Boots on the ground/The day it felt like Church

I was baptized into a fundamentalist church when I was 7 years old, but that wasn’t the end of my journey to Jesus.

By the time I had been in and out of undergrad and had made a right mess of my experiences there, I was most often the first to talk about Jesus and the last to behave like Jesus. But everything changed for me when succumbed to the “Hound of Heaven.” One day while in prayer, I remember wanting to be baptized again– this time as a confessing adult. But I also remember God doing something that seemed so counter-intuitive to me at the time: God wanted me to be a youth volunteer at our local fundamentalist megachurch. Looking back, I’m so glad I did. Let me explain-

That very summer, our youth group traveled to Memphis in order to take part in Service Over Self (S.O.S) ministries– a dedicated community of individuals who invaded some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This wasn’t the “good-time Gospel” I had grown up with; this was an embodied ministry that declared the holistic good news of King Jesus through community, restoration, andconfession.

Their method was simple. A dedicated group of individuals, armed with resources, bought homes in Memphis’ poorest community. There they lived right next to and among those they ministered with. They did not plant a church, but they were a church planted within their own community. Soon they bought an abandoned car lot and warehouse where they stored their building supplies, and before you knew it, S.O.S. began training and equipping summer volunteers in the rebuilding of their communities, literally. Never before had I seen this type of liberation in action. Affluent, white families were living intentionally in and among some of the hardest areas of Memphis. There were no illusions of gentrification– no aims at increasing property values. This was a strategic Gospel invasion meant to demonstrate the embodied freedom found in Jesus Christ.

Our particular youth group was assigned the task of rebuilding the roof of one of the neighborhood’s homes, and so we set to work with one of our S.O.S. staffers who oversaw the entire project from start to finish. His job was to facilitate the training necessary to complete the replacement of the roof while fostering a relationship with the family who lived under it. At the end of the project, every family was invited to a free bbq at the local neighborhood park, where neighbors and volunteers alike enjoyed each others company.

One hot July afternoon, we witnessed two neighbors in a squabble. Although they were about 100 yards away from our rooftop, we could tell by their manner that a fight was soon to break out. I’m not sure what happened first, but something inside of me reacted quickly. I shimmied down the ladder and approached the would be pugilists with caution. Looking back, I remember not caring whether someone needed to “get to the bottom” of “the issue.” I only knew that Jesus was the Prince of Peace and that we were called to be peacemakers wherever were went. Now I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t “me” who stopped the fight that day. Since S.O.S. had been in the neighborhood for almost a decade, their reputation went before them. As I was wearing a bright red S.O.S. shirt, I’m certain the two men recognized that I was just another part of a bigger Kingdom community whose reputation carried credit wherever it labored. But what’s important to memory is the way our volunteer staffer later reacted. Together, we shared an “aha” moment at the end of the day as we discussed all that had previously transpired. Community is messy. When people get together, especially in the midst of poverty, things often heat up. Even in the midst of a Kingdom community, tensions flare; so instead of pretending like conflict doesn’t happen and instead of looking the other way (which we so easily do), we all came to embrace our roles as prophetic peace-makers in action. Ours is not a passive Kingdom.

That was the day that felt like church. There were no steeples, only people eating, working, and living in community alongside each other. There were no altar calls or organ swells, only seekers living out what Jesus meant together. Never before had I seen a community of believers who intentionally lived out church within the communities around them. Rejecting the formulas and models of Christendom, these S.O.S. community members practiced a mission of solidarity with those they lived with–just like Jesus lived in solidarity with those he came to live with. Theirs was not a mission of reform or colonization. Theirs was a mission of mutuality, where whatever happened to their neighbors (for better or for worse) meant the same for their own community. After years of manifesting this important reality, there was made manifest a common-unity between all classes and strata of the neighborhood. Success was not measured by souls won or by notches made in one’s spiritual head board; success was determined by whether or not mutuality was sustained in spite of the many excruciating realities working against it (poverty, racism, classism, etc).

With privilege comes great responsibility for those who claim to follow the one who emptied himself, intentionally, in order that we might become the community he desired us to be. Ours is a community that undermines cultural insulation and invades violence through Kingdom peacemaking. It didn’t matter that these staffers had earned advanced architecture degrees and PhD’s from impressive Seminaries, what was important is that they treated everyone around them as Christ himself–and as a result, homes were rebuilt, families remained together, and the power of the holistic Gospel was manifested in and throughout the greater city.

I’m forever impressed by the examples presented to us through S.O.S. ministries in Memphis–an opportunity I never would have been exposed to if it weren’t for the strange impression I felt after I began following Jesus.