Transformation through God and His servantsPosted: July 29, 2016
I was honored to be a guest at the Project Transformation Celebration Dinners this week in both the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences. The leaders, volunteers, and outstanding interns are making a wonderful and significant difference in the lives of many, many children and their families!
At the dinner in Nashville, I was particularly moved by the witness of one young man, Luke Lea, and wanted to share his comments with you (below). Please keep all of the Project Transformation interns in your prayers as they return to college this fall. We are so grateful for their contributions to our communities this year!
Good Evening, my name is Luke Lea. I have served with Project Transformation for three summers, most recently as a House Pastor this summer in Nashville. I am humbled by this opportunity to share how I have witnessed Transformation through God and His servants.
In May of 2014, I took the 20-minute drive down Granny White Pike from my hometown of Brentwood, Tennessee towards Belmont University– a place I would call home for every summer of my college career. Of course I did not know this at the time. Then, I was listening to a record by Alabama Shakes, entering the front gate shaking a little bit myself, I’m sure, wondering if my introverted, blunt, and opinionated self would thrive in this community setting.
As soon as I walked in the door that first day, they shouted my name with absurd hospitality. “LUKE LEA, EVERYBODY!” Oh my. I knew a little bit of what I was getting into but not much. If this internship was going to be anything like that first day, I was in for a fun, loud, tiring, and fulfilling summer. This diverse group of peers from all over the country with all sorts of backgrounds, beliefs, and interests were ready to take me into the family.
There are really no words that I can offer to you this evening that will do justice in sharing my experience serving with Project Transformation. The best way I can begin to explain it is through the image of a summertime swimming pool.
Interns are interested in a summer with PT for many reasons but I’ll be honest: for me, it wasn’t because I adored kids. I just didn’t. They ask for Band-Aids too much. They aren’t as fast as me at recess. They can’t discuss good theology with me. These are the premises I carried with me but I still wanted to get my feet wet with some applied ministry experience. A church member from my home church, Forest Hills United Methodist, suggested PT might be the very place for this. And my follow-up research confirmed it. As a life-long United Methodist, I had been to these waters before. I knew the stunning connectionism our church exhibits, plus I knew I would eat well – “Methodism 101: committees and casseroles.”
By the end of my first summer serving in East Nashville I was knee deep in something I wasn’t initially able to fully process yet but I knew I loved it.
My team of 8 interns was family so quickly to me.
The community constantly exemplified Christ and service to one another
I learned to love people different from me. 10 year olds. Those of different races. Volunteers. Theological contrarians. I loved it so much I dove in for a second summer.
And each year, I took back with me an abundance of joys and challenging moments, in hopes that it would compliment my Biblical and Theological Studies at Lee University. In classroom settings that echoed ideals of justice and loving thy neighbor, I was forced to sit with overarching questions that were way bigger than one or two summers. All of this was certainly starting to connect to my calling to see hurt in the world and do something about it.
This is not to say I was ever comfortable in water. Over the course my summers serving at the Tulip Street site in East Nashville, I was constantly challenged about what it meant to come from White Wealthy Williamson County but serve families from Casey homes, the largest complex of government housing in Nashville. What did it mean to work for a Faith-based Non-Profit organization that impacted lives through Christ but see churches decline, paralyzed by injustice? We only had 8 weeks with our kids and their families but poverty goes on much longer. It’s not like it stops when a kid goes up a reading level, right? I was drowning in all of my thoughts and doubts about what the church is and what it could be and sometimes even who I was as in relation to Christ.
That’s not an uncommon feeling for people our age by the way. PT allowed me to jump into the water and figure out how to survive in the deep end. I took in some water, and at times forced to hold my breath longer than I wanted. I discovered Church was there in the drowning.
And I was wrong about kids. Not saying I want to work with them, but I’ve changed those premises I initially had. I like to think that Jesus always had Band-Aids on him, that’s how I read the Scriptures now.
When I study theology now I can’t help but think relationships are the most important thing God wants us to know about him and each other. My proudest relationship started in my first summer and continues today. Malik might just be the complete opposite of me—I’m white guy from Williamson County who doesn’t like coloring. He is a young black child who is has already seen more challenges than I might ever see but steals your heart with his smile. Even more amazing than him is his single mom, Ms. Victoria, whom I find true community in.
I met Malik in 2014 during my first summer with PT. I took a special interest and investment in this “reading rockstar” who had trouble connecting with the rest of the group. As long as he had a crayon in hand though, I could chat with him and convince him to get active in Movements every now and again. He knew I was looking out for him. The rest was history. Six weeks into the summer, his mom Ms. Victoria approached me and asked if I would be willing to be a mentor to Malik after the summer. She went on to explain that she is concerned that Malik doesn’t have a lot of positive male influences in his life, and that she saw how we had connected during the summer. I don’t know how it happened — why she gave me the opportunity to fully love Malik as my brother, and my best friend. After that, whenever I came back from school on weekends and breaks, Malik and I would hang out. We would go shopping at Goodwill, feed the ducks at Shelby Park, and watch Vandy football games. Anchor down. I returned to be his team leader in 2015 and have seen him grow so much emotionally and behaviorally because he has given space to learn and grow at PT. At Family Fun Night last year, he told me I had to sit with him and his mom because we are family. I love him. This year, when I get to drop into our East Nashville site at East End, he’s usually there, flashing me his big smile — and that makes me smile. It’s not just him either. Close to 150 kids came through Tulip St. over my two years there — reading, eating, laughing, and telling me my hair is like a girl’s.
I still don’t swim very well. I know God is calling me to work in the church. Sometimes I know exactly what that means and sometimes I don’t. I knew this summer would help with that tremendously. For the past eight weeks, I have served as a House Pastor in Nashville and as they say 3rd time’s a charm. Leading bible study, planning worship and our daily devotions, cultivating relationships in our intentional Christian Community, and seeking God out among my peers are tasks that I think God has given me gifts for. I have really enjoyed evaluating my strengths and shortcomings as a leader and having incredible support from staff, interns, and my fellow house pastor in Nashville, Aleah Lodge. After these 8 weeks of programming, in what sometimes feels like treading water, tonight is a night that we take a giant breath of gratitude. Everyone in this room has a part in this summer; we keep each other afloat.
PT wows me in the sense that it is so reflective of what the church should look like. We are diverse in the standard categories, which is a good start: age, race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. Beyond that we have contributed diversely as volunteers, interns, meal-providers, financial supporters, readers, suppliers, experience, fresh ideas and how we see God transform. And, at the same time we are One, in that we are PT, we are the Body of Christ, and that together we see God transform.
For me, the deep end is what my PT story is about. It’s hard and scary and where people are drowning so isn’t that the way in which we should swim? I celebrate 3 years with PT tonight because that’s what this organization does – we swim to those places. I celebrate the Holy calling to serve children, as they are our future, and our best chance at restoring justice. I celebrate 36 inspiring and amazing interns, because our generation is already the church, and we are here to claim that (even if we don’t do their dishes well all the time)! I celebrate that the Kingdom of God is like a swimming pool. I owe so much to Project Transformation Tennessee. For 5 summers now, they have shouted people’s names in radical hospitality and love.
The mission of Project Transformation is to engage young adults in purposeful leadership and ministry, support underserved children and families, and connect churches to communities in need. For more information and to volunteer, please go to: http://projecttransformation.org/tennessee/