The Streets - September 2008

a column by Paulette Lewis


"For I know the plans I have for you"

Jeremiah 29:11 is clear. The NLT says, "For I know the plans I have for you. They are plans for good and not for disaster. Plans to give you a future and a hope."

From a very young age I felt different. I've always felt especially close to God and believed that He had something special planned for my life. He revealed part of His plan to me in 1995 as I sat in a theater watching the film, “Dangerous Minds,” with Michelle Pfeiffer. You may remember the story of LouAnn Johnson, a white, inner city school teacher who took an interest in the personal well-being and success of the high risk kids in her classroom. Kids that everyone else had given up on. Some people refer to them as "throw-away kids.” She adapted herself, her teaching methods, and her manner of communicating to first get their attention, and then meet their needs. She met them where they were and pulled them up to a higher level—to more than they believed they could be. She loved them, cared for them, fought for them. She invested in their lives. She put herself out there - in harms way when necessary, for what was right and to truly make a difference in their lives.

I just remember watching the film, being shocked at the conditions they were trying to learn in, inspired by LouAnn's passion, and thinking, God, I want to do that. I knew instantly it would be my destiny, but as a white girl from the country about an hour north of the city of Cincinnati, I couldn’t imagine how I would get to the city or how someone like me who really couldn’t relate (at the time) would be able to reach kids in the ghetto who I knew in my heart needed a LouAnn Johnson.

God has a perfect plan and I have come to understand throughout this year, one of my toughest ever, that everything truly happens according to His timing. God opened the door for me to work in the inner city of Cincinnati in 2000. As I briefly described in my previous column, it was everything I imagined it to be and a lot more. Hopeless, violent, twisted. I had no business there. Except, as a Christian, it absolutely was my business to be there.

I've been told that my methods of reaching the gang members and violent kids I connect with through my Urban Success program is unorthodox. I agree. I use whatever works. I use real life, street-style methods that they can comprehend and respect.

For example, to diffuse one serious situation that was gearing up to be a particularly violent fight, after listening to all perspectives and the reasoning behind this desired altercation, I calmly pointed out to the 30 or so young men and ladies in the streets armed with bats, sticks, swords, chains, bricks and guns that they were wasting a particularly good Saturday night when they could be at the club "getting the hook up.” When the influential leaders of the two gangs that were about to go head to head thought about it, they realized that they would prefer to be partying the night away and chasing girls instead of fighting over something trivial that both sides could live with letting go. (For the record I strongly discourage my kids from going "clubbin’" because there is always the possibility of an altercation; however, at the time, I needed an alternative to the bloodbath they were about to engage in, and it pleased both sides.)

You can’t use textbook approaches to situations they've never put in a text book. My methods work. That particular situation, like many, many others I respond to, had a peaceful outcome. Not a drop of bloodshed. Not one fist thrown or one trigger pulled. Thank God, because I was standing in the middle of the street like I usually am, and would probably have been first to get hit.

I am not a social worker, psychologist or marine. I have no college degree or specialized training related to handling these situations. I am a sign language interpreter by profession. I'm not particularly brave, either; I usually tremble the entire time I'm negotiating peace and trying to de-escalate a situation, because I know in my heart the kids in front of me treat death as a part of life. They expect to die young and have no fear of dying over the slightest thing they feel is important and even less fear of the police. But, when I'm in their faces like that, like the good angel on their shoulder telling them they're wrong or that yes, they were wronged, but there is a better way to handle it, nine-and-a-half-times out of 10 they make the right choice.

At church recently, a lady that has been very generous with clothing and houseware donations to Urban Success came running up to me. "Paulette, the pastor just told me some of the dangerous situations you've been in. Do you have any body armor or anything to protect you?" My response was, "I take the armor of God into every hostile situation I face, and I have experienced his divine protection on more than one occasion because, technically, I shouldn’t be standing here in one piece." God has called me to serve in some of the most dangerous situations possible. He shields me from harm and provides protection in the form of two bodyguards that have been with me for years. They assess a situation before I ever step out of the car. They have been shot at, jumped, and have come through windows to prevent me from being hurt and are truly my guardian angels.

During a recent online interview with, a gentleman called in and asked me why I put myself in dangerous situations. It's a chance I take because I truly live by Isaiah 6:8. We are called to serve. We are called to be responsible for each other and for the children. If they continue on this road of violence we will have a generation gap where significant numbers from this generation are either dead or in prison. I risk my personal safety and put my life on the line in an effort to change the direction of this generation.

God said, "I come to give you life that you may have it more abundantly." He never said anything about keeping to ourselves at home behind our white picket fences and letting people make their struggle on their own. We are our brother's keeper, called to love one another, and I intend to follow that commandment to the best of my ability.

Isaiah 6:8: "I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send and who will go for us?' Then I answered, 'Here am I. Send me.'"



Paulette Lewis

Paulette Lewis