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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

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.  

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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.

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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! 

TBRI

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?

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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. 

Kinder Kamp

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Kinder Kamp was the perfect way to finish our last week of summer! We had so much fun together! Our rising kindergarteners had a very big week ahead of them starting school for the very first time! We wanted them to be excited and confident with a few new skills, like walking in a line and sitting criss-cross applesauce. Of course, we sang songs, played with stickers, practiced our numbers and letters, and made many delicious meals in our pretend kitchen! My favorite part of the week was when one of our sweet kids was sitting at the table pulling one sticker after another off her sheet and plopping them expertly onto her paper (a difficult task the beginning of the week) all while singing Jesus loves me!

Salt and Light

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This was my 6th year Rocking the Village in Gate City and easily takes gold medal for best year yet! Over 100 children came to the Treehouse and heard the Gospel. It doesn’t get any better than that! They heard the Gospel through God’s Word in Storytelling, they saw the Gospel in science experiments and games. They colored pieces of the Gospel in artwork now hanging on the walls. They experienced the Gospel in the love and attention of countless volunteers. They drew the Gospel in their small groups and they sang the Gospel with songs and instruments.

Over 100 children have heard that while we live in a broken world, separated from God because of our sin, that God loves us. God wants to be with us and he sent his son Jesus who came to earth and died so that we could live with him. They have heard that all we need to do is turn from our sin and trust in Jesus and we get a new and wonderful relationship with God our creator!

They heard it and they are listening! They are processing, and they are responding to the Gospel! I had the great privilege to tell the Gospel each day through the stories Jesus told in his Message on the Mountain. And while the children diligently colored their coloring pages, they were listening.

On Tuesday, I taught about God calling us to be the Salt and Light in the broken world. We are salt and light when we love people the way Jesus loved us. We turn from ourselves and trust in Jesus and he gives us the Holy Spirit, making us little salt shakers and light bulbs, bringing flavor and light. Oh, I wish you could have heard us sing it!

One third grader said, “There ain’t no love here Ms. Halie.” Do you know what that means? He took the Gospel and he connected it to his small piece of this broken world. He saw that there are places with love and places without love and in his home, he doesn’t see love.

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This isn’t meant to be sad or discouraging, this is meant to be exciting! We know there is love here. Jesus is here in Marks Village and he is moving. We know that his light, when seen in full, is blinding. So now, we pray. We pray that God opens the eyes of our neighbors to see the light that is already here, scattered in unlikely places. And we go. We go and we look for those that God is opening their eyes and we show them what God has shown us. He loves us. He’s here. And he’s sending us out.

Working with Teens is "Not My Thing"

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Our wonderful Teen HANG Time began just a few months ago and as an OTM staff member, I was drafted to help get the program off the ground. Now, understand me, I was not drafted because I have excellent skills in working with teens, because I am so patient with this transitioning age group, or because I already had great relationships with these teens. Nope. I have none of those, but I was drafted because I was willing to be drafted. That’s right, I was just an adult human being willing to spend my afternoon with teenagers.

I could spin this story in a positive light and tell you the wonderful little moments where I connected with teens. Or, I could spin this in a negative light and explain my many mistakes and failures. But, I don’t plan on doing either of those. My point here is this: sometimes God calls us to do things that are not in our comfort zone and outside of our gifting. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus tells us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. He did not allocate specific areas to each of the disciples, he simply said “go.”

Now, Jesus said “go”, but he also said, “and I will be with you to the end of the age”. What a promise! When we go, we are not alone. Every time I serve outside of my gifting, I am given the opportunity to really see that Jesus is with me. I’m not relying on my gifts, I’m relying on Him. As Paul said, I am learning to be “content with weaknesses…For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) How does that work, you may ask? Because God says, “my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So, what other conclusion can I draw, but that teen ministry is a perfect place for me right now? My weaknesses are abundantly clear with these teens, but that means that God’s power is perfect. And really, do I want my power or His?

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Why I am an Oak Tree Intern...

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Hi y’all, I’m SK and you’ve probably seen me around the Treehouse. I’m a sophomore at Samford University majoring in Journalism and Mass Communications. How did I become involved in Oak Tree Ministries? Well, because of a program called Micah Fellows.

Micah Fellows is a service based honors program at Samford that revolves around Micah 6:8, which says “And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”. Freshman year, my cohort of Micah Fellows studied the meaning of justice. This year, we are focusing on mercy. Junior year we will focus on humility, then throughout senior year we will be learning about grant writing. Micah Fellows has already provided me with knowledge I wouldn’t have learned inside an ordinary classroom.

For example, I filed taxes for Birmingham citizens in low income areas through Impact Alabama. Numbers are not my strength, so I had multiple breakdowns before realizing it’s not about me or how well I can file taxes. It’s about providing a service to people who may not be shown this kind of love if it weren’t for volunteers. I also got to be a listening ear to those who just needed someone to talk to. I heard many stories that stick with me to this day. Because of this experience, I wanted to do something more to make even a small difference in low income communities.

At the end of freshman year, the Micah Fellows had the opportunity to interview with non-profits in Birmingham. Service is a central theme within the program, so each of us are required to intern at a non-profit for three years during our time at Samford. Most people wanted to find one that related to their major, but God was tugging at my heart, telling me I shouldn’t go down that path. I interviewed with multiple places. None of them felt quite right for me. Finally, I sat down and talked with Halie and Jesse and I learned about an organization whose mission is something I am passionate about.

They explained how Oak Tree Ministries focuses on reconciling people with God and people with other people in their community. How they work to provide relief to Marks Village, whether that’s in times of crisis over over a long period of time. How they work to rehabilitate the community and people, physically and spiritually. And how they build relationships with the people in Mark’s village in order to spread the news of the goodness of God.

After interning here for a little over a semester, it’s helped me confirm that community is so necessary and that everyone benefits from it. We are all broken, and sometimes the only way to rebuild ourselves is through connecting with others while connecting with God.

So what do I do here? I get to help out a little behind the scenes by helping to organize the newsletter and doing any kind of work needed to prepare for the day. I also volunteer at Reading Club on Thursdays and Bible Club on Sundays.

Recently, God has been telling me to work on vulnerability. I spent a lot of time suppressing that calling, until He broke me down and proved to me I needed to be vulnerable. So, I love getting to talk with my small group of second and third grade boys at Bible Club. Through this time, we all share struggles we face at school with our peers. Then we discuss little things we can change to reduce conflict and show love towards one another. At Oak Tree, God has showed me that vulnerability breeds vulnerability. Trust is gained as relationships are built, which is a pathway for sharing how loving God is and how we can share that love with others.

If you ever see me around, please stop me to say hi!