As an urban church planting pastor on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I am immersed in an environment that reflects two constant realities — beauty and brokenness.
To some degree, we all see this. Suburban or urban, our world is immersed in the throes of the Fall; however, in my previous years of suburban pastoral experience, the stark realities were just never quite as blatant. Brokenness is always present in our world, but it was better camouflaged in the suburbs.
In my urban neighborhood, brokenness is in my face, every day. In my 30-plus years as a pastor in the suburbs, I never had someone arrested on my two-foot front lawn, had someone go through my trash for recyclable material, and never had someone accost my wife while she planted flowers in the yard.
This is one way to look at my street. But that’s not the whole story, because with the gospel, the same street can take on a very different flavor.
OUR NEIGHBORHOOD DURING THE PANDEMIC
Last summer, distress was particularly heightened in my neighborhood because of the COVID-19 pandemic. People increasingly looked to substances to manage stress, and the drug activity dramatically increased. One house on my street seemed like a fast-food drive-through—minus the food. Cars pulled up, the window rolled down and money and goods exchanged. I would look out the window and say to my wife, Merri, “Well, at least business is booming for somebody during the pandemic.”
With the increased drug activity also came increased chaos, angry shouting and threats.
Nonetheless we sought to love our neighbors in Jesus’ name, prayed with them and cared for them as opportunities came up. Sometimes it was doing something simple like running a hose or an extension cord next door when their utilities were shut off.
Honestly, it was also awkward at times, and we often felt out of place, not knowing what to do. But wherever we confront spiritual darkness—in the suburbs or the city—we have a choice, and as people who believe the kingdom of God is forcefully advancing, that choice is clear. We choose to press into the discomfort, the awkwardness, that some may come to know Him.
NEIGHBORHOOD BLOCK PARTY
When Merri and I began the journey of starting CrossWinds West Side three years ago, we committed ourselves to being agents of change, to confront the darkness and proclaim the good news about Jesus with whatever abilities we have.
During the stressful pandemic summer many in my neighborhood were feeling isolated, cut off, fearful and depressed. So, we decided to throw a block party. It was a little unusual during the pandemic to throw a party, but our city was starting to realize the stress of social isolation and celebrated our desire to get people together, while respecting social distancing.
I went around the neighborhood and shared our plans to throw a block party for everyone and got signatures from most of the neighbors to shut down the street. One of my neighbors — admittedly little rough around the edges — told me, “This is a good thing. Let me know if someone doesn’t want to sign your sheet, and I’ll take care of it.” I thanked him but didn’t take him up on the offer.
The city then gave us a permit to shut down our street for two hours and even brought out barricades the day of the event. Our CrossWinds team came out with food and helped run games for the kids.
Merri and I were nervous about whether or not our neighbors would come out, but slowly they did.
From across the street, Luiz and her family dragged a large propane grill to the side of the street and made delicious pupusas, a thick flatbread common in El Salvador and Honduras. Others started coming with food and chairs and the party began.
So, for a couple of hours my street — the neighborhood — came together. Some greet me on the street now as pastor. Another neighbor from one of the dealer houses broke down in tears and asked if I could pray for them. Another neighbor asked me last week if I do weddings — their daughter and boyfriend, who share two kids, want to talk to me about it.
Relationships are being built, and conversations about the gospel are starting. This is the same street, but in some ways, it’s also becoming a different street. May it continue to become a road leading many families to know Jesus as Lord.
Published February 12, 2021