Here’s my image of impossibility. Or at least one of them. It’s an image that taunts me– a kind of demonic affront to my belief that the resurrection is real and its implications are cosmic. It speaks to me with a smiling, satanic, self-assurance that pauses for a moment, adjusts its shirt cuffs and says, “You know what? Fine. Have your church services if that humors you. Speak in all of the platitudes that you want about Jesus changing peoples’ lives. It’s precious. But this? This is mine.” It’s an image of Kansas City mapped by race. Every dot represents 25 people, red being white, blue is black, orange is Latino, and green is Asian. The most arresting feature of this map is a stark, crisp line running north and south along Troost Avenue dividing red and blue with scalpel precision. Smaller blocks of color appear, but all in all, there’s little bleeding. Last week on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech we were reminded just how far we’ve come. And then again, we have this–convincing in its immovability. An obstinate fixture of American life and, regrettably, of the church.
Another impossibility that has confronted our life and our work here in Argentine is the Franklin Center. It started off with this small, naive group of Christians in Argentine who figured that the hundred or so odd dollars that the scrappers stole of copper is nothing too insurmountable. But their hundred dollars is now tallying over two million dollars after red tape requirements are escalating the renovation costs. I’ve felt the weight of impossibility.
Yet another impossibility has been the broken immigration system that cheapens life for our immigrant friends and neighbors. You know that loving our neighbors has led us to bible studies, backyard carne asadas, securing just housing, swapping childcare and securing jobs. But no decision to follow Jesus, none of our charity, no English classes, nor any of our efforts at community development could change the one thing that has felt most threatening and terrifying of all–their compromised legal status.
I’ve been at this place where I’ve felt like I’ve been confronted with the absolute impossible. We’re confronted with forces, realities, institutions and powers that seem beyond my ability to affect. Here it is. I feel it, I hear it saying, ‘this is the end.’ The last stop. Now go on back, boy. Go on back before you get hurt. Why don’t you go share some of those ripe, juicy tomatoes you’ve been growing with some of your neighbors? Why don’t you go start another Bible study somewhere or get some of those nice church people you know to pick up trash on Metropolitan or better yet, go buy that house that’s coming up for foreclosure? Those would be some nice things for the church to do. Silly to believe Jesus would have anything to say about racial isolation, abandoned buildings, and immigration policies anyway now, isn’t it? Go on now.
There is something comfortable about keeping things local, simple, and manageable. It’s romantic, quaint and makes for good storytelling. I’ve been living and operating at this level for the past ten years partially because it’s something I could handle and maybe because it feels like ministry. Ministry on a human scale feels gritty, real, and right. I don’t have any intentions of abandoning this. Maybe that’s why this update is so late. I’ve been dragging my heels on writing this because most months, I’ve got some kind of personal story to share, some revelatory conversation to bring you into. But this month, nothing. Developing a website, meeting with architects, flying to DC, preparing sermons, scheming with youth workers about alternative local missions, and sitting through grant meetings don’t happen to feellike I’ve come to believe ministry should feel like. But I think there’s more to it.
I think more than anything, I’ve feared facing the impossible. I’ve feared wading into the waters of racial isolation because it is too complex and runs too deep. I’m nothing but a white kid from northwest Iowa. What can I do? I’ve feared bringing on architects and construction estimates because what I really feared was that one extra zero behind the final number. I’m just an idea guy, a quasi-theologian, pop sociologist, pseudo community developer. I can’t raise that kind of money. I’ve avoided as James K.A. Smith says, “treading on the terrain of law and policy as if that were all too ‘big’, too ‘fast’, too macro” because I don’t do politics. But what I’ve come to find out really diminishes and prevents the vulnerable and marginalized from living a full, flourishing life that God desires for all oftentimes resides precisely within the fallen structures, institutions, and powers that I’ve refused to engage because I feel so hopelessly naked and so wholly ill-prepared to affect. In short, I’ve feared growing up.
What is beginning to take root in me is yielding to the notion that engaging the powers is an act of love. Maybe it’s because I’ve sentimentalized love and by extension, sentimentalized ministry. As parents, loving our kids doesn’t always mean sitting on the hardwood playing with them eye to glimmering eye all day long, somehow trying to get them to understand how much they’re loved. Sometimes it does. But sometimes it means getting off our butts, walking out the door, leaving the family we love and punching a time card in a job we despise day after interminable day because love also means hamburgers, green beans, doctor’s visits, and thermostats set to 72. Maybe expressing the unfathomable love of Christ isn’t all Bible studies, prayer, spiritual conversations, and mission trips either. Maybe it too requires growing up. Maybe it means walking out the door from the people we love to confront the impossible. Maybe it means dissecting the worldviews and patterns that allow racial isolation to remain the norm, to suggest alternatives, and to fail. Maybe it means investing a million dollars in a neighborhood that’s seen nothing but disinvestment for decades because nowhere is a place of beauty that can remind someone of their infinite value more needed than right here. And maybe it means bringing a moral voice to dysfunctional, polarized Congress that is more interested in political posturing than compromise and maintaining status quo more than making the lives of 11 million people instantly more bearable.