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People who know me know that I dream big, grandiose even. RighTrak was no exception. Originally I wanted to be the next Mark Junkans, founder and executive director of LINC, a man I have a lot of respect for as a faith-based entrepreneur. I wanted RighTrak to be the next up-and-coming nonprofit agency, maybe even a United Way agency with a half-million dollar budget, a handful of staff, office space, the works. But that wasn’t His plan, at least not right now.

As the work of the RighTrak pilot project unfolded two things became readily apparent. First, no matter how much structure I built into the project plan, the structure never accomplished anything; rather, it was relationships that transformed Willie’s life. The “table” became an extended family, and the slightly larger network of table members, supporters and come-and-go-as-needed utility players became a community. We knew from the very beginning that relationships were important, but here we were writing a “plan” to create a “program” and “structure” for a “project.” The relationships did develop, but it was probably in spite of the structure not because of it. To paraphrase Brad Bandy, co-director of the Spero Project, “Poverty and homelessness are not problems to be solved. They are people to be known.” Individuals and groups take on projects. Communities support and encourage their members. The difference is absolutely fundamental, and facilitation of the latter is RighTrak’s mission.

This brings me to the second realization. RighTrak, as an organization, cannot and should not follow the prototypical charity startup model. It must be as minimalist as possible, and here’s why. Somehow most Americans have come to accept the notion that it’s perfectly acceptable to outsource love and kindness to social welfare agencies and non-governmental organizations. I’m not diminishing the important relief role those organizations play, but that model is the opposite of community. So if communities and relationships are the special sauce, then we have to fundamentally rethink the way social service is performed, and we cannot fall into the same trap, no matter how good our intentions are.

The result of these two kairos moments was the transformation and solidification of RighTrak’s mission:

To promote and facilitate communities focused on ending poverty one x one.

RighTrak isn’t just another human care nonprofit. In fact, it isn’t a human care agency at all. It doesn’t do social welfare or mission work itself, and its one staff member doesn’t do social welfare or mission work. Rather, it is ordinary people —volunteers—who live missionally and love others by serving them. RighTrak’s job is to show people what it looks like when ordinary people, in community with others, help the least of these. Because ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they are part of a community. RighTrak helps facilitate that by telling the stories of the community and the brother and sister members it helps. It supports the community’s work by providing training, funding (when needed) and other resources.

Funny thing is, this isn’t revolutionary. Jesus had the idea 2,000 years ago. He didn’t say, “Go find a charity that loves other people and give money to it.” No, He said, “[You] love them as I have loved you.” John 13:34. He showed His disciples the way, and then told them to go do it.

Designed by RighTrak friend Jason Phelps, the new logo isn’t just cool-looking, it tells a story.

bluegreenLet’s start with the color palette. In scientific terms, color is simply what our eyes see when a particular wavelength of light is reflected, measured in nanometers (nm). The green hue is approximately 532 nm, which is the wavelength that the human eye is most able to see, whether in the dark or the light. That’s why green lasers are so effective for light shows and pointers. In the RighTrak logo, the green represents God’s Kingdom and His desire to break through our self-reliance and share little pieces of that Kingdom with us. While the Spirit is always at work, sometimes those breakthroughs cut through the darkness of our disobedience like a laser. We call those kairos moments. The blue hue is a nod to the Old Testament (recall the blue on the Israeli flag) and represents God’s divinity and lordship over all.

bluegritbootprintsThe blue text is faded and gritty in spots. That’s because life transformation isn’t easy or clean or neat. We have to put our work boots on, get down into the muck of our souls, identify the root cause of what’s holding us back and with God’s help confront it. From that dirty place, though, comes transformation, which is why the boot prints change from blue to green as we begin to recognize that we must submit to the lordship of our Creator and get on the path that He wants us to be on so that we can realize our full potential.

arrowsFunny thing about paths: there’s never just one right track. Everyone’s journey and lot in life is different. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all program for helping someone end his/her poverty. It isn’t “THE RighTrak.” It’s just “RighTrak” because each person’s path and each community that surrounds that person will be different, which is why there are two arrows instead of one. “Industries,” plural, is part of the RighTrak name for a similar reason. A vocation is one of the keys to helping someone end his or her poverty, but this isn’t a vocational training program. (It isn’t a program at all, actually.) Every person’s vocation will be different, so we have to be prepared to assist with a multitude of industries.

xThe “x” in the tag line, “ending poverty one x one,” symbolizes the concept of multiplication. RighTrak Industries is all about ordinary people showing God’s love in a seemingly radical way. We surround and support one person with one whole community in part because it gives the person the best chance of success, but more importantly it allows the members of that community to form real, lasting relationships with each other and the person they are helping. Once people’s hearts begin to break for things that break God’s own heart, they realize that it’s really not all that radical to love others as Jesus loved us, and then all of a sudden they’re showing that love to others outside of RighTrak and teaching their kids how to love and telling their friends about their experiences. Before you know it, the effect of helping one person has multiplied and touched the lives of many.

