I can’t reel him in from his stream-of-consciousness chatter. His cat is soft and gets fur on the furniture. He worries about what will happen to her if she ever gets out of the apartment and gets lost. His mom is looking for a job. I try over and over again to redirect him to math, but long addition just can’t compete for his attention.
I am fighting a losing battle for focus on question #3 when his storytelling shifts again.
“I’m so sad,” he says. “We have to give our cat away. We can’t afford to keep her.”
I pause at this. “José, I’m so sorry,” I say. “That sounds really sad. I know how much you love your cat.”
His eyes are far away now. “My mom is looking for a job,” he says, “But it’s hard for her to find one.” He balls his right hand into a fist, and then slams it into his left hand, pushing it away from his body. “This is my family,” he says of his fist, “And we are pushing back homelessness.” He watches his left hand drift away, and then does the motion again, fist into hand. “This is my family, and we are pushing back the dark.”
When I think of José, I think of icebergs. In the world of youth development, we refer to the tip above the water as being ready to learn. This is what we hope for, for all our kids – that they come to school, to The GreenHouse, to life in general, able to fully access the academic, social-emotional, and personal skills that kids absorb in their daily work of study and play.
But for the tip of the iceberg to poke out above the waves, so much must be in place under the surface. So many needs must be met before that fragile readiness emerges from the water. Need for physical safety and having enough food. Need for love and affection, to feel valued. Need for stability, for knowing where you’ll sleep, that your parents and siblings are ok, that you’re safe in your home and neighborhood and school. There is simply no way that a benchmark test registers on the Richter scale if those things aren’t there.
As José slams his fist into his hand again, I finally put down my pencil and turn to face him. I really look at him for the first time. I see him, beyond the math test and my agenda for him and our agenda for him as a society. I see his human self, his heart, his hope, his pain. His love for his cat, and his grief at losing her. His fear for his family. His need to know that someone, Someone, bigger than him is in control.
“José,” I tell him. “You know who pushes back the dark? God does. God is with you and your family. And he loves you so much.”
He turns to look at me. It’s just for a second. Our eyes lock and then he’s off again, talking about a squirrel up in the tree. I let the math go for today. We read books instead. We’ll connect with the teacher and his mom later. For now there just needs to be a moment, outdoors in this spring afternoon, when eight-year-old José can rest from the burden he is carrying.
The GreenHouse does many things. We run after-school programs and youth groups and summer camps. There is reading and math and art and gardening, all kinds of activities and gatherings. But all of that is secondary to our real calling on this block. It’s the true, deep work of seeing and loving, of listening, of being with day after day. Of opening ourselves to bear witness to the preciousness of the other. And in that moment of witness, we look together to Jesus, the one who does push back the dark, in our community and in our world.
Every Night I Give Thanks for the Best of Today
Prayers of the People
This Christmas, three of The GreenHouse's church partners participated in our Christmas Family Gift Partners program. In this model, members of local churches pray for a GreenHouse family, and donate gift cards for household necessities and gifts in the Christmas season. Church members are also invited to share prayer requests back with us, so we can pray for them as well. In this way we form a true partnership, through the gift of mutual prayer.
That gift of prayer created one of the most surprising and moving moments of our Christmas ministry this year. The story below recounts the day that the GreenHouse community gathered to pray for our brothers and sisters from participating churches.
----------------------------- December 18, 2019 ---------------------------
The Wednesday before Christmas break, a group of GreenHouse parents and staff gathered in the clubhouse. Folks trickled in, chatting and grabbing coffee. I wrote a simple song refrain on the white board and got out my guitar. When things finally quieted down, we sat down together in a semi-circle.
Looking around the circle, the diversity was striking. Some folks in the circle spoke English, and others spoke Spanish. Some folks were Catholic, and other evangelicos. The woman on my left recently celebrated her sixtieth birthday, while the woman on my right just turned twenty-one. But we were gathered together for a unified purpose: we had come to pray. As the GreenHouse community, we were ready to lift to God the prayer requests we had received from our partner churches, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I passed around a basket holding the prayer requests, all of them written in English and Spanish so everyone could understand. Everyone took a few. Recognizing that we come from different prayer traditions, we used a simple song called "Prayers of the People" to guide us. After each prayer request, we sang the song as a response, singing "You hear us calling, you hear us calling, Abba Father," or "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy," depending on the petition shared.
