Painting Dignity: Inner City Seattle

By Philip Long   |  16 May 2014
Painting Dignity: Inner City Seattle (main photo)
Photos by Tom Mills.

Inner city ministry is a lot like painting. Chris Millheisler watches as Tre Anthony Hilts lists the animals in Noah’s ark. Etched in charcoal, they are part of a huge mural. They’re fuzzy, lacking definition, faces obscured by smudges.

The 16-year-old describes the feel of paintbrush running through paint and how he loves to see colors run. He shows how the background of the painting must come first – sky and hills layered, foreground growing ever nearer. Finally he’s free to paint his joy: the animals.

Chris Millheisler, 31, director of the inner-city ministry of Cru in Seattle, stands behind Tre, chatting with a young man at the after-school program where Chris volunteers. The program is called CryOut!, and 4 days out of the week it meets in a center at the church, of which Chris is a part.

Just outside the door there’s a rawness of life, a culture ripped with violence, drugs, broken systems, misunderstandings and hate. Living in urban Seattle, people ask Chris, “Do you feel safe?” The question irritates him. “I guess so,” he replies.

Because to Chris, safety is not the main question. In the inner city, he sees raw and real faith, attractive and mysterious. Clouded and broken, but present.

Laying the Foundation

Painting Dignity: Inner City Seattle (sidebar photo 1)

On a weekday afternoon, Chris laughs over a meal with Nick Mobley, a young man he befriended 5 years ago at CryOut!. Nick laughs over fun times spent at the Millheislers’, where Chris’s wife Amanda always has food.

“Teenagers never stop eating,” Amanda says. The mother of two young boys wants the students Chris brings home to laugh and play, to see family, ever imperfect and following God.

Like Tre with his painting, Chris lays a foundation, seeking to understand kids’ backgrounds and lives. He mentors 4 at a time, meeting them at CryOut!, talking with them at Wendy’s or at his home near the center.

Chris is careful to take time. Lots of it. He is a strategist who likes to fix things. Nick expresses how over the years Chris would answer his questions about life and faith, or if he couldn’t find answers, go research and come back with an answer.

In time, the mural of Nick’s life grew clearer before Chris’ eyes. A firm believer in the image of God in men, Chris digs for it in the people he meets. Like Tre’s animals, people are his joy.

To do this, Chris must walk with the Master Artist. After a morning of planning with his 4 interns, he prays, “We aren’t going anywhere or doing anything You haven’t been or done already.”

Chris is no artist, but he likes doodling diagrams. Lines, circles and squares, he connects people to mission. He circles what they’re good at and squares them with situations where they’ll thrive.

Chris sums up their strategy sessions: “We want to find where churches and people’s deep longings meet Seattle’s deep hunger.” Back at CryOut!, he connects dots to multiple people who can mentor youth like Tre and Nick.

Dancing with Ripped Canvases

After school one day, Chris steps into a bright room full of energy. The name CryOut! is painted across a bright yellow wall. It comes from Scripture, where God shows His deep concern for the fatherless, sternly proclaiming how passionately He will defend them.

Painting Dignity: Inner City Seattle (sidebar photo 2)

Youth gather, finding safety. Wearing Nike Jordans, Vans and Adidas, young men and women display coveted brand names. To their right is a recording studio run by Celestine Ezinkwo, the founder of CryOut! He grew up in Nigeria and became a well-known rapper in L.A. Celestine is a story in and of himself, and he now oversees the youth as they mix, write and record, making words sing.

Outside of the yellow room, the light is dimmer in the white-tiled room where youth dance. Boom box plays; they choreograph. In a mirror on one wall, movement, anger and joy reflect back. Looking deep in the mirror, a young man in a bright pink muscle-shirt dances alone. Chris approaches and jokes with him.

Yet Chris sometimes wonders if he’s making a difference. He sees great dignity and beauty as he did with Nick. But he also knows how badly these kids life-canvases have been ripped by broken homes, abuse and poverty. It’s simply overwhelming.

But then Chris remembers he is far from the only one here. “There’s a community that is wrapping their hands around mission,” says Chris’ pastor, John Prince. Chris’ small group at church meets weekly, discussing how they can support the kids at CryOut!. This mission knits them together.

There’s a lightness to Chris characterized by a spark in his eyes that never misses a joke. He once joined the dancers, attempting a cartwheel and almost splitting his pants.

Yet there’s a depth in his struggle to remember that he is secure in Christ. Failure happens often and fast in urban ministry.

So Chris simply does what’s in front of him. To see him as more, as some kind of inner-city hero, is akin to asking the question, “Do you feel safe?” It misses the point of soul-safety. While physically safe enough, he, Amanda and their two young boys get to see God come through in Seattle. In young men like Nick and Tre and many others, they see God working.

Chris and Amanda remain because God remains. They place their lives in the hands of the Artist.