It takes a community of people working together to make a community. And what, exactly is a community? Over the past several years, there have been a multitude of individuals lamenting the loss of community in our society. There seems to be a common sentiment that we have replaced an essential component of our lives - being part of a community - with a world of technological communication, and computer-generated encounters. One time, maybe ten or so years ago, I heard a pastor speaking about community. He was trying to encourage the congregation to realize how much richness of society has been lost with the absence of community- and began to describe his childhood memories of growing up in a tight-knit community. He shared story after story of dysfunctional situations, such as family fights and affairs, and child abuse among the neighbors that the entire community was privy to because they were always in each other’s business. It was not a compelling pitch for community, in fact, I felt like it did the opposite of what he intended - it made community look undesirable and intrusive. I still don’t understand why he would choose that manner in which to preface his sermon, but I do know that I have thought a lot about community in the ensuing years.
What does it mean to be part of a community? Different people might have different ideas about that. There was a time when I thought I knew. I thought I belonged to a very strong and supportive community - until I made the very difficult decision to end my abusive marriage. Suddenly I discovered I had been valued more for what I could do for others than for just being the person I am. When I suddenly stepped out of their realm of expectations - unconditional love and friendship went out the window. So had I experienced community? Nope. I was part of a group - and the desire to be part of something is certainly what triggers our need for community, I think, but when you have to meet the expectations of the group or you are cast out, or when you are welcome to join, but nobody is really interested in you beyond how you stack up against them, it is a group - and not a community .
When Sarah and I founded the Torch, the concept of community was not ever a part of our conversation. We just wanted to serve food to whomever came to the truck, without question or restriction. We were willing to work hard to reserve our judgment on people, and we were determined to be an unending source of hope. It wasn’t long after we started serving hot meals, and forming friendships and seeing friendships form, that we realized, in addition to providing food and other material items to people, we were providing the intangible and valuable sense of community. When people are at the food truck they all have something in common - and it might not necessarily be financial need. What they share is they have just gotten a pretty darn good meal for free from a food truck, and that often leads them to start conversations and build relationships with the other people standing or sitting around sharing a meal.
The concept of how powerful community is has grown tremendously in my heart and mind over this past year. The thing is - logistically, we are all part of this community. We can avoid it, distract ourselves from it, ignore it, and critique it - BUT - none of that changes the fact we are part of it and we need it. We need to care about other people. We need other people to care about us. We need to share in life experiences, be they eating at a food truck or uniting to help solve a societal problem. And I believe many of societal problems can and will be solved as we work to develop this sense of community. Because what I have seen develop out of the Torch are relationships that transcend merely showing up at the food truck on the designated day at the designated time. I have seen people who are from very different stages and walks of life encouraging each other on Facebook, and getting together outside of the event the Torch is promoting. I see people supporting other people - whether they are rich or poor, strong or weak, popular or unpopular. I see a coming together that defines community.
And that community is going to lead the way in showing the collective group of human beings who live in this area how important and powerful it is to form community. Because we are all going to work together to bring in all, yes ALL the people we know to help with Torch 180 in one way or another. It is a big undertaking which will serve an under-served population of people who likely will never be able to repay all the individuals, small businesses, and organizations who unite to make this dream a reality. Why? Because that’s what community does. As we have been strengthening and supporting each other - we have built an incredibly diverse community of people and a pool of talent that has tremendous potential to change society. Together, we will build awareness of the reality that over 60 percent of individuals with disabilities from 16-64 are unemployed. And we will attack that reality, beginning with Torch 180. The only way it can happen is through the efforts of a community.
So let’s get to work, because everyone needs what we have. They need to be part of a community of people who are not exactly like them, and who are going to light a fire in this county. Spread the word! Talk to everyone you know! We need money, a building, a commercial kitchen, and support. Let us know how YOU can help, because what you have to offer is valuable and necessary!
Torch 180 is going to be a restaurant/cafe/catering food service that employs people with disabilities. It is also going to be the result of a powerful community of Torch supporters and friends - and everyone. Spread the word to all the people you know, because the more people get involved, the more we will all - working together - be able to accomplish. I truly LOVE being part of the Torch and connecting with all of you awesome and amazing human beings who make this world the wonderful place it is. I can't wait for the day when we all gather together and celebrate Torch 180 - and begin to see even more lives transformed and our community become more diverse and populated.
There is much to do! Let’s get to work!!!!
Oh, the things I have learned in this life I have lived.
