How Will You Influence the City?


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A Slice of Life in East Palo Alto

-Mako Nagasawa, July 1999


(originally sent out as a prayer letter when I left East Palo Alto in July 1999 for Boston)

I never thought I'd be one to write a letter like this. But then again, a lot of things have happened to change that. Namely, I'd like to introduce you to a few people:

Esmeralda and Faustino and their two kids Luis and Karla. The family arrived two years ago at 355 to eventually live right next door to Esmerelda's free-spirited older sister and her family, whom we've also gotten to know. Luis, 8, and Karla, 7, are among the brightest children we know, and they love to learn new things, including at the vacation Bible school we have taught the last couple of weeks. Esmeralda is now due to deliver their third child in early August. Esmeralda and Faustino are very attentive parents, and Faustino spends most of his available time with the family. That time, however, is limited, since he works two full time shifts a day as a restaurant dishwasher. Though the family lives in a one-bedroom apartment, all four members sleep in the living room because they lease their only bedroom out to two other men. We've forged a great relationship with them, but we were sad to hear recently that they are leaving the apartments to return to Michoacan, Mexico sometime next year. We pray that one day, this family will get a longer exposure to Jesus and those in whom he lives.

Javier Aquino, the apartment manager of 355. As a boy in Oaxaca, Javier was introduced to a Mexican style of Catholicism by his parents, and he and I have had some interesting conversations about Scripture. Since Javier was educated in Mexico, he has been able to introduce us to many aspects of Mexican culture and literature. Though he is a handyman par excellence and a jack of all trades, Javier carries himself very humbly, even sadly, perhaps because his wife left him about 8-9 years ago and now lives in Mexico. Meanwhile, Javier has been a faithful father to his three children Carlos (21), Teresa (18), and Omar (14). He takes care of all of us in the apartments, too. He's shown an openness to studying the Bible, but doesn't take initiative himself. I regard him as a dear friend, and on one occasion, Javier wept when he thanked us for being the friends he never thought he'd have here in East Palo Alto. We pray that Javier will experience healing by the Spirit of God and God's deeper presence.

Those are just a few of the people that we have gotten to know here. Now, some of you might be asking, "Who's the WE here? Mako, didn't you move into East Palo Alto alone back in August 1995? What's happened since then?" Well, in 1996, L.C. joined me in our old apartment, 2000 Cooley #49. In 1997, Robert Hung joined us for a year before leaving for med school. Also in 1997, L.C. and I moved into 355 East O'Keefe #1, and in 1998, we met K.B., Leigh Wong, Mark Mitchell, Matt Martin, and Susan Ficca. We decided to become a ministry team living in 355 and 360 East O'Keefe (right across the street from each other). Please let me give you some more introductions to these wonderful friends and ministry partners:

K.B. hails from a town of 25 folks in Emden, Missouri, but his interest is in missionary work around the world. Having recently finished a master's from Stanford, he's now working as an engineer in Sunnyvale, and he hopes to one day be in a foreign country using his engineering skills as a passport to do the work he's really passionate about: planting and building up churches. While good at adminstration, details, and basketball, K.B. has also been a very thoughtful man of prayer and a lively dispenser of farm stories. K.B. and L.C. are roommates, tag-team teachers at kids' Sunday School at our Church, and have hospitality nights once a week, where they have a family in the apartments over for dinner.

L.C. graduated from Stanford in '96, and has been in graduate school studying to be a counselor. About a year ago, L.C. took a full-time job with the school district in East Palo Alto to be one of the five school psychologists for the district, an amazing opportunity to get to know the East Palo system and children by identifying kids at risk and connecting them with various services. Working with some of the most troubled and disadvantaged elementary and junior high school children in East Palo Alto, L.C. has gained unique insights and information regarding the children and families, which adds to L.C.'s gifts in ministering relationally and pastorally. He is a big brother to our adopted teenager, Ed. L.C. also has a long term vision for ministry in East Palo Alto, including connecting fall-through-the-cracks kids with older Christian brothers and sisters, and bringing Norteno and Surreno Mexican gang members to Christ.

Leigh Wong, also very missions-minded, has been an inspiring teacher at Caesar Chavez Academy (a K-8 school) here in East Palo Alto for the last 5 years. She currently teaches 5th graders. Leigh originally decided to be a teacher to have a skill to take overseas to Latin America or Africa. Right now, she organizes and teaches the Global Outreach class at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship. Fluent in Spanish, she has led a flourishing Bible club for young teenage girls with Bayshore Christian Ministries for several years.

Matt Martin, after a life changing summer with Christ in inner city Chicago, committed himself and his whole life to serving Jesus in urban ministry. A year later, when Matt graduated from USC, he gave L.C. and me a phone call out of the blue. Hewlett Packard was offering him a job after Matt had asked his astonished interviewer if there were any inner city areas around where he could live. Matt promptly moved in across the street from us, in 360 East O'Keefe.. Gifted with discernment, Matt loves to discuss the Scriptures and our identity in Christ. He and Mark now room together, where they have started a basketball team with the teenage boys in their apartment.

Mark Mitchell teaches English literature and guitar at King's Academy in Sunnyvale, a Christian private high school. When Mark and Matt arrived on O'Keefe Street, they prayed for six months to engage the teenage boys in their complex, specifically in basketball. Then, the boys of their apartment complex asked them to coach them as a team. It's been a great opportunity to get to know the boys and their families. Mark and Matt have befriended a number of families in their complex and are looking forward to sharing more about Jesus there.

