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Rock the Village 2019

Last week we Rocked the Village as we do every summer at Oak Tree, but this year was anything but routine. 

Sunday night, Megan and I found ourselves standing in the middle of Marks Village, watching the flashing lights and praying with neighbors for a 4 year old little girl who was shot in the head. On Wednesday morning, she passed away. We didn’t have the honor of knowing Jurnee Coleman, but we walk past her door almost daily. She hadn’t been old enough to join in our programs yet, and her life was taken before she would have the chance. 


Just a few nights before Jurnee was shot, a young man, Deterius Matthews, was also killed. These are the first murders since the barriers have been placed in Marks Village this summer in hopes of deterring crime. These lives taken give us a sobering reality check - barriers, shot spotters, and surveillance cameras do not stop bullets. Something bigger has to change.

Marks Village has the highest crime rate of all Birmingham Public Housing communities. I don't share this with you to be an alarmist, but to give you a picture of reality. We aren’t ignorantly walking into this community believing things will change the moment we speak the magical name of Jesus. We know the enemy has deep strongholds here. We know that we must be constant in prayer. We also know we must do more than just pray. We believe this is a battle worth fighting and Jesus is the source of our power to continue fighting even when it seems impossible. 

I want you to see reality so that we can begin an honest conversation. In times like this it can be easy to respond in fear or judgement. Fear comes from the perspective given by the media - danger, drugs, guns, gangs - avoid the area at all cost. Judgement sneaks in when your mind has to do something with the information given, even though it is so far from your present reality that you don’t have a box to put it in. We repeat harmful stereotypes that we’ve heard in our culture like “if they’d just get a job,” “there’s no male leadership,” “living off our tax dollars,” etc. etc.

If you’ve never lived in a public housing community or been friends with people who do, you might not have a good frame-work to respond in any other way. If you don’t know the history of our city and how communities like ours came to be filled with crime and little economic opportunity, you might have simple answers and solutions when you hear these reports. You might not be familiar with the level of complex struggle here.

The problems we face on a daily basis in Marks Village are anything but simple and solutions will be anything but easy. While it won’t be easy, we do believe it’s possible to see change, but we must first change our perspective of our neighbors.

Years ago I heard the quote, “you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand, and you can’t understand from a distance.” This is one reason why proximity is a priority for us at Oak Tree. We must be present, in the brokenness with our neighbors, hearing their stories, bearing burdens with them, just like Jesus did. We will continue to show up to learn how this cycle of injustice was created, why it continues, and what we can do to better help our community. We believe it is going to take all of us working together if we want to see change come to our city. Our prayer is for His Kingdom to come in the Village as it is in heaven. 

Last week people were watching. Were we going to cancel Rock the Village? Was it getting too dangerous? Would we finally say it’s too much? Would any volunteers come? 

We showed up. We Rocked the Village and gave families a safe place to spend time together. We registered 113 kids at RTV last week, not including the 20+ kids that volunteers brought along to join the fun. We declared that we love this community, on the good and the bad days. We gave kids space to let out their fear and anger. We grieved with them. 

I had hard moments of breaking up fights that led to crying with kids and holding them as they said they were scared and it wasn't fair. I was able to talk with them about how their fights now will impact how they fight as adults and that they have the power to stop this cycle of violence. I was able to say how Jesus is the only one who ever had a right to fight back, but He didn't, He forgave and proved that love is more powerful. I don't know if they'll remember one word of our conversations, but I believe this is where it starts. We want them to learn to fight for what is good and just, not just for survival and to prove their toughness. 

Throughout the week we declared that death will not have the final say. Through tears, we reminded ourselves and our neighbors that Jesus has conquered even this and He will make it all right one day. 

Despite every effort of the enemy to silence us last week, volunteers showed up each day, loved big, and shared the truth of the gospel. God is at work and He is still in control. It can be easy on weeks like this to become overwhelmed and forget to have fun with the kids. God used a few kids to remind me of this as they forced me to laugh with their silliness. Their JOY is holy defiance. I have so much to learn from them. We had Taki eating contests, we danced, we played gaga ball, we made movies re-telling the Bible stories - we let kids have fun and just be kids!

We don't have easy answers in times like this, but we can be present to love. 

