Month: February 2014

It’s Messy…And There Seem To Be No Easy Answers

by Jason Janz

After working in the city for past six years, people will often ask me a question about the homeless wondering if they should help someone flying a sign on the sidewalk. They don’t know if they are helping or hurting


if they give the guy money. This question doesn’t just stop at the sidewalk. It is at the root of a lot of the issues we run into in the city (and increasingly in the suburbs as poverty suburbanizes). It happens almost daily in this work – a perplexing question comes up and there seem to be no easy solutions. We all want the right answer! A lot of times there is a tug-of-war between our empathy and our logic, our heart and our head.

For example, here are examples of things that came up this week.

  • We found out that one of the recipients of our college scholarships is homeless. He’s 55 with diabetes and the weather is freezing. We put him up in a hotel for two weeks and then moved him to a shelter. But he walked out of it upon arrival. He said he’d rather ride the bus until 2:30am, walk around until 4:30am, and then get back on the bus when they re-started until it got warmer. “That’s better than sleeping on a concrete floor.” He muttered that he was thinking about giving up on everything. How long do we pursue him and how do we help?
  • We work with a single mom of one of our Boy Scouts who used money from the sales of our fundraiser to repair her car to the tune of over $500. She has paid back $200. How much should we hold her accountable for?
  • We are friends with a mother in our refugee ministry. She is living in a terrible place but the resettlement agency tells us not to encourage them to move apartments. Do we violate the “rules” for the betterment of this woman?
  • We suspect that some ex-offenders are using our free bus tickets and selling them for alcohol. Our office manager caught some guys selling them at the bus stop before. How does he know who is legit and who is just “shucking and jiving”?
  • We find out, third-hand and perhaps hearsay, that a former foster child was perhaps neglected and it resulted in her disease symptoms increasing. Do we report this as potential child neglect or was it just a normal parental mistake or is it just a ticked off relative giving a bad report?
  • A recently re-settled refugee child has been in his new home for two weeks. The agency is demanding that he see a trauma therapist immediately. However, the adoptive mom doesn’t believe that is best right now due to his need to adapt to a new home, a new country, a new school, new food, etc. Even though she believes in trauma therapy, how long does she put them off (and tick them off) for what she believes is best for the child?
  • A single mom with four kids totaled her car. She has to borrow a 15-passenger van to get around but it’s sucking too much gas and costing her too much. Her employer is phasing out her position next week. She needs a job, a car, and some hope. We have 20 families in this program. Many have needs. Who do you help and how much?
  • The school district has just fired the fifth principal in six years at the local elementary school. At what point do you start a riot on behalf of low-income kids getting screwed out of a good education?

I thought I would get to the point where I would know the right answers to all of these issues. While experience helps us make wiser decisions, I don’t believe we will ever reach a point where we “have it all figured out.” And I think that’s a good thing. Sticky issues help us to engage our values, our brothers and sisters, our minds and our hearts to try and do what’s best for our fellow man.

*Here are some good aids that have helped me process these issues.

Our good friend at the Issachar House, Scott Lundeen, produced this video.


When Helping Hurts

What Would I Change If I Could?

jordanLast night was a rough night. I was at home and a friend called and asked if she could come over. I was excited to see her and ran outside when her mom’s car pulled up. But something went down that still upsets me. Her and six other girls piled out and the biggest one – she looked like a 10th grader – started punching me. I fell to the ground and she started kicking me. The next thing I knew I was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. I’m glad that everything checked out ok. They gave me a cold pack to help keep the swelling down on the back of my head. They called my grandma to come get me.

I have lived with my grandma ever since I was removed from my mom’s home. Among other bad behaviors, she would whip me with an extension cord. That was three years ago when I was in the 5th grade. I know my grandma loves me but we have been hitting some rough spots lately. I’m at my third school in four years and I keep getting in trouble. And I’m not sure why. Grandma tells me to straighten up, but I don’t. Grandma has her own issues to work through. She is disabled with a lung disease and stays at home most of the time with her oxygen tank. I smoke weed just to dull the pain that is my life.

Well, grandma couldn’t come get me from the ER and so we tried the Medicare taxi but it wasn’t answering. The social worker at the hospital called my grandma and luckily a friend of our family who works in the neighborhood as a pastor was visiting at that time and volunteered to come pick me up.

