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Stairwell Moments

(Speech by Rachel Luna and Courtney Aldrich for the Project Transformation North Texas Luncheon, April 12, 2018)

Courtney: Good afternoon. I’d like for you to imagine that you’re in a crowded stairwell. Whether you’re climbing up or walking down, you’re bound for a destination … and probably in a rush. And if you’re like most people, you’re not really pausing to look passers-by in the eye, call them by their name, or ask where they’re headed. I’m pretty sure we’ve all been guilty of stairwell mentality at one time or another. WE certainly have. But on one Sunday morning, in a busy stairwell at First United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee, I happened to cross paths with Rachel Luna. She was coming up; I was going down.

Rachel: Courtney and I grew up in youth group together. She’s 2 years older than me, and my mom mentioned that Courtney had done some internship in Texas and loved it. I was finishing my freshman year at the University of Tennessee and was looking for a summer work opportunity. So when I saw Courtney that Sunday in the stairwell. I asked her about her summer job, she told me about this thing called Project Transformation. She encouraged me to apply.

Little did I know that that brief conversation would eventually change the trajectory of my life.

Courtney: I had gone to PT the summer before, planning a short-term commitment. I wanted to beef up my resume and get some “people experience” to complement the social work degree I was pursuing at Western Kentucky University. But I was so taken with my PT experience that one PT internship turned into three. Along the way — I met Juan, Karina, and 77 other sweet children, all of whom taught me much more than I could have ever taught them. I also became part of a diverse Christian community of young adult interns, who engaged me in soul-stirring conversations and widened my view of God’s universe. I experienced the power of Christ’s connectional body — as hundreds of church volunteers shared with us their hospitality and encouragement.

Rachel: As a PT intern, I was struck by the role that income inequality plays in the learning gap between different groups of kids, depending on their life circumstances. I saw firsthand how many of our kids struggled to read, and I could personally relate to their struggle. I was in first grade when I was diagnosed with Dyslexia. But I was lucky. I had parents who could afford to send me to summer school. They had the resources to hire tutors when I needed extra help. If it weren’t for these opportunities, I don’t think I’d be standing here right now.

Courtney: During my PT journey, I was struck by the power of relationships. Not stairwell relationships, not microwaved relationships. But real relationships of mutuality. Between a child and an intern; a struggling reader and a volunteer; a church member and a church neighbor.

I think of our relationship with Jada, whose family lived in the house behind the Denison church where I served. She came to PT all three years I was there, and she stood out. Jada was an emotional pre-teen, full of energy — and insecurity. It didn’t take long for us to see that she desperately needed stability in her life. For Jada, that’s what we were. We knew her name. We listened. We laughed together. We talked about her future. We offered her consistency and encouragement.

Rachel: Eventually, summer was over and I went back to school. But things were different as I tried to settle back into my routine. God had changed my heart. One night while I was doing my homework for a sports management class, I realized that I was no longer passionate about my major. Instead of wanting to work with athletes, I now felt called to work with children like those I had met at PT — kids who are falling through the cracks of our society through no fault of their own. The next day, I changed my major from Sports Management to Social Work.

Courtney: In case you don’t know me, I’m a planner. And of course, I had arrived in Dallas with a five-year plan. I was going to serve with PT for one summer. But God had a different plan for me. That first summer, I was challenged to explore God’s calling on my life. The experience pulled me back for a second summer. It was during these months of discernment that I first heard a whisper from God: Project Transformation Tennessee — to bring this transformational ministry to my home state. But it was not part of my five-year plan. I tried to ignore the whisper, but I couldn’t. Eventually, I met with my youth minister back home, and she encouraged me to enter into a season of prayer. For the next year, I did not share much about these holy nudgings with others until, one day I was talking with Eric Lindh. Out of the blue, he mentioned that PT was looking to share its ministry blueprint with communities beyond Dallas, and that Tennessee kept popping up in their conversations. Hmmm. I returned home more confused, yet more excited than ever. With guidance from PT staff in Dallas and local mentors in Tennessee, we began to share the vision with pastors and community leaders in my home state. And each time we shared it, we received affirmation. Doors began to open. And we began to walk through those doors … one at a time.

Rachel: When PT-Tennessee launched in 2012, I was recruited to return home and serve as one of the first site coordinators in Nashville. I later served in the year-round program in dallas and eventually felt called to attend grad school. A PT alum encouraged me to look at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. It so happens that our nation’s capital is a city that I’ve always felt drawn to. I became a fellow at Wesley’s Institute for Community Engagement, where my professors encouraged me, as part of my studies, to explore what PT in DC could look like. The more I learned, the more convicted I became that this was a calling from God. The need is staggering. In DC Public Schools, only 42 percent of high school seniors are on track to graduate. This doesn’t include students who already have dropped out.

This summer, we plan to launch our first summer of ministry with 2 host churches, 16 young adults, and 120 children!

Courtney: Project Transformation Tennessee is now in its seventh year of ministry. We’ve grown from one community to five, and served more than 2,000 children across our state. We’ve noticed that a large number of our kids come to us with traumatic experiences, so we now complement our literacy program with strategies aimed at building social-emotional health. And in the process, we’ve helped host churches reconnect with their changing neighborhoods in powerful ways, from growing cities like Nashville to the rural town of Woodbury to the military community of Clarksville to America’s poorest large city: Memphis, Tennessee. More than 200 young adults have completed internships with us and, of these, more than half are serving on staff at a local church or church agency. One even served as the Youth Pastor at Christ Foundry United Methodist Church right here in Dallas while attending seminary at SMU!

And … I have never believed more in our mission than I do today. I have never been more inspired by our work. Why? It gets back to relationships, especially when we invite God to be in the middle of them. This is how transformation begins. This is how a child is able to dream bigger than their four-corner block and end a cycle of poverty. This is how a young adult gains a greater sense of identity and purpose. This is how a church finds greater relevance within their neighborhood. This is the holy space where God stirs the hearts and souls and minds of people who otherwise might never have met — and forges a new community of hope.

Across Tennessee this summer, we’ll be harnessing the power of relationships with the help of some 92 young adult interns. And, oh by the way, you remember Jada, that pre-teen I got to know in Denison, Texas? This summer, she’s going to intern at PT-Tennessee. Jada is so excited. She wants to become a teacher one day. And Project Transformation — first in Texas and now in Tennessee — is going to help her get there. And she’s going to help us too.

Rachel: Looking back on my first summer with Project Transformation, I remember an early conversation with Marshall Jennings, a fellow intern who already had one PT summer under his belt. He was trying to prepare me for the inevitable. He described how I was going to feel when I left Dallas that summer. “If you give PT your heart,” he said, “you will get it back in a million pieces at the end of the summer.”

Marshall was right. I left that August with a shattered heart. Because I better understood the opportunities my economic privilege had afforded me. But I’ve come to see that, if we’re truly listening to God, the shattered heart is only half of the transformation story. The second half happens when you start piecing your heart back together. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. And it’s led me to Washington, D.C., where God is about to do another “new thing” through Project Transformation.

Courtney: Stairwell moments can happen every day, but we don’t often pause long enough to look up and see the person in front of us — the way that God intends for us to see people. If we did, we’d see that God is right there too … in the stairwell with us.

Rachel: We pray that Project Transformation becomes the vehicle to give other young people their own stairwell moments — a place to learn about something bigger than themselves, to step forward in faith, and to be part of the transformation. Praise be to God!