Thank you for stepping into a place that many refuse to go, to declare that Jesus has not forgotten His children, to love louder than the violence. 

To our neighbors and friends in the Village, we are here with you, we see you, we hear you, we love you deeply. 

We will press on together with heavy hope. 

Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer.
Romans 12:12

What if...

The summer is quickly flying by, and there is so much we hope to accomplish in a short period of time. Yesterday was another busy day of planning and preparing for Hand in Paw, Mini Camps, Reading Club Camp, and Rock the Village. We were hard at work when four of our elementary kids walked up and knocked on the door. They just wanted to see us and play with us if we had time, so we let them stay and play outside, and came out to join them when we could.

I brought my laptop out to sit at a picnic table, hoping to join them while still getting some work done on my Reading Club Camp plans. I had little success, but had some very good conversations that were much more important. 


Between shooting hoops and reading the book I let him check out from our library, one of our 2nd graders had the courage to ask me a really important question.

“What if Miss Raquel can’t do Bible Club anymore?”

I wasn’t sure at first exactly what was bothering him, so I asked, “What do you mean, buddy?”

“What if...what if Miss Raquel passes or something. What’s gonna happen to Bible Club?”

My heart just sunk at his words, at the thought that this is a fear that he’s been living with. I wasn’t sure exactly what he needed to hear, but I tried my best. “Well, did you know that somebody else used to lead Bible Club before Miss Raquel came out here?”


“Yeah, buddy! Even if Miss Raquel couldn’t lead Bible Club, there will be somebody else who will come out and make it happen. Like me, or Mr. Aaron. But Miss Raquel is planning on being here a long time, and I’m planning on being here a long time, and we will keep doing Bible Club as long as we can.”

“Well I love Bible Club!”

“Me, too! We love Bible Club and we love you, and we’re going to do everything we can to stick around and stick together with y’all. We’re taking a break this summer, but we’ll be starting Bible Club again in August, when school starts back.”

The relief in his body was evident, and he ran off to go play basketball. I was left sitting on the picnic table with his little sister in my lap, trying to process the weight of all he just shared with me. 

I reflected back to earlier in the week, when this same 2nd grader was in the back seat of my car with his siblings, waiting to leave on our field trip to Hand in Paw. As we waited, a volunteer that was riding with us saw the 3 Circles sticker on the back of my phone. 

“Hey, everybody keeps talking about these 3 Circles,” he said, “but nobody has explained them to me yet.”

I turned to the kids in the backseat. “Mr. Garrison doesn’t know The 3 Circles! Can y’all tell him the story?”

The 2nd grader was the first to speak up, “This man ran away from God and he ended up in the broken world. But Jesus came down and lived and died for us and rose again, so we can get back to God.” 

He did an amazing job, but I wanted to make sure Garrison understood all the little parts of the picture, so I asked, “How did the man accept Jesus’ gift and get back to God?”

“He prayed!” he explained, pointing to the man on his knees.

“And what does this crown mean?” I asked, pointing to it.

“You have to make Jesus the boss!”

“That’s exactly right! Thank you!”

I was floored! He explained the gospel more succinctly than I ever had. It was clear to me that God is at work in him. Through the investment of so many people who have made Bible Club possible, this sweet 2nd grader has been able to hear and understand the gospel enough to explain it to others. And he loves hearing stories about Jesus so much that one of his greatest fears is losing the opportunity to come to Bible Club.

So as I ponder these two conversations, what I’m left with is a feeling of thankfulness. I’m thankful that I get the chance to know this sweet family. I’m thankful that this particular 2nd grader had the courage to share his fears with me. I’m thankful for the people who have made Bible Club possible for the past several years through giving, praying, advocating, and volunteering. This boy knows about and shares the love of Jesus because of you.

I’m also thankful for the confidence with which I could assure him that we’re not going anywhere. Because of your support, and because God is still at work, we will continue to labor with the people of Marks Village in fulfillment of God's promise to raise up for himself oak trees of righteousness for the display of his splendor.

To Him be all the glory!

Meet Our New Team Members!

As you may know, over the past few months we have been on a search to find who God was raising up to join the Oak Tree team. We entered the process with open hands, trusting the Lord’s timing and asking that He would give us patience as we waited on His guidance to the right people. We are over joyed to share with you how He has abundantly provided people who will strengthen our team and help us grow our ministry in the Village! We can’t wait to see what else the Lord does this year!