We began slowly, going around the circle, reading our church partners' prayer requests one at a time, each petition echoing in our hearts and minds.
Please bless our new baby. Help us to be good parents to her.
--You hear us calling, you hear us calling, Abba Father--
Please heal my sickness. I've been sick for a long time.
--Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy--
Help me find a job I love. I want work that gives me meaning and purpose.
--You hear us calling, you hear us calling, Abba Father--
Please heal broken family relationships. Help me to reunite with my son.
--Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy--
As we went around the circle, each individual voice was lifted up in prayer and song - some voices tentative and others confident, some experienced in prayer and others just learning. Partway through the second round, I realized that everyone was weeping. Tears poured down people's faces as we lifted our church partners' joys, pains, fears, and needs up to God.
After all the prayer requests had been shared, we continued to pray. Women cried out to God for their children, and for other children that they care about. People prayed for sick relatives, for broken relationships, for jobs, for deep needs. All of the desires, hopes and fears shared in our partners' prayer requests were reflected in our own lives. Perhaps this was why we wept: our church partners' vulnerable sharing united us in our common humanity, and opened our hearts to share our own deep needs and desires with God.
In my years at The GreenHouse, it was the most powerful, vulnerable moment of parent sharing and prayer I've seen. Afterward, we sat in a peaceful silence, reflecting on the power of God. We decided to pray together again soon. Then we went our way, each person back into their morning plans, yet changed by the experience.
City Life, Northside, and Sanctuary Covenant Church,
you were part of this, through your love, generosity and vulnerability.
Thank you for being true partners with our community this Christmas season.
--small miracles observed, summer 2019--
The following stories were told around the circle by GreenHouse year-round and summer staff as we reflected on the ways we saw kids and teens grow at The GreenHouse this summer.
Growing in Faith
One new student, Jackson, was quiet at first this summer. He came to every teen activity: Oasis youth group, R4 summer camp, cooking and gardening activities in the morning - just checking things out. The other teens watched him, trying to get a sense of him
At Oasis one evening (our teen faith formation group), we were painting after the lesson. As he brushed color over his paper, Jackson said, "I never knew that God cared about the things happening in my life. I never knew that he wants to heal me." He shared about a painful past with his parents that left deep scars... all this while painting, eyes glued to the paper. The teens around him were quiet, listening, like, "Wow." Jackson's sharing set the tone for the rest of the group, and helped make a place for him in the community. It was powerful to watch God reach out and touch this young man's heart, and to see him opening up in response.
Growing in Perseverance
All summer, 6th grader Alejandro tried to pass the swimming test to go in the deep end. He tried every single week... and failed. And Alejandro is not a kid who handles disappointment well. The frustration level was high every week as we left the pool!
The last week, Alejandro marched over to take the swim test again. "Are you sure?" I asked him. "We only have 30 minutes left." I was afraid things would end on a bad note for him yet again.
But he was sure. He waded into the water and worked with the life guard to take the test for the umpteenth time. But this time he came running back, trumpeting, "I passed!!" He was so proud of himself. And I was so proud of him, for trying again... the ability to get back up after failure, to persevere in the face of disappointment, is so critical in life.
Growing in Leadership
At the beginning of the summer, one of our eighth graders constantly recited the teen mantra: "I don't want to be here unless my friends are here." He had conflicts with other students, and sulked a lot when he didn't feel like doing the group activities. Over the summer I saw great growth in him, a genuine process of maturing. With time, he began to take a leadership role with the other teens in the daily Garden Intern program. He was the one I gave my keys to when I needed someone to go get the tools, because I knew he'd take care of them and get the job done. When we needed someone to take over daily watering after the program ended, I asked him and he did a great job. By the end, he was a positive leader, welcoming new kids and modeling responsible behavior for the younger ones.
