My soul felt trapped in a life that should have brought peace and fulfillment but instead, brought anguish and deep discontent. I was thirsty and walking on dry ground. I longed to pursue God’s call to fight the injustices of poverty and also, to lead other evangelical Christians to engage in justice and transformation work. But, fifteen years ago, as a mom with a traveling husband and two young children, I felt helpless and hopeless.
A clinical psychologist by training, I had left my career to be home with my two children. My husband worked as a regional sales manager and traveled extensively. We lived in Naperville, IL – or Oz-land as many called it, because it was such an idyllic place to raise children. By all external measures, we were living the perfect life. So why did I struggle so intensely with depression and drought?
Compelled by books like Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, I was deeply convicted that “rich Christians” could not be satisfied with serving in soup kitchens and donating money to “the poor.” I felt God was calling me to be an advocate and an instigator to challenge people of faith to live and serve as Jesus did among the poor and marginalized. But I didn’t know where or how to begin. I implored God to take away the calling, “God, why me? Why not someone in a position to really DO something? What can I, as a white woman in a middle-upper class community, possibly do?”
With two young children in tow, there were not a lot of ways I could serve, but praying and reading were two things I could do. I was introduced to the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and began devouring books by John Perkins, Wayne Gordon, and Bob Lupton. I also read Andy Stanley’s Visioneering and studied the book of Nehemiah, praying for God to open my eyes to walls in my community that needed restoring or rebuilding.
Those prayers led me to East Aurora, just 10 minutes down the road from Naperville, but a world away in terms of ethnic and economic make-up. The more I learned about East Aurora, and in particular the incredible disparity of economic and educational opportunities between East Aurora and Naperville, the more I felt God saying, “This is not acceptable to me – two communities so close together, but kids in one community attend some of the highest performing schools in the state, and kids in the other attend some of the lowest performing schools.”
While many saw East Aurora as a place to avoid, I saw it as an opportunity. As my passion and vision grew for ways we could bring Naperville and East Aurora together in mutually beneficial partnerships, the more frustrated and discouraged I became that in our current life situation, there was no way to develop the significant, impact-making ministry I dreamed about.
That discouragement contributed to a major depressive episode, and I was hospitalized for suicidal depression. Following that, my husband and I entered a time of deep prayer and reflection. He became convicted that a call on my life was a call for our family. Scott left his company and became a stay-at-home dad and went to school at night to pursue a teaching degree. I worked odd jobs to pay the bills and served relentlessly as a volunteer to begin a ministry at Community Christian Church. Community 4:12 was birthed with the mission of “Uniting People to Restore Communities.” Its name and vision derived from Ecclesiastes 4:12, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
As a volunteer, I found drops of refreshing water, but still faced life-sucking challenges and frustrations. We had financial struggles, as we went from a six-figure income to our kids qualifying for free lunch. But even more challenging was the fight to launch a new ministry when I had no position of influence. Tears streamed as I pleaded with God to open doors and change hearts to help make restoration and justice a priority in a large, white evangelical church.
In 2003, God answered those prayers when the lead pastors saw God at work in this fledgling ministry. They created a staff position to develop Community 4:12 into an auxiliary non-profit that would build partnerships between our Naperville church and schools, non-profits and churches in East Aurora.
Fast forward to 2016: Scott teaches at a Title I elementary school in East Aurora. We relocated our family, including our two elementary aged sons, into the community nine years ago and enrolled them in the neighborhood public school system, where they have remained through high school. We helped launch a bilingual campus of Community Christian Church in East Aurora six years ago. Multiple other families have relocated to the neighborhood. I was elected to the school board three years ago to work towards systemic change. Community 4:12 mobilizes hundreds of volunteers to provide tutoring and mentoring opportunities and annual events, like the Christmas Giftmart, which seeks to preserve the dignity of low-income families by offering them the opportunity to purchase toys for their children at a very reduced cost. All the money we raise is donated to our partner schools to help purchase educational materials. We also partner with other organizations to help provide ESL and early childhood classes, parent mentoring, a community garden, and home ownership opportunities. We do all of this with the prayer that by uniting people and organizations across racial, cultural, and economic divides, God can restore lives and communities.
As an introverted woman who thrives on predictability and security, I defied everything in my nature to pursue God’s call. Rational minds told us we were crazy to leave our comfortable life of financial security in a safe and prosperous community. Yet, our ever-faithful Father led me to a river of life among the poor and marginalized in East Aurora.
Kirsten Strand is the founder and Director of Community 4:12, the compassion and justice arm of Community Christian Church that partners with a high-poverty school district to provide tutoring and mentoring programs for children and adults, teacher appreciation activities, and community events such as the Christmas Giftmart. Kirsten and her husband, Scott, and their two sons moved to the low-income, mostly Hispanic community of East Aurora, Illinois in 2007. Community 4:12 has become a ministry that mobilizes over 1,500 volunteers each year. Kirsten graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, GA and from Ohio State University with a Master of Arts in Child Clinical Psychology.