So about a couple of years ago, I started looking into organizations within Houston, particularly the Third Ward, which I could partner and volunteer with. Houston has been my home for the past 21 years, and through various messages that I listened to and my involvement with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Houston, I became convicted to do what I can to serve the needs of the inner city. This was my home, and I felt like I had done nothing to really service the various issues that are prevalent in my very own backyard. Working with kids in this setting had also been on my heart for some time, so I thought I’d give it a go and seek out organizations that aided in this effort. I came across a couple (which are great, by the way, and I would highly recommend you look into them if you are interested–links are posted at the end of this post), but one organization in particular stood out to me.
The Forge for Families, “strategically located in one of the most disadvantaged sections of Houston, Texas, the Greater Third Ward,” seemed like a paradise. Two state of the art gyms, connected by The Gathering Place, which is equipped with a fully functioning commercial kitchen, and a separate building devoted solely to educational needs, with access to computers, books, and other resources, exuded an atmosphere of restoration, hope, and opportunities for children and families in the area. In addition, the fact that the vision of The Forge was Christ-based—“to equip participants to embrace Christ-centered responsibilities as servant-leaders in their families, schools, churches and beyond”—really put me in awe. A quick Google search of the word forge gave me the following definition—“a furnace or hearth for melting or refining metal.” I had come across just that—a safe-haven of sorts, where people, especially kids, could be refined spiritually, vocationally, and educationally to truly achieve their God-given potential. This is a place where individuals who may have lost hope due to the depravity of their situations, especially young kids who should have endless opportunities to succeed, as afforded to the majority of us as first-generation Malayalees, could find comfort and solace.
I wanted in on The Forge’s mission. I began developing this amazing relationship with the education director at The Forge, and she found that I could best help with this mission by tutoring and mentoring kids in the after-school program. For the first year or so, I was more on the tutoring end of things. Throughout this year, I tutored three kids, each one-on-one. My experiences within that first year broke me. The state of the educational standards within these settings was horrendous. These kids were intelligent. They were kind. They were honest. But the fact that they didn’t know basic math and reading skills, simply because of geography, was very disheartening. You might be thinking, “oh, they might not be trying hard enough at home, or they might not just be motivated enough.” There might be verity in the first part of that, which I will expound on later, but the latter part is not true.
These kids were motivated. They had a surprising enthusiasm to learn, to want to understand. But the fact that their math teachers weren’t even showing up to class (mind you, these are elementary and middle school aged kids), or that they hadn’t received homework in weeks, or that their schools weren’t meeting the basic accreditation requirements of the State of Texas, or that the charter schools that are supposed to provide a higher level of education are completely missing the mark, or…I could keep going on and on and on. But the fact is this–the system is failing these kids and ultimately, these families.
One evening, after that first year of tutoring, the education director, Ms. Bridget, called me. She asked about one student that I am currently helping. After briefing her on the child’s status, she asked me to take off my “tutoring cap” and put on my “ministry cap.” The child that I was with was in a horrible situation. I don’t think it would be right if I disclosed the details of the child’s situation, but you have to trust me when I say that it was not at all favorable. I had been with this specific child for about a month—he was kind, sweet and respectful, a smile always on his face. He was smart, but I could never understand how his grades were falling. For the past month, I had been tutoring this child, not knowing the hurt, the pain and the suffering that he was going through. What if he was going through this alone? What if he didn’t have anyone to talk to, anyone to say that he could make it, could be successful, could truly achieve his God-given potential?
Ms. Bridget invited me to start mentoring this student with love and encouragement and to impart upon him the precious and glorious love of the Father through His son Jesus Christ. During this talk, John 3:30 came to my mind—“He must become greater; I must become less.” I became emboldened. How simple words could change a life never really came across my mind to the extent that it did that evening during my talk with Ms. Bridget.