One first grader, Justin, is really high-energy. The idea of following directions and participating in a group is challenging for him. Over the summer he became really comfortable using the "emoji" wall to tell his mentors how he was feeling. Sometimes Justin would run over to the wall in the middle of the day and put his name sticker up next to the "mad" emoji. It was so helpful because instead of acting out, he was learning to express his feelings to a trusted adult. His mentor could then follow up with him: Justin, what happened? Why are you feeling mad? What might help you calm down? He was increasingly able to express how he felt and why he felt that way as the summer went on.
Growing in Confidence and Relationship
I remember one of our 8th graders, Josefina, being really distant last summer. She would hide behind her phone and sit in the corner most of the time, only interacting when necessary. This summer she came out of her shell, and put the phone away! Especially on the overnight Oasis camping trip, I watched her getting to know other students and listening deeply to the sharing. It was a joy to see the growth in her connection and sense of belonging over time.
Growing in Teamwork and Service
We went camping for two nights as the finale of our teen summer program, and the first night we got there late. It was hot, and everyone was exhausted. But worst of all, they were hungry. Hungry + tired + hot = HANGRY. And as the one with the food, they were mostly irritated with me.
As I got the food out, a group of teens came over. It was the crew that had done Summer Cooking Camp together, and they came up to me as a team. "We know how to cook," they said. "We've been doing it together all summer. How can we help?" One teen took over grilling the burgers, while another did hot dogs. Someone else got out the buns and prepped the condiments.
Their comfort with each other and desire to help was a balm to my soul (I was hungry and tired too!) At the end, the food was great, and all the more delicious because of their teamwork. I loved seeing the way that their summer experience translated into real-time camaraderie and a heart to use their skills in service of the community.
"When The Kingdom Comes Close To Us"
-- by Rena Crocker, Executive Director, April 2019
When Isaac arrived at my office door on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I had no idea what was about to unfold.
His visit started normally enough. The door swung open to reveal a small, energetic second grader with thick glasses, standing with Deborah, our Elementary Program Director.
"Isaac's having a hard time today," Deborah said, her hand gently on his shoulder. "Is it OK if he sits in your office for a while?"
"Come on in, Isaac," I invited him. As he settled into the beanbag we keep for such occasions, I pulled out some art supplies.
However, Isaac didn't just want to draw - he also wanted to talk.
"I've got a question," he announced. "Can you tell me about D-Day?"
Um. Not the conversation I'd envisioned at The GreenHouse today. I embarked on an attempt to explain the context and events of D-Day at a second grade level.
He kept doodling as the questions continued. Why do wars happen? What about the people who died in the war? Did they go to heaven? What is heaven like? When Deborah returned to take him back to program, he ended by exclaiming, "I wish that God would walk through this door right now! I've got some big questions I want to ask him!"
I chuckled for a long time after Isaac left the room. But gradually, a deeper conviction emerged from under the amusement. I'd been genuinely surprised by what I'd seen in Isaac that afternoon. How often we think we know each other, I reflected, without really knowing what’s below the surface.
A few hours later, I headed down to join the teen Oasis group for their weekly Wednesday night gathering. As it began, it was almost as though Janelle, our Faith Formation Coordinator, had been listening in on my conversation with Isaac.
“If you could ask God any question,” she prompted the teens, “what would it be?”
Students shifted in their seats, thinking, and then began to share. Unlike Isaac, their questions for God were personal.
One young man said quietly, “I’d ask God if I’m going to be able to achieve my dreams in life.” This seems like a straightforward question, but I know that this young man is a “Dreamer” – his family brought him to the US without papers when he was young. He’s working hard to be the first in his family to attend college, earning a 4.0 at a competitive local high school, but without legal status so much about his future is uncertain. He twisted his jacket sleeve in his lap as he spoke, nervous.
The girl sitting next to him had only been coming to Oasis for a couple weeks. She asked, “Why do the people I depend on always abandon me when I need them the most?”
The boy next to her is on probation after recent skirmishes with the law. After a long pause, he looked down and whispered, “Why is life so hard?”
As the teens shared, my earlier thought resurfaced. How often does our society judge young people, based on their external behaviors and circumstances? I could almost hear voices rattling off the labels: Juvenile offender. Undocumented. Underprivileged. “At risk.”