Piretta Key

Greetings, My name is Piretta Key.  I have a passion for spreading the good news of JESUS. I grew up in Bessemer, Alabama. I have a husband and two kids. I like skittles because one day I will pass the rainbow, crushed ice, seafood and pickled okra. I’m super excited to be a piece of the bigger picture at Oak Tree! 

Piretta has just begun leading our ministry to teen girls. This includes leading our Monday after school program for middle schoolers and Wednesdays with high schoolers. She will also be working closely with our partners in Putnam Middle School. We are so grateful for the blessing the Key family has already been to us and are thrilled God led them to serve with us!

Megan Smith

Hey y’all it’s Megan! I’ve always loved people and learning, which led me to my degree in Special Education and to many different jobs and serving opportunities. I’ve worked as a nanny, a camp counselor, a preschool teacher, and a therapeutic horseback riding instructor. I’m currently serving as a special needs buddy at The Church at Brook Hills on Sundays and working as an aide at a middle school. Though I’ve lived my whole life in the Birmingham area, visiting Marks Village a year and a half ago opened my eyes to a side of this city I’d never seen. While saddened by the needs and injustice I saw around me, I also quickly grew to love the kids I met. I have learned so much from them and from everyone at Oak Tree. It’s been amazing seeing God at work here, and I can’t wait to be a part of all He is doing!


Megan first began volunteering with Oak Tree in December 2017. She recently moved into the East Lake community and started working part-time with us on the weekends. We are excited to announce that she will join Oak Tree team full time in June!


Aaron Meeks

Aaron grew up in Ashville, Al.. He graduated from University of Alabama at Birmingham with a Child Studies Degree and minors in Math and Anthropology. He has lived in China working with vulnerable children and evangelism among an unreached people group with the International Mission Board. He moved to Haiti in October 2017, to be a Trauma Care coordinator and advocate for a Children’s Home. His passions include sharing the gospel, working with children, and equipping Christ followers to share the gospel!

Aaron will be moving back to Alabama soon and joining the Oak Tree team in June. We can’t wait for you to meet him!

Please celebrate with us how God is growing our ability to provide opportunities for families in the Marks Village community! If you see one of our new team members around, be sure to give them a big Oak Tree Family welcome!

What's been happening at Oak Tree?

The blog has been silent for a few months, so we wanted to take some time to fill you in on what we’ve been up to! We’ll let the photos do the talking.

Reading Club Family party at the bowling alley for Mrs. Halie’s last day!


The boys looking sharp for their Black History Month program!


The middle school girls had a field trip to make glass art!

The middle school boys finished up their first basketball season making into the 2nd round of the tournament!

Celebrating Halie, Jesse, and sweet baby boy on the way!

The ladies making bouquets to deliver to a nursing home before Bible study on a Monday night!

We just finished our second round of yoga through our partnership with UAB Albert Schweitzer Fellow. This time, students were empowered to lead the class!


We’re soaking up as much of this sweet spring sunshine as we possibly can!

We hope you enjoyed looking at some of the highlights from the start of 2019 at Oak Tree! We’ve been busy with regular activities like Bible Club and Reading Club as well. If you’d like to get in on the fun you can always fill out a volunteer application HERE.


If you’d like to be a part of a team dedicated to raising awareness and support so that we can continue the work God has called us to in Marks Village, you are invited to join us for our first ever spring fundraiser kickoff!

Click HERE for more details.

P.S. Be on the lookout for exciting announcements about new staff joining the Oak Tree team!

Complete Peace.

Read part 1 of this story on our previous blog post HERE.

The next day, after the shooting at the bus stop, we’re back at Reading Club. This time, I’m reading a book about Komodo Dragons & King Cobras with my little 2nd grade friend. I expect the conversation to be a little lighter around this topic, but pretty soon we dive back in. Our 1st grade friend reading along says, “One bite & that lizard is DEAD!” A few pages later, while we look at the bones of the animals & learn about the circle of life the 2nd grader can’t hold it in any longer…


“Miss Raquel, what happens when we die?” 

