Coming Home 2018: Lauren Van Keulen, Co-Executive Director

The Beauty of Interdependence

In my life I’ve been given many opportunities and I’ve had privilege. But, my life hasn’t been easy. These two truth’s stand together. I grew up in Naperville, IL, a world away from where I live today. When I told my life story to a friend from a similar background she said, “Wow, it seems like you’ve had one thing after another. Your life has been so hard.” When I told my story to a friend who has experienced extraordinary hardship, she said, “I get it. Life is pretty hard. At least you had some support.”

At least I had support.

Yes. I did have support. Support for me meant that when I was 21 years old and I was physically harmed I had a community to support me as well as health insurance that paid for counseling. Support for me meant that when I was in a very unhealthy relationship, I had family and friends I could count on for help. Support for me has meant that when I quit my job, I had a 401(k) to draw from and parents who were willing to support me financially. Support for me has meant that when Jon and I started 3:11, we had a prayer team, and an incredible network of connections to financial resources, without which we wouldn’t be able to be here with you today.

I’ve  survived, (and continue to survive) my challenging life experiences because of the incredible support system around me. Adam Foss, an Assistant District Attorney and Criminal Justice Advocate explains it this way: support systems are like concentric circles around a young person. Each time a young person makes a mistake at a young age (a common and developmentally appropriate mistake), these circles of care around us form a kind of fence from the outside world.

So, when I broke that rule in my college dorm, my RA and RD and college staff, one of the rings around me, stepped in and offered appropriate consequences. When I hurt my family, that circle of love stepped in and showed me grace. I was multiple concentric circles away from plummeting into homelessness or prison or despair.

But, when those circles are broken by this world, by pain and prejudice and powerlessness, we’re not so many steps away from homelessness or incarceration ourselves. 3:11 exists to place some of these circles back into the lives of youth. To support young people on their journey by, first and foremost, providing a safe place to lay their head.

The realities of privilege and poverty–housing disparities, racial disparities, and inequality are abundant in our society today--and these can make us uncomfortable. It is easier to deny that injustices exist than it is to sit in this unsettling reality.  My challenge to you today is this: keep an open mind, press in to the uncomfortable, and allow your heart to be moved.

I first met Bri about 9 months ago. She had recently moved into our girl’s home and I was immediately struck by her passion for life, for art and for authenticity.  Over the past 3 months I’ve had the privilege of working with her more closely, supporting her in her housing and overall life goals. Throughout this time, the word interdependence has continued to ring through my head.

On one particularly dreary night, Bri and I were scheduled to meet. It was one of those nights where the rain had been going for days, darkness had set in at 4pm, our son was sick, and I had seen so many vivid examples of injustice in the preceding 3 days that all I wanted to do was fall asleep at 7pm. Instead, I geared up and set out to pick up Bri and head to a  coffee shop for some hot chocolate and a conversation.

We talked about work and the house and school. She shared deep and real parts of her story, trusting me to hold them sacred. We talked about faith and perseverance and how God speaks to us. We talked about job opportunities and how I can support her. As we pulled into her driveway, Bri gave me a hug and said, “God used you to answer my prayer tonight. I finally have hope again.”  You see, this is the crazy thing about interdependence. Bri said that God used me to answer her prayer yet she didn’t know that she was the answer to mine. I had been struggling with similar questions of trust and provision, and while I didn’t speak them to her, her words spoke directly to my heart. She said “a weight was lifted,” yet she had no idea that her words lifted my weight too.

This idea, interdependence, is core to 3:11. Its core to our mission, our vision and our values. We believe that each and every one of us has something to give and something to gain, and that includes all of you in this room tonight, and it includes each and every one of our young people.

Something to give and something to gain.

40% of homeless adults also experienced homelessness as a young person. 40%. 40% of adults currently on the streets could have had a different trajectory. Our youth say that the hardest part about being homeless was “having to find and use public restrooms; having nowhere to sleep; worrying about how they’re going to get stable without housing; having to wait for others to get back home so they could get inside.” Youth homelessness is not a distant problem. It’s here, its in Kent County, its in Grand Rapids. It leads to awful consequences: human trafficking, increased incarceration rates, long term homelessness, PTSD and increased illegal activity. But even more, it leads to hopelessness.

How do we believe in hope in times like these? Times where one of our young people was on the streets for 12 months before they found housing at 3:11. Times where another youth was camping for 10 months out of the year, in the dead of winter, before they signed their 3:11 lease. Times where youth are forced to trade their bodies for a safe place to sleep.

Again, this begs the question “How do we have hope?” We asked our young people continue about why they continue to have hope, why they continue to have resilience. They said, “I knew I deserved more and that I could do more. I knew this wasn’t my end, but my beginning.” They said, “At 3:11, they see potential in me. At 3:11, we’re all beautiful people and we have a good chance of making a positive out of our negatives.” At 3:11, we believe that every. single. person has inherent dignity and worth to share with others. We believe that we are not the sum of our negative behaviors but the product of our courage to choose a different path–even when that path is wrought with fear and discouragement.

Many of you may know that Jon and I have been walking the roads of adoption and foster care over the past two years. I often tell Jon how unbelievable it is that our son calls us Mom and Dad. How incredible it is that he learned us and knows us and smiles when we show up. I know all of the science behind attachment, all of the truth about trauma, yet the reality of it all knocks me down at times. We’re learning that family isn’t just made by blood, but by connection. Learning that our family is formed by our Creator and that through His divine hand, we are all interconnected. And at 3:11, we are all family. Our relationships are centered around this principle so eloquently stated by one of our alumni, “Once you’re here, you’re family. when you move out, you’re still family. We’ll always do what we can. That’s what family’s for.”

Whether they are 2 or 22, each and every one of our youth is destined for great things. God doesn’t give us these stories and not use them. Our youth are special. They have the ability to be a part of changing our world.

Our youth are already writing their own stories. This year, Bri has found long-term employment and is saving to purchase a car. Aaron is saving to purchase his own home through one of our community partners and Tony received his GED. 3:11 youth are enrolled in college and getting raises at their employers. They are looking towards their future in real and tangible ways, now believing that they can achieve. They are finding and maintaining jobs and moving into their own apartments. Each year, 21 young people have a safe and stable place to call home, and a path towards their coming future. At 3:11, we get to have the privilege of bearing witness to these stories. And what a privilege it is. THIS is why we continue to have hope.

I believe that if we’re going to heal, if we’re going to be restored, we must begin now. Each and every one of us has pain. Each and every one of us has been hurt. And we have been given to each other to be agents of change through this pain, authors of each other’s interdependence. So please, take this moment to step into this incredible, life-giving, Gospel work. Take this moment to see that we are all not unlike one another and that through housing, through safety and stability, we are giving one another the opportunity to show up.

Know that you–sitting here–have much to give and much to gain.