Looking around from face to face, I knew that none of those labels reflect who these teens actually are. That God doesn’t see any of those labels when He looks at them. Instead, God gazes at each one with a fierce, proud, tender love. Precious son. Beloved daughter. Chosen. As teens bravely shared around the circle, I sensed the power and depth of God’s love for them.
In the Gospels, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, saying, "It has come near to you." It's always characterized by freedom, healing and forgiveness. In the Kingdom of God, people are known for who they really are, not by the labels they've been given. They are restored to God and to each other, healed to live in the full freedom that God intended.
Someone once said to me that hanging out at The GreenHouse was like seeing a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. I think there's truth in that. The Kingdom of God comes close to us when a child knows that he can bring his big questions to God. It comes close to us when a teen takes off his “image” to share vulnerably about his dreams, fears and desires. It comes close to us when a young woman looks in the mirror and see herself as God does, dismissing the limiting labels she's been given. It comes close to us when young people are freed and transformed by love and acceptance, from God and from their community.
More Than We Could Ask or Imagine
by Janelle Torres, Youth and Families Faith Formation Coordinator, August 2018
Hi everyone! I'm Janelle, and I lead the Oasis Teen Program at The GreenHouse. This summer the youth encountered God's love in a powerful way, and I'm excited to share about it!
Long before the summer, I knew I wanted to take the teens on an overnight trip as the big "finale" of our summer program. I hadn't taken the group out for a sleepover before, and I was nervous - I wanted it to be the best!! But there are so many details you can't anticipate or control in planning a group activity. As I prepared, God whispered into my ear to slow down and not to worry. He had plans of his own.
The morning of the trip, GreenHouse staff met to pray. Someone prayed from Ephesians 3:20, asking God to do "more than we could ask or imagine" in this trip. At the end of the time, I felt a deep confidence - I knew that God was going to show up. Finally, everyone arrived, and our group of teens and leaders piled into cars with our sleeping bags and pillows.
The evening began with a barbeque, swimming and music. Soon a dance battle broke out - teens got into groups and created dance crews! I loved seeing two of our newest teens who were very quiet this summer lead dances and encourage others to jump in.
After deciding who was going to be America's Best Dance Crew, we gathered around the bonfire and made smores. Teens shared their favorite summer memories, and what they remembered about meeting each other. They told stories about how The GreenHouse had brought them together. After a while, a quiet young man named Todd spoke up. He shared that coming to The GreenHouse for the last year has changed his family, and continues to be a big part of their growth. In telling his family's story, he began to sob. "I want to become a better son and uncle," he said. The teens got up from their seats around the fire, surrounding him to pray for him.
One by one, other teens took their masks off, following Todd's courageous example. Teens opened up about their personal struggles, deep grief, and lies they've believed about themselves. Everyone around the circle wept openly. Each time a teen shared, other teens and staff gathered around them to comfort them with prayers and hugs.
I watched in awe as the older teens stepped into spiritual leadership, caring for their younger peers. High school students who have been a part of Oasis for years led in prayer, honoring the vulnerable atmosphere and speaking about God's unfailing love and power. One young woman named Blanca made her way around the circle, embracing every teen and praying for them. Blanca is in 10th grade, and has faced her own struggles with school, friends, and family. That night she stood with teen after teen, proclaiming God's love and deliverance. I've never seen her be so fearless before. She overflowed with the love of God, and wanted to make sure each teen knew they were not alone.
Finally, I looked at the clock. We'd started making smores at 10pm, and suddenly it was 3am! As everyone headed to bed, I lay in the dark celebrating what God had done. As it says in Ephesians 3:20, God's power was at work in and through the teens on our overnight. I know that the impact of that evening continues to reverberate in all of our lives, and I am thankful that God's plans were even greater than mine!
"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" - A GreenHouse play
by Rena Crocker, Executive Director, July 2018
When the idea first came up this spring, it sounded relatively straight-forward.
"Let's put on a play this summer," suggested Pastor Dave Lindner, GreenHouse Board member, volunteer staff, community pastor, soccer coach, and drama teacher extraordinaire. "I know just the one - we'll do a 'Christmas in July' theme. It's called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever."
