AN UNEXPECTED CONVERSION
Recently Holly was asked to share her story in Up Close in Personal magazine, and they decided to put her (along with the rest of her boys) on the cover! Shameless plug here... I am so very proud of this amazing leader that I get to learn from, follow, and share in this journey!
Below you will find the article she wrote, including all the fun pictures, that was just printed and mailed to all our neighbors in Tucker.
In June 2005 my husband, Shawn, and I packed up our newly built home in Nashville, TN, and headed south to a small apartment off of Jimmy Carter Blvd. I was three months pregnant, and Shawn was taking a church staff position in Tucker that would allow me to stay at home while we started our family. We were nervous about the move, but excited about the adventure. It didn’t take long to discover that Tucker would invite us to grow in new ways. After returning our U-Haul we pulled over for a quick bite to eat, but not a single storefront had a marquee in English!
I don’t know if it works this way for you, but good poetry functions as liturgy for me. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” is one of those poems that also works as a prayer. If one’s vocation is found when what we do aligns with who we are, then praying this poem is helping me discover mine. In the poem Hopkins beautifully describes a kingfisher’s colorful plumage and a dragonfly’s glittering wings. Stringed instruments and bells sing out with purpose when played. This calling extends beyond birds and bells to people when Hopkins says, “Each mortal thing does one thing… crying What I do is me: for that I came.” He continues,
I say more; the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Christ
for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Said plainly, a person concerned with justice behaves justly. She exhibits grace towards herself and others and is kept by this graceful spirit. When God looks at her God sees only the gaze of Christ reflected back because she is made in the image of her creator. When we look at our neighbor, we see the face of God.
This is quite a mystery to me. How can a man who supposedly lived and died thousands of years ago be present in the eyes and arms of everyday people? Obviously Hopkins never had to deal with Atlanta traffic or cityhood schisms. If you had told me ten years ago that moving to Tucker would lead me to new places in my faith or help me find my calling, I’m not sure I would have ever believed you.
Looking back now Shawn and I laugh at how that simple storefront experience exposed our very homogeneous, majority culture upbringing. We eventually found a something to eat that day and, over time, grew accustomed to, and fond of, the different foods, languages, clothing styles, and ethnicities of the people with whom we share this city that we now affectionately call home. Even though we considered moving several years ago for new job opportunities, we decided to remain planted in Tucker because the people here add so much to our lives. We realized we already had everything we were looking for so we created new jobs for ourselves in order to stay.
Although we love it now, it took a long time for us to feel comfortable in our own skin here. Juggling a new job, new home, and new baby was a challenging mix during those first years. Fortunately, I found an organization that allowed me to use my gifts and meet neighbors that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I began volunteering at NETWorks Cooperative Ministry with a baby in tow. In those early days Lucas, our infant son, sat in his carrier behind the front desk as I took calls and welcomed neighbors for help with their rent or utility bills.
In 2004 a handful of dedicated pastors created NETWorks, an independent 501c3, to help community members with housing and utilities bills. Each church provided volunteers, a board member, and financial support. Lynne Stone was hired as the director and grew the program considerably, increasing the number of partner churches and services provided. In 2011 Wells Fargo gifted a closed bank branch adjacent to church property to First Baptist Church of Tucker, a NETWorks partner church. First Baptist was pleased to rehab the building with office space for NETWorks and Habitat for Humanity of DeKalb County. NETWorks was then able to open an emergency food pantry, creating a valuable partnership with the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Soon after beginning to volunteer I was invited to join NETWorks’ board and was later hired as the executive director in 2013. Approaching a decade of ministry together, we started asking ourselves some difficult questions about the long-term effectiveness of our work. We were doing a good job of helping people out of a bind when they found themselves facing a disconnect notice or an eviction, but we weren’t helping them avoid falling back into the same situation again later.
FCS Urban Ministries, an organization that has been doing Christian community development in Atlanta neighborhoods for nearly 40 years, was a willing mentor.
In collaboration with FCS, we are learning the importance of not doing for others what they can do for themselves. There are no quick-n-easy answers for poverty alleviation, and applying the appropriate response to an emergency crisis vs. long-term, chronic condition is paramount. We want to assist in ways that help without creating dependence. We also value poverty alleviation approaches that are relational, rather than transactional, and that allow room for everyone to contribute to the solution. I have yet to meet someone so poor that they have nothing to offer, so we are working to identify and connect the assets of our neighbors, leveraging their gifts for the collective good.
For example, a woman who once experienced homelessness connected us to the DeKalb County School’s Homeless Family Liaison office. Now we share that resource with other displaced families. One of our neighbors used to contract for commercial landscaping services. Now retired, he helps keep up our office curb appeal with well manicured flowers and shrubs. A grocery co-op member once coordinated outreach services for a major ministry downtown. Now she’s using the same skills to help local families keep healthy meals on the table throughout the year.
Hopkins’ poem helps me understand these principles. As people with inherent dignity and worth, there is a divine reflection in the eyes of my neighbors. No matter their income, country of origin, political views, or religious conviction, Christ is present there. This idea has worked a conversion in me about how I see others, radically reshaping my Christian practice.
I was challenged to put my new thoughts into action in October 2013 when I joined the staff of the Evangelical Immigration Table for seven months. The EIT is a broad coalition of leaders and organizations advocating for immigration reform consistent with biblical principles. In a collaborative effort with partners on all sides of the issue, we encouraged pastors and lawmakers alike to “Welcome the Stranger.” I was able to examine Scripture closely, build relationships with people very different from me, and advocate locally and nationally for inclusion of immigrants in a time of political and economic unrest.
As I mentioned earlier, two years ago Shawn and I became entrepreneurs by starting EIRO, a non-profit that serves as a catalyst for healthy church-community partnerships. We connect local churches with one another and with the community to build relationships upon the same asset-based foundation that defines the other ministries mentioned above. EIRO has a number of tools it uses when consulting with churches as they seek greater involvement in their neighborhood. For example, EIRO created Spiritual Formation LABS, customized small groups that combine classroom teaching with challenging outside experiments. Have you ever considered including your neighbors by name as you pray the Lord’s Prayer? Even as we have led these small group experiments they have helped us develop a theology of place while we pray “your kingdom come…[on my street] as it is in heaven.”
Whether it is at the household, organizational, or systemic level, relationships change everything. When we are able to see the best in one another rather than a newsreel caricature, we experience a positive change. I have seen unexpected conversions occur in government offices, church pews, and coffee shops. I have seen them happen in my own heart. My next-door neighbors are immigrants from Nepal. Our skin, language, clothing, religion, employment and education are very different, but we’ve found that much more connects us than separates us. In fact, because of them my family is growing. When my neighbor goes out of town she tells me, “You’re the mom this week…My daughter is your daughter.” My front porch is often filled with children whose first languages and faith traditions and skin colors differ from my own, and I love each of them dearly!
I can’t imagine a better place to be raising a family, converting my faith, welcoming the stranger, and loving my neighbor.