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RVM Talk- ST. Luke's
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
From today’s gospel - Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
I find in my reading of the gospel and in my life that Jesus is often calling us out of our comfort zone. He sometimes calls us into places where it does not look completely safe. All of us have had the experience of starting a new job. Not knowing the culture, the expectations, if you will able to adapt or even if we made the right choice to be there. Or the experience of watching your child drive away in a car alone for the first time and knowing you have no control over what will happen next. Or being sent off to battle in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or of losing a spouse, a parent or a sibling and not knowing how you are going to cope moving forward without them. In all of these times Jesus is calling us out of the boat and offering his hand when we fear for our life or the lives of those we love.
For participants at Racine Vocational Ministry, the walk into uncharted waters can be terrifying. Coming out of prison after 15 years of incarceration is a shock most of us can barely appreciate. Some come out never having had or seen a smart phone. The house they lived in may have been raised. Their parents, grandparents, their girlfriend and maybe even their children could have passed away while they were incarcerated and they were not able to attend any of the funerals. Their gang associates may be waiting for them to step back into their lives of crime while the parole agent threatens to lock them up if they are even seen associating with their former friends. They are asked by society to reform their ways and to only associate with crime free citizens even when the family they are living with might still be “in the game.”
The person can be homeless, facing a massive rebuilding of their lives one small piece at a time, or trying one more time to stop using the horribly addictive drug that may have been ravaging their lives for decades. Or the person who worked for 30 years at the same unskilled job only to have the company leave with their retirement, leaving them wondering if they can rebuild or even get a job that will pay what they lost.
As an outsider, It may be easy to look on and say, step out…don’t look back…walk into this new community….a community who will see you as a branded felon…to people who will likely judge and reject you, and who believe you will never change. We wonder from the comfort of our living room couches, why don’t they just step out, “just do it” as the Nike commercial says…and for goodness sake, have a little faith!
For those who do step out of the boat and face the strong wind and crashing waves it can look overwhelming. The possibility of drowning in one’s doubt, lack of preparation, shame, rejection and fear is very real. Jesus can and does reach out and grab them by the hand, but it often does not happen until they step out into what looks impossible. The first step “into the waters” is always the hardest to make as they move further into a new and untested reality.
Every day we ask our folks to step out of the boat and trust! We ask them to step out in faith knowing full well that this walk will have real life consequences and that the waters will likely be deep and rough going.
What is Racine Vocational Ministry? We help people get back to work. We also help them organize their lives to support that work – often the real root of the problem. You may have heard about it or seen our sign on the Sixth Street side of the church. We began our 16th year of operations yesterday on August 12th. Plans to establish RVM as an outreach ministry of St. Luke’s began in early 2000. The St. Luke’s outreach committee that incubated this ministry concept was Fr. Steven Williams, Esther Klemp, Russ Pollock, JaneMarie Schatzman, Deacon Carol Smith, committee chair Steven Smith and me. Later, in 2001, community members were brought into a community task force consisting of Pastor James Peters of Emmanuel Lutheran, Fr. Terry McGugan of St. Michael’s Episcopal, Sr. Brenda Walsh of the Racine Dominican Sisters, Sherry Hartog, former St. Luke’s member Larry Wilkins, a Gateway College Instructor, and County Jail Chaplain Merritt Adams. After a feasibility study and some inquiries at the Community Foundation, the Siebert Lutheran Fund, the SC Johnson Fund and the Dominican Mission Fund plans were made to open the ministry on the premises of St. Luke.
RVM was started as a result of St. Luke’s parishioners asking, how can our building serve those in need! It is worth considering that this idea was incubated and executed almost entirely by St. Luke’s members. For several years, St. Luke’s Interim Pastor Carol Heglund, and priests Richard Craig and Martha Berger served on the RVM board of directors. The initiative and desire of St. Luke’s parishioners to help others and follow the gospel mandate was the sole motivator for starting RVM.
Let me back up a bit and share a little history. The development and launching of RVM needs a little historical context. St. Luke’s has a rich and significant history of building and sustaining important and highly impactful outreaches in our community. This is your history. The first major outreach of St. Luke was the Taylor Orphan Asylum — an orphanage established in 1868 by Mrs. Emerline A. Taylor, a member of St. Luke’s. It housed hundreds of area children in need. Twelve years later, the Meecham brothers, doctors from this parish, started St. Luke’s Hospital in 1876. It was Racine’s first public hospital. It operated as St. Luke’s for 113 years until 1991. The legacy lives on in the form of the St. Luke’s Hospital Fund, an multi-million dollar endowment at the Racine Community Foundation. Fr. Bob now sits on this board.
RVM opened in 2002 and the Hospitality Center, under Deacon Kevin Stewart opened in 2011. A few years later St. Michael’s staffed a clothing bank upstairs. This year, at a time in our city that we are extremely understaffed to meet the needs of our community’s mentally ill citizens, Lea Nakamura has stepped in to offer help to those at RVM, Hospitality, and others who needs assistance.