Susan Ficca spearheaded bringing us together as a team. A Seattle native, Susan moved to East Palo Alto five years ago to minister to young junior high girls for Bayshore Christian Ministries. The group of girls she started investing in when they were in junior high are now graduating from high school. Susan has creatively and energetically discipled them; this summer, she will take a group of them to do outreach in Guatamala and to a Christian youth leadership conference. During the day, Susan also works as a pre-K teacher for Brentwood School, where she gets to know many other kids in the city at an early age.

Obviously, when people like this get together, the sense of community is rich. For instance, Leigh, L.C., and Susan's involvement in the school district gives them helpful information, multiple relationships with the kids, and the opportunity to support each other. When we do hospitality nights, it's fun to joke and tell stories around the table so that we can get to know our neighbors. We've done skits and vacation Bible school right here in the apartment for kids who ordinarily "fall through the cracks." Some of us can immediately recognize learning disabilities or abuse at home. Others of us are good at music, sports, and art. Some of us are good at setting boundaries while others are good at going deep with people. Leigh started a community garden in the back of the apartments. We help each other relate to our neighbors, cook and share chores with each other, do Bible studies together, have lively dinnertime conversations, and help each other stay connected with other people in and around East Palo Alto. It's great to be multi-ethnic as a small witness to the unity Jesus draws us into. I've come to love and appreciate all of them, who are in many ways the team of friends and partners I never knew I wanted, but had always deeply needed, especially since we are ministering in a different culture using a different language about 50% of the time.

Additionally, earlier in '99, three women, all new college graduates, decided to join us. God has provided for Katherine Thurston, Annie Pan, and Lynn Wang to be rooming together next year, though they graduated from colleges on different sides of the country. One exciting thing is that Katherine has been hired by her home church, Menlo Park Presbyterian, a large suburban church, to be a liason with East Palo Alto ministries, a unique opportunity to help Christians understand barriers of race and class.

What a change for me since moving in back in August of '95! I never thought I'd be organized enough to have a mission statement, but take a look at ours: "We are an Incarnational Community that loves Jesus, each other, and our neighbors. As learners, we are growing in Christ and making Him known, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit. Our primary ministries are centered around 355 and 360 East O'Keefe Street and consist of praying, being hospitable, mentoring/discipling, evangelizing, forming relationships, and sharing resources as the Lord leads us." Wow, huh? It's for this reason that I'm writing to you.

This is a great team of people. If you had the chance to meet them, I'm sure you would feel the same. God has done great things in each of them, and each person has made great life-choices. As I leave for Boston with my lovely wife Ming, and as I wrap up my days of ministry here in East Palo Alto, I realize how important each person has been to me. I guess you could say I've discovered the importance of the body of Christ. Not only within East Palo Alto, but also the wider body which includes you. So I'd like to solicit your awareness, prayers, and support for them.

Innovative ministries are happening here, and not just with us. A good friend of ours, for example, has planted a teen mom house where young unwed mothers can come, live, and receive parenting classes and Bible teaching. But I do want to focus on my teammates because we're a young, quiet group who want to move with the Spirit of God as he does new things: a former-drugdealer-come-clean has asked to room with L.C. and K.B., and we're praying for ways to reach the older crowd of late teens/early 20's; Katherine's role with her home church is totally new and developing; L.C. and Susan are thinking about being freed up from their jobs in order to do full-time ministry here; there are innumerable opportunities to reach out to children in the name of Jesus. Other groups of people have expressed an interest in our way of life and ministry -- incarnational, apartment-based ministry among the disadvantaged. It's a blessing to us when we can share our ideas and hopes and get excited with other people.

Thus, your awareness and prayers are important. The spiritual needs we sense are big; the children and family issues we peer into are complex; and currently there is no Christ-centered Spanish-speaking Bible study (Jose and Jennifer did have one, but they are rearranging their schedule after adopting two little girls). I find myself wishing that I had made more efforts earlier to introduce you to my friends here because they have a tough job ahead. So, please pray for the people of East Palo Alto and for the presence of Jesus to be felt through us and other Christians who are ministering here. If you would be interested in coming to visit what God is doing in our midst, or are interested in any materials or ideas, please don't hesitate to call the numbers listed below.

As for me in this group, I've introduced a common pastoral language using a paper called Jesus Within, provoked thoughts about what it means to be aliens and pilgrims with Christ using a Bible study called Life in the City, and developed a Biblical theology of work which, hopefully, will help Christians draw boundaries at work (especially in Silicon Valley), and sort through the different views of work that are commonplace, but which are also, in my opinion, misleading. I've also tried to build up a small collection of teaching material for Spanish speaking Bible studies, children and adult. I hope those and other materials will be helpful for training others who are new to the inner city. I will miss being here to see what happens, but I know God will be faithful to these folks.

What have I learned in the last 4 years? Aside from more Spanish and more cooking? Maybe the most important lesson has been trusting and depending on God more, by trusting other people in whom He lives. Since my natural tendency is to do things independently of others, it's been a blessing to see the body of Christ at work by being a part of a great group of people. God had to disarm me and get me to be more open, but I'm glad He did.

Thanks for your interest! 
In Jesus, Mako

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