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Feature Friday: Julie Braun

Updated: Feb 8, 2019

Writing for this post ended up being a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. Jess had asked me to share about how I got into ministry, what a lifetime of ministry has looked like, how it has changed my relationship with Jesus, and what struggles I have faced through out it all. I have started and stopped writing this post more times than I care to admit. So since I’m not sure where to start, I’m going to begin with her first talking point- how I got into ministry.

So how did an ordinary, average, under achiever like me end up in the ministry? That’s right, it’s true. I’m not trying to be humble, I’m just stating facts. I am living proof that God will take anyone who is willing to TRY. And with Him, it will be a lifelong adventure. You do not need any special skills, although they are certainly an asset, and if you join my team, I’ll make sure to use them to the best of your and my ability.

I don’t always get it right, infact, hardly ever. My goal is Hebrews 12:1-2. I imagine myself like a seasoned triathlete running the most challenging course of all time. I’ve beaten my body and made it my slave. I’ve thrown off every hinderance. My eyes are fixed on the prize. The great cheering crowd of witness are in the stands, on their feet shouting victory chants, as I sprint effortlessly across the finish line into the arms of Jesus. But, the reality of my race, (I don’t even like the word race because it immediately makes me think of running.) I don’t run! It also makes me think of competition. I know the devil loves to get us into the religious comparing game that leaves us feeling inferior or superior, jealous and either stuck doing nothing or working ourselves to death. But since the Lord uses the word race, I will too. My race has been Jesus carrying me, and sometimes pulling me, leading me places, and dropping things in my lap.

If you’ve never seen the video “The Story of a Father’s Love”, take 5 minutes and watch it:

Dick and Rick Hoyt. That is me. I am the special needs child. Jesus is doing ALL the hard work. I’m along for the ride but He’s letting me participate. He partners with me. He listens to me complain at times about my hardship, all the while, pulling or pushing me along. Then in the end we finish the race together and He lets me win! One of my favorite worship leaders, Misty Edwards- sings this phrase often, “Don’t give up, don’t give in. If you don’t quit you win.” Somebody put that on my tombstone please. When I die, if all you can say about me is , “she didn’t quit”, then I WON!!!

So, how did I get in to the ministry? Simple. I was standing in the right place at the right time and I said "yes!" Jesus knows exactly what He’s doing. While I hardly ever do. Only He sees the end from the beginning. My husband Marty and I prayed a prayer of salvation and joined the church in 1980. We both had been raised in church but that 18 inch miracle from head to heart never occurred for us until 1980. (yes, we are old) We started serving in the nursery with our own kids and basically followed them as they grew. We moved to Grand Rapids in 1988 and served in children’s ministry until our youngest went to Jr.High. Then we were asked to serve with Jr. High. We learned as we served. When he went to High School so did we. I fought and still fight the feelings and the voices that tell me I am not "qualified", I am too old, women can’t be pastors, I HAVE NO TALENT, and on and on. I have argued with God about all of these issues more than once but He always wins the argument either with scripture, He told me once, “Hey Jewels, if I can make a donkey talk, surely I can use you! “ or one time He said, “Yeah, Moses had a ton of excuses too.” ( I’m not comparing myself to Moses), or the confirmation of trusted people.

"God specializes in taking ordinary people and using them to do extraordinary things. It’s all over the Bible!"

Camp: When my daughter was in 6th grade she told me I would love camp so I signed up as a counselor in training and after that first year I was hooked. I was convinced that Holy Spirit’s headquarters was at camp. I was fascinated and enthralled watching kids encountering Jesus. So I never stopped going. That was in 1991 and for several years I served in many different capacities and under different directors. In 1997 I was offered the job as director and I’ve been director ever since then. Camp is my favorite week of the year. Camp is the place where so many kids meet Jesus for the first time. It’s the place where they discover that Jesus is real and He really loves them and has plan for their life. I love camp because we get the kids for 5 days and 4 nights of undistracted relationship building and fun fun fun. We connect to God, each other, and His creation. Camp is usually a defining moment in the lives of most who attend. It’s that place people can point back to and say, “That’s the first time I met the Lord.” It has been a privilege I don’t take for granted working with the greatest team of selfless people, who I also am proud to call friends.

In 1999 our church went through a very painful split. At the time I considered writing a book entitled “Christians Behaving Badly” It was a very ugly divorce (I’m calling the split a divorce) and as in the case of ugly divorces, most often times the kids are hurt the worst. I was disillusioned and disappointed and I did not want to be a part of any church ever again. But, when our pastor started the church that is now River of God in May of 1999, and explained his vision to gather the scattered sheep (Jeremiah 23:3-4) and asked us to pastor the youth, we heard the Lord clearly tell us to do it. He told us His plan was much bigger than the small group we had at the time. We had no clue what that meant but we knew it had something to do with what we experienced in Atlanta.

