Prayers From Prison

Prayer-in-PrisonAn older, obviously intoxicated man carrying an open beer can blocked our path on the sidewalk. I was strolling back to Rainier Avenue Church with members from my community development team, having just enjoyed dinner at the new Poke’ restaurant in our neighborhood. I avoided eye contact and was about to skirt my way around this “drunk” when my friend Carlotta greeted him.

“Why hello! I’ve missed you!”

His eyes lit up, recognizing his friend.

“I’m gonna come back and pray for you all,” he said.

“Ok. We’ll look forward to seeing you.”

After their cheerful exchange she remarked, “He’s such a sweet man. He comes every Sunday before church and prays with us and for our congregation.”

Wow. I don’t come arrive Sunday mornings to pray for my church. I barely make it on time for the second service most weeks!

Too often we disregard people before we even give them a chance to speak, as I did the “drunk” I passed on the sidewalk. Yet if we paused to listen, we might not only have an opportunity to bless someone but to receive a blessing ourselves. I have found this to be true from the most surprising sources.

IMG_3002For example, last year I began writing letters to a friend I’ve known since childhood but hadn’t seen in over a decade. This friend is incarcerated. Controversy surrounds why he’s where he is. Perhaps he was guilty. Perhaps innocent.[1] The fact remains that he’s a human made in the image of God with a thirst for connection to people, to friends, to his Creator.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus spoke of how one defining quality of the sheep—those who make the right choice and inherit eternal life—was that “I was in prison and you came to visit me” and then explained that when we do it “for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”[2]

My friend lives several states away from me so visiting isn’t realistic. But I can visit in the form of a letter. So every month or two, I send him quotes from books I’ve been reading, verses of encouragement, stories from coworkers who serve in our judicial system and general life updates. He replies when he’s able to since he doesn’t always have money for postage stamps. Our correspondence isn’t romantic; my friend has a fiancé. No, he’s starving for spiritual companions. In fact, he has told me aside from parents and a grandmother, no one writes him now that he’s been locked up for a couple years. Ironically, many who support prison ministry to complete strangers have dismissed him as a “hopeless case” and finally getting what he deserves. Perhaps if he was a stranger to them, they would offer more empathy, more hope, more encouragement.

But the encouragement isn’t a one-way street. In spite of his struggles, depression and constant relocation, my friend always asks how he can pray for me and I’ve experienced acute answers to those prayers. In my most recent letter from this friend, he closed saying, “I pray for you every day.”

Wow. Few people say this to me. Fewer yet do it. Other than my parents and perhaps a couple grandmas, I suspect no one prays for me every single day. Honestly I don’t pray for anyone on an ongoing daily basis like that.

I am continually amazed not only that prayer often comes from the most unexpected sources but that those very sources put me to shame by the regularity of their prayers. I guess that’s because desperation drives us to God. Or as Jesus put it, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.”[3]


[1] The fact that he’s a person of color in a slanted justice system makes me speculate that even if guilty he’s facing harsher treatment than he would were he white. But that’s another topic for another blog post. For those interested in a comprehensive, well-researched work on race and the US justice system, please read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

[2] Matthew 25:36 & 40

[3] Mark 2:17, Good News Translation

Neighborhood Dreams

Rainier Valley Heritage Parade 2015

This guest post comes from Lauren Squires who volunteers with me on the Community Development team at Rainier Avenue Church. She recently shared this vision with our team, a group dedicated to our South Seattle neighborhood of Hillman City. An Urban Planner, Lauren sees community development through holistic lens that consider issues like sustainable transportation solutions alongside human equity and economic capacities. Her vision was inspired by an activity she participated in at CommonLife’s monthly neighborhood gatherings known as Fellowship of the Neighborhood. Thanks, Lauren, for sharing your thoughts; through shared vision and collaboration, such a dream can become a reality!

After a busy day at work, I hop on my bicycle to ride home up over Beacon Hill to Hillman City from downtown. Catching glimpses of the vistas, the Cascades saying goodnight to the Olympics as the spring sun settles behind. I wave, nod and smile to folks as I wind through the neighborhood streets.

