Mission Moment 9.9.2021

This is a story about why we don’t pay rent with benevolence money and the time we did.

Several years ago Baylor School of Social Work put on a course for ministers to learn how best to serve the actual needs of their community. They offered both the theory and practical advice needed for decision making in regard to spending missions and benevolence money as well as the kind of services that are and are not actually helpful. 

One of the practical applications they suggested was for churches with limited benevolence money to stop paying rent for people. 

It sounded like a harsh suggestion at the time, but they explained that when money is limited, it’s better to focus on things like food and clothing rather than rent. A church could- and many have- spend their entire benevolence budget paying rent for people and never do anything to actually help transform the situation. 

That’s why the social work school suggested two things: 1) support organizations working for free and affordable housing, and 2) use your limited benevolence money on essentials other than rent. 

That’s been one of my guiding principles when managing NorthHaven’s benevolence funds. We do not have much money (-$300 right now), and we need it to stretch as far as we can. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, like children, NorthHaven doesn’t pay rent for people.

This is the story about the time we did. 

One of the organizations NorthHaven supports is a shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Housing and food are free for those who are accepted into the program, and the location of the facility is kept secret from nearly everyone. While there, they have programs to develop job skills and get GEDs. They even have volunteer tutors to help the children with schoolwork. It’s a stellar program.

In December, I received a call from one of the women in charge of the program. She told me that a mother and her preteen daughter were graduating out of the program soon, but unfortunately, as does happen from time to time, they didn’t have anywhere to go. 

The mother used her time in the program to finish her associates degree. She had a job secured and would start soon, but it would be a little bit before she had the capital needed to make a security deposit and pay rent on top of their other living expenses. 

“Is there something y’all can do to help out?” The program director asked.

I called a friend who works with Catholic Charities, one of my favorite organizations, and asked if he could get his hand on any affordable housing. We were in luck, because they recently renovated a small apartment for just such a circumstance.

With the director of the women’s shelter vouching for this mother, I used $3000 to pay the security deposit and 3 months rent for them, along with book and winter clothes for the child and formal clothes for the mother to where to work.

This August, I was invited to a luncheon with Catholic Charities. The very same woman I just told you about was there to give us a tour of her small apartment and tell us her story. Then, what I thought was just a lunch to honor partners quickly turned into a work day. They told me to bring tennis shoes, but I didn’t understand the implication.

Next, they led us to a second site to install insulation in a garage in order to convert it into another small, economical apartment. All under the leadership of the woman we helped six months prior.

It was amazing to see her taking charge and telling us all what needed to be done to make that space livable. Less than a year ago she was shy and quiet, living in a shelter for abused women with her daughter. Now she boldly corrects a bunch of mechanically inept senior pastors when we install insulation poorly. I later learned that she regularly volunteers her time to help develop donors and do building projects when they came up. 

I was astounded and inspired by the transformation in her, and grateful that NorthHaven was able to play a small roll in making her journey a little less difficult. And I was warned. Always bring work shoes when Catholics invite you to lunch. 

Mission Moment 8.30.2021

In his ministry, Jesus often acts in such a way to humble the wise while also giving dignity to the lowly. He scolds the Pharisees and the rulers of the day, yet speaks graciously with the woman at the well (John 4) when it was undignified to do so. Jesus sees her as a child of God, not merely a person with a troubled past. 

Jesus’ interactions with children are another place we see this. The disciples, who understood Jesus’ ministry better than most, still reprimanded children for coming to Jesus, but he welcomes them, breaking social norms to do so. It’s hard to wrap my mind around this one, when I’m taught to make my needs secondary to my children’s.The first century world was not this way. Yet, Jesus rebukes the disciples for preventing children from coming to him. Jesus is often painted with children sitting on his lap. 

Throughout the Gospels, from children to divorced women, from those with leprosy to those with bleeding ailments, Jesus gives dignity to those who have been humbled by life. 