Atlanta: In 1998, we were doing the usual youth group format. We had a cool youth house with game tables and a coffee bar. We had a converted barn where we had concerts regularly. We were really good at keeping them busy with entertainment. At the same time we were experiencing a sovereign move of God similar to the Toronto Blessing and the Brownsville Revival. You can google that to see what I’m talking about if you haven’t heard of that. Things were going seemingly great but yet, I knew there was more. Even with all the manifestations of the Holy Spirit we were seeing it seemed as if there was a revolving door of kids coming to church, getting blessed and touched and walking back out into their worldly lifestyles and I knew the Lord wanted to mark them and change them. But how?

Jesus was speaking to me about getting to the heart of an entertainment crazed generation. My sister told me about this ministry in Atlanta that offered an affordable mission trip to the heart of Atlanta’s inner city. The name of the ministry was Blood ’N Fire. What a cool name! When I got their brochure I was so excited. It said radical things like, “In order to really live, teens need something to die for!” They talked about kingdom action, getting the heart of God for the poor and understanding how HE feels about the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. I knew that I knew this was where we needed to go! So we went. We took two 15 passenger vans, walkie talkies, (1998, no cell phones) five leaders, and about 20 kids.

Blood ’N Fire Ministries was in the heart of Atlanta’s inner city, on Martin King Jr. Blvd across from a massive apartment complex called the projects. It was a block long warehouse that was in the process of being converted but it was no where near being done. We were there with 200 other kids from youth groups from all over the country. When I walked into that warehouse for the first time, I started to laugh a nervous laugh. When I saw where we were going to be sleeping, eating and showering, I was laughing hysterically. When I don’t know what to do or say, I laugh. The warehouse was beyond filthy. There were rats living among us, who wanted our snacks. No wonder they told us to bring secure containers for all snacks. No wonder they told us not to keep food by our “beds”. We were each given 2 inch thick mats to sleep on a cement floor in a big room divided by a tarp. One side for guys, one side for girls. The girls shower consisted of four showers heads going out of the wall with nothing separating them and the guys had a door to the outside that the homeless were free to use. The homeless didn’t have towels so they used newspaper to dry off and they left it on the floor of the shower that was also used as a toilet. The guys had to clean those showers out every morning so they would be fit for use. The cafeteria was the homeless shelter. Water was added to all liquids, such as milk, coffee, and orange juice to make them go further. Every morning we were fed grits. Every afternoon, two warm bologna sandwiches. In the evening we would go into the projects with a grill and we would have a big party. They would grill chicken till it was gone, then they’d break out the hotdogs, and after they were gone, there was bread. The guests were in front of the long line, and the hosts were at the back. (that was us) Very rarely did we get more than a hotdog and sometimes less. The temperature in July was never under 95 degrees and the humidity was right up there with the temperature. Did I mention I hate to be hot? My legs swelled every day in the heat like watermelon. Individual fans would blow the fuses out in the warehouse and so would blow dryers and curling irons. Sharing four showers with 200 people meant you got one a day. Everything about the warehouse was filthy. Every time we sat in a chair we would get up dirty. The roof leaked and there were puddles all over inside. The first day we got there the leaders told us not to take the kids sight seeing on our breaks and resist the temptation to go to Mc Donalds because God wants to use our discomfort to get to the junk in our hearts. And that He did. It was there in the filthy rat infested warehouse, carrying smelly children on our necks, cleaning roach infested apartments that Jesus revealed Himself to us in a way we had never known Him before. He gave us His heart for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. He showed us how blessed we are and how he wants us to use our blessings to help others. He showed me His upside down inside out kingdom.

We experienced Romans 8:26-27 “26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” We learned a new depth of intercession we had never known. We cried all week long as God broke in and changed us forever. He changed my dreams that week. Back then I was having fun in my suburban neighborhood hanging out with kids, dreaming of the day when I could have a really nice house, 2 new cars and a couple of luxury vacations a year. It all changed in that dirty warehouse when i met the man with eyes of fire who burns with fiery passionate love for His people. He not only gave a vision for the youth but also a love for the nations. There was a reason I was 43 years old and had never been on a mission trip. I knew I couldn’t do it. I knew I would hate it. Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself doing missions. Using an outhouse? I think not! We now leave the county every other year. Isn’t God funny! The day we left Blood N Fire we were not running to the vans to get out of Atlanta fast. The kids were crying, standing on the porch, actually rubbing the dirt into their skin so they wouldn’t forget the smell. They took bricks home as a remembrance. They were crying because they were afraid they would go back to the same old stuff back home. “No one needs us at home!’ “We don’t want to go back to the same old stuff.” So my famous last words to get them into the vans were, “Surely Grand Rapids has an inner city. Surely there are people there who need us. I promise you we will reach out. I promise you we will have a ministry to the poor.”

