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The reward is not the goal, but it sure is rewarding to see the fruit of the labor that is done through us. As spring gives way to summer, Willie and the members of the table are entering a phase of new growth and fruit. In fact, we’re surrounded by this metaphorical fruit–like living in an orchard–and it’s a fun place to be.

Willie’s Mobile Car Detailing is taking off. Business is going well enough, in fact, that Willie has experimented with hiring part-time, temporary helpers who are similarly down on their luck and looking for a kind, helpful hand up. A friend and loyal customer of Willie’s came through with Dickie’s-style uniforms complete with Willie’s name and a logo. Revenues appear to be strong. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised today when Willie paid almost half of his rent, two months ahead of schedule! His family relationships are improving as he emerges as the (earthly) spiritual rock for his siblings. He’s gotten so many invitations to preach and lead Bible studies that he’s had to turn some of them down.

The fruit doesn’t end with Willie, though. The table members are becoming like family to each other. There is a longing to socialize and live life together rather than just do the “business” of RighTrak Industries.. The eyes of many people are being opened to what it really means to help the least of us, to the fact that we really can bring wholeness to the homeless and to the reality that it doesn’t require a NGO to do it. Best of all, the experience is helping to produce an incredible depth of faith in everyone involved. And man, is it cool to see.

Thanks to my friend, Jason Phelps, for coining the phrase that is the title of this post.
Thanks to Tabitha Williams who stopped to snap this pic of Willie while taking engagement photos.
Thanks be to God. To Him be the glory.

 
 

Five years ago Willie was less than polished as he journeyed to The Life Center for the Homeless in search of shelter and a meal. This past Sunday, Willie was suited up delivering the message for the church service at The Life Center. One has to wonder if years ago, as Willie was searching for some hope in the Sunday message at The Life Center, he could have ever fathomed that he himself would one day be delivering a message of hope and redemption to its congregation.

2013-04-07 13.12.32Willie’s topic for Sunday’s message was breaking free from the bondage of sin. Willie related most to being in bondage to sin by way of a drug addiction. Willie described the person he was during those not-too-distant days when he was enslaved to his addiction. He detailed his feelings and emotional attachment to his poison of choice. As Willie was describing all the ways in which he ‘worshipped’ this other god, voices of agreement and empathy rang out through the congregation. We can all relate to some degree of bondage through our own selfish absorption with our careers, money, worry, relationships, etc. An even greater congregational response came when Willie began speaking about the supernatural joy that we experience when we are able to break free from the bondage of sin and follow Christ. From here, Willie delivered an uplifting message of transformation; a transformation that happens as you die to your former self, and don’t look back. It’s inspiring to see Willie live out this transformation that he so passionately talks about.

2013-04-07 13.12.36The Life Center for the Homeless has been around for about 22 years and provides a multitude of services to Houston’s homeless. The Life Center was founded by Pastor James, an old friend of Willie’s with whom he grew up in Houston’s Fourth Ward. Based on some of the obstacles RighTrak has faced while assisting Willie in his transition from poverty, I can’t imagine how difficult and discouraging it would be for an individual who is homeless to get on the right track (no pun intended). It’s amazing to watch as Willie strives to be the hands and feet of Jesus as he offers hope and healing to the men and women at The Life Center. Well done, Willie. Well done.

 
 

If Willie does anything, he keeps us on our toes—not because we have to backtrack, but because he’s moving forward rapidly, and we are the ones needing to catch up! He values his independence and wants to do things on his own, which made us nervous (it still does), but he continues to surprise us. We weren’t prepared for someone so headstrong, so we found ourselves needing to retool the RighTrak program, which was fine, as we built the program with that possibility in mind. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all social welfare program. Each person has different needs, desires a different result for him- or herself, and tackles goals with different intensity and different degrees of sacrifice. That means we have to go where Willie leads us.