Dropping down into the heart of Hillman City, the intersection of Rainier and Orcas is buzzing with people. The streets are closed for a neighborhood festival and block party. The people of the neighborhood have taken over the street. Vendors from the Somali market are cooking food and brewing chai, selling to the neighborhood from tents. Muslims from the mosque and Christians from Rainier Avenue Church work shoulder-to-shoulder to paint a mural in the street at the intersection of Juneau and Rainier. Women at Spinnaker Bay are pouring pints for a boisterous crowd in the beer garden set up in the street, tempting the dedicated CrossFitters tossing medicine balls back and forth just 10 feet away. Women are lined up along the sidewalk getting their hair braided, watching to the people groove to the band playing in front of Tarik’s restaurant and community culinary school recently opened in what use to be Maxim’s Gentleman’s club.

This is the epitome of neighborhood flourishing: to ride my bike home from work without my heart spiking once from a close call through a network of neighborhood streets and safe crossings—all the while recognizing faces and exchanging smiles. To be engulfed in a neighborhood gathering, surrounded by others that call this place home or who just pass through regularly for business and have stuck around for the evening. To see each community member’s presence and contribution celebrated and cherished. Each has a valued place at the table. Unity across race, age, income, creed and even transportation mode.
I scan the throng of neighbors eating, chasing toddlers, deep in conversation with each other or just taking it all in, as I am. I weave down the crowded sidewalk to lock up my bike. As I walk past DADS’ open door, inside I see OGs watching a basketball game with their sons, mentors coaching their younger brothers and a father changing his baby’s diaper at the front desk. If I would’ve seen these men anywhere else, I would’ve assumed the worst of them based on their clothes, speech and swagger. But those assumptions have been proven wrong too many times now. When I walk the streets of my neighborhood, it’s characterized by openness toward each other, assuming the best of one another, a leaning in and positive inquisitiveness about our difference instead of a pulling back.


What would it look like if your neighborhood was flourishing? Tell us in a comment.

Lauren Squires_Head Shot

Lauren Squires, Urban Planner

Lauren is an urban planner, active transportation specialist and community advocate enthusiastic about inclusive, livable places. A strong team member offering a range of strategic planning, policy development, bicycle and pedestrian design, facilitation and writing skills, at MIG|SvR Lauren works on projects ranging from complete streetscape concepts to multimodal transportation planning to community planning projects focused on health and equity. Lauren is passionate about urban systems and engaging complex issues to enhance quality of life in Seattle. A Rainier Valley resident, she regularly collaborates with diverse communities on neighborhood planning initiatives such as Rainier Valley Greenways. Lauren currently serves on the Seattle Planning Commission.

10 Benefits of a Community Yard Sale

yard saleMany people think I run an annual to bi-annual yard sale simply to make some extra cash. Although my yard sale earnings contributed towards paying off student loans, the intangible benefits I receive from managing these sales extend beyond the monetary. Following my most recent sale this past weekend, I jotted down ten reasons I love running yard sales in my neighborhood:

  1. A core value of Christian Community Development gets lived out. John Perkins talks about the three R’s in Christian Community Development: Relocation, Redistribution and Reconciliation. Hosting a yard sale in my community is a way of living out the “Redistribution” piece. Most of the stuff I sell comes from wealthy people, who have discarded their belongings when moving, or from hoarders who have passed away and can no longer benefit from their earthly possessions. I get joy when hosting these sales by seeing how the discarded possessions of wealthy people get repurposed by my low income and working class neighbors.
  2. Low-income neighbors, immigrants and refugees can outfit their homes and families. Many refugees and first-generation immigrants purchase clothes, dishes, house ware and furniture at a reduced rate to outfit their households. Yard sales like mine offer our neighbors the ability to buy these items at low-cost (say a couch for $10-$20 or a shirt for $.25)…and that’s far more dignifying than receiving handouts!Shoes lined up for the sale
  3. International development happens at a grassroots level. In addition to buying for their local families, some first-generation immigrants purchase affordable items to ship to their relatives and friends in developing countries. I see this as powerful, grassroots community development that supersedes the work of giant organizations and mega NGO’s which often intrude with foreign ideas about what people need. Since yard sale goods are selected and shared by people who were once local residents there and know the community, culture and needs, the “aid” coming in the form of boxes filled with bargains is likely to be what’s both useful and appreciated.
  4. Leftover items find new homes. At the end of my sale this past weekend, I took five bags of remaining clothes to a clothing exchange where a group of working-class friends (who value repurposing items over buying new) rampaged through them and discovered all sorts of wearable finds!
  5. DJ at yard saleOffers intermediate employment. With the last two sales, I’ve been able to employ a couple friends who were in-between jobs.
  6. Get to meet my neighbors. Hosting a yard sale connects me and my household to our neighbors, literally our front-door community.
  7. My neighbors meet each other. Simultaneously, my neighbors get introduced to each other at the sale, oftentimes some of whom previously knew no one else in the area.
  8. Ideas for future community gatherings percolate. During the course of these neighborly interactions this past weekend, we discussed hosting a progressive music night—something similar to a progressive dinner in which we would go from one house to the next for a different genre of live music. Conversations like this highlight the gifts that each person brings to our local context.
  9. Professional connections form. This past weekend, for example, I was able to introduce my assistant to a potential employer whom I’d been trying to connect for a couple of months!
  10. Our neighborhood gets safer. Knowing one’s neighbors builds trust and has proven to be the leading cause in crime reduction.