Neat, huh?

Aaron Lytle, one of RighTrak’s brain trustees, used this video in his message today. It’s widely applicable, but I thought it especially apropos for folks who have made the commitment to radically love others and change lives. The key takeaways are:

  1. Patience. It takes considerable time and energy to deconstruct bad neural highways and build good ones.
  2. Power. Big life change doesn’t happen because of our own strength. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can someone’s mind be transformed. We aren’t actually doing anything, so remember to hold it loosely.
  3. Prayer. It is in this communion with God that someone admits his/her faults and asks that Christ take up this cross instead. If what you’re doing isn’t working, ask, “Have we prayed about it lately?”
  4. Persistence. Addiction, distrust, self-reliance. These aren’t one-and-done kinds of things. They are daily struggles. Surrender to the Heavenly Father and take it one day at a time.

extreme-makeover-spoof-197x111This thing we call “RighTrak Industries” (which is really just ordinary people committed to treating other, less-financially-fortunate people as … well … people) has been evolving, and it will continue to. In fact, if it doesn’t evolve, it means we’re not listening and working the circle. As a preview, here’s the short list of the evolutionary changes.

See the new logo? (Not the Extreme Makeover spoof. Look up and left.) Our friend Jason Phelps designed it. Pretty cool. What’s cooler still is that it’s jam-packed full of symbolism, which we’ll explain in another post. Other changes include a new payment processing system that will allow RighTrak to keep more of your donation dollars and pay less to Visa and MasterCard, the establishment of a more formal board of directors and a facelift for the email newsletter (which you can subscribe to here).

But none of these are as exciting as the evolution of RighTrak’s mission. The refinement and improvement of RighTrak’s mission has been a slow, purposeful (and, we dare say, divine) kairos moment in the making. It culminated with a YouTube sermon Dave stumbled upon — and watched twice — followed by some time spent abiding with his Heavenly Father while jogging along the Buffalo Bayou. The adaptation of RighTrak’s mission is exciting, and we look forward to sharing it and all the other enhancements with everyone. So stay tuned.

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.

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

My brother-in-arms, Manuel, said something to me a while back that I hope I’ll never forget. “Hold it loosely,” he said. If you can clear your mind of yourself, you’ll hear that God calls us–and indeed commands us–to do certain things with certain people at certain times. He gives us talents, shapes us and then gives us Kingdom tasks. But we have to hold those tasks loosely. If we don’t, they become our work, not His work. When that happens Psalm 135 says we will no longer see what He wants us to see, hear what He wants us to hear or breathe His Spirit on others. “Hold it loosely,” Manuel said, because we will kill it if we hold too tightly.

Things don’t happen the way we want them to, and believe me I had different expectations for the first 45 days of Willie’s participation in the RighTrak program. We encountered challenges almost immediately after the luster of the initiation weekend wore off. I naively underestimated the power of our desire to do what we know–to do what we’ve done in the past–no matter how poor a decision it might be. Perhaps it’s the evil one whispering in our ear, “Do what’s comfortable. Don’t risk doing something new.” Perhaps it’s just human nature.

Don’t get me wrong. We didn’t have a big backslide. It was more of a preview of what could be if we’re not vigilantly and intentionally discipling one another–that is, going through the slow, methodical process of teaching, showing, assisting and watching. Perhaps it was my first, real understanding that this is going to be hard, very hard.

But here’s the kicker. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need to have faith, we wouldn’t need to rely on Him, and it wouldn’t be Kingdom work. When things don’t go the way we planned, we have a choice. Keep holding it tightly, be disappointed and try to hold it tighter in the future, or loosen the grip, recognize we are not in control, listen to what God is trying to tell us and keep working the circle.