I am convinced that a huge aspect of the Church’s work is helping people reclaim the dignity they deserve as children of God. 

NorthHaven had a great opportunity to do just that this summer. Through a NorthHaven member, I connected with a family fostering three siblings in middle and high school. The kids wanted to run cross-country, but the family didn’t have the money to outfit all of them with the appropriate gear. 

The more I got to know this family, the more I thought about another NorthHaven member who I suspected might want to help them out. When I reached out to this person (who asked to remain anonymous, but loves that this story is being told), they were ecstatic to donate money to gear up these kids. They specifically told me to “Go all out. Name brands.” So we did. 

I was lucky enough to be the intermediary who took these three kids shopping for the best running shoes, socks, athletic clothes, water bottles, and sunglasses. Nice things that anyone of us would be proud to own. Nice things that a foster child could wear to cross country practice at a new school and not stand out as a foster child. 

Earlier this month, I reached out to the foster parents to check-in. They told me it looked like the two oldest kids would actually make the cross country team this year. They loved running and found in it a release from the pressure of life. 

The youngest decided that he didn’t love running at all. A child after my own heart. They foster parents told me never owned a pair of sunglasses before, much less a pair of name brand glasses. The one’s we gave him were his most prized possession. He took them everywhere, night or day. They thanked the church for making this possible. For giving this child something to be proud of, no matter how small. 

One of the things our church does well is connect people and resources. Without NorthHaven members, I never would have learned about this foster family or their needs. Without other NorthHaven members, we wouldn’t have met those needs. Even though no budget money went into this mission moment, it is still a great example of the kind of opportunities that NorthHaven creates in our community.

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

*You can give to the mission and ministry of NorthHaven Church here. 

Mission Moment 8.23.2021

Foster care is near and dear to our heart at NorthHaven.

Last week I was contacted by a NorthHaven member who knew a foster family struggling to make ends meet at the beginning of the school year. The husband was a postal worker and the wife is disabled. They foster two kids that are their own distant relatives. 

The state supports foster families financially, but it doesn’t help families that are related to the kids they are fostering nearly as much as those who are unrelated. That means if I took in my hypothetical cousin’s kids because my cousin is an addict and unable to care for them, then I wouldn’t receive nearly as much financial support from the state as a complete stranger would if they took in the same kids. 

Not only does this practice de-incentivize keeping children in their families, it also creates added stress for those families fostering their own relatives, no matter how distantly related.

The family brought to our attention was one such family.

It’s important to remember that this family did not ask for help. Someone asked for help on their behalf. That means I needed to 1) learn if they really need the help, 2) not offend or belittle them, and 3) see exactly what kind of help they both need and are willing to accept. 

Everyone falls on hard times. Everyone of us might be in a position where we need benevolence help one day. It isn’t a matter of making wise decisions or not, but about the complications of life. I try to keep that in my mind when meeting with people, and I hope that if the tables are reversed, then someone will show me the same dignity. 

When I drove out to meet the couple, it was immediately obvious they were strong, wise people. They have solid plans to raise their income level beginning in September, but they really could use a little help getting through August. 

I offered to bring them groceries, if they would allow it. They agreed to groceries, but under one condition. The wife would pick them out herself. She is a great cook and wanted to make sure I didn’t buy food that would go to waste or a bunch of “bland white people food.” She was pleased to be quoted on that when I reached back out 🙂 

Last Monday, I was able to spend one of the happiest hours of my week at the grocery store learning how to pick out “real seasoning and spice” so that economical meals taste like a million bucks. 

Sometimes NorthHaven’s benevolence money goes to feed people who are literally starving. Other times it puts food on the table of the working poor. The working poor are families who have jobs and live reasonably but still struggle to make ends meet. These are the kinds of people most resistant to help, but who really do need a little something to keep them above water. 

