Sunday, October 10, 2010
Providential Encounters on our 1st Anniversary
It's hard to believe that a year has passed since our first Sunday at Redeemer Church in Jackson, MS. We have met so many wonderful people, and we look forward to seeing those friendships deepen as time goes on. By the way, I apologize that this entry will be a little long, but I think it'll be worth the read. Let's just say there's some surprising stuff at the end :)...
To be perfectly honest, the past month and a half have been pretty exhausting ministerially speaking. Some of that exhaustion comes from sheer busyness (like the kick off of the tutoring ministry for me) and some of it from the stress of becoming involved in other's personal lives (with both youth and families in our church). Maybe that's why God was especially gracious to us by reminding us of his presence in our lives and church's ministry just this weekend.
It all started Saturday morning with a parenting conference that Ryan organized at our church with speaker Dr. Bill Richardson, a Christian marriage and family therapist, which was incredibly practical and encouraging. We had a pretty good turn out, but it wasn't the number of the turn out that was so cool, it was who all came. Most of the parents who attended were from our own church, but we had some visitors from the community come. Part of our church's mission is to reach the lower-income, African-American community directly behind our church. This is often hard to do, and Ryan & I were thrilled to see visitors from the neighborhood come. One of those visitors happened to be the Parent Liaison for the local middle school near our church. She was so excited about the material presented that she asked the Christian therapist who presented the conference to come present to parents at her school! She also wants to work with me to coordinate tutoring for some of her students. We had been praying for a way to connect more with the community, and God brought our connection to us! It'll be cool to see how that fleshes out.
As if that wasn't enough for one day, God had more up his sleeve. Ryan spent much of the afternoon relaxing (while Evan and I were both napping) and reading his new book Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi & Theology of Friendship by Peter Slade, which gives a background of a state wide initiative to bring Christians together across racial lines. He happened to be reading the section about the riot that occurred when James Meredith enrolled at Ole' Miss in 1962.
That evening we attended a neighborhood block party with live music and BBQ. We noticed some friends at a table so we walked up and sat down. We also noticed an elderly African-American man with an Ole' Miss hat at the other end of the table. Ryan introduced himself, and do you know who it was? Why, it was James Meredith himself! Ryan was, of course, shocked and told him that this must be providential because he was just reading about his story. The two of them became engrossed in a very long conversation about his experience and his hopes for, as well as his frustration with, his people today. We learned that he had visited Redeemer awhile back, and he said that he had never in his life seen such a thing at that scale (blacks and whites interacting and worshipping together). He said he believes that reconciliation is going to have to come through the local church.
Eventually, Ryan left to take Evan to the inflatable jump castle, and I was left with Mr. Meredith. Something came over me (call it the Holy Spirit!), and I saw him not as a famous person in our nation's history, but as the kind man seated in front of me who had been through a whole lot of trials in his life and needed some encouragement. So I asked him if he had a church home, to which he replied he hadn't since a child, but he did believe in God. I asked him, "do you mind if I ask, why?" (where in the world was this boldness coming from?! You've got to understand that around people I don't know, I'm usually much more reserved!), and he responded, very slowly, "It's complicated, let me think of how to answer that." What transpired was another long conversation in which I listened to his struggles with overcoming judging others and trusting those in the church (seeming to imply particularly white people). A year ago, I might would've found this a bit offensive or off the mark, but after serving in this ministry for a year, I believe God is really beginning to help me & Ryan see the world the way many African-Americans in Mississippi see it--as one in which they do not have as many opportunities or privileges, which often results in hopelessness. We are no longer naive that the effects of the past still hinder relationships between the races. We ended the conversation by me encouraging him to come to our church to see how it is the gospel that is transforming lives, not us or our efforts.
Later that night I told Ryan about my conversation with Mr. Meredith, and he couldn't believe how bold I'd been. Neither could I once we turned on the TV to NBC and saw a local civil rights special and a discussion panel of which he was a part-on TV that very night! Can you believe it? Tell me that's not crazy! It was then that I felt a little overwhelmed that I had spent so much time talking one-on-one with a living legend. It was like I'd just talked with MLK, Jr. or Rosa Parks-Whoa! I had to keep reminding myself that it was God who had given me His eyes for a moment to see him as any other man who needed encouragement in the hope of the gospel for himself and his people. I'm humbled that I met him, and I know I'll never forget it. I tell you this part of the story, not to brag on myself (because this was most certainly a rarity), but to boast in Christ. Surely God is working in Mr. Meredith's life even now to give him hope, and he's working in mine to make me unashamed of the gospel.
So, here's to a new year of ministry in Jackson, MS!