As he pulled up to the ER with his son by his side, I just looked away. I remembered him because when all three of us were taken from the home, my auntie asked if they would take my younger sister for a period of time. I saw them off and on over the course of that year but I have seen less of them since my siblings were placed back with my mom (I never went back).

We got in his car. His son sat in the back seat. It was quiet as we pulled out onto the street. After some small talk, the deep questions started coming.

“The light has gone out of your eyes and the smile is off your face. What has changed?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“If you could change two things about your life, what would you change?”

“I don’t know.” I thought to myself – What kind of question is that? I can’t change ANYTHING about my life!

“Are you hurt?”

“Yes.” I started crying but I looked away so he couldn’t see.

“Are you angry?”


“At who?”

“At myself.“

I just stared ahead at the window wishing I could understand my world. I hoped this conversation would end, but at least someone was noticing. We piled out of the car and headed inside. I gave grandma my paperwork for the police report and went to my bedroom to put on my headphones.

What would I change? That question won’t leave me. My teachers say I need an education. That’s probably true. My grandma says I need Jesus. That’s probably true. Some people say I just need to “make better decisions.” That’s probably true. But none of that makes sense to my world right now. What would I change? I think I know. I need a friend. Someone true. Legit. I need someone to care. I need someone that won’t trap me on the front yard and betray me. I need someone who won’t abandon me when I kick and scream against the demons. I need someone who won’t shift me on down the line to the next non-profit mentoring program. I need someone to care…for a long time. And I don’t know where to go with that.

(This was written by me, the pastor, after these events transpired last night. While the story is true, the photo is not of her.)

Lilli’s Story by Jason Janz


Lilli was born into a loving family in Mexico. Her dad was a bank guard and her mom stayed at home and took care of her and her younger sister.  One day, everything changed as her dad was approached by the cartel and given a choice – either work for us and we pay you or turn us down and we kill you and your family.  He knew he couldn’t stay and forever be in prison to the drug lords.  So, he packed up his family and chose to do what he felt would be in their best interests – flee to America.

The journey was tough with two kids under the age of two. At the California border, their Coyote directed them through a swamp. As they got near the border, their dreams seemed to be shattered as they were surrounded by police. The spotlights shined on their family and the pregnant woman who was tagging along. It turns out that Lilli’s little sister was splashing in the water and caught the attention of the agents. As the agents surveyed the situation, one of the officers said, “Let’s let ‘em go. If we don’t, those kids aren’t gonna make it.”  They breathed a sigh of relief, trudged through the rest of the swamp, and made it into America.

Through a variety of circumstances, they arrived in Denver and found an apartment that is two blocks from where I live.  Over the next sixteen years, Lilli went through the Denver Public School system. In God’s providence, she just happened to be in school at Cole Middle School when the mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, spoke at a pep rally to the students before they took their achievement tests.  He made a promise right then and there. He told every kid in the room that if they finished high school he would make sure they went to college.  Turns out, a reporter was in the room and made it a front-page story the next day even though the mayor wasn’t prepared for it to go public.  But now he was on the hook!

But this would not be a golden ticket for Lilli.  She was undocumented and while the mayor was committed to raising funds for all the kids in the room, they all got the same amount.  No problem, right?  Wrong. Undocumented residents have to pay out-of-state tuition.  So, at Metro State University in 2011-12, a Colorado resident paid $3809 for tuition and an out-of-state resident paid $14,665. Lilli would have to find another way to make up the difference. Couple that with the fact that she is not allowed to get a job in America and you have a problem. There is little to no chance she will ever get a college degree in America. We will invest $7000+ every year in her K-12 education, but then we sort of shut the door on her educational advancement.  We basically relegate her to a life of poverty as long as she lives here.

Thankfully, good caring people are involved in this issue.  Two years ago, Together Colorado advocates came and asked me if the organization I work for would be willing to make up the “Hickenlooper Promise Gap” for undocumented Cole graduates. We agreed to interview the students and that’s where my story began to intersect with Lilli’s story.

As I met Lilli, I saw that she had a dream, but I could tell she was about ready to give up.  She wanted to get a degree in Criminal Justice and be a US Marshall. She had a deep burden to help people, especially those who experience injustice. But she couldn’t hardly get up the courage to walk out her door. She was in constant fear of being deported by immigration authorities. Her relationship had turned sour with her son’s father.  His legal status gave him a permanent leg up on all custody issues and she endured the constant threat that he would “turn her in.” No job, no security, no educational path, no opportunity.