If you’re a NorthHaven member who gives to the benevolence fund by dropping money in the baskets on Communion Sundays, then $300 of that money was used to put tasty food on the table of a good family with a great sense of humor and a lot of love. 

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

If you’d like to give to support the mission and ministry of NorthHaven Church you may do so here. 

Missions Moment 8.19.2021

July-September is always a busy benevolence season. Children go back to school and extra expenses ensue. 

Some people spend all of their flexible income on back to school supplies and clothes for their kids and then need help with necessities at the end of the month. Others are embarrassed to send their kids to school wearing clothes that don’t fit. Since no one wants to draw the ire of ruthless adolescents, they bravely ask churches for help. 

We’ve helped a lot of people this year, and I’m going to write a series of vignettes about the stories I am able to share. 

In July, I received a call from an individual I know through NHC’s partnership with a local nonprofit. Someone we trust, but who asked to remain nameless. He told me the story of a couple here in Central Oklahoma. Unable to conceive children, they’ve decided to foster toward adoption. With only three hours notice, this couple’s first placement was three siblings. 

The state gives some money to help foster families out, but the costs were higher than the couple expected. 

First, the couple didn’t expect to house three kids, but happily obliged in order to keep the siblings together. This meant they needed to purchase an extra bed frame and mattress.

Second, they didn’t plan on fostering older children. The kids came to them with barely any possessions, and only a couple changes of clothes. The couple owned clothes for the youngest child, but would need to purchase clothes for the older two. 

Quickly the couple realized they weren’t able to keep up with the expenses on their own. Help was needed. They requested more assistance from the state, but were denied. Then they reached out to the nonprofit their friend worked at, but since they were both employed teachers, they didn’t qualify for assistance there either. 

That’s when the final ball dropped. The kids needed to take summer school, and they would need tablets for the virtual learning portions of class. Where would the money come from? 

That’s when our mutual acquaintance called me to ask if there was anyway NorthHaven could help. 

I trusted him, and knew our church did, but I met with the couple anyway. They weren’t asking for much at all, but it was clear they needed a lot more than they were asking for.

Immediately, I gave them $1000 from the Pastor’s Discretion account. This account doesn’t come from the operating budget at all, but is 100% funded through specifically designated gifts. It’s there for exactly these kinds of things when quick action is need. I used that money to buy them a mattress, a bed frame, and give them a sizable gift card to the grocery story. 

I was positive they needed more help than this though.

I also contacted our Missions Committee and asked to help the family buy the tablets and nice clothes for the older kids. Not only did the Missions Committee vote to allocate another $1000 from the Other Missions account (funded through your tithes) toward helping this foster family get everything they needed, but one person on the committee took the initiative to raise another few hundred dollars from NorthHaven members not on the committee and even offered to take the children shopping themselves. 

These three foster kids are going through something no child should ever have to go through. We can’t change that for them, but we were able to ease their trauma ever so slightly. NorthHaven put clothes on their backs they aren’t ashamed of, tablets in their hands they can learn from, and a bed beneath them to rest in. 

Every child deserves at least as much. 

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

P.S. Because you asked: if you’re non-NorthHavener, I want to give away your money too 😉 I am 100% unashamed to ask for money when I can guarantee it goes to someone in real need. You can write “benevolence” or something like it in the notes section and by law we have to use it for that purpose. You can rest assured that it won’t go to me or toward any of the religious hocus pocus 😂

Giving Link.

Light In Strange Places

On Monday, I wore my NorthHaven t-shirt with a rainbow flag on it to the gym for the first time.

The gym I workout at is more industrial than commercial. It’s an old big rig garage that’s now home to a hodge podge of fitness equipment. No a/c. No heat. The kind of people that workout there aren’t quite like commercial gyms either. For one thing, there aren’t many senior citizens. There is one though.

He’s there every morning at the same time I am. His is the aesthetic of a biker with a shaved head and a handlebar mustache. Our paths cross frequently, but we never said anything more than, “how many more sets do you have on that bench?”

