I gave everything and yet later, suffered the guilt of not loving longer, of not being truer, of not risking more.
But in my quest for peace with my past, I came to see this failure as a part of a greater plan, a greater story. It was not mine to carry like so much weight on my shoulders.
Failure defines us one way or another. It can consume us, planting seeds of fear, shame, guilt or unworthiness. Lord knows I have lived this. But, it can also humble us. It shows us our limits. And, if we let it, it profoundly shapes our stories.
My Tioga Street is a love I have surrendered countless times. I have grieved the lives of the children I sought out, visiting their homes, to invite them to our day camp. My heart has broken remembering Ahmad, so tough already at the tender age of eight. I remember how he started to come to Bible study and gave his life to Jesus. Did it change anything? I remember Cely, with her long, glossy raven hair. So beautiful and sweet. What have the years done to her?
It is the deepest heave of my heart to think of Tioga Street. It is a withering strand of my story, as the hope of the ‘might have been’ disintegrates. There is no lasting triumph to give it weight. I can only fully entrust it to the heart of God.
Yet too, in Tioga Street, is the hard, even brutal, lesson for me, the young, immature girl longing to save the world. The humility of this unavoidable nature of my failure is a solid thread woven into my story. I am not the same for having lived it.
I don’t know where this finds you today. Are you coming face-to-face with your failure?
Some of you have loved and left like me. Others of you have stayed and struggled for assurance of your mission. Some of you are in the midst of failure and are not sure what to do next. Regardless, the reality of our lack is something which finds us all. But it doesn’t have to write its bold, black judgment across our lives, our story.
We all fail. We are all humbled. Yet, we must stay the course of our stories allowing the truth of what we have learned to be woven within. We don’t live in fear, doubt, guilt or shame, but remember this is a part of a larger plan. It is God’s and it is His people’s entrusted with the mission of redemption.
Let your failures guide you to perfect love, your story and God’s woven together. And whatever you do, remember, for many of us, there is a Tioga Street. You are not alone.