If you've never read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, it's worth checking out. It's about a family of six rambunctious kids - the Herdmans - who steal lunches, wham other kids on the playground, and generally wreak havoc around their town. One day the Herdmans find their way to Sunday School - mainly for the free dessert - and hear about the annual Christmas Pageant, where they end up cast as Mary, Joseph, and all the main characters of the nativity play. The Herdmans, who have never heard the Christmas story before, bring fresh eyes to the familiar narrative, and the chaos that ensues is hysterical, profound, and deeply resonant with the true meaning of Christmas.
It's a wonderful story, with fun, creative parts for all ages. A great fit for the GreenHouse, right? So in May we held auditions, and in June began rehearsal, for a July 13 performance date.
As rehearsals began, it became quickly apparent that putting on this play might not be so straightforward after all. Almost none of our students had ever been in a play before. Some of our younger actors struggled to read, so learning lines was difficult. Rehearsals were moderate chaos - kids were in and out, squirming, playing with props, arguing over costumes, pounding drum beats on the wall when they were supposed to be quiet backstage. Many of the kids were hearing the Christmas story for the first time. In other words, we were the Herdmans, putting on a play about the Herdmans.
But amidst the chaos, something began to emerge - a community using its gifts, talents, and time to make something meaningful together. Parents, volunteers and staff stepped in to play various supporting roles, and gifted actors from local and not-so-local communities drove in to play lead parts. Folks donated for the set, lent costumes, brought donuts, rehearsed lines with young students. And little by little, the students began to catch the excitement of the production: learning lines, developing characters, projecting their voices, learning about blocking. You could feel excitement and ownership building, like a small tender shoot amidst the noise.
Finally, July 13 arrived. In true form, things were precarious to the end. Just before the performance began, everyone needed to go to the bathroom - and we discovered that both GreenHouse bathrooms were locked, with no key. Pastor Dave came as close as I've ever seen to pulling out what remains of his hair. But by some miracle the bathroom doors got opened, costumes were assembled, everyone arrived... and then it was showtime. The GreenHouse rendition of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever began.
One by one, our young actors, suddenly subdued and serious, came out and stood before a full house of parents, younger siblings, community members, and crying babies. As folks cheered and filmed and smiled, something beautiful happened. Students got into character as they never had before. They remembered their lines, or helped each other subtly when someone forgot one. A student who swore he'd never sing in public sang a solo in the opening scene - with his eyes closed, but he did it. A seven year old got the biggest chuckle of the night with a comedic line, and then a second one when his whole face lit up at having made the audience laugh. Several GreenHouse parents made their stage debuts alongside their kids, in both English and Spanish, hamming it up and bringing delight to all who watched.
By the end of the performance, I felt that I'd witnessed something holy. The Christmas story is about "God with us" - Jesus, born as a gift to the world. That holy presence didn't arrive in some kind of prestigious, well-organized way, but rather through the birth of a child to migrant parents in poverty. In other words, holiness was born right in the mess of real life. Through this play, God came like that to dwell among us. Was the process chaotic and often maddening? Absolutely. Were there moments when we genuinely didn't know what was going to happen? Many. But God met us, giving the faith to keep going, and the support of a generous community that jumped in to help. And in that process, as GreenHouse kids, staff, volunteers, and parents worked together to put on this play, something holy was born, and we were all the richer for it.
We want to thank the MANY people who participated, in all kinds of ways. Without your support, The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever would have been no Christmas pageant at all. Truly, it takes a village.
- Darlene from Church Without Walls, whose warm and witty portrayal of Grace anchored our whole performance - and who drove to and from Berkeley four times to rehearse and perform with us. What a gift!