We granted her the scholarship and she arranged childcare and hit the books. That was two years ago. Today, I met with her for a check-up and she was beaming. I could tell things had changed. In twelve months, she will finish her Associates degree in Criminal Justice. But the first thing she showed me was her new documentation. In 2012, President Obama signed legislation allowing those who were undocumented but came here as children to pursue a modified legal status. Lilli applied and was accepted. She now has a modified Social Security card, a driver’s permit, and an Employment Authorization Card. She beamed as she told me she got a job at Chipotle, arranged for her son to start Kindergarten at Cole, and enrolled for the Spring semester.

Before I entered into a relationship with undocumented families, I came from a place where the immigration issue was pretty black and white. I was a captive to the latest horror story put out by the news of how some undocumented immigrant committed some heinous crime. I was scared into believing that “they” were going to take our jobs and ruin our economy. Underlying all the reporting was the simple message – “Send them all back.”  It all seemed to make sense. The answers were easy.  The problem was simple. “They” were not “us.”

But then I met Lilli…and hundreds of people like her. And I heard stories. And I agonized as I heard how families had been torn apart, employers had taken advantage of people who didn’t have a voice, and how the process of obtaining legal citizenship debilitates the person who is actually trying to become a citizen. I just started to become more informed about the history of immigration policy in America. I “read my Bible again for the first time” and saw how God not only tells Christians to advocate for the poor, the widow, and the orphan, but also the “alien or sojourner.” Things were no longer black and white. I don’t intend to simplify the issue, but one thing is pretty clear to me – we need comprehensive immigration reform in this country.

I yearn for the day when the left and right can actually come together and do what is best for our country and the families who reside here. I long for the time when people will turn off MSNBC and Fox News and actually engage the issue beyond pitiful sound bites. I will vote for members of Congress who are not worried about who is going to “capture the Latino vote” but rather who will make America a safe harbor for refugees from all nations. I dream of a day when we have a country where we truly love our neighbor.

*I want to thank the following “village” of people who have helped my friend, Lilli – Governor John Hickenlooper for making the promise and keeping his word; Jim Chavez of LAEF who helped facilitate the scholarship; Patty Lawless of Together Colorado who advocated for Lilli and many others; Jennifer Janz who gave Lilli a place to feel normal and safe at Single Moms Night Out; Tom Gamel for giving her the “Cole Promise Gap Scholarship;” President Barack Obama for his work in making DACA become a reality; and the many others who I do not know who have helped this dream come true for Lilli.

Original article about the Cole Promise

*Lilli gave me permission to write this story and post this picture.

The New Jim Crow

One of the most moving moments I had this year was hearing Michelle Alexander talk about The New Jim Crow. She encouraged citizens to start a new Underground Railroad to keep black men out of the prison system. Made sense of my last four years working with ex-offenders as I have watched the injustice that is done to so many.

new jim crow

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was a fatherless child. Perhaps if we stopped looking at fatherless kids as “ten times more likely to end up in prison” and started looking at them as future world leaders just waiting for a mentor, things would change around here. Here’s to the school teachers, family members, leaders and friends who looked beyond the circumstances and built a leader.

mandela kid

Raising Kids In The Urban Environment

People ask me about raising kids in the city all the time. I took my son to a community meeting tonight and a homeless woman came and sat by him. When I turned around, I saw this. They say that fostering empathy in kids at a young age influences them for life. I believe that Champlin Janz is and will be a compassionate, transformative leader!

champ and woman

Reysean, We Will Miss You!

Five years ago, my family moved 18 miles from the burbs to the city. Not too far a drive, but a very long way from home for this former country boy. Hearing gunshots was a new experience. Homicides in the nreyseaneighborhood were new. Five years later, it’s not new anymore, but it’s something you never get used to. But I still have felt a bit removed as I’ve never known any of the victims. That changed Friday night when Reysean was shot and killed in a gang shooting. Thanks to the work of Willie Mosley, a former convict turned community leader in our prison after-care program, Reysean was part of our lives. We went fishing together, a Rockies game, talent shows, and he even sang at church! He played basketball with my son. We’ll miss you, friend. Word has it there’s a river up there that flows right from the throne of God and down the middle of the street. I’m sure there’s bigger fish there than what we tried to catch. Cast away and we’ll see you soon enough!

Man In Black

Man In Black by Johnny Cash

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen’ that we all were on their side.

Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.