“Well buddy, we go back in the ground. Remember when we talked about how God made us from the ground & breathed to give us life?”

“EWWW! God’s nasty! Dirt’s nasty! I don’t want His breath on me!” 

I try not to laugh & somehow recover his serious question.

“But that’s not all. If we trust Jesus, we get to live again & be with God forever. If we don’t trust Jesus, then it’s really bad & there’s only God’s anger with us forever.” 

“How can we be alive again? When we get real old we die. How can we go to Jesus?

I point to the 3 circles painted on the wall across from us, to explain the gospel.

“Remember how God made everything perfect & wanted everyone to be friends with Him forever, but we messed it up? Now everything is broken in the world, like people shooting, & dying, right? So, Jesus came to fix it. We couldn’t get back to being friends with God, but Jesus showed us how to love God & everyone else. Then He died & came back to life. He said if we trust Him, that He will save us & His death will count for our death, so we can be friends with God again & live with Him forever. So if we make Jesus our boss, after we die, it will be like we didn’t die. God will make the whole world perfect again & we get to live with Him forever! What do you think about that?”

“We’ll live here forever after we die?”

“No buddy, He will make the whole world new, so there won’t be anymore bad things or shooting & He will make sure no one ever cries again. So it will be better.”

“But who will be here?” he says with a worried look on his face.

“Well, no one after Jesus comes back & changes the world it will be different.”

“But who will unlock the Treehouse? The kids will need to get in Oak Tree.”

I sit stunned, realizing he is currently in his idea heaven. 

“Oh, buddy. We won’t need it, everywhere will be safe like the Treehouse, only way way better. You won’t need a key to get in. Everyone who follows Jesus will be able to live together forever as one big family. Everyone will always be taken care of.” 

Now he’s got his thinking face on.

“I want to trust Jesus, Miss Raquel.”

“Ok, buddy. That’s the best thing to ever do. That means that He will be your boss, so when we learn things He tells us to do, you will learn to obey Him & love Him. Do you think you want to do that? Remember, He tells us some hard things to obey, like love other people & forgive them.” (We’ve had a previous conversation about how crazy & stupid it was to love people who were mean to us!)

“Yes. I like Jesus now. But what about my momma? She don’t like Jesus. & my sister, she don’t like Jesus either. What happens when they die?”

“Remember the broken circle? Anyone who doesn’t trust Jesus will stay away from God’s love & when they die they will be in God’s anger. I know that’s scary & it makes me sad to think about. That’s why Jesus says when we follow Him, He gives us a big job to tell everyone else about how much God loves us & Jesus’s big rescue plan. So, you can tell your mom & sister that you follow Jesus & tell them the story to ask them to trust Him too.”

“Ok, but will I be white when I get to heaven?”

I’ve already been holding back tears, that one nearly sends me over the edge.

“NO, you will be the beautiful black boy that you are, buddy. God made you just right, it wasn’t an accident. He made His family all different colors & they speak all different languages. When He makes the world right again His whole family will all be together & look all different, just the way He likes it, but the good part is that everyone will love each other & there won’t be any fighting or thinking one color is better than another!”

“Whoah. That sounds good.”

“Yeah, it will be buddy. I’m glad you’re in God’s family with me.”


Complete peace. Another reminder that the war is already won. 

The next week at Reading Club I overhear his big sister talking to a volunteer.

“Mrs. Becky, my brother said when we die if we say sorry to Jesus we can live forever with Him. Is that right?”

Our 2nd grade friend already knows this is good news worth spreading & he has a King worth obeying!

Complete Chaos.

In Reading Club we were learning the story of Jonah. I over hear a 5th grader in another group ask, “Do you guys really believe this stuff?!”

I know, right?! It sounds like just another silly story book in the library, but we’re telling you this one is 100% true. 

I sit with a 2nd grader and crack open the Jesus Storybook Bible. He looks at the picture of the storm threatening the people in the boat with frustration & tiredness on his face.

“God is mean!”

“Why do you think that?” 

“Because, He’s going to drown everyone.” 

“Let’s keep reading & find out.” 

“SEE! That fish is going to EAT Jonah! God is MEAN!”

“Do you remember what Jonah told God? What did he do before getting on that boat?” 

“He told God ‘no.’”

