About a month ago I wrote about a call I received from a young man I became friends with when I spent a summer working with UrbanPromise Ministries in Camden, New Jersey.  He was preparing to enter the seventh grade then, and he was quite a handful.  He has had more than a few obstacles to overcome in his short life thus far.  But this year was his senior year in high school, and he will head to a private university in the fall to get a degree in elementary education.  He and I have kept in touch over the past six years, and I’m humbled that I’m able to be a part of his life. 

I am not a spontaneous person.  I like to plan.  Way in advance.  But a week ago I got a message from my friend asking whether my husband and I would be able to make it to his graduation Saturday.  It was going to be a stretch because of tight schedules, but when he asked I wanted to do everything I could to get there.  So I quickly got into gear and found some cheap flights that would allow my husband and I to be there when he received his diploma.  All week I was pretty anxious for the big day to arrive.

On Saturday we woke up at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m., got dressed, and headed to the airport to fly down to Philadelphia.  When we drove across the Delaware River on the Ben Franklin Bridge, I kept preparing myself for what was on the other side.  It’s hard to believe that Camden is the way it is when it’s surrounded by so much progressive development.  But it’s right there – a violent, poverty-stricken city that most people try to avoid.  It had been six years since I had been there, but that city has never been far away in my mind.  When we made a turn off the highway onto a much less traveled road, I recognized it all again.  I asked my husband whether he noticed the stark contrast.  He nodded. 

When we pulled into the Urban Promise parking lot, I was amazed at some of the additions that have been made since my summer there – more buses (and I’m assuming they actually drive), a new building for the high school and the StreetLeader Program, and of course a big blue house next door built by some folks at ABC

As we opened one of the doors to the main building, my friend came bursting out saying, “I thought that was you!”  He gave me a long hug and we went inside to chat for a few minutes before the ceremony started.  We were looking at the program, and he mentioned that he would be sixth to speak.  “I’m the valedictorian, you know.” 

What?!

I wish I could explain to you all of the memories of that summer that flooded back to me in that moment.  But I just stood there so proud but sort of speechless that this kid – now a young man – had been able to accomplish what so few others in that city ever have or will.  And he could have easily been just another statistic.  But he’s not.  God has protected him and used a ministry to help guide him as he has matured.  And he knows that what he has accomplished thus far is big.  Really big. 

The commencement ceremony was what I would call classic UrbanPromise.  I won’t even try to explain what I mean by that, but I will say that the room was filled with many relatives, volunteers, staff, and friends.  And the families might not look like what you would expect, but they were just as proud as any family in America is this time of year when they have a graduate to celebrate.  Cameras were flashing.  Relatives were waiting with flowers.  There were cheers and claps and standing ovations.

Each of the eight students in the class of 2008 spoke during the ceremony, and I was humbled by how eloquently they described their future plans, their appreciation of those who have supported them, and their testimonies of how they have come to know God better through that school.  Some cried and some laughed.  Of course, there were the usual high school inside jokes and stories told.  But that’s because they are still kids.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember that when they’ve had to grow up so fast.  One of the students had given birth to a baby girl just a few days earlier.  And I was so humbled by the way her classmates all esteemed her as a mother and encouraged her as a young woman heading to college this fall.  One young man entering the Marines received a $50,000 scholarship check from an officer in his dress blues.  His best friend, another graduate, cried at the podium when he told how proud he was of him, even though he was visibly worried about his friend’s safety.

There are so many things I could mention about the day.  But for now, there are a couple of things said from the podium by adults that I would like to share here because I thought they were so poignant for the situation.

First, a former teacher at the school talked a lot about fear and how we can’t let that hold us back.  He reminded them that the path to achieving their goals would inevitably be hard, but they couldn’t let fear keep them from pressing on.  He encouraged the students from Philippians 1:6, reminding them that God would certainly complete the work He has started in them.  And then he said, “You have no idea how the eight of you can impact this world.  There are other schools with hundreds and thousands of graduates, but that doesn’t mean that they will have the same impact that the eight of you can have.” 

Then, the President of UrbanPromise shared a story about how bumblebees are not supposed to be able to fly.  Apparently their bodies and wings do not leave them with a natural propensity to aerodynamic superiority.  But the only ones in the world that don’t realize they should not be able to fly are bumblebees themselves.  He told those eight students in a city from which no one expects much that they would be the only ones who would limit their potential in this world. 

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  (I Cor. 1:26-29)

Praise be to the God who makes bumblebees fly.

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