As soon as Christmas was over, I started out on my walk in the desert. We had just gone through yet another very painful church experience, and my family and I decided that we needed to set off into the desert to have some space… to have a season of quiet.
We set off into the desert for many reasons. Certainly, knowing that being alone in the desert would protect our hearts from any additional relationship trauma was a large pull.
Mostly, I just really needed a break from church. So, after having a very public break-up with American Evangelicalism, I set off…
As firm and unwavering believers in the importance of the local church, we knew our departure wouldn’t be permanent– but it was certainly indefinite. We needed rest and healing. We needed time to ourselves. We needed our lives to be absent from any church drama, church trauma, church whatever.
We just wanted to be alone.
God however, had different plans. Like an episode of Big Brother, I’ve learned that as long as I’m walking the path in an attempt to follow Jesus, the only thing I can expect is to “expect the unexpected”.
One of the things I was most looking forward to was getting a subscription to the Sunday paper and spending my Sunday mornings sitting in bed with a coffee and local news.
That plan, lasted all of one week.
As we opened up the Sunday paper, we read a story that immediately tugged at our hearts; it was a story of a local church who wasn’t exactly being welcomed by our local community. Little did we know, that two miles down the road from us, was an entire church congregation (about 100) comprised completely of African asylum seekers– mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Angola. These asylum seekers had fled their home countries for a variety of reasons- mostly because their lives were in danger- and landed here, in the middle of no where.
So, they formed a church. Not a church in the way you and I think of one where “church” is a Sunday morning worship service, but a church– in that, they formed a holistic community to love and support one another in every aspect of life where Sunday worship is just one, small aspect.
Life as an asylum seeker is hard- it can take a long time to adjudicate a case, and you are legally banned from working for six months. These are professionals who want to work, but can’t. Funding to help them is very limited, so they rely on a close community– they rely on church as it was meant to be.
The article we read that day was in part about this community of asylum seekers, but was also about the community response– namely, the mayor. Let’s just say, the mayor isn’t a fan and said that all the asylum seekers are frauds, and that the pastor of the congregation (a Congolese medical doctor) was just trying to build a church on the back of the community.
According to the article, they were getting ready to celebrate a public service to celebrate the official launch of their church that weekend, so my wife and I decided to go to the celebration. My daughter loved their worship– she said “Daddy, this doesn’t feel like church, it feels like a party”, and it did. After the service I went to the pastor and apologized for how the community had treated them, and he was very receptive of the apology. He invited me to come back to a regular service, which we did the next week.
Before we even had time to realize what was happening, our break from church (an entire week) was over.
I had quickly come to realize that the needs of the “other” trumped my need for a break from church.
And so, I accidentally became a missionary to a community of asylum seekers. A job I don’t get paid for, but a job that I absolutely love.
It became apparent that there were many needs among the community that simply wouldn’t be met, or would have the satisfaction of those needs delayed, if a cultural insider didn’t come along and walk with them.
How do we access healthcare for our children? Where can you go to get food?
So many questions, so many needs.
I had to laugh at the irony of the situation– I am a missiologist in the middle of an area where I never expected to actually practice cross-cultural missiology. I pursued a doctorate in missiology for the reasons I’m using it now, only I had said a hundred times that “I’ll probably never have the chance to practice the type of missiology I’d like to in Maine”.
“Perhaps God sent us back here for this exact reason” my wife observed.
And so, I’ve come alongside the pastor and am helping him help the community. Helping him develop indigenous leadership from within the community to shoulder the leadership burden with him. Helping children with medical conditions access healthcare. Putting together English as a Second Language programming… helping them to navigate this new culture where they’ve found themselves… serving in any way that seems good, right, or useful with the hopes that after a season, our roles will be replaced by someone trained from within the asylese community itself.
We are slowly getting used to the new culture we’ve found ourselves in, and are loving the process. Congolese food is fantastic. Worshiping in French I am finding is a moving experience, and we’re even getting used to the fact that they call my wife “Momma Benjamin” or “Momma Pastor”– a sign of respect that took some getting used to for these egalitarians.
Yes, I set off into the desert wanting to take a break from church… and found that God is doing some really cool stuff in the desert.
I am learning that sometimes we just have to have the courage to set off over the sand dunes on the horizon to see what’s happening on the other side. Sometimes, we have to walk in the wilderness where there isn’t already a trail and instead rely on the quiet voice of God to mark one.
I’m also learning that showing solidarity with outsiders will often mean you yourself will become the outsider…
But that being an outsider is often a great place to be.
If God is calling you out into the wilderness, embrace it– because he often invites us to do some really cool stuff while we’re out here.
Serendipity such as this is one of the few things that will make me consider the existence of a higher power. For you to pull away from church after being hurt, and within a week find a place of healing for you, a place where you could be of great use to so many others, and a place to help you understand what it’s like to be unwelcome (a a painful, but valuable lesson), THAT, more than any theology, makes me consider the existence of a God.
I LOooooooooooooooVED it!
Thank-you! Thank-you! Thank-you!
This story needs to be in lights! It is Light! God moves those that are willing in mysterious ways, perhaps even chasing us out of our comfort zone into the arms of an anxious and needy body. Bless you!.
