Here’s The Story
It’s crazy to think that it’s been almost a decade since I left the Bible Belt. In the last 10 years I’ve gotten married, bought a house, adopted a dog and a cat, lost a cat, had two kids, worried we might lose one of them, graduated from seminary, and planted a church.
There have been huge victories and even bigger failures. Friends have been made and lost...and overall I’m not sure Devin at 20 would recognize Devin at 30. I think he would be amazed at the patience, kindness, and the taming of a temper (although our recent trip to Disney and Seaworld revealed this area still needs a lot of work). It’s hard to go through your 20s and come out on the other side of a decade as the same person, and we all have forks in the road along the way that will determine the person we will become and the life we will lead. There have been a few things that happened leading up to the decade, and during it, that have further revealed Christ to me and in me, as well as some barriers that continue to obstruct the mission of Christ in our world.
Background: Waking Up From The American Dream
I grew up in the idyllic world of Northwest Arkansas. At the time that I moved there Bentonville had around 20,000 people. It was impossible to go anywhere or do anything without it getting back to your parents. For the most part everyone had good jobs and plenty of opportunity (a fringe benefit of growing up in the hometown of the world’s largest retailer). Eventually, I moved away to college that I began to see a world full of injustices. It was then that I realized how my own upbringing was able to shield me from the systemic injustices that I both directly and indirectly benefited from.
I attended college in Central and Southern Arkansas where racism didn’t feel any obligation to hide, and the structural and systemic racial inequality and inequity was on full display. I wasn’t able to see it growing up because the level of diversity was practically nonexistent. Yet, it wasn’t long before I was able to see that Sunday sermons either were an opportunity for Monday through Saturdays sins, or an excuse for them. The racial and economic divide was so stark that you would have to actively seek to ignore it simply to not have to address it. I guess when you’ve had a hundred years of practice, it gets easier.
The difference was so stark, however, I couldn’t ignore it. Along with this, I began my first theological degree, and while focusing mostly on the Hebrew Prophets. I could no longer ignore God’s call for justice, and my tolerance for their absence in the pulpit only furthered my distrust of the particular Christian worldview I had grown up with. Along the way, I questioned my beliefs on the role of women in ministry, as well as the Church’s relationship with our LGBT brothers and sisters. The one issue that I could not escape was the racial divide in our country- especially in our churches.
I needed space.
A different landscape.
A new community.
A place that wasn’t caked in the heritage that I had begun to question.
A Change of Scenery: A Problem Not Relegated To The South
By the grace of God I ended up in Rochester, NY, the heart of the Second Great Awakening. Home to so many of our social justice movements. From Susan B Anthony and women’s suffrage, to Frederick Douglass and the rights of African Americans. It was even home to Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the Social Gospel. The history of the city is rich with culture, both religious and political.
It wasn’t long, however, before it became evident that the racial and economic divide was just as bad, if not worse, in the home of such movements as it was in the deep South. It would seem I couldn’t escape God’s call. Rochester has the worst graduation rate in the state of New York, and this is coupled with some of the worst poverty in the entire United States. Like Jonah I had tried to run away, and God had spit me out into the belly of the beast. So, I should’ve guessed that when I felt called to plant a church in the city, that I would somehow find myself sandwiched in the midst of an area that many of our areas problems come to a head.
Let me explain:The Pillar isn’t in the worst neighborhood of the city...far from it. Rather, it finds itself at the intersection of poverty and development, racial diversity and gentrification. The Pillar is neighbored by a homeless tent city, a housing first facility, a health clinic for the uninsured, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, all the while being squeezed by new development and some of the fastest rising housing values in the county.
At this point you might be saying to yourself
What has changed? Who have you met? What’s really different?
Old Words In A New Light
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment, he affirmed the questioners answer that it was to, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” However, he then went on to describe who our neighbor is, and what it looks like to love them. Most of us learned the story of the Good Samaritan in Sunday School, but so did many of Jesus’ original listeners. Unlike the story Jesus tells, however, it would’ve had a rabbi, or another faithful Jew serving the one in need, but Jesus turned the parable on its head by having the unlikely, and even unliked, Samaritan be the example of grace and service.
So, what am I trying to get at? When I was first asked to write about “In what ways have you had to change or adapt in order to love your neighbor. What has been the hardest part about that change, and do you feel that the discomfort has been worth it? If so, in what ways?” my first response was to tell stories of how I had reached out to help bridge the racial divide or serve the poor...but Jesus’ parable shows us that real transformation often happens when we are the ones served by the improbable.
I’d like to tell you of a particularly heartwarming or gut wrenching story with twists and turns that led to a dramatic change, but I don’t have any. Rather, what I have is a calling to a community, and a church that I thought would be about me serving the population I was called to...what I got was a diverse community of the poor, minorities, and the marginalized who week in and week out serve me and serve each other. I’m constantly amazed by how much seems to get done, and how little I feel like I have to do with it. I found that my calling wasn’t so much to be the hands and feet, but rather the one who took their privilege and opportunities and gave it to those who rarely have it.
I spent years cynical about those who abused their privilege and seemed to benefit from the inequality and inequity that I’ve grown to abhor. However, experience and the Holy Spirit have shown me that most people are just like I was-uninformed and inexperienced. The majority of people are trying their best to be and do good, but we are so ingrained in a society of division and individualism that we struggle to come to a place of proximity that allow for God to break down the walls that support the systems and structure that oppress others.
I’ve found that while loving my neighbor who was different was a bit difficult at the beginning, it has been much harder to love neighbors who are similar to myself, or who have had similar upbringings. Furthermore, I have found that cynicism, bitterness and judgement changes no hearts or minds, and as I have revisited the work and words of Christ I have found that when he addressed people that I find to fall in a similar category, sure there is criticism, but there’s also a lot of grace, dinner...and plenty of wine.
A Proposal: Where Do We Go From Here?
I’ve found the dinner table to be the place of love, and wouldn’t you know it, it seems Christ did as well. He went in to the house of those who disagreed with him broke bread and drank wine- the same substances that he would use as symbols of just how far he was willing to go to exemplify how much we should love one’s neighbor- substances that he called us to use to remember his sacrifice, and an invitation to relationship and community with those who are different. It is in our difference that we find the Image of Christ, and the true substance of Christ’s body...the Church.
So, my challenge to you is to go to your favorite thrift or superstore, buy a few table settings, and put them to use for the Kingdom of God. Start bridging our cultural, racial, political, and personal divides with food and drink. Invite people to your table and ask them questions about themselves. Challenge yourself to not use the words “I” or “me”, and see how it changes the conversation. If you’re bold enough, you can even try inviting yourself to other people’s houses for meals. Jesus did...a lot. Be open to letting others serve you...so that you may better learn how to serve others.
And most of all: love your neighbor as yourself.
It all starts with getting to know your neighbors.
The ones like Jesus described.
Devin graduated from Ouachita Baptist University with a degree in Biblical Studies, and finished his Masters of Divinity at United Theological Seminary. He’s been preaching since he was 15, and pastoring since he was 18. Four years ago he started a new church community called The Pillar in Rochester, NY. When not working or writing about the church, he loves learning and starting new things. Most of all, he loves being a dad to is two beautiful boys, and husband to his wife of 10 years, Logan.