Lamont Little expected April 10th to be like any other Sunday morning: ministering to the physical needs of the homeless who live in San Diego’s Civic Center area, and leading an outdoor worship service there.
However, on a cool and beautiful morning, as he entered the civic center’s plaza with his supplies and equipment, he found not only his “flock” . . . but also about 60 of his friends and family, waiting there to participate in a graduation.
Little is the most recent graduate from The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI). Adapted and presented to California prison inmates as a joint project of Prison Fellowship and Serving California, TUMI is a multi-year Christian educational and character development program developed by World Impact, consisting of several courses which not only improve basic skills (e.g., reading, writing), but also inculcate character and develop future leaders (e.g., ethics, critical thinking).
Little had renewed his faith in Christ during his incarceration, and had enrolled in the TUMI program, completing several segments. However, he was (ironically) paroled in 2013 . . . before he could complete the TUMI curriculum. A few days later, homeless and unemployed, rejected by his family, living on the streets of downtown San Diego, he pleaded with Christ for help . . . and was gently reminded of his promised willingness to serve the Lord.
He began preaching the Gospel, and serving the spiritual and material needs of other homeless of the area. “I’ve always been a fighter,” he said, “but I found a new fight.” Soon, he found work in a local hotel; then, a place to live. Amazingly, while working full-time, and with his homeless ministry expanding, Little then made the time and found the energy to complete the final nine modules in the TUMI program.
And it’s clear that the lessons of TUMI, along with the motivation of the Spirit, have equipped Little to tend to the physical and soul needs of his flock. At point, when a fellow TUMI participant sang (in a pre-recorded message), “I’m going to carry the water to the desert,” members of Little’s “congregation” could be seen nodding their heads, whispering, “That’s Lamont.”
Among those honoring Little’s sacrifice and perseverance was Dr. Don Davis, national director of TUMI, who appeared via a prerecorded message. Davis congratulated Little on bringing to an end one “strong chapter of your ministry,” while beginning a new phase in his work. He charged Little to live out the teachings of Hebrews 11:6: “God cannot be pleased apart from our faith. In order for you to be used, you must believe Him and walk by faith. Faith honors God, and God honors faith.”
After describing how the institutional version of the TUMI program was created, Serving California’s Clef Irby turned to Little, reminding him to hold on to his power source: the Spirit. “Never lose sight of that spirit of power,” Irby said, citing 2 Timothy 1:7; “keep doing what God shows you to do.” He urged the new graduate to continue in his self-effacing ways: “Kick the pedestal off, and get down in the trenches.”
Rich Esselstrom, World Impact’s San Diego coordinator, emphasized the enormity of the work that Little had completed while he was working full-time, pastoring full-time, and serving the homeless. A graduate of the program will have completed 250 hours in the classroom, and an additional two-to-three times that amount of time in studying, reading, memorizing and participating in class projects . . . while passing upwards of 60 tests. Esselstrom then conferred upon Little his “Certificate in Christian Leadership Studies.”
Audrey Fay of Prison Fellowship then presented Little with two gifts, one personal, one practical one: a drawing – by a fellow TUMI student – of Little’s favorite verse (Isaiah 50:4), and a minister’s Bible with Little’s name engraved upon it.
In reflecting on both his life path and his graduation, Little told the crowd he was surprised and honored by the ceremony. “You never know what God has in store for you,” he reminded the gathering.
He admitted that, when he first learned (in the institution) that he wouldn’t be able to complete the program and graduate with his classmates (due to his parole), he was angry . . . even at God. But then he realized, “We have an enemy who tries to take our eyes off God.” Over the next few weeks, God used Little’s wife to care for him; he saw the image of a loving God through his wife.
Little also thanked the TUMI and Prison Fellowship leaders who cared for him, and his grandmother, who always prayed for him (and whom, he later learned, was a graduate of the Moody Bible Institute).
He then shared what God had spoken to him that morning, as he had listened to the many presentations. Reciting Micah 6:8, he asked the crowd, “What has God shown you that He requires of you? We must do what we are called to do.” Recalling his wife’s sacrificial love, he reminded the gathering that, “We are one in Christ, and we must carry each other.” He expressed gratitude for God’s mercy every day, as he was blessed and honored by the people with whom God had surrounded him.
He finished his remarks with a reminder to all present: “Turn from your wicked ways, or you’re going to hell. Jesus stands between you and hell.”
Prison Fellowship’s Jeff Fay closed the ceremony by recounting the changes he had seen God work in Little. “When we started with Lamont, he didn’t think change was possible.” But God then gave Little a vision for the homeless – even before his parole – and the seed was planted for his One New Man ministry. This, Fay said, was just another example of how God takes the impossible, and makes it possible. Little, he said, reflected the teachings of Colossians 3, having put on a “new man.” He commended Little to his continued work, and prayed for Jesus’ guidance in that effort.