- Asa from Sacramento Waldorf School, who memorized his part in a day, did a fabulous job as Bob, and was a true role model for other young actors
- Julia, GreenHouse Grad and Summer Staff, who narrated the whole play with such grace, and also served as an inspirational role model for younger actors
- Kim, Danny, and Jacob from Church Without Walls, who good-naturedly jumped in, played whatever parts we needed (sometimes changing day by day), and wore multiple different hats (literally)
- Grace from The GreenHouse and Lauren from Church Without Walls for helping backstage to costume, cue, and keep everyone (relatively) quiet
- Maliya, GreenHouse volunteer extraordinaire, who stayed long days after volunteering to rehearse and brought Gladys to life
- Valeria, GreenHouse volunteer, who helped with the angel choir
- Janelle, GreenHouse Oasis Director, who came back to play Imogene Herdman the day after her foot surgery
- Olivia and Estefanía, GreenHouse parents, who got great laughs in their roles as gossipy moms - les agradecemos un montón
- Johanna and Brenda, GreenHouse Grads and Staff, who jumped in to fill last-minute roles and helped direct traffic flow for the event
- Susie from The GreenHouse Board, who did lights beautifully
- Councilmember Angelique Ashby, for donating materials for the set
- Church Without Walls in Berkeley, for lending their Epiphany costumes
- Martin, who lent us the risers
- Steve, for help with set construction and painting
- Jesse, for filming
- Ashley, GreenHouse teen, for taking pictures
- Deborah, Judy, and other GreenHouse staff, for coordinating food and helping clean up
- And of course, Pastor David Lindner, whose vision and faith for this performance empowered so many, and who embodied God's grace throughout, even in the chaos.
Finally, to all The GreenHouse students who rehearsed and performed: Isaias, Nazila, Emily, Noah, Naomi, Calaysia, Nazanin, Odie, Anthony, Layla, Jacob, Auggie, Abraham, Faith, Domonique, Derricc, Niyati. We are so proud of you. Thank you for sharing the Christmas story with us in such a beautiful and powerful way.
"It's Like Watching a Slow-Motion Miracle"
by Rena Crocker, Executive Director, April 2018
A few weeks ago, I was walking outside with another member of GreenHouse staff. The day was warm, and we made our way slowly through the large apartment complex that comprises our block, enjoying the weather. People were out - adults gathered in doorways to talk, or tinkered with cars in the parking lot, while kids ran around and climbed on the play structure.
As we walked, we noticed a figure sitting under a tree in the distance. After a moment we recognized Carlos, a GreenHouse teen we know well. We stopped to watch him, unobserved. He sat quietly, reading a book while the leaves turned slowly in the breeze above him. There was a long pause, and then, without taking his eyes off of Carlos, my co-worker said, "It's like watching a slow-motion miracle."
I knew immediately what he meant. Carlos started coming around The GreenHouse when he was in 5th grade. He was warm, insightful and funny, but struggled with ADHD, so he was often hyper and distracting in class. At age 14 he went off his ADHD meds, and by sophomore year was seriously behind with credits. He was forced to transfer to a different school, where he earned straight F's, got in trouble for cussing at teachers, and started using drugs and alcohol. Over the course of high school, he moved four different times - through public schools, continuation schools, and independent study programs - until finally he entered his senior year without the chance of graduating on time because he was far behind in credits.
In quiet moments, Carlo's grief would spill out. His relationship with his father was deeply painful, and struggled with feeling judged and labeled as "the bad kid." As Father Grey Boyle writes in his book Tattoos of the Heart: "You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear." For Carlos, at times the burdens were overwhelming.
Over the long, slow unfolding of years, The GreenHouse community loved on Carlos, and he loved back. It wasn't a linear process, or an easy one. It seemed like Carlos simultaneously longed for strong boundaries, even as he deeply resisted them. Everyone could see that in some real way, Carlos was fighting for his life, and the struggle was bruising. But he stayed in it, and so did his GreenHouse mentors.
And then, after many years, some deep center of gravity began to shift in Carlos. He went to a weekend conference and realized "I don't like the way I'm living." He encountered God's love, deeply and personally, for the first time. He enrolled in a credit recovery program and is now on track for graduation, against all odds.
Carlos now keeps an eye out for younger students. He tells other teens, "Whatever you're going through, it's not more powerful than the plans God has for you." He asks, "How are your grades? It's no fun doing credit recovery. What are you going to do without a high school diploma? How are you going to help your family if you're dead or in jail?"
He has the authority to ask these questions, because they know where he's been. He has plans to go to college, where he wants to be a counselor. He says, "I used to wish I was someone else, but now I love myself. I'm a funny person, I have a heart to pursue God. I want to get an education. I used to live with regrets, but now I have confidence for the future."
Yes, a "slow-motion miracle" indeed.
Thank you for walking with us!