“Yep, it probably wasn’t a good idea to disobey God, but let’s keep reading to see what happens with this fish.”

We find out that God actually had a crazy plan to be really super nice & rescue Jonah through that big ol’ fish.

“Do you still think God was mean?”

He looks wide eyed at the last page, quiet for a minute.

“No. That was really nice.”

“Do you think Jonah deserved for God to be that nice to him?” 

“No, he was mean to God.”

“Isn’t that amazing, that God loves us so much, even though we disobey Him & we’re pretty mean to God, He still sent Jesus to be our rescuer?” 

“Yeah. I think I like God a little more.”

“That’s good, buddy, let’s keep learning more, because I think He’s pretty great.” 

This 2nd grader has had multiple conversations with me in the past announcing how much he doesn’t like God, or being sure to let me know that this Jesus thing is just a joke that he can’t believe we’ve fallen for. I smile thinking of the journey God has my little 2nd grade friend on to learn His love for him. 

The next week we walk to the bus stop. It’s a nice, sunny day & we’re looking forward to greeting the kiddos to see how school was. As the 1st elementary bus unloads multiple gun shots are fired. Really? Right now? Why is someone shooting so close to the kids again?

Moms start screaming & trying to find their kids. Kids start running, not sure which way to go. The sheriff on the corner is looking around. We all start herding children into the gym as fast as we can. Community center employees start yelling to get out of here. The next busses pull up & kids unload, completely unaware of what’s going on.

Complete chaos. Another reminder that the war is real.

After things settle down, we walk some kids home as police cars slowly cruise every street. My little 2nd grade friend rides on my back & we have another conversation about God.

“Miss Raquel, why God don’t love us?”

“He does, buddy. I know that was scary, I’m sorry.”

“No He don’t! He aint with us here. They just always shootin’. I think God forgot us. Why they always shootin’, Miss Raquel?”

“I know buddy, I’m sorry. Sometimes grownups have hurts & they don’t know how to use their words. That’s why we learn to do no hurts & stick together, but sometimes grownups never learned that. We need to help teach them there’s a better way to use words instead of guns to fix problems. But God hasn’t forgotten you, we’re going to make sure you get home safe, buddy.” 

“That’s stupid. Grownups know how to use words, they don’t have hurts!”

“I know it sounds crazy, just like you get inside hurts, grownups do too, but some of them never learned how to use their words like you’re learning. They need a lot of love to learn it now.” 

“Well, I don’t wanna die, Miss Raquel.” 

“I know, buddy, but today, you don’t have to worry about that because God kept us all safe.”

Story to be continued in next blog post.

Christmas in the Village

All of the Christmas Trees, snowflakes, and decorations are packed up at the Treehouse. There are boxes in the corner and tables stacked against the wall. It should have that feeling of post-Christmas let down, but there is a happy sort of anticipation. This weekend we got to be a small part of the Christmas celebrations in Marks Village, but Christmas isn’t over yet!

This weekend my husband said he was so excited to think about Christmas morning here in the village. All of the kids’ excitement to finally unwrap their Christmas presents (if they were able to wait that long!) and all of the parents smiles to see their kids open the gifts they chose for them! Families will play board games together, read books, and make slime! They will go on adventures to the zoo, jump park, and movie theater from door prizes they won! They will play with the lights on their very first Christmas tree and bake cookies together! After the holidays, we will deliver family portraits and pictures with Santa, so that parents and children can remember the fun time they had together this year. We won’t get to see all of those moments, but are so thankful that we got to work behind the scenes to help create special memories.

While I can’t speak for all of the staff, volunteers, neighbors, and parents who helped to make Christmas in the Village possible, I have a few memories from behind the scenes for which I am grateful. I’ll remember unloading, pricing, and sorting hundreds of toys with wonderful volunteers. I’ll remember drinking hot chocolate and talking with parents as they waited to go shopping and reading the Legend of the Candy Cane with a sweet little girl. I’ll remember the middle schooler who told me he ate all of the cookies to protect me from eating too many! :-) I’ll remember seeing smiles and laughter and a few tears. I’ll remember the little kids seeing Santa in the building and barely containing their excitement. Mostly, I’ll remember that God gave us a beautiful opportunity to celebrate His great rescue plan and know that he is still working even when the Christmas decorations come down.

