Reflections from Visiting “Touching Miami with Love” on February 27

Carol Harston took a day-trip to Miami this past week for an orientation for group leaders this week with Touching Miami with Love (TML).  Supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Jason and Angel Pittman are CBF field personnel planted in Miami to lead TML.  Highland will be taking a group of high school youth to lead a week of camp at TML this summer (July 28 – August 4).

Touching Miami with Love is doing something.  Something right.  Something revolutionary.  And yet something that is actually a simple and obvious response to the gospel.  They are investing their time, resources, and heart in a community who needs it desperately.

My day began with a tour of Overtown led by Angel Pittman – a tour that showed a neighborhood riddled with the many plights of poverty.  Homeless men gathered outside of a shelter.  Schools and churches that have closed their doors due to a lack of funding.  Schools that remain open but continually carry a failing grade from the state.  Construction projects halted years ago when the economy bottomed out that have been left untouched – but now carry graffiti and signs of drug trafficking and other abuses.

Railroad tracks that carry not only cargo but also the history of segregation and clear boundaries – for Overtown, as Angel said, is literally the wrong side of the tracks. Built in the 1960s, the highways loom right over the neighborhood. The city did not hesitate to split up the neighborhood with these concrete structures – thereby rendering the land under the highways useless except to homeless or those up-to-no-good.

Angel points out a place, only a block behind their family’s home, where a drive-by took a life last week.  She shares the alarming reality that shootings take place in Overtown around every other week.  Having now lived in Overtown for seven years, the Pittmans stopped going to the window when they hear gunshots a while ago.

It is a rough neighborhood.  One where the need is not subtle but in your face.

And yet, Angel drives this tour very calmly and speaks matter-of-factly about the reality.  She doesn’t flinch while sharing the gruesome effects of poverty.  Rather she is a mom-of-two in a mini-van sharing the history and culture of her neighborhood.  The tour is broken up with stories of her own boys, playing on the Overtown baseball team and her kids goofing off outside with those who live next-door.  When asked what it is like to voluntarily live in such a neighborhood, she pointed out that in comparison to her neighbors, she wouldn’t call what they’re doing a “sacrifice.”

She then takes us to a building – surrounded by a fence, a yellow school bus in the parking lot, green grass in the back, and a brightly-colored mural of the word “LOVE” on the outside.  It is the home of “Touching Miami with Love” (TML) – a 17-year-old organization, begun by a local church, that is planted right in the thick-of-it to care for the children, youth, and adults of Overtown in the name of Christ.

Inside of TML, we meet Trina – their Program Director who is a born-and-raised, very well respected member of the Overtown community, and neighbor to the Pittmans.  Angel shows us their shared office that is littered with piles of donations yet to be sorted by their next volunteer group.  We see pictures of their youth program and hear stories about some of their special events and touching memories.

We toured the computer lab, their literature room (where they are focusing much of their efforts due to the extremely high rate of those held back a grade), their back room where snacks are already set up for the kids after school program, and their “black top” where many games are played by the kids.  We hear stories of high grade-retention rates, teen pregnancy, and accidents due to a lack of parental presence.

It only took those first few hours for me to realize that TML is truly doing something powerful and radical in this community – they are taking seriously the call of Jesus to love and care for those who are suffering.  It is not glamorous.  They are not grandiose in their dreams of “solving” poverty or “fixing” the neighborhood.

Rather, they are real people who have planted themselves right smack-dab in the middle of the hurting, opened their doors, and asked how they could help.

So this summer, our high school youth are going to mirror that same call.  We are going to travel south and plant ourselves at TML for a week to open our hands, our eyes, and our hearts to say, “How can we help?”  We are going to bring plans for games, Biblical stories of love and healing, lessons on “how to be a good friend,” and open arms to the children of Overtown.  I have a feeling that in that week, our youth are going to whet their appetite for radical, life-giving service to those in need – and find that in the process, that that exact service is, at the heart of it all, exactly what we need, too.