Pray that we hold it loosely, work the circle and allow Him to work through us. “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” Prov. 16:9 (NLT)

2012-11-25 14.58.05A big part of what RighTrak Industries does is promote and demonstrate missional living. Willie isn’t a project or a candidate or a client; he’s a child of God, and to many of us he’s a friend. If we are to be the hands and feet of Christ, then he’s someone we should embrace and love. This means inviting him–and others like him who might need a lot of help and support–into our regular, daily lives. The “mission” isn’t necessarily in China or Haiti or Africa, though it certainly might be. More often than not, though, the mission field is right here in our own community, and the mission is to share life experiences with people who could use some of God’s love, expressed through us.  As the Building 429 song goes, “By His wounds we have been healed; and in our love He is revealed.” Enough preaching. On to the fun stuff!

In the month since Willie started with RighTrak Industries we and he have had quite a bit of fun. After the West U Rotary’s Veterans’ Day flag deployment, David and Willie traipsed around West U retrieving the flags that had been put out the week before. (The West U Rotary Club’s biggest fundraiser is a flag subscription program. West U residents can subscribe for $50 per year per flag and have members of the club put one or more flags in the subscriber’s yard on 4 holidays during the year. In fact, if you live in West U and want to sign up go here!)

On the weekend of Thanksgiving David and his father, Lance, took Willie to a par 3 golf course and had a ball (pun intended) chipping and putting to their hearts’ content. No talk about ending poverty or making this or that change in Willie’s life–just regular ol’ talk, plus, of course, lots of unsolicited golf tips for the one hitting at the time from the other two who were not. The mosquitos were terrible, but the three of them had a good time just enjoying each other’s company.

2012-12-14 11.47.59Frank has also been spending quite a lot of time with Willie. A week or so ago they went to the movies together and saw Red Dawn. The reviews from Frank and Willie were so-so. Then over the weekend Frank took Willie to lunch to a Mexican place where Willie apparently had a lot of fun as this was the picture Frank sent David from the restaurant. Frank suggested maybe Willie should give up the car washing business and join a mariachi band.

It turns out, besides being a really nice, really personable guy, Willie is quite the chess player. Once a week or so Matthew will join Willie at Taft Street Coffee for a duel. We won’t embarrass Matthew with the details, but it’s safe to say he’s not won a game against Willie yet.

Willie is also a rabid Texans fan, so Chelsea invited Willie to watch the Texans-Colts game with her at a BBQ tailgate party at Trinity’s early childhood center. It was a good game, but the hard labor Willie has been doing as part of his community service got the better of him, and he was nearly asleep by halftime.

This isn’t about plugging a guy into a structured program someone came up with and that we all follow. It’s not about affecting change with a 10-step process and pre-defined goals. It’s about invitation. It’s about earning each other’s trust and having real, meaningful, positive relationships. At least one of the RighTrak volunteers is in contact with Willie, by text and/or phone, every single day. “How was your day, Willie.” “How are you doing?” He’s learning not only that we are here to help him (which, by the way, is a very difficult thing for someone who has lived ont he streets) but also that we want to be his friend. The challenge to be issued to Willie will come in time. Much has been and will be given to Willie, and soon much will be asked of him as well, but for now we’re just helping a friend in need.

2012-11-17 11.40.54On Saturday, November 17, we had the first missional community event for RighTrak Industries. (What’s a missional community? Read about it on Wikipedia.) The event was called the Poverty to Wholeness Housewarming, and it officially started at 9:31 a.m. (refer to Matthew 9:31). Willie’s day, though, started much earlier.

One of his goals was to start the first day of the rest of his life with a jog at 5:00 a.m. and a support group meeting at 6:30 a.m. By 9:00 Willie was showered, dressed and ready to entertain, having already arranged some of the furniture. Talk about ambitious!

We were incredibly blessed by a few large donations of furniture, as we previously wrote about, but there were still a lot of holes to plug. Willie had literally nothing but the clothes on his back. He was starting completely anew, both figuratively and literally. Have you ever been forced to do that before–move to a new place and start with absolutely nothing? How do you even begin to anticipate your needs? Toiletries, food provisions, socks, underwear, alarm clock, pens, paper, clothes for different temperatures and different occasions, kitchen gadgets, utensils, bus fare to get around, and on and on and on.