The story of the child that I now mentor is one that is all too familiar for children in this area, and specifically for children at The Forge. I had the privilege to work at The Forge as a summer camp counselor this past year—I saw a lot of pressure, a lot of pessimism, and a lot of brokenness. These kids need love, support, and encouragement. I guess I am taking a huge leap when I say that not only is the system broken—these families are also broken.
It’s an endless cycle of poverty that people here face. Just think about it—these kids, who are already put at a disadvantage because of the failing education system in this area, feel frustrated and honestly, stupid. No encouragement, no love, no one to say that no, they CAN do it. It’s not their fault, though. When they go home, who knows what goes on. Fatherlessness and family brokenness lead to constant negativity and discouragement, which are definitely not a source of happiness and leads to a lack of motivation, and in turn, acceptance of their lack of understanding and pursuit of education. Children thus end up dropping out of school. College is definitely out of the question. But they need money, right? They need safety, right? These ventures (drug dealing, gangs, etc.) lead individuals to jail. But when they come out of jail, where do they go? Back to the Third Ward. And they have children, and the cycle continues. (If you want to look at the statistics behind what I am saying, please, visit the following link–https://forgeforfamilies.secure.agroup.com/issues).
There is a lot of work to be done in this world. And the beauty and irony of it all is that this work can start right here, IN OUR VERY OWN CITY. Let us not get too comfy in our Sugar Land, Missouri City, Pearland lifestyles—the issues that face the inner city are real. They are pervasive. And we must be the ones to grapple with them.
What Can We Do?
A few individuals from 1Foundation had the opportunity to meet with leadership from The Forge this past week to find out what we, as servants of our King, could do to help with these issues. The meeting was amazing. It opened our eyes to the needs of inner city youth, and it showed us that we CAN do something to help alleviate some of the burdens that are on The Forge. During the meeting we finalized a plan that would allow 1Foundation and other churches within our community to come in to The Forge every third Friday of each month, during the evening time. The Forge would market it as a “Parents’ Night Out.” Instead of the parents having to come pick their kids up after school like they normally do, they could have the night out to themselves, while we would come in and do a mini-VBS style fun-night for the kids, involving crafts, sports, skits and much more.
Since a lot of the parents of The Forge are single moms, this would give them a brief moment of respite from the daily hustle and bustle of their lives. This would be our chance to not only provide fun and food for the kids, but also form tangible relationships with them and convey to them the love and saving power of Jesus. We would be there to encourage them and equip them with the support that they may need. We would be there to tell them that God loves them and has a plan for them, and that this plan is perfect and transcends whatever they may be going through. What a great and humbling privilege it is for us to step into this territory as ambassadors for His name!
You may have heard of the parable involving the sheep and the goats. In Mathew 25: 35-36, the King says to those on his right, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” The righteous question the king after he says this, and he goes on to say in verse 40, “…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
You may also remember the spirit of oneness and unity amongst the first Christians. In Acts 2:42, 44, 45-47, we find that “they devoted themselves to…fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer…All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need…They…ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.”
My call to you is this—that we, broken vessels, proceed together, just like those first Christians, as we partner with The Forge for Families. That we embody that same spirit of oneness and togetherness, that we give up our prides, our worldly and self-serving desires and goals, and we serve those who are hungry for love, serve those who are thirsty for encouragement and help, and simply serve those who need serving. One thing that I am reminded of from the meeting last week is something that the Executive Director’s wife mentioned. She told us that she and her husband were praying for helping hands in their mission, as they are limited with funds to hire additional people for their small staff of nine. She told us, in the brevity of that moment, that she and her husband believe that WE are the answer to their prayers.
How great an opportunity it is that God has given to us, that we may cross the cultural barriers that can stymie our very own spiritual growth, and which also allow for tolerance of our static way of living. We at times become complacent with who we are as Malayalee Christians without realizing the impending needs that ravage the society that we live in. God has placed us here, with gifts, talents and resources—they must be fostered for the advancement of His kingdom!
Let us not be strangers anymore. In praise and adoration of His precious Gift, let us serve. May His name be glorified!
Here are the links to other organizations that focus on issues in the Third Ward: