August/September 2013 - Vol. 69

The King Provides
by Stephen Bick
About a week before I finished my Kairos GAP year of service in Lansing, Michigan, USA, Ruthie, the organizer of my youth project, found out that the name Vasily, which we both thought meant “King,” means not just that but “The King Provides”. If I’d discovered that midway through the year, I’d have said, “Why has he only provided Vasily then for our youth program? I wanted loads more kids to show up, and all I got was one guy.” 

I marvel at that name now, and what He did provide.

I decided to do a Kairos GAP year because I wanted to go on an adventure, serve, live away from home and get some formation before I start university. I also wanted to live with the Servants of the Word [a missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord], not only because they’re great guys and I could benefit from learning a lot from them, they offered to cover my rent if I did some house work for them. Four of their houses outside Europe let guys do this: inner city of Detroit (where I’d probably be shot), Mexico (kidnapped), the Philippines (contract a rare tropical disease) and Lansing. The only danger in Lansing seemed to be living in, as one resident put it, “The second cloudiest city in the USA.” Sold. Here’s a brief description from a fundraising letter I sent out to supporters in early August 2012, a few weeks before I arrived in Lansing:

One of these service areas [I plan to participate in] is the Asaph project, an after-school music club for kids (ages 4-11) in some low income housing projects in Lansing. While the music side of the project will be fun (especially for me, I'm going to study music in university after the year!) the point of Asaph is building relationships with the kids who attend and giving them some attention they may not be receiving at home.

Ruthie Munk, a young lady in the Work of Christ community in Lansing, started Asaph about 5 years ago to reach out to kids in her neighborhood. The idea is that we do games, music, some light evangelism and build some solid friendship relationships with whoever walks through the door. Many children in the area come from families where mothers have several children from several fathers. It was obvious that their moms loved them dearly and want the best for them. But, unfortunately for many of the kids I met, their fathers were mostly absent. That put an additional responsibility on me as a young man serving these fatherless boys in Asaph project. I may have not been the only man who has shown an  older brother interest in these kids, but for some of them I was the only man who turned up every week for them.

 Opposite the Pilgrim United Church of Christ, where we run the Asaph program, stands Bingham elementary school. For the first four years of Asaph’s existence, children simply crossed the street on their way out of school and came to us. But shortly before I arrived Bingham school shut down for good. Students were sent to other elementary schools nearby, but, unfortunately, not very close to Asaph.

 So after planning our term’s theme, games, and other activities, we set up the room and went outside to throw a ball around and waited for some children to show up. A car pulled up and a boy walked out. He was called Vasily, and had come to Asaph the previous year. We couldn’t do the planned group activities with just one kid, so we did some other one-on-one games, taught Vasily a simple song, and then sat down for some snacks. Vasily then began to talk non-stop about zombies. Zombie movies, comics, and games had become something of a craze in recent years, especially among boys Vasily’s age, and Vasily had really got into the craze. He talked about the zombie movies he had seen, which zombies were fast and which were slow, how humans might survive a zombie attack. After 20 minutes of Zombie movie replays, we asked Vasily if he would care to talk about something else. Also at this point I was a little disheartened that no one else has turned up for the Asaph project. I tried to assure myself that more kids would surely come. Next week - still just Vasily! He didn’t seem to notice that Asaph had 5 staff members and only one kid (which is just as well, considering) but we played some games, had snacks and had a good time. He also had a passion for Calvin and Hobbes, perhaps the finest comic strip ever written, which all of us staff also loved to read. A few weeks went by with just the one boy showing up.

During this time I was also trying to get the hang of the Servants of the Word brother’s prayer room. Each morning after breakfast, took some time together for common praise and worship and some intercessory prayer. During the first week I asked the guys to pray each morning for Asaph. But I didn’t know often I could press the other guys to keep praying for Asaph? Maybe there was a limit to how many prayer requests one could ask each day or week, before one brothers would take me aside and say: ‘Look, Stephen, there are other things to pray for!’ 

 By the time Advent arrived we still had just Vasily. So our team met to discuss what we were going to do next term. Since we had a 5-1 staff-to-kid ratio, it did not strike us as a very fruitful venture, especially since the Work of Christ community was funding Asaph. We decided to continue the program until Spring Break, and then stop it unless more kids began to show up. In the meantime, Mara (the other gapper in Lansing) went to a few of the local schools to distribute flyers to recruit more kids. I was asked to prepare some kind of teaching program for youth. Even if we only went up to Spring break (late March), we still had around 40 sessions (twice a week) with Vasily. This gave me a good amount of time to communicate more of the gospel message with him. But I knew I had to find a more creative way to engaged him.