Things didn’t work out quite like I thought they were going to because shortly after we got back that summer things started falling apart at church and by May, those of us who left were without a building and several of those kids either stayed or went somewhere else. So we took the kids we had and started over. We rented office space in a building on White St. in Grandville and turned it into a youth room. Oh how we loved that place! It became a place of worship, encounter and intercession for our little group. One night, after procrastinating on a prayer walk, we went on a prayer drive by. We drove through neighborhoods praying for the families and we were having such a great time we kept on driving. We ended up on top of a hill in a neighborhood off of Godfrey. There was a little white church so we got out of the van and prayed as we looked out over the city. “God, give us the city for your glory!” We blew the shofar and cheered!! We didn’t know what we were doing but God did. A few weeks later, I heard on the radio of an opportunity to bring holiday baskets to people in need so we got the addresses of two families and filled baskets of food. These families just happened to live in the neighborhood where we prayed. One of the families had two boys. One was in Jr. High and one was in High School. Marty invited them to church and that Sunday morning he picked them up. One of those boys ended up later living with us along with his cousin. We later found out the name of the neighborhood is The Black Hills. Those boys started inviting their friends and our group grew real fast. We made many, many mistakes in those days. But the grace of God, the grace of our church leadership, and the grace of the original kids in our youth group covered us. We opened our home to breakfast on Sunday mornings after church and our little 3 bedroom ranch on the SW side was so full we had to turn the furnace off while everyone was there. Marty cooked made to order omelettes. The Lord started talking to us about moving either to the Black Hills or buying a building we could renovate and live in while making part of it a youth facility. We wanted it to be big enough to house interns who could help us in ministry. So we began hunting. We ended up with neither. God had other plans. We ended up a little further northeast on Diamond in a big old house with five bedrooms. We have been here since 2001 and we’ve been alone in this house for a total of about 3 weeks. I agonized for a while about why we ended up here and not the Black Hills until one day when I was sitting on my porch and the Lord told me to look at the street sign. He said, “Look Jewels, I put you on Diamond St.” I never mentioned the name of our ministry is Diamonds in the Rough! So here we are 18 years later.

United in Christ Ministries In 2005, Diamonds in the Rough was holding VBS in the park in the Black Hills when we met several people who were a part of a ministry called Dorchester House. Then we met the Adopt a Block people, and then Pastor Phil, who pastors the little white church where we prayed, Hillcrest. All these ministries in this little neighborhood! We all agreed we could accomplish more if we joined together. So we did and shortly there after we were offered 9,000 sq feet in a WAREHOUSE on Godfrey. The deal was for the churches to work together in unity under one banner. We united and formed the ministry that is now at 1035 Godfrey, United in Christ Ministries. Chip and Karen Ware and Allen and Leslie Pontarelli spearheaded the renovation and we raised $250,000.00. We moved in in 2006. TMI, (started by Ada Bible Church), The Motion Initiative bike shop runs out of the back of our building. Our vision is to connect kids to Christ, our community, and the local church. We started with 5 churches and now have 12 churches who are involved in support and programs. Last summer 36 kids from the neighborhood were able to attend Camp. We have taken kids from the neighborhood on mission trips to third world countries since 2005.

The struggles I have faced have been numerous. The devil is real and he knows where I am vulnerable but God uses those struggles to get at my junk and every single time he turns them into victories. I am still not totally free from anxiety but when I’m at my worst God is way better. I see heartbreak every day. I have wanted to quit at least once a week since I started but I can’t because the love of God compels me to go on. I know that this testimony has been really long but I’m telling you that I could write just as many pages about the struggles, heartache, and the struggles I see my dear friends face. But I tell you these struggles or inconveniences are minuscule in comparison to the glory we have experienced in knowing Jesus and being allowed to partner with Him in this way. The regrets I have are the ones where my mistakes have hurt other people. Those cause the biggest ache in my heart and if I could have a do over I would go back in a minute to fix those. I pray that the Lord will heal any damage my ignorance may have caused.

Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Whatever you are doing, whether you have a career, you are a stay at home mom, whatever it is, if you are doing it for the Lord, there will be tremendous pressure to quit. The devil will pull out every trick there is to get you to stop. He is a dirty fighter. I once read and article written by an old lady like myself who was in the ministry. The best advice she had to offer was to resist the temptation to quit. I attended a conference put on by a children’s minister I greatly admired. His advice was similar. Show up and don’t quit. Quitting is the easy way out. Quitting sounds good most of the time. Now if God tells you to stop doing something and get out, do it. But you most definitely don’t get to quit doing what He has clearly called you to do. Most of the time the voices that tell you to quit are your flesh and the enemy. So resist the lies by replacing them with truth and hold on tight to Jesus. Listen to your trusted friends who love Him and you. Remember the words to Misty’s song, “Don’t give up, don’t give in. If you don’t quit, you win!”

I leave you with Ephesians 3:20-21 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.