On Monday, he cut straight through the gym to ask me what the rainbow flag on my shirt meant. There goes my workout, I thought, but what I said was, “it means all people are welcome and wanted at my church just the way they are. Gay folks included.”

“Do you have a shirt to tell Black people or brown people they can come too?” he followed up with more than a little bit of antagonism.

“No,” I chuckled. Not an unfair question, I guess. I told him that in Oklahoma, the assumption was that gay people aren’t welcome in most churches. That’s why we wanted to explicitly say otherwise, and we hoped that the rainbow flag was a welcome sign not just to gay folks, but to everyone else too. If it wasn’t, then I’d just have to keep having conversations like this one, I told him.

That seemed to satisfy him. Either that or he wasted as much time between sets as he was willing to lose.

I chalked it up to a strange interaction and didn’t think much more about it.

Today, when I worked out I wasn’t wearing my NorthHaven shirt, but my curious old friend was there again. As soon as he saw me, he darted straight at me once again.

I braced myself. Sometimes this kind of behavior means the person spent their evening googling Bible verses so that they can tell me off. But not this time.

He dug into his pocket, yanked out a $20 bill and thrust it at me.

“Here. This is for your church. Do something good with it.” He spit the words like they were poison and dashed away.

He was back under the barbell before I even put the money in my pocket.

I couldn’t help it. I laughed out loud and shook my head. The interaction was too bizarre. So many questions rolled through my mind, but clearly he didn’t want to engage anymore than that. At least not then.

When he finished his workout I made sure to ease toward him in hopes of satisfying my curiosity.

“Hey, I just want to say thank you, and assure you that we’ll do something good with your money.” I said. “What made you decide to do that?”

And that’s where the story started.

He was a sailor. A career man in the navy, and he loved it. He was also gay. Not married. No desire to marry. He wasn’t religious either. Religion is mostly for the weak minded, he said. He walked out those doors 50 years ago and had no desire to go back. But, he continued, there might be a place in the world for churches to be good to everyone. At least, enough for him to give $20 towards it. He wasn’t giving $50, he reminded me more than once.

Life is strange; we people are stranger, and interactions with strangers are stranger still. Still, I give thanks for a church that even people who don’t believe in church feel inspired to give toward.

He’s right. The world might be a better place because NorthHaven is in it.

Depression: 13 Ways to Care for Yourself and Others

A couple weeks ago I was on a zoom call with 10 pastors spread across the country and between 3 denominations. By the end of the call, 4 of the 10 pastors admitted to struggling with suicidal thoughts. The week after that, I wrote an article on suicidal ideation for one of our partners, Baptist News Global. I was shocked, heartbroken, and encouraged when the article was shared more than 125,000 times.

The problem is even bigger than I realized and obviously pastors aren’t the only ones experiencing a mental healt

h crisis right now. No one is immune to the intense difficulties this moment in history piled on us. Life is hard. Always has been, and this is the hardest it’s been in my lifetime.

Not everyone experiences depression in the same way, and symptoms can vary. Here’s a list of symptoms from healthline to help identify if you or a loved one is experiencing depression:

  • seem sad or tearful
  • appear more pessimistic than usual or hopeless about the future
  • talk about feeling guilty, empty, or worthless
  • seem less interested in spending time together or communicate less frequently than they normally would
  • get upset easily or are unusually irritable
  • confusion or memory problems
  • have less energy, move slowly, or seem generally listless
  • have less interest in their appearance than usual or neglect basic hygiene, such as showering and brushing their teeth
  • have trouble sleeping or sleep much more than usual
  • care less about their usual activities and interests
  • seem forgetful or have trouble concentrating or deciding on things
  • eat more or less than usual
  • talk about death or suicide

If you know someone who is experiencing depression right now, here’s a simple list of ways you can help:

1. Listen to them. Don’t give advice and don’t try to show them how things
could be worse. Affirm their experience and let them know you are there for them.

