I set this interview up with Ashley (click her name to read her bio and blog over on the Mission Year site) to promote one of my favorite missional organizations in America - Mission Year!

1. Give us the run down on what Mission Year is and is all about.

Mission Year is a radical opportunity for Christian young people to live out the simplest and most important commandment of Jesus: "Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself." By living and working for a year in a low-income, urban neighborhood, partnering with a local church, volunteering at a social service agency, and spending time with neighbors, our Mission Year team members effectively impact their communities while catching a deeper vision for what the Kingdom of God is like. From September to August Mission Year teams serve in Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Camden, and Wilmington.

2. Tell us about your Mission Year experience. What things did you do?

I lived on the West Side of Chicago with 4 other women. In my neighborhood, North Lawndale, the population is 95% African American and less than 1% white. Along with that the average income is around $18,000 which is the national poverty line. So the reality of racial injustice and poverty was very real for us every day as we walked the streets of our community and got to know our neighbors.

As a household we lived very intentional with one another, praying with each other each morning, reading and discussing different topics and books about justice, theology, race, simplicity, etc. Four days a week we volunteered in our community through all sorts of organizations, ranging from schools to homeless shelters to counseling centers and medical clinics. We were partnered with a local church where we could learn from, support and worship together with members of a church that has a history in the community. And Saturdays were our most exciting day! Saturdays were dedicated to spending time in our community, simply getting to know our neighbors. We would play basketball with neighbor kids, bake cookies for families, have barbeques. Really just share life with those around us, learn from and pour into them. And on Mondays, we rest. Sabbath is a wonderful thing.

3. In what ways did your experiences with Mission Year change your understanding of God, poverty, love and the teachings of Jesus?

To be honest, my year serving through Mission Year will take years to process through. It turned a lot of my beliefs upside down. The way I think, act, listen, see, spend- it has all changed somehow (or is in the process of changing). I will say that God is much bigger now to me than I ever imagined and uses people who I never would have thought before. A lot of issues that once were a clear black and white are now much more gray. But I have realized that is where Jesus loved to be, in the gray. His mercy is greatest in the gray. And God is ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS. If what you're doing for the poor, the disadvantaged, the orphans, the widows, the refugees, the prisoners....if it's not out of relationships with them, then it's not out of love. I mean, how can you be an advocate for someone you've never spoken to? And Jesus had to come to us, to Earth before he became our eternal advocate. So I've realized, if you are wishing to serve, go befriend someone you wouldn't normally befriend and love them with all you've got. Plain and simple.

4. Was there a particular person you met and interacted with that affected you? How?

So many to choose from. But one story I love to tell is about my neighbor Reggie. He lived in the apartment behind us. Reggie was a graduate of the program I volunteered for called Hope House, which is a transitional program for men coming out of prison. At one point in his life Reggie was heavily involved with drugs which lead to his incarceration, but after going through the Hope House several years ago, he turned his life around and is now an active member of a local community church and volunteer for the VA. And Reggie became sort of a surrogate father to my team and I during our time in North Lawndale.

Very early on during my Mission Year, there was a white police officer who stopped us on the street and talked to us about what we were doing living in the neighborhood. From the very beginning of our interactions, I could tell he was not very welcoming of us and very cynical of my team just wanting to reach out to our neighbors. Over the next several months, whenever he stopped me in our neighborhood, I always felt very uncomfortable and intimidated by him. Finally one night, when he was at our apartment building checking on a situation, he nearly barged into our apartment and said some very inappropriate things to me. I knew that what he said was not right and felt like I should do something about it, but he was the police and didn't I want him on my side??

I ended up telling Reggie about it and he encouraged me to report the incident. I said that maybe this would be the last time, but if something happened again I would report it. A week later I went over to visit Reggie and he casually asked me if I'd had any run-ins with that specific police officer again. I realized I hadn't seen him once that entire week, which was very unusual. As I told this to Reggie, he sort of got a smirk on his face. I asked him what he did and he just smiled and said sometimes you just have to watch out for people. He had indeed made a report to the police about this officer, and I never once had an encounter with that police officer for the rest of the year. Moral of the story: my African American ex-offender neighbor protected me from a white police officer in my African American neighborhood. As a friend of mine says, now that is how God spins the world upside down on it's head and shows His power and love.

[to be continued...]