When’s the last time you were so excited about an opportunity to serve God that you woke up in the middle of the night?
That was me, last night. Because this week, I decided to say yes to God’s gentle request to help one of his children. And I am the one who has been totally blessed. I feel like Jesus is walking beside me with his arm around my shoulders, grinning.
Let me back up. This summer, I’ve been writing a book on compassion, so I’ve been focusing my reading these days on books about social justice. The most compelling book on this topic I’ve found? The Bible.
Countless verses throughout the Old and New Testaments exhort us to care for others, not just by being nice, but by helping them in tangible ways. Over and over, we see God’s heart for all people, but especially those who are under-resourced.
The book of Proverbs, for example, is loaded with exhortations to be generous, to help the poor, to seek wisdom rather than riches.
Proverbs 3:27 says, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act.”
Proverbs 14:31 says: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
So I’ve been praying for months about how to live out what I am reading and writing about in my work-in-progress, Simple Compassion. Turns out, sometimes compassion is not so simple.
Then last month I got an e-mail from a young man named Lawrice.
I wrote about Lawrice in my book Listen: Finding God in the Story of Your Life. I had learned about Lawrice from an article by Ofelia Casillas in The Chicago Tribune. I told his story in my book as an example of someone who was listening to God through his life, and who, in spite of living in the projects on Chicago’s South Side, was following his dreams to be a singer and dancer. However, I had never spoken to him—I simply used the information in the Tribune article to tell his story.
I spoke to Lawrice by phone, asked what was new in his life. He told me that he had applied and been accepted at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a fine arts school in Los Angeles. He’d received quite a bit of financial aid, but was still short of funds to go to school.
In our first conversation, honestly, my first thought was—why are you telling me this? I was a bit resistant to Lawrice’s bold ask for help. But I told him I would pray about it, and asked him to e-mail me some details about his situation.
The next week or two, I found myself thinking about this young man. And I kept working on my book about how to be compassionate. Yeah, I’m a little dense. But God would not let go of me.
I even argued with God—I don’t have the money to help this kid. Which I don’t. But I felt like God was saying, you can help. Don’t withhold good, it’s in your power to act. Step forward, and I’ll show you the way.
God challenged me to be brave enough not to isolate myself from people who are different from me, and to take a risk. An interesting thing about the verses in the Bible about compassion—they don’t talk about how helping the poor will help the poor. (Okay, stay with me on this). They talk about how helping the poor will benefit the person who provides the help.(Check out Isaiah 58 for a great example of this).
After a few conversations with Lawrice, a few conversations with the financial aid office at his college, and lots of conversations with God, I realized that this is a young man who trusts God. But he doesn’t just sit back and wait for God to act—he’s worked very hard to follow God’s call on his life, to follow the dreams God has put in his heart, to develop the talent God has given him. He’s brave enough to ask for help, to call someone he doesn’t know, to not give up. He’s trying to rise above the challenges of his life, and he just needs a little boost.
And while I don’t have excess cash at the moment, I do have something that Lawrice does not have, and didn’t even know to ask for. I have a network. I have connections. Because of my career and my station in life, because of my family and friends, I know a lot of people. And that network is what I have to offer Lawrice.
Listen was not a best-seller. But if everyone who read it sent in just a dollar, we could cover Lawrice’s tuition. What a testimony to the power of a community.
I believe God is calling me to be a bridge-builder, a creative activist. I can connect people in need with people of means.
My friend Bill Curry, chief operating office at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, says that networks are what many underprivileged kids lack. And one mentor or helper is not enough. They need a village, a network of people who can provide connections, help them, introduce them to other people.
So I e-mailed Lawrice, asking him for more details. He told me he has managed to patch together scholarships, financial aid and more to get all but about $4000 of his tuition for the year. The school has set up a monthly payment plan, but he still does not have the means to make those payments.
I told my assistant Wendy about Lawrice, and she told me that just that morning, she had been praying that she would find a way to make a difference, to take the next step in living beyond herself. She had asked God to show her how to do that.
So she and I are partnering to pay a deposit for Lawrice that is due right away. And my dream is that we can somehow raise the money to help pay the rest of his tuition, which is about $440 per month. And maybe even offer him a little extra for food and school supplies. I don’t know—I believe God wants to help this young man, and the way God helps people is through other people.
I’m not hoping someone will write a big check. I’m hoping hundreds of people will send just a small donation, and we’ll see the power of the body of Christ to make a difference in the life of a fellow believer.
It feels like God has picked up the three threads of my prayer, Lawrice’s prayer, and Wendy’s prayer, and woven them together. Just thinking about it woke me up last night—the excitement of playing a very small role in something much bigger than myself. The adventure of obedience. I felt closer to God talking to Lawrice today on the phone than I have in a long time. And I’m wondering, if you’d like God to pick up your thread, and use it to make something beautiful. If you would like to get involved in helping Lawrice, e-mail me and I will give you details on how to help. Or simply make a check out to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and send it directly to the school at 6305 Yucca Street, Los Angeles, CA 90028, attention Elizabeth O’Brien. Be sure to include a note to Elizabeth, telling her that your contribution is for Lawrice Johnson.
Wouldn’t it be a cool thing to show Elizabeth and others at Lawrice’s school how the body of Christ works? Wouldn’t it be fun to encourage a young man who’s fighting against incredible odds to follow his dream?
The thought of it keeps me up at night.