That’s awesome. That’s God with skin on. 🙂
Again…love it. Please visit us in dc if you and your family ever come again. I am currently a missionary to a yoga community in a gym.. and people say class feels like a church service. Not where I planned to have community, but its where it is. Thank you Benjamin.
What a wonderful story. I have seen some of your FB references to this congregation, now I understand. You and your family are blessed!
What an amazing adventure God put you on. It sounds like an awesome church and place for you to minister.
A few years ago, I too found myself volunteering in a refugee ministry and it made a huge impact on my life. I’ve since moved out of the area and have yet to find anything quite like it. I truely miss them.
May God bless you in this new endeavor.
What an awesome story. God has indeed led you to the church in the desert. Be the advocate for them. And, I encourage you to not introduce western ideas and things to them. Keep it indigenous. The last thing they/we need is another western institutionalized church in America. Perhaps the community around this tiny church can and will learn something from them, namely, what community really looks like.
Blessings to you, your family, and your missionary efforts.
Totally agree man. There’s even some theological differences I have with the church in general, but I have no desire to make them like me in any way. Instead, we’re the ones attempting to assimilate to their culture and helping them raise up their own leaders so as to keep their culture intact within the church. My role is just to come along side of them and help them be a strong, indigenous church, whatever that looks like for them.
You should take a break from those debates more often. These posts are by far the best ones you have, and the most encouraging. I’ve shared some critical thoughts in the past, but only because I’m passionate about honoring God’s truth and I just plain don’t agree with you on stuff. But I can still tell that God is using you and you are usable. You have a heart for building up people in Christ and that’s the most important thing. That’s what we should focus on. Debates often do nothing but encourage endless banter where everyone still believes exactly what they believed before, but now they just do so with higher blood pressure. I don’t know how you keep up with it all to be honest! That’s why I quit my blog long ago. The amount of un-beneficial moderating just was not worth it to me. Maybe I’m just too results-driven to have the patience for moderating a blog. I just don’t see the results in them. But I certainly find them great to read.
This is really a great story. The unexpected journey.
Ben, this may sound critical, but it isn’t meant to be. I’m just asking a question because I want to know what your answer is. This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time.
You said in your blog that “they call my wife “Momma Benjamin” or “Momma Pastor” – a sign of respect…”
How does that reconcile with Matthew 23 where Jesus is apparently telling us not to use forms of address with other Christians and also not to allow other Christians to use them on us either?
Seriously? What kind of non-issue is this? THIS is what you focus on after reading the above?
It’s just a question. Are you afraid of people asking questions?
I grew up in African culture. The use of parental language – mother and father variations – is not for hierarchy, which is what I believe Jesus is referring to in that chapter. It is a sign of respect in that some cultures will call any old person grandmother or grandfather, an acknowledgement that they have knowledge or wisdom that you would like to learn.
I see no connection. It is simply a cultural term of endearment and respect. I call every man at church who is older than me “Papa” and ever woman who is older than me “Momma”. It’s just the culture. My job is to learn it and adapt to it if I am going to minister within it.
That makes sense, thank you.
I really didn’t mean any disrespect with the question. I came from a religious tradition where titles were everything and you didn’t dare call anyone by their bare name. Now I’m trying to find the balance between what you describe above and the rampant ego-stroking that I’m so fed up with. I asked the question because it popped into my mind. That’s all. I didn’t think I’d be “shot for asking a question,” but apparently Terry Firma and those who gave him a thumbs-up think I’m out of line for having done so.
Yeah, I’d be with you if it were ego stroking or some kind of title. This is just a straight up way to respect elders in the community, that’s all.
I have no idea whether you’re Irish or Irish-American (going by both your name and your use of American spelling, I’ve assumed the latter). But I understand the sentiment at least. Where I grew up we NEVER referred to someone more than ten years older than us by anything but their surname. I still have a hard time calling Ben anything but “Mr. Corey,” especially since I’ve never actually met him.
Irish-American it is. You win the prize.
In many parts of the US, it’s the same way. I was stationed in Kansas in the Air Force and the people there were a lot more formal than in the Seattle area, where I live now. Around here, if you want people to call you “Mr. Atheist” then that’s how you’d better introduce yourself because otherwise you’ll be called “Irish.”
What was your AFSC?
The 9 is throwing me off.. medical, but I’m used to an alpha code in the second. 4A1X1 turned 8T000 here.
It’s the old code for Communications-Computer Systems Operator. I’d heard they changed the numbering but I have no clue what the new equivalent would be.
So your gift for teaching is nothing new, then.
EDIT: After much Googling I found it. 3C0X1.
I loved teaching back then. It is probably the only thing in life I’ve ever tried that came natural. I miss those days teaching in Guam & Korea! The AF was good to me.
I had a lot of friends and students who were 3C0’s– really good career. Did you take it to the civilian sector or move onto something new?
Other than the military, there weren’t many opportunities to use that skill-set then. I’ve done several other things since then, but have kept the computer skills to myself except for the occasional “for a case of beer I can fix your network” thing.