2012-11-17 11.15.12So we issued a call to action to Ecclesia, Trinity and some West U Rotary members, and the response was impressive. People wanted not only to help Willie out with material goods, but they also wanted to meet him. Who is this man that has attracted all this attention? Why him? (Why not?) So on Saturday, after enjoying some bagels and coffee from Taft Street Coffee, a dozen or more people met at Willie’s new apartment to help him move in, welcome him to the neighborhood and show their support of his effort to begin a new life. Excited about the opportunity that God has given him, Willie invited some family members to the housewarming party as well, including his niece and her husband (pictured at left). We enjoyed some great fellowship with one another and closed the housewarming party with a popcorn prayer that ended with Willie giving thanks and praying for strength to finish what he started.

testimony_captureWillie’s ambition continued into Sunday as he attended three (three!) different church services. At 7:30, dressed in his new slacks and sport coat, he went to Mount Horeb Baptist Church in the Fourth Ward, the church where he grew up. Willie was invited to give his testimony at that service. It was an impressive testimony, and he was very well-spoken. (More on this later.) At 9:30 Willie went to Trinity Lutheran to attend its contemporary ninethirtyone service. (Willie ditched the sport coat. He didn’t want to be overdressed.) Then at 11:00 Willie went up the street to Ecclesia’s new location on Elder to attend his third service for the day, where he rekindled the friendships he had developed over the last couple years.

The initiation weekend started and ended focusing on the most important thing in any kind of real, substantive transformation: our relationship with God. The first thing Willie did when he entered the program was pray for an ex-offender friend of his whose anti-schizophrenia medication wasn’t working, and the last thing he did before going to bed on Sunday was pray a prayer with his brother, Samuel, over the phone. If ever the Lord was at work, it is in this man at this time. We await with eager anticipation to see what He will do in and through him.

2012-11-16 13.07.03On Friday, November 16, Willie slept under his own roof for the first time in over 6 years, having had other stints of homelessness before that. By some miracle, a member of Ecclesia contacted us about wanting to donate the essential furniture for an apartment due to his returning to the U.K., so Willie moved into a nearly fully furnished apartment!

Many others answered the call to help stock the RighTrak Industries transitional housing, too: a cell phone, towels and soaps from West U Rotary Club members; gift certificates to the Sunshine Resale Shop from the West U Rotary Club; a bookshelf, socks, alarm clock, clothes, kitchen gadgets and pans from folks at Trinity Lutheran; a TV and DVD player from Ecclesia. The list goes on.

The positive impact on Willie that has come from merely having a place to call home cannot be overstated. Having been relieved of the stress of finding shelter each and every night, Willie has been able to focus on his relationship with God, his plans for the future, following all the rules imposed on an ex-offender and, importantly, on not getting back into his old bad habits. Instead, he has been surrounded by loving, caring people who have made it clear they want to help support him and his success. Willie smiled so much this weekend that doubtless his face must have hurt.

2012-11-16 11.42.42Willie’s initiation into the RighTrak Industries community kicked off with a spontaneous (and probably divinely arranged) lunch at Tex-Chick Puertorrican Restaurant with Frank Parrilla, proprietor of Oporto Wine Bar and Cafe and one of the RighTrak volunteers who we thought wouldn’t be able to join any of the weekend’s activities. Instead, Willie and the others who joined him had a fantastic (and filling) lunch that included mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish made from plantains. The group had some very deep conversation about bouncing back from the hardships of life.

After lunch Willie and his brother, Samuel headed to Ecclesia where Manuel, Eccelsia’s homeless ministry outreach director, presented Willie with the first, tangible evidence of Willie’s new life: keys to his very own apartment! After touring the place, Samuel led the group in a wonderful prayer asking God’s blessing on Willie’s new home.

Willie didn’t have much in the way of clothes, and he wanted to get rid of the clothes that he was wearing–the last vestige of his old life–so he and David LeFevre headed to the Sunshine Resale Shop in Bellaire. Thanks to the gift certificates donated by Caring Friends, Inc. and the West U Rotary Club, Willie got some new threads, most of which were dress and business casual because Willie wanted to make sure he fit in when going to church.

2012-11-16 16.09.32The evening culminated with a spaghetti dinner at Spaghetti Warehouse with other RighTrak Industries volunteers. Willie told part of his story and shared some of the struggles he’s had to endure. He also share some of his vision for the future–a prison ministry aimed at encouraging good behavior and breaking down with faith-based dialogue the feelings of inevitable recidivism and helplessness that many inmates have. (More on this to come.) Willie headed to bed, excited at the prospect of a new beginning and a new lease on life.