Why We Look Back
Before looking ahead to the coming year and getting caught up in the nuts and bolts of the ministry moving forward, we would be remiss if we did not pause to think back on all that God did through the Aspire Movement in 2018. There are countless stories to share about the way the ministry has had an impact on others (mentors, mentees, families, etc.), but what about us as a staff?
The impactful moments for our team members often come in the course of very normal days. Normal meetings with mentors. Normal phone calls with parents. Normal lunches at schools. Normal small groups. These moments are not marked by grandiosity, but rather a small (and profound) realization that God is not only working through us — He is also working in us.
Below you will find some of our staff’s favorite, most memorable moments of 2018.
Blakely Barley (Mentor Coordinator)
“It is mysterious and beautiful how God seems to always have bigger and better plans than we expect, isn’t it? The Bible reminds us of this in Isaiah when God declares, ‘Your thoughts are not my thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the Heavens are higher than the Earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ This gives me much comfort; it reminds me that I serve a God who I cannot fully comprehend because He is so mighty, powerful, wise, creative, and sovereign. Although we don’t always see His perfect plans come to fruition here on Earth, sometimes He gives us the gift of seeing them unfold before our eyes.
I began working with Aspire this past summer and we were beginning to plan a new concept for Aspire Movement: Small Groups. We go into several schools each week around Birmingham, and we teach a character development curriculum to small groups of 3-5 students. Before working for Aspire, I was a fourth grade teacher, so I was very excited about this opportunity! But as I entered into this new work, I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed the kids would listen a little, learn a little, and scoot back to class. My expectations weren’t very high knowing we would only see them one hour a week!
God has truly proven that His plans and ways are much bigger than my expectations. These kids. They are incredible. They listen and zone in to what I am saying. They ask questions and give examples from their own lives. They memorize quotes and ask what we are learning next week. They want to be there! They laugh, engage, and remember stories that we read six weeks ago. One particular group that I work with weekly has especially stolen my heart. Throughout our weeks together, I heard them say things like, ‘My father is in jail.’ One mentioned that her cousin and uncle died that week. Another little girl said she only had one school uniform that she wore each day. Some of them are served ‘supper’ at school because they aren’t fed at home. These fourth grade girls have learned more about resilience than I have in my entire life. They amazed me as they showed up each week with smiles on their faces ready to learn about topics like mercy, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and service. Only God could do that! God using broken people like me to teach young resilient girls about Himself through character lessons. I’m so grateful for God’s higher ways!”
Jared Blake (Project Coordinator)
“Mutually transformative relationships energize and activate the mission of the Aspire Movement. We have two goals, two at-risk populations. We hope to reach at-risk youth with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we hope to teach Church members who are at risk of not engaging with the brokenness of their communities how to live as emissaries for Christ in their city. My involvement with the Aspire Movement has been brief, but through my involvement with small group mentoring, I have seen growth in those I have mentored; however, I have seen greater transformation in myself.
I was tasked with leading small group mentoring in a small impoverished community that used to be a mining town. Before ever arriving there, I was told that some of the families were so poor that the children were eating dog food. This led me to hold up certain biases which I have always held towards the poor. I began to expect that the people of the town were lazy, and that they had better opportunities of which to take advantage. I assumed that there was a simple solution to their problems which they were simply not hard-working, wise or willing enough to attempt. I assumed that they were probably not friendly, and that I might be met with a ‘trespassers will be shot’ sign at the entrance to the town. (That has happened to me in another state.) My expectations could not have been further from the truth.
From the first day I met the students I would be mentoring until now, I have been blown away with the kindness, authenticity and work ethic of most everyone I have met. I was greeted the first day by a woman who went to the trouble to find all the kids of the local community and bring them to meet me. I sat with one student who was working on geometry homework. She was not given the tools she needed to do the assignment, but that did not stop her. She simply went and got some construction paper and created the instruments herself out of paper so that she could understand, even if she couldn’t fully complete the assignment. (I never went to that much trouble in high school). The students and families I have met are encouraging and supportive to one another in trouble. God used this opportunity to show me that I have misjudged the struggles of poverty and that no financial or cultural boundary can stand between people who have the Spirit of Christ.
The people of this community do face problems: lack of financial knowledge and wisdom, cruelty in the neighborhood, lack of opportunity and good education, and fatherlessness, but these issues are not different from those we all face in our communities. God has transformed my thinking through this work, and I could not be more thankful for his movement through Aspire.”
Jessica Leslie (Development Director)
“If I were to tell every story of 2018 that has impacted my life, I’m not sure the Internet could hold them all. In fact, what I will share here is not even one story. It’s a series of small, seemingly plain moments that have displayed very clearly the nature and character of God.
We piloted small group mentoring with fourth graders in the spring of this year, and when the fall semester began, we were back at the same school with the same group of (now) fifth grade students. I have three girls in my group; they would tell you they’re best friends and most days, they would tell you I’m one of their best friends. One of these girls in particular has won my heart over. (I’m sure it has to do with the fact that we have basketball in common.)
Week in and week out, I have listened to her share all the things she is learning about life and about herself. I have listened to her tell gutwrenchingly difficult stories about things her mom has been through, and all the ways she makes a conscious effort to help her mom. I have listened to her talk about how much she trusts God and all the ways He takes care of her. I have seen her show up every week, eager to learn about character development. I have seen her ask questions. I have seen her look not only to her own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Put simply, I have seen her display the likeness of Christ in ways that have both humbled and challenged me. This young girl represents so much the kind of person I want to be and maybe, just maybe, it’s true that I need the Aspire Movement more than the Aspire Movement needs me.”
Daniel Sheshi (Mentor Coordinator)
“This fall with Aspire, I have been blessed with a multitude of moments where my joy was made uniquely full due to this job. The first moment would have to be when I made my introduction of a new mentor to their mentee. Standing in the hallway of Avondale Elementary school, seeing the joy on the face of the mentee as he was introduced to his new mentor. Both individuals excited about the new journey they were to embark on together. It was a sweet moment to behold and to even have a part to play in.
Another moment that blessed me richly was a student that I worked with in our small group mentoring. His name is Oscar. He is a first generation American whose parents had come from Mexico. Many times it was only him and I that showed up for small groups. This provided me with a lot of time to get to know him and his life story. At such a young age he is having to mature so quickly, while assimilating into a somewhat foreign culture. He has big dreams and his parents have big dreams for him too. And they are doing all that they can. Their sacrifice and his appreciation was a sweet moment for me this fall.
During our last lesson with our small groups, we played a group game and one of the students I had been working with knew all the answers but didn’t want to participate. It provided me this opportunity to speak words of encouragement to him and affirm him. He summed up the courage to participate and did very well! To enjoy that small victory with him was probably one of the more rewarding experiences of this fall.”