s we stepped into a sea of strangers, I felt the awkward newness of accompanying one of our neighbors to a food pantry to pick up a box of food when her supply was running low. Trying to keep an active toddler content while we waited was no small feat for me and my husband, Ryan. We asked our son to identify everyone wearing a hat. When he pointed to the row behind us, I noticed faces from the past. The two years since we had seen Matthew were erased the moment we saw his family.
Before we moved into our neighborhood in 2014, we had decided to walk around the neighborhood, praying for the people in the homes. Our first prayer walk led us to Matthew’s doorstep. The first time we met him, we told him about God’s call for us to move into the community and plant a church that would initially meet in our home. Though he did not really know us, he said, “You’re going to do well.”
Planting seeds of the gospel in a culture different from our own has proven difficult at times, but we have also experienced grace and opportunities to learn. We haven’t always done “well,” but we’ve learned ways to more effectively cultivate relationships with people whose stories and cultures differ from ours.
Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned:
1. Be who you are, and be humble.
When Ryan and I, who are white, sensed God’s call to plant a house church in a predominantly black neighborhood, we wondered if God had called the wrong people. I attended a small town high school where only about two percent of students were people of color.
As a missionary in Poland and Argentina, I learned some Polish and Spanish, but what did I know of life in a neighborhood so different from what I was used to? Ryan had lived and ministered in more diverse settings but had never started a new church.
We have learned to adapt to a different culture, while still being authentically who God created us to be. Ryan loves to play basketball and isn’t afraid to jump in the middle of a group of strangers to start a game. I prefer to talk with people from the bench. We became more fruitful in our efforts when we stopped trying to squeeze each other into our own preferred way of interacting.
During one game, a player inadvertently jarred Ryan; Ryan has health issues and this triggered a seizure. I remember pulling him off the court, but what remains most deeply etched in my mind are the other player’s words. As one person called 911, another player remarked, “Tell them he’s white. They’ll come faster.”
My mind flashed back to the numerous 911 calls I had made and how quickly first responders arrived. I inwardly questioned how our skin color could have contributed to their response time.
Pride or fear could have prevented me from believing his words, but humility helped me affirm his journey even though it did not mirror our own. Pride tears down relationships; humility strengthens them. Being in a setting where most of the people around you are from a different ethnicity when you’re typically part of the majority culture can be disconcerting. But we are called to more than our own ease. We are called to follow Christ, which sometimes leads us to uncomfortable places.
2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
We prayed for an opportunity to connect with our neighbors whose arguments spilled onto their front lawn, though it seemed we had nothing in common. How could we intersect with the lives of Nick and Candice when they regularly hosted parties with loud music and heavy drinking?
The answer soon came. We purchased Nick’s grill. Two days later, an uninvited figure walked to the back of our house. Nick was stealing the grill! After prayerfully considering our response, we made cookies to share at the cookout he was hosting. Seeing his trepidation at our visit, we forgave whatever debt he thought he owed.
We continued to develop a relationship with Nick and Candice despite advice to steer clear—the word on the street was they were trouble. Months later, after a personal prayer retreat, I returned home and observed the worst front yard argument yet. Several men stood on the sidewalk heckling them as they fought.
God compelled me step out of the comfort of my house and into the fray. I marched past the group of men on the sidewalk and stopped right in front of Nick and Candice. Looking Candice squarely in the eyes, I said, “It looks like you’re having a bad day. I’m here to stand with you.”
I prayed and spoke as God guided me.
The men on the sidewalk were rendered speechless, and had it not been for the help of the Holy Spirit, I would have been, too.
Within minutes, the fight was defused. After Nick went inside, I sat with Candice for about an hour. She was clearly intoxicated, but eventually teared up and said, “You came for me!”
So many people spent their time arguing with or deriding Nick, she felt invisible. Candice and I don’t have much in common. What we share is the unrelenting love and grace of Jesus, who is with us even on our worst days. Sometimes, despite our uneasiness, we may be asked to deliver a message of hope to someone who has been forgotten.
Nick and Candice were eventually forced out of their home, and we lost contact. Their story was not unique in that regard. We found ourselves asking how to invest in relationships with people who are with us only briefly.
3. Love like you (or they) will never leave . . . and know He won’t.
Ryan and I moved so often in the past 10 years that we kept our boxes. When we relocated to our current home, we got rid of the boxes. This seemingly small task was an act of faith. It was a tangible affirmation we would stay with the people to whom God called us for the long haul. We live and serve as though we’ll stay here until we die. This change in mindset allowed us to invest deeply in relationships with people who may not be nearby for long. Grace has been at work in the lives of our neighbors, whether they change residence willingly or unwillingly.
During the two years we’ve been gathering in our home, 51 people have been part of our congregation for a season. All but nine have moved away. We have only known half of our current congregation for three months. We have witnessed countless neighbors evicted, some put in jail, houses left vacant, and yards overgrown. We are grateful for God’s help in welcoming new neighbors to our table and to His. We trust He is present with those who are no longer nearby.
Continuing on the Long Road
We’ve come a long way since our first prayer walk conversation with Matthew. Looking back, we marvel at God’s guidance in regard to faithfully living and proclaiming the gospel among people from a different ethnicity and life experience. We’ve witnessed many who have chosen to follow Christ for the first time or have deepened their relationship with Him.
Looking ahead, with authenticity, humility, a willingness to become uncomfortable, and unrelenting love for our neighbors, we will continue to celebrate the diverse people God is weaving together through the transformative work of Christ.
Thea Ardrey is co-pastor (along with her husband, Ryan) of Vision Community Church, an organic Nazarene church plant in Kansas City, Missouri.