Hillman City Here We Come!

Hillman City sign

Hillman City sign

As part of Rainier Avenue Church’s community development team focused on Hillman City in South Seattle, we’re challenging our congregation to get out in the neighborhood to participate in the work with us.

Food is always a fabulous place to start. So our January challenge has begun there: eat at one of the local establishments. Now these are not restaurant chains like Pizza Hut or Olive Garden. Nor do they have the ritzy vibe of an oceanfront seafood lounge or the cool ambiance of a hipster cafe. Instead, these are mom and pop establishments primarily staffed by people originally from the countries that their culinary wares represent. Some have bars on their windows. Others (like the taco truck) have a tin shed for the dining room (but, hey, those tacos sure are tasty!).

Inside Juba Cafe

Inside Juba Cafe

Today we revealed the challenge and backed it up with a sampler table of local delicacies. Among other things, our refreshments consisted of Somalian samosas,  Filipino spring rolls, Mediterranean baklava  and a  taco truck burrito downed with delicious chai tea…all purchased within a few walking blocks away from the church.

Filipino food from Kawali Grill

Filipino food from Kawali Grill

Next week we set foot on Hillman City and take groups to explore the world of cuisine inside these uniquely beautiful eateries. And this is only the beginning. Hillman City here we come!

First 13 Posts in 2013

bucket list

I keep determining that I’m going to start blogging regularly, and although I got this cool site set up with an awesome url last fall, the whole blogging part hasn’t happened yet. Yet again, one of my New Year’s Goals was to post twice a week. Well, I was discussing New Year Resolutions with a group of good friends and one of them mentioned how like over 90% of resolutions don’t make it through the year. I thought about how my friends who’ve made bucket lists for a set amount of time (e.g. 30 Things to Do When 30) tend to have a much higher completion rate. Perhaps this is because because someone with the goal of running a marathon, for example, feels more motivated to make time to run regularly than does someone with the resolution of running 2 or 3 times per week.

“I need help re-wording my blogging goal” I told them. “I keep saying I want to post twice a week, but it’s not happening.”

“Maybe you should just make it once a week,” a friend suggested.

“Maybe you should just force yourself to write every day for a month and then it’ll be a habit,” said another, the one who ran a marathon last year.

I decided instead to take the bucket list approach to blogging. Because part of my 5 Goals for the year is to create quarterly sub-goals, I’m starting by listing 12 topics I plan to blog about between now and the end of March, with #13 being this one. And, yes, I’ve reduced my aim to once per week rather than twice as it seems more achievable. So below are the topics in no particular order:

1. Tierra Nueva: an organic farm and social enterprise that empowers migrant workers in the NW

2. Street Bean Café: a Seattle coffee shop that trains and employs homeless youth to be baristas

3. The Now Habit: best ideas from book on avoiding procrastination

4. Getting Things Done: tips for getting things done (duh :))

5. Freedom Stones: a social enterprise that trains and employs trafficked women in Thailand to make beautiful jewelry

6. To Buy Can Be Better Than To Give: Why I Bought a Necklace Instead of Giving a Donation

7. 31 Bits: an upscale jewelry line that employs women in Uganda to make their traditional paper beaded wares

8. Hillman City Here We Come! Challenges my community development team is making in South Seattle

9. Community Development initiative in India (can’t think of the name right now and brochure on it is in my bedroom where the international student I’m hosting is sleeping)

10. Coffee for a Cause: interview with my friend James who does development work with coffee plantations in Kenya and other countries around the globe

11.  Surprise #1

12. Surprise #2