It felt like an inquisition. She was attempting to create a report to bring back to a church that had given money to our inner city after-school program. Though well-meaning, her questions were ones I’d heard far too many times. How many kids have committed their lives to Christ? What kind of success stories can you tell me?
I felt a little embarrassed that I couldn’t conjure up any memory of a child that would meet her requirements of “successful.” This year I’ve had two 14- year-old girls get pregnant. Actually nearly every girl I began working with seven years ago is now a teenage mom. Some of my boys invest their anger in violence. I have fifth-graders who can’t read.
But is this what matters? Is the gospel a generator of statistics? Do we have the courage to believe that it’s something more?
I believe the essence of the gospel is knowing and being known by God. And in a troubled community, the knowing happens regardless of what surrounds us and what we accomplish. What I want to communicate to the children who sit on our church floor is that the promises of God lie before them whether they can read at a third-grade level or not. Grace abounds whether your dad works as an executive or stands in line every day to wait for the labor truck. And for that matter, grace is there if you don’t have a father around to do either.
It’s this assurance of Christ’s goodness that has carried me for more years than I can even recall. That same assurance brings peace to the children who arrive in our parking lot yelling, “We’re here! We’re here! We’re at church!” This redemptive story holds out a compassion that empowers and a hope that motivates. The gospel leaves less and less room for the despair that seeks to disable each of us…wherever we are.
This is what matters, not success stories.
Consider Sarah, a third-grader. She’s right in the middle of nine children, half of whom live with mom, while the other four have been farmed out to relatives. Sarah is one of our kids who truly live in poverty. Many of our families struggle to put food on the table but still have big screen televisions, pagers, $80 shoes, and gold jewelry. Not Sarah. She wears sandals that are at least three sizes too big, and her mom asked me last week if I could get Sarah some underwear. The crumbling plaster walls in her home are held together with duct tape, and her front window is a piece of cardboard.
And I’ll tell you one thing about Sarah…she’s a diamond. Whether she one day has eight kids of her own, lives in poverty, or is the first in her family to graduate, she will always be beautiful. Because being a diamond is simply something she is; it’s something God created her to be.
Sarah is resilient, smart, caring… and though it defies our calculated reason, Sarah is full of an indescribable joy. It might take a steak dinner to put a smile on my face, but Sarah will dance around the room for a package of ramen noodles. Why? Because Jesus spreads his hope anywhere.
Often we think of the gospel as a bridge, as a way out. But sometimes it’s simply a way in. A door for us to walk through into the lives of those who might need a friend or a fresh gallon of milk. The gospel is an entrance into hearts that survive on prayers alone. God is here, not to take his children out, but to bring his Spirit in. That’s how Sarah became a diamond.
Perhaps that’s not success, but it is hope and it is healing. I’m certain in the end, it’s what will really count.
Amy Beth Larson is a missionary to children with The Third Story in inner city Denver.