 Well, I figured that the two things Vasily would be definitely interested in were comic books and zombies, so I started to draw a comic book about the Christmas story using a zombie character as a metaphor for sin. Starting with a “four spiritual laws” introduction to the Gospel message – the first spiritual truth being “God loves us, but we sinned deliberately became zombies.” The best part about the idea was the really clear link between sin and death, and one of the more obvious fruits of the comic metaphor was that by the end of the school year, Vasily didn’t think the devil was cool anymore. I drew 6 comics, going very roughly over salvation history up to Jesus’ birth: Creation, Fall, God forms a people, God gives them the law and a way of life (it’s not a perfect fix) – then the people of God wait for the Messiah to come. The comic strip presentation was a hit. So we decided to put on a zombie-themed Christmas party and sent out flyers around the neighborhood. We had a big game with Nerf guns and two new kids showed up. But they didn’t come back after Christmas break, so the numbers went back down to one.

When we returned after the Christmas break, we got into our regular routine for Asaph: We would first start each session by playing outside, in the hope that some kids would see us and want to join Asaph. After that we’d come inside, eat snacks, and then I’d read Vasily the week’s comic. This way I could explain a lot of what was really going on and he’d often ask me questions. A memorable reaction to the comic (beyond “can we play “Go, Ninja, Go!” now?” and “can there be more zombie fight scenes”) was when Jesus told the crowds to love their enemies: Vasily would say, “I’m not doing that, that’s really hard”. Finally, he was starting to be more attentive! If Jesus’ sayings are met with a shrug, then I know they haven’t gone in.

 As Easter started to loom on the horizon, I tried to wrap up the story, and include Jesus’ life and ministry. Some creative liberties had to be taken to make the allegory work: I put gun-sellers (to protect against zombies) in the temple, instead of pigeon-sellers. Jesus threw them out because the way back to God isn’t animal sacrifice (or zombie control) but his own sacrifice. After introducing Herod as a baby-murderer right after Jesus was born, I kept him alive as a principal human enemy, who was in league with the devil (“The Zombie King”) and promised to kill Jesus in exchange for peace with the zombies. Jesus’ blood was the cure for the zombie virus, so when Herod puts him to death by tying him to the chain-link fence around the camp where God’s people lived, zombies who bite him are healed, but Jesus eventually dies. I also fit in Pentecost, and a final comic which wrapped up the story and told readers (I drew a picture of Vasily, so he couldn’t possibly not take the hint) that Jesus’ salvation was freely available today, and told him that if he wanted to accept that, he just had to pray. He said he might do it later. That’s ok, good seeds planted.

The final week of Asaph, beyond which we had to close unless more kids came, was exciting. On one hand, I was ready to quit: no one could say we hadn’t put the effort in, but Asaph was discouraging, and I wanted to spend more time serving with University Christian Outreach (UCO) or with our high-school group. At the same time, I was excited to see what God would do. I remember Ruthie asking me how many kids were enough to keep it going. I pulled a number out of the air, “Five?” On the last day, we played outside as normal, some kind of group ball game. One by one, some kids started to walk onto the car park and join in. We’d never seen them before, and they just happened to walk by. By the time we went downstairs for snacks, we had six kids. More than enough to keep Asaph running. I don’t remember the rest of the session much, but when I got back home, pretty tired, I made sure to praise and thank God for this. I didn’t feel like it - I wanted to go to bed, but I thought if there was any time to praise him, it was now.

The kids came back next week, and for the rest of the semester. They didn’t like the comic too much, but I read it at snack time all the same. It wasn’t written for them, anyway. This is what I wrote in a blog post for that day:

Well, the big news is that we got not five but six kids today, on pretty much the last day we could make a decision. Praise the Lord for sending us kids. We’re staying open. Who gets to live like this, being answered by the God who made the universe? Everyone who wants to! Praise him.

Asaph’s staying open next year. The King provides indeed!

[Stephen Bick grew up in the Antioch Community, along with his parents and siblings, in London, UK. This autumn he will attend Cambridge University, where he will study music and (hopefully) evangelize some fellow students.] 

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