Father Greg Boyle’s presentation reminded me of my winding path away from affluent suburbia. It made me wonder about renewed ways to seek my spiritual growth. And it made me wonder how God is calling the Presbytery beyond itself once again.
First Few Steps
Tony Campolo first startled me out of my suburban Christianity when I was eighteen. At Forest Home’s College Briefing Conference, he jolted me with the story of the Haitian woman running alongside his Piper Cub screaming for him to take her baby so it wouldn’t die.
I couldn’t just hear and do nothing (Matthew 7:24-27; James 1:23-24). I volunteered to work with EAPE, Campolo’s educational organization, in Philadelphia the following summer. Then, a summer later, I joined Intervarsity on a summer trip to work with a COGIC (Black Pentecostal) church in urban Tacoma.
The people changed me. The contrast between Stanford University (“The Farm”) and the inner city caught me by surprise. The urban poor had so much more than the university crowd. Their deep faith amid daily struggles humbled me. Their (astonishing) generosity toward college interns captured my imagination.
Between those experiences of “another America” and serious reflection on the Bible (especially Amos and parts of Isaiah), my thinking shifted. (1) If the United States was a Christian nation, then not only did Old Testament Israel stand under the prophets’ judgment. We did too. (2)
The Spirit kept pressing me to show God’s love for the outsider. By the time we finished seminary, Karen and I knew we weren’t meant for the tall-steeple track. In spite of heavy counter-pressure (“it’ll kill your pastoral career”), we took a call to a small, multiethnic mission church in rural Alaska.
The choice took me on from my childhood and into God’s heart. At the time, Alaska led the nation in per capita rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence…and ice cream consumption (at least one of these affected me directly). Life in rural Alaska is not easy.
But what the people taught me far outweighed the struggles. I learned to count a person rich not because of what they had, but what they gave. I learned to see someone’s identity not in what they did, but in their relationships. They taught me the profound power of just waiting—waiting for a sage to speak; waiting for an opponent to leave; waiting for the winds to change (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally). (3)
No, Really. Keep Going.
My second call continued the journey. The public school told the story: top fifth percentile of children participating in free school lunches; eighty percent of high school graduates not continuing in school; students managing their own lives when their parents failed.
We opened ourselves to the need. We welcomed teens into our home. We left the phone by the bed at night. We took in people at cost whose housing situation threatened their health and finances.
And now? Here I am, serving in the administrative offices of one of the most wealthy presbyteries in the country, one step removed from both congregational life and neighborhood ministry.
True, Karen and I do live in a part of North Long Beach that keeps us paying attention. Our neighborhood reminds us daily of the broad array of human life—and human need.
But is my life really very different from that of a typical Stanford graduate? At the end of the week, I’m ready to do laundry and watch Netflix rather than tutor at the bottom-third high school less than half a mile from my house.
The Path Before Us
When I hear Father Boyle’s stories of redemption, I don’t feel guilty. I find myself wondering. I wonder whether I am missing out. I wonder whether I should trade some algebra tutoring in exchange for enlarging my soul.
And I wonder what such an encounter might look like for people in Los Ranchos. If our common response indicated anything, Father Boyle captured your imagination, too.
Is it enough just to be touched by Father Boyle’s words for a night? Or is that like looking in the mirror and then immediately forgetting (again, see James 1:23-24)? How might the presbytery create paths for its people—not just to influence governments or raise funds, but to enable face-to-face encounters with other people, people who are beloved of God, that we might discover something of God’s heart as we come into relationship with them?
I don’t mean to ask rhetorical questions. Neither, however, do I have a clear sense of what must happen. Perhaps the best I can do here is stir the waters a little, and hear what you think.
And maybe walk over to the local high school.
Somewhere along the Way—
1. Even throughout seminary and beyond, I have not felt the need to abandon a largely Evangelical hermeneutic in order to love the poor. That very hermeneutic awakened me to God’s love for them. Back
2. If America is not the New Israel, Reformed theology certainly regards the Church as such. In that sense, “we” might refer not to Americans in general, but to white, upper-middle-class Presbyterians like me. Back
3. As I write, Karen and I are spending the weekend with a young woman we pastored from Alaska and her 16-month-old foster child. The boy entered life addicted to meth. But this woman, who grew up in an isolated, 250-person Native village with many strikes against her, is providing a stable life for an otherwise lost boy. She amazes me. Such are the miracles I have seen for spending time outside of the world of affluent Presbyterians. Back