When I was five years old, I entered Kindergarten, as is usual. I was a rather shy, insecure five-year-old when I started school. It didn’t take long, however, to discover I was actually pretty smart. I learned to read within the first month of school, and was reading Beverly Cleary’s chapter books - and loving them - by Christmas. I was in an underprivileged school district, which caused me to stand out even more. People began to study me. Grown-ups would come to the school and take pictures of me reading. And I hated that.
In first grade adults started pulling me out of class for testing. They tested my IQ, and everybody whispered. And I hated that. I was pulled repeatedly in first grade and second grade. They place me in a pilot program for the gifted and talented - and continued to test me. And, need I say it again, I HATED all the attention. My heart would sink when the school psychologist entered the room. I did not want to be singled out. I despised talking to strangers. I was scared because they would whisper and plan meetings with my mom. I was forced, against my, will to take reading and math with students who were a grade ahead of me. I was better than them, and they couldn't stand me.
Somebody decided I should skip third grade and go straight to fourth. That was a real treat. Every single one of those fourth graders thought I was a weirdo. Nobody would talk to me, but they talked about me all the time. I could not bring myself to speak in front of the class, and there were times when I agonized, because the teacher would refuse to move on until somebody answered the question correctly. I knew the answer, but would not volunteer, and the rest of the class either did not know, or also refused to answer. I am not sure which, I just knew my classmates would not appreciate my participation. I was shy and tormented.
Then, early in the school year, my family moved. My mom decided, wisely, that I should start my new school in third grade, with my peers. I thank God for that. Life got easier then. There was no more testing, and I was with children who were the same age as me. I developed a certain arrogance, though, and turned into a real brat. School was so easy for me, and other students looked up to me. Even though I still fought my bashful nature, I became a leader in the classroom. I think my teacher was working hard to keep my busy - because I would rush through the work so I could get to my book - and she made it very clear I was not going to spend all day in class reading. In my arrogance, I developed a dislike for people who did not do well in school. I had no tolerance for wrong answers, and no patience to wait for slow readers or those who didn’t understand the math. I would rudely start reading over them, or yell out the answers so we could move on.
There was a class at my elementary school for students with special needs. I called them the “R” word. One of the girls in that class was the same age I was, and her name was Penny. Even though I didn’t know her at all, I couldn’t stand her. One day, on the playground, she approached us to join the game we were playing. I didn’t want her to play, and it made me mad she even asked. I cringe now at the memory. What an arrogant bully I was. I told her that she could not play with us, and if she would try once in a while, she wouldn’t be in the “R” class at school. The hurt expression on her face is burned into my brain. If ever there were words to take back…if only there was a way.
So, I went through school, and was told repeatedly I should become an engineer or a doctor when I grew up. I figured I would follow one of those paths. But life took a different turn, and I became a very young mom without the resources to go to school. I wanted to be the best mother I could be, and school became secondary to that goal. Meanwhile, a large population of deaf people attended my church. One day, there was an announcement that a Sign Language class was being offered by one of the deaf individuals. There was a need for additional interpreters, and the deaf community was hoping some would come out of the class. I was intrigued, and I signed up.
Thus began my education into the life of people with disabilities. And I learned it truly is not a matter of trying or not trying - it is a complex world of barriers and heartache to navigate. When I moved to Michigan several years later, I got a job as an interpreter. It was a job I held for thirteen years, and when it ended, I was counseled to go back to school and do something “more important” with my life. But my heart was with those with special needs, and I continued in that field. And I love it, and I love them.
When Sarah and I founded the Torch, we knew we would be working our full time jobs while running the organization. There has never been any other plan - we don’t think we should get paid to help people in need, so donations to the Torch always go straight back into the Torch. And that mission and plan has been blessed abundantly. But meanwhile, we have wondered and pondered if there was the potential for us to run a business which would not only be our jobs, but which would allow us to give back to our community AND provide another source of funding for us to use to expand and grow the Torch. What a dream!
Then, when we were not expecting it, a possibility presented itself, and we spent several months exploring an option which, at first, seemed like a ready-made opportunity to operate a business run by individuals who had special needs. Our research showed that that opportunity was not really viable as a business, but it led us to a meeting in which we hit upon the idea of using the resources and knowledge we already had - running a commercial kitchen, cooking, ServSafe management training - and marrying them with my training and background in helping individuals with disabilities learn how to work in the food-service industry, and Sarah’s business education and training. The fact that she is a disabled Army Veteran who has struggled in her search for a job, is one more arrow pointing us in this direction. And so, Torch 180 was born.