What I hope you can see is that the founding of RVM by the outreach committee of St. Luke’s Church is part of the continuum of your parish history. That history is rich and significant. St. Luke’s is known in our community as having a history of caring for the most challenged among us by building and supporting ministries to serve those who most need our help…those Jesus referred to as the “least of these.” The generosity and vison of some in this parish is continuing to shape how our city meets the needs of the poor.
RVM has developed a great deal over the years. Since our establishment we have placed close to 3,800 individuals in jobs, programming and education. We started with our walk-in program that served the areas poorest of the poor - we added a gang diversion program – working with folks wanting to leave the gang lifestyle – a homeless program – connecting with HALO, Bethany Apartments and the Women’s Resource Center – and a nationally recognized prison re-entry program that we run in collaboration with the Eastern District of Wisconsin’s US Attorney’s office in Milwaukee. Less than 7% of our participants go back to prison which is less than half of the general population. RVM staff are regular presenters at the State conferences on prison re-entry and gang violence. We have talked to folks all over the state on how law enforcement and social service collaborations can excel. I have been a part of the US Attorney’s conference design teams since 2009. RVM runs one of the most respected programs in the State. RVM has also consulted and replicated our program in Rockford, Illinois and most recently in Kenosha. RVM has positioned itself as one of the most respected agencies in our community.
RVM works very hard to reach those who most need our help. We especially look for those who are ready to conform their lives to a more pro-social way of understanding their place in the community. We are helping those who want to work and who are ready to do what it takes to make themselves more employable. It can be as simple as assisting with a GED, a blueprint reading or metrology class, a professional certification like a Commercial Driver’s license, a Certified Nursing Assistant Certificate or a CNC or Welding Bootcamp. The central work of RVM, however, remains helping people to grow into the person God has called them to be or put another way, to help them transform from hopelessness to a belief in the possibilities in their future. We are changing lives and re-building our community one person at a time. Some of you may know Carl Fields, one of the new employees at the Hospitality Center. Carl is an RVM participant. He spent many years in prison. But he returned to the community determined to live a different life. We helped Carl to identify what he wanted to do with his life as he began to develop o interest in assisting others so that they would not make the same mistakes he did. Carl was beginning to think about his world in a new way. From a victim stance to one of opportunity. From desperation to hopefulness. From reconnecting with those he formerly got in trouble with to making new relationships with people who could bring him into a world of those who could offer a bridge to healthy relationships and robust opportunities. He took the risk of reaching out to the very people who might be offended and put off by his past life. By connecting with the right people at the Racine Interfaith Coalition and the Hospitality Center his life began to look more promising. He did an internship at RIC with Pastor Michael Mueller and from there he was hired to be the program manager at St. Luke’s Hospitality Center.
Programmatically, RVM has set itself apart by rooting itself in a trajectory of transformation. Most social services are transactional. This may sound like jargon or marketing but it is at the very heart of the difference between the world and the gospel. Jesus does not promise that good information will save you. He was not a social worker or a case manager, he was the Son of God. The apostle Paul, in Romans, 12:2 says, Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. In the context of Carl Fields it was not about getting him a warehousing job and sending him on his way. It was about wanting to know what he felt called to do. It was about what God was saying to him – not about what we might be able to get him into. Our work respects both his aspirations and what God is saying to him. The Workforce Development Center will not ask that question and neither will a contract placement agency. As a staff we also pray for him and support his life of faith and growing sense of God’s presence in him and the world around him. We remind him that our faith is not in trusting what we can do for ourselves but in believing in what God has already done in and for us. In Psalm 139 the psalmist says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” This is what we believe about Carl and all of our participants. We love them and believe in them not because of some pie in the sky, positive thinking, worldly encouragement – not that this is necessarily a bad thing. But we believe in Carl because of what God has done and what he has said. The scripture clearly teaches that Carl “is God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:10) I want you to ponder these concepts for a moment!! “God is preparing our life beforehand…we were knit together in the womb…we are fearfully and wonderfully made….and we are being transformed by the renewing of our minds…why?…that we may know what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Thank God! That is Good News!!! For Carl and for all of us…our lives rest in what God has done and in what he is doing in us….and in those around us! That is good news indeed!
Fr. Bob asked me, “what can we at St. Luke do for you?” There are two things you can do. First you can pray for us. We believe God has called us to this work. We are supported by those who pray for the staff, the participants and the work that we do. Second, you can tell people of the good work we are doing. If you need to know more about us I can share some flyers and send you a copy of our latest annual report.
You can agree to become a donor or a volunteer. We can often use help in data input or cleaning. Last year, we had to let go of our part-time cleaning person due to funding issues. As a result of significant reductions in federal funding to the City we are in the midst of one of the toughest funding situations in our 16 year history. We have not given any raises in two years and we laid off two full-time workers in our prison re-entry program yet we are still falling behind. The good news is that our last 5 grants (we write about 30 proposals per year) have come in at or above forecast and that our individual donations are significantly up – the bad news is it is not yet making up for two years of downward trending state and local support.
In conclusion, I want to thank you for your support of the most vulnerable in our community. I hope you have a better idea of what we do at RVM. It is a gospel mandate to care for the poor and you are a great example to others of how the church can help to bring good news and comfort to the poor.
Let us pray: Lord help us to remember to pray for the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners and captives, and for all who remember and care for them. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.