The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. – Psalm 121:7-8
From time to time, God has a way of putting us in places we’d never seen, doing things we’d never imagined for reasons we’ll never fully understand. All we can do is go, work, and learn.
Charity Lutheran Church in Detroit, Michigan is an amazing place. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the building or the neighborhood. Located at the corner of Kelly and Morang on Detroit’s East Side, Charity appears to be your typical, run of the mill, old church that was once teeming with people now suffering through the social ills that plague many inner cities. But thanks to the efforts of Pastor Steve Essenburg and her members, Charity is a safe harbor in the middle of a storm.
I am blessed to play a small role in this. As lead teacher of iCan – an after school program run in partnership between LSEM and Charity, I am helping provide the children of Charity something they can’t find anywhere else in Detroit: Lutheran Education. We provide homework help, enrichment, and activities in a learning environment centered in Christ. It’s a safe place for the kids, but recently Charity offered a different kind of sanctuary.
A loud banging on the back door took me away from 5th grade math help. As I opened the door, I saw a woman nearly in hysterics. She was wearing a heavy black coat and a stocking cap with the word “Sexy” spelled out in sequins. It was false advertising to say the least. I couldn’t begin to guess her age – everything about her seemed haggard: unkempt clothing, missing teeth, and eyes filled with equal parts of fear and fatigue. “Please let me in,” she begged, “I’ve just been robbed.” It was at this moment I noticed her hand – sliced open and bleeding. Apparently she had her purse stolen and in the fray her hand was cut. I quickly scanned the area outside the door and seeing nobody else nearby, I asked her to come in.” I had no sooner closed the door behind her and she was leaning against me, seeking comfort. I put an arm around her and led her to a bench outside of Pastor’s office.
As all of this is going on, my school administrator’s brain was racing, playing out the scenarios I might be facing and the steps I needed to take to care for this unexpected visitor and the children in my care. Pastor and my teaching assistant were both on the other side of the church with the students, so I wasn’t immediately fearful, but I knew I needed two things to happen: I needed to get the kids to the classroom as far away from this bench as possible, and I needed Pastor to come help. I saw my assistant Denise in the church so I quickly yet quietly told her what was happening, asked her to tend to the kids and above all please get Pastor Steve.
I quickly returned to the woman and noticed she hadn’t calmed down. She’d actually gotten more upset and by the time Pastor arrived she was saying how she needed to come to Jesus. Pastor immediately took command of the situation. He asked her if she needed him to call 9-1-1. She declined, saying she had gotten what she deserved. She went on to share that she had actually left her children at home while she went out to turn a trick so she could afford to buy them food. Her would be business partner turned the tables on her by attacking her and stealing her purse. Now she had nothing and knowing that this was God’s punishment for her sin, she was merely wanting a place to wash her hand and to come to Jesus.
If my administrative mind had been racing before, it suddenly hit overdrive! I immediately began assessing and reassessing the potential threat this was posing for the students. I never questioned the decision to let her in, but I was truly thankful that Pastor was there. He never showed a moment of worry or panic. Instead, he calmly reminded her that she was fortunate that God was with her and saved her from something far worse. He calmed her with his words, prayed for her, and invited her to also consider the church a place where she could return to build a life in Christ for her and her children. She thanked him as she went into the office to clean her wound. Pastor and I stood in the hall, looking at each other. I think he was trying to gauge my response to this just as much as I was gauging his. We both found our answers in one simple statement.
Me: “This is definitely a first for me.”
Pastor answered, but never spoke a word. He simply gave me a look – a raising of the eye to indicate this was far from his first (or last) encounter of this nature. Our visitor emerged from the office more composed, thanked us and left. Neither Pastor Essenburg nor I have seen her since.
I can honestly say I was never scared for my safety in this situation. I knew I had done enough to reasonably assess the risk and made the right choices to help keep me and my students safe. After all, as an educator that was my chief concern in all of this. It wasn’t until my drive home that I realized just how naive I had been. The things I had felt so good about protecting from were the very things that they live with every day of their lives. Last spring, a man driving about a mile east of Charity was pulled from his car after being in an accident and was beaten severely. Last fall, as I was helping that same fifth grade boy with math, a four year old girl was shot and killed within blocks of our classroom. I may have protected them from the woman in the church, but she was their neighbor. Every night at 6:00 pm I send these boys and girls home to loving families surrounded by the sins of a bleak and desperate society. So what protection am I actually giving?
Me? Very Little.
God? All of the above?
Psalm 121 offers reminders of the safety and protection we receive as God’s dearly loved creation. In fact, God loves us so much that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to atone for the sins of all mankind so that we may believe in Him. My job at Charity is to teach my students more about the world, but more importantly about the One who created, redeemed, and sanctifies the world. In doing so, the promises that God makes to His children are now being shared with students who truly need to hear them. God knows the dangers they face everyday. God knows how to calm their fears and give them the peace that comes from the sure knowledge that God is with them, keeping His promises to them every day of their lives.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:7