I marvel this morning as I think about the mean little girl I was, and the heart and passions I have now. I hope someday I have the chance to apologize to Penny.
So, how comfortable is life these days? Sometimes my heart feels so heavy with the plight of Christians in the United States. I believe many Christians are living with a false reality. Prosperity theology began in the U.S. in the 1950s, and picked up speed throughout the years of heavy televangelism. And many people can recite a list of names of currently popular Prosperity Theology pastors. In case you don’t know, Prosperity Theology teaches that Christians are blessed directly in proportion to the financial donations they are willing to give - to the Church, of course. Many people buy into that idea.
Many others say they don’t, but in a myriad of subtle ways the theology of prosperity has infiltrated the American Christian mindset. And it fits so perfectly with our societal view of success. The biggest and best are the winners. The more good possessions, good times, good jobs, good outcomes you have, the more successful you are. We believe the people who have the most are doing the best. We apply that to churches, too. And I think it is causing a desperate plight for the American Christian. When our focus is on the external, we are driven to pursue the things that affect the external.
But when I read my Bible and dig deeper into trying to know the character of God, I realize He is a God of the internal. He is far more invested in what is happening inside of me, than in what I achieve on the outside. When we, American Christians, compare ourselves to people in other nations, we look pretty good and we thank God for His favor. But I have a feeling our gratitude is misguided. I really think we are missing the boat. I don’t see a single instance in the Bible where serving God was comfortable and profitable. The people who had the closest relationships with God suffered tremendously on the outside. After Paul met God he seems to have walked away from comfort and prestige. He was hunted and imprisoned, yet his teachings about peace, and happiness and joy are profound. His outward circumstances, which could easily be deemed a fail in our society - and I have a feeling even among many Christians today - did not dim the power and hope that was so deeply imbedded in his heart and life. His internal life was so invested in God, that what happened on the exterior became inconsequential. Our focus on the exterior, on numbers and profits, and comfort, and counting our “successes” has caused us to settle for lives which are inferior to the kind of lives God promises in the Bible.
When was the last time you took a chance? When was the last time, if ever, you got out of your comfort zone and tried to do something big for God? Have you ever done something that was so big, there was no way you could do it yourself? Or something that was so radical, and out of character that you were afraid? Most of our lives are lived according to our abilities, and our desire to provide comfortably for ourselves. The things we do and try and the circumstances we put ourselves into are pretty safe. With or without God, we’ve got it and we can do it. I think often, if we do try something new, we are constantly aware of the pressure to succeed and so we step into a venture we are already good at, or we only venture forward when things are lined up perfectly for a seamless change. We live very safe and comfortable lives - and as long as we, and our churches, keep God in the “outward success = God’s blessings” box, we are applauded and looked up to. As long as we faithfully put our offerings in the plate, show up for services, and volunteer when we are needed - we can rest in God’s favor. As long as we look successful on the outside, we can be confident we are living for God.
That is such misguided thinking. If you read the Bible, you discover a different God than that. You discover a God who wants to know you and Who wants you to know Him. A God Who loves you - truly loves you no matter what your circumstances, life choices, or mistakes have caused you to do. He loves you no matter what church you do or do not attend. He loves you no matter how many volunteer hours you have logged. He is a God Who is very interested in the world, but not for financial reasons. He isn’t counting up successes and measuring people, or churches, against each other. He is not looking for the biggest church or the wealthiest donor. He isn’t counting how many missionaries you support. He is not a God Whose sole focus is giving people comfortable lives on the outside while neglecting what is happening on the inside. He is a powerful God. He created the universe. Yet He is an intimate God, with infinite resources of hope and love. We cannot begin to understand such a God.
Let me say it again - He created the universe. It has to sink in. He took nothing and made something.
In light of that, wouldn't it make sense to understand He doesn’t need your money, your presence in the pew, or your volunteer hours? He doesn't need us to show how we stack up against other human beings. He created the universe, yet He has a very personal interest in YOU, for no other reason than you are a living soul. When you begin to connect with God personally, you start to realize how shallow and empty life is without Him. Your physical comfort and outward successes become secondary to your desire to know God more, and to let His love flow through you to others. You are overcome with a desire to be like Him, and that supersedes the influences of worldly comforts. When you really begin to know God - you put forth some effort and work into seeking out His nature, and when you actually have moments where you sense His Presence and have experienced His power you realize that, while the world is a beautiful creation - it is a pittance compared to the Creator.