To illustrate this point, here’s one anecdote: The court ordered Willie to do 100 hours of community service over the course of 12 months. From the very beginning, we had harped on Willie to get his community service obligation out of the way. The table members thought, quite validly, that if he pressed to get all 100 hours done in a month or two, then he could focus his time on building his car washing business. We noticed right away that not having a consistent car washing schedule was having a negative impact on business. Willie didn’t want to do community service more than one day a week, and he resisted, quite emphatically, any suggestion that he do more. To Willie’s credit, his assignment involved manual labor, which is hard on the body of a nearly 60-year-old man. Eventually, though, he acquiesced and agreed to do more community service hours.

Well, it didn’t last long. He might have done two community service days in one week on one or two occasions, but that was it. We didn’t understand why he couldn’t follow through with what he agreed to do. After all, he did seem to eventually come around and accept that we had his best interests at heart and accepted our recommendation. It led the table to thoughts like “Is Willie lazy?,” “Does he not trust us?,” “Is this what the rest of the year-long program is going to be like—a perpetual negotiation with a proverbial teenager?” Not at all. It turns out Willie wasn’t the problem. We were.

Willie shared with us a number of stories from his childhood and adolescent days that indicated a good deal of the trouble he has gotten into has roots in a very strong desire for acceptance, resulting from abandonment as a young child. This came into play with his community service goal because when we pressured him to adopt our goal, he feared our rejection if he didn’t go along with what we said he should do. What’s more, Willie’s failure to achieve a goal we pressured him to set is no wonder. He didn’t create the goal. He didn’t believe in it. He didn’t buy into our reasons for having the goal. He didn’t have ownership in it, so it was doomed from the start.

Fortunately, we learned our lesson very early on—in part, thanks to aptly timed training by the folks at Open Table—and we learned it in the context of something that, in the grand scheme of things, is relatively minor. From this experience, we developed a process for discussing Willie’s goals and, if we think a change is in his best interest, trying to affect change in them. Willie doesn’t always know what he needs or how best to accomplish something, so we’ll brainstorm with him by asking open-ended questions. If needed, we’ll gently question the wisdom of a course of action or suggest that there might be better ways to accomplish the same thing or to get a better result. At each step we explain why we’re making the suggestion and back up the explanation with facts and/or personal experience. If Willie resists, though, that’s the end of it. Rather than attack his reasoning, we make a mental note of the conversation, and if Willie winds up encountering the difficulty we fear, then we seize it as a teaching opportunity. In other words, we have to accept that he might fail, and like a bad horror film we may have to watch it happen knowing all along the pain he is about to feel.

For the table, it was an important lesson about leadership and readiness for change. Here we thought that we would plunk Willie down at the beginning of the leadership process with high direction and low accountability, with him watching as we do and eventually helping as we continue to lead. But Willie didn’t want to be led. He didn’t want to be discipled—at least not in the way we were offering it. We made the mistake of assuming we had all four Cs: character, capacity, calling and chemistry. We have lots of chemistry. The table members and Willie have really bonded as an extended family, and I thank God for that. Willie has good character. He loves Jesus and wants to do the right thing, although his life experiences have shaped what “right” is a little differently than for the generally middle-class table members. Willie has tremendous capacity to be an incredible witness and perhaps even to lead others. He’s even felt a calling to lead Bible studies, urban missions and a prison ministry. But there’s a part of capacity and calling that we failed to appreciate. He hasn’t felt a call to be discipled by someone else, to submit to another person’s leadership. He doesn’t have the capacity (at the moment, anyway) to follow another person’s direction because he has decided he doesn’t need to. Until he comes to the realization that he needs to be discipled, we can’t try to disciple him.

He’s still our friend, and we still help where he wants help. We give him encouragement and moral support. We listen with empathy to his concerns. We also look for opportunities to help him realize that he needs more help than he thinks he does. Funny thing is, though, he hasn’t failed nearly as many times as we thought he would. So much for our plans. “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” –Proverbs 16:9

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