This year we nearly doubled the number of families who were impacted by Christmas in the Village! We also had more Marks Village community members involved this year, with around 20 volunteers serving their neighbors during the event!

This year we nearly doubled the number of families who were impacted by Christmas in the Village! We also had more Marks Village community members involved this year, with around 20 volunteers serving their neighbors during the event!


Metanoeo says it all!  This summer our tweens and teens took off for our first ever summer camp which came to be known as Camp Metanoeo.  This wonderful Greek word used in the Bible means “to be changed or to think differently after being with.”  That’s what began this summer and is continuing to happen in the amazing young men and women of Oak Tree.  

Summer 2018 Photo Gallery (1).jpg

As our 15 middle school girls are embracing Created for A Purpose afternoons, they are being challenged to see themselves differently, to see Jesus as never before, and specifically see who they are in Jesus. All the while, they’re diving into new experiences and discovering abilities they didn’t know they had. They’ve cooked sweet potatoes three ways, hand built a pottery angel, explored poetry and picture books, and danced with joy for the Lord. We’ve loved having local potter, Faith Patterson, and Artistic Director for The Dance Foundation, Rachel Inman lead us in some of these adventures. Trips to the Alys Stephens Center and preparing and enjoying a Thanksgiving feast with our families and special women in the neighborhood are ahead.


Not to be forgotten are our Oak Tree Warriors, our 11 middle school men who have come together to battle against the struggles that face them in the village and to do battle on the court as they compete this winter in the YMCA basketball league. These young men are learning the Godly traits of hard work, respect, and service as they come together as a team. Following practice, they enjoy a family meal (which they prepare) and study what it looks like to biblically Man UP!, through a curriculum developed by Lecrae and other Christian hip hop artists for at risk, young black men.  Our team is led by Coach D, Darius Haney, from Hope Inspired Ministries. We’d love to have you cheer on the Oak Tree Warriors this winter.  

Our sweet group of high school women are continuing to spend time weekly with our ever faithful volunteer, Becky Kawell. Becky pours her heart and Biblical truth into these young women as she mentors, prays, listens, reads, and studies God’s word with them. They are walking this transitional and often times difficult time of life together.  

So, yes, METANOEO! 

Jesus is changing us as we spend time together at Oak Tree being exposed to Him, His Word, and His world.

Reading Club Camp

We had two great weeks of camp with our readers this summer! Here are our top 5 favorite parts! 

1. The Silliness

Silly String, punch balloons, and lots and lots of giggles!

2. The Field Trips

We traveled to over seven different locations around Birmingham!

3. The Food

This is definitely the best way to experience new cultures!

4. The Travel

We explored every continent except Antarctica from the comfort of the Tree House!

5. The Guests

We love it when new friends join us in our explorations! 


At the Treehouse, we are learning to Stick Together, Do No Hurts, and Have Fun! We have three simple rules that make a big difference! They are part of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI). As a team, we are learning how trauma affects our children and how we can best work with them.

It starts with changing ourselves, our expectations, and recognizing our pet peeves. We start identifying our own emotions and what makes us angry or sad. We learn how to process our emotions and regulate ourselves so we can help our kids regulate when they may be frustrated or upset.

We have the privilege of acknowledging our kids struggles, feelings, and stories. We can listen to their triumphs and their hurts. We can celebrate with them, play with them, and learn with them.

We are making relationships! And isn’t that exactly what Jesus did?


So, things may look different around the Tree House from other kid's ministries. We may seem very positive in negative circumstances, because we know that playful re-engagement allows kids to “try again” and be successful in positive behaviors. You may see a lot of verbal affirmations and a ton of silliness. We know these help to quickly form great relationships that lead to long term learning. You may see us use a “magic mustache” or “blow soup” when a child is angry instead of time-out because we know that once a child is regulated, then they can have a real conversation about their choices and truly learn. We say “I love you” a lot, even when kids are making poor choices, because isn’t that what our gracious Lord said to us when we were at our worst?

So, come join us in the silly, goofy, fun relationship building that gives us the opportunity to share Jesus with our kids!

And if you want to learn more about TBRI check out this short video or read The Connected Child by Cross and Purvis.