I knew that my future husband, Tom, was a different kind of guy when he announced on one of our first dates, “So, I have this lifelong mission statement.”
First of all, anyone who knows my husband is not surprised. Tom is nothing if not intentional. Everything from his calendar to our budget is scrutinized as to how our actions on the ground line up with the Christian principles we purport to value. Second, who does this?
I could feel the panic rising—was this a test? Was I supposed to have a mission thingy, too? I was a senior at a Christian college, after all, and something like that sounded maybe helpful, if not biblical. “Oh, heh-heh,” I mumbled nervously. “Cool.”
“It’s to desegregate myself by race and by class,” he said as if the next two items on his list would include such paltry goals as climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and making a cool million by the age of twenty-three. We had met at college while volunteering with the same inner-city ministry—right after I had returned from a semester working with street kids in Nairobi, Kenya. So perhaps he assumed this was an easy sell. This girl did desegregation in her sleep, right?
“Well, it’s really just a way of saying I feel called to racial and economic reconciliation,” he clarified.
“Uh, cool,” I repeated. His description sounded vaguely biblical, like the Apostle Paul’s “ministry of reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Yes, issues of race and class were important to me. But I had never stated those values out loud. For life. Maybe someday. But adulting, okay?
I would go on to discover he meant what he said.
Lessons in Intentionality
We got married. We ended up, by divine joke, working for an upper-middle-class church in a small resort town in Northern Michigan—not quite the Great White North but close. It took some creativity, but my goal-driven husband pursued the reconciliation thing anyway: he served on the Habitat for Humanity board, volunteered at the local homeless shelter, and, after much prayer and conversation, we invited one of those residents to live with us long term.
This was desegregation by class, all right. It was all about investing in personal relationships outside our socioeconomic demographic—which is at the heart of reconciliation. Yet, race was a different story. Nearly every person we knew, no matter their class, was white.
As I describe in more detail in the new book The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos Press; coauthored with Erin Wasinger), eventually Tom and I headed off to seminary at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. We could have gone to school in the Midwest or the backwoods of Kentucky. But after a little research, we learned that Durham is roughly 40 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic or Latino—and the divinity school itself is demographically diverse, both in faculty and student body. And, of course, my husband was one hundred percent intentional. So, Durham, it was.
Our first weekend in North Carolina found him on his laptop, researching churches.
“So there’s this Spanish-speaking church,” he said, scrolling through the list of denominational options (we’re United Methodist). “Don’t you speak Spanish?”
“Did,” I said. “Not so much now.”
“Okay, so here’s a historically black congregation on the northeast side.”
“What time is worship?”
“Um…no website. Let me call.”
We got the church answering machine. The pastor’s voice, with a distinctively Bahamian accent, sounded like James Earl Jones: we could have listened to him read the entire phone book and not been bored.
“Done,” we said, and headed off to church.
What I had forgotten during our previous sojourn in a predominantly white town was the sheer graciousness of Christians of color when engaging whites who enter their spaces. Despite the long history of whites pushing into black communities for the purposes of asserting power, this congregation welcomed us warmly, offered us handshakes and seats, and introduced us to others connected with the divinity school. They smiled and asked questions, greeted us by name when we returned, and seemed delighted when we showed interest in being part of their congregation for the long term.
They did not have to do this. This was their safe space. This was one of those places where they were not required to psychologically “armor up,” as my friend and colleague Chanequa Walker-Barnes says (a fellow Duke student who worshiped there too), in order to protect their emotional and physical wellbeing. Our mere presence threatened that safety. But they welcomed us anyway.
I learned a lot in those four years. I learned to call the older ladies “Ms. So-and-So” and to reply with “Yes, ma’am.” I learned to come alongside my black brothers and sisters when lament for racial violence and oppression was not optional but rather the starting point for making sense of the gospel. Eventually, Tom and I moved into the nearby neighborhood as part of the Isaiah House of Hospitality, a Christian household that welcomed the homeless of all races. We were doing this reconciliation thing in our sleep. Check and check.
God’s Mission, Not Just Ours
Then came the next divine joke: after graduation, my husband’s first pastoral appointment was to the suburbs of Lansing, Michigan. We felt our hearts sinking a bit. The parsonage itself was in a sought-after subdivision in one of the best school districts around. How do you desegregate by class when God sends you right back to your own demographic?
We soon learned that our suburb was delightfully diverse, both racially and ethnically. And yet, those different groups almost never interacted. We’d host a barbecue at the parsonage, and mostly whites would show up, despite Tom making the rounds to all the houses on our block to hand out personal invites. As our family expanded (we now had two boys) and our jobs grew more stressful, the time and energy it would take to live into our lifelong mission seemed Herculean.
In time, we began to realize that reconciliation by desegregation doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it. Relationships across racial and class boundaries take intentionality in everything from your calendar to your budget. After all, it’s called a “mission,” not a “happy accident.”
Turns out, our children came to the rescue. As we took our oldest son to the bus stop for his first day of kindergarten last fall, suddenly the racial divisions began to totter. Standing at that bus stop were parents and children of many colors. English was not the only language heard on our block. We made introductions, set up play dates, offered to help with bus stop pickups and drop-offs. Real friendships, not just acquaintances, began.
When Donna—who is now our youngest son’s amazing daycare provider—realized her kindergartner’s booster seat wasn’t in her car, she showed up at my house in a panic, hoping I had an extra seat she could borrow so she could get her family to a basketball game. When I came down with a migraine, she graciously met the kids at the bus stop and brought my son home. Her kindergartner is a regular fixture at our house on “early release” Wednesdays. What had been my husband’s college goal all those years ago has slowly become, by the graciousness of God, our children, and our neighbors, a way of life again.
Yes, God believes in our lifelong mission statements. In fact, God is the one who puts them on our hearts, gives us the means and the initiative to go after them, and lines up the opportunities to make them a reality. Not always in big ways, sure. Often in spite of us, in fact. And not necessarily on our terms. But we must never forget: this mission of reconciliation was God’s before it ever was ours.