2. Encourage them to seek professional help. Most of us aren’t professionals, and even if we are, we don’t need to be in that role with our friends and family. We can offer friendship and spiritual companionship for the road, but it’s important to point them toward professional resources.

3. Stay in touch. When someone is feeling depressed, reaching out can be difficult. So call and text your friend, but don’t get offended if they don’t answer or return the call. You’re trying to help, not add another burden or obligation to their plate.

Likewise, continue to invite them to things. Have coffee or lunch on the picnic table under the church pavilion. Remind them how much you enjoy having them at book club, at church worship, or on the Zoom Sunday school call. But be sure to leave them a way out if they aren’t feeling up to it.

4. Help with tasks. When depressed, small tasks can sometimes seem impossible. Offer to bring your friend groceries or take their mail to the post office for them.  Helping in these small ways can make a big difference.

5. Take care of yourself. We are all in a pandemic. Don’t get so involved caring for others that you neglect to care for yourself. Neglecting our own needs is not a christian virtue, and is dangerous not only to ourselves and our families, but to the church. Like the airplane stewardess says, put your oxygen mask on first so that you can help others put theirs on also.

If you are experiencing depression, here’s a few things that might help:

First, a reminder that depression comes in many forms and degrees. Do not neglect to take appropriate action for your wellbeing just because you aren’t experiencing specific symptoms or because your symptoms aren’t as severe as they could be.

1. Confide in trusted allies. Reach out to your inner circle and be honest about how you are feeling. Tell them the truth without expecting them to fix it. They can’t, but they can walk beside you on the journey. And be careful to share only with those who can be trusted to walk with you. Sharing with someone who doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to be an ally for you can be more harmful than helpful.

2. Get professional help. I know plenty of people who only ever share with friends, but their journey stops after that. Sharing our burdens with competent companions does seem to lessen the load, and many people feel that initial
relief and talk themselves out of getting professional help. Don’t do that. Take the next step and share your experience of depression or anxiety with your Primary Care Physician (who is treating a lot of this right now) or your counselor. And if you don’t have a counselor. Find one. Your wellbeing may depend on it.

3. Reevaluate expectations. We’re in a pandemic, a hyper-partisan culture, an upcoming election, and a civil rights movement. We are not capable of fulfilling the same level of expectations as we were this time last year. No one is. So reexamine and reevaluate realistic exceptions for yourself and for others. Stop holding yourself and others accountable to impossible ideals. An old spiritual teacher used to say, “How do we know when an expectation is unrealistic? When it isn’t being met.”

4. Keep a gratitude journal. Writing down just three things for which we are grateful each day is scientifically proven to help rewire our brain. Spiritual teachers have taught on the importance of gratitude for centuries and now scientists are affirming their teaching.

5. Get outside for 30 minutes a day. Likewise, science can show that being outside helps improve mood and brain function. It isn’t an end all be all, but it’s a simple act that can help. So go for a walk, read in the backyard, or float in the community pool.

6. Meditate. Jesus went to the mountain to pray for hours on end and sometimes through the entire night. The early church fathers taught that this kind of prayer was centering or contemplative prayer. It’s not talking at God for hours on end, which can actually serve to increase our anxiety. But sitting in fellowship with God in the intimacy beyond words.

The science indicates that just 5-10 minutes of meditation or centering prayer can make a significant difference in our brain chemistry, bolstering resilience and and coping skills. I’ve used the Headspace app for years now and love it. There are plenty of apps out there both Christian and secular that can help lead a meditative/prayer journey.

7. Limit time spent on social media and watching the news. Social media is toxic right now, and surveys on wellness track a direct correlation between time spent watching the news and discontent with life. Resolving to only read your news from reliable sources can greatly improve mental health. I promise you will still know what’s going on in the world, and if you’re healthy, you’ll be better equipped to handle it and do something positive about it.

—Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor of NorthHaven Church, Norman, OK