Church Planter

This post is part of a chronological story! Read the last 2 posts first if you haven’t yet.

When I made the decision that I didn’t want to do anything else the rest of my life but communicate a message of love, of connection, of acceptance (which at that time very much meant an evangelical American version of Jesus to me)- when I made that decision to pursue that with all my energy and resource and heart for the rest of my life, the only obvious vocation that seemed to leave for me what that of “missionary”. I struggled on that Mexico trip with that idea because it didn’t seem to quite fit right. Something about the forms of missionary I had seen didn’t feel related to the euphoria and rightness I’d experienced talking to people on the street in Tijuana with my friends. But, what else was there? The role of missionary was the codified methodology for evangelical communication of God’s message with anyone that wasn’t white. And, as a woman, it was also the only spiritual vocational option. I couldn’t communicate messages, ideas, theology, to my own culture as a woman. To do that I had to go to another culture. Something about that trip over the sea or into a community with different skin made my gender less inappropriate as a spiritual leader, more valuable, more capable. In the community I came from, I could be a great children’s ministry or women’s ministry director, but I had no desire to be boxed into the limitations of those roles at that time, afraid I would be slotted into that role forever the way an actor gets stuck in a particular trope.

Over time, as I vocalized this desire and commitment to be a missionary, it became a part of my identity. I began reading missionary biographies and books about the history of missions. I began looking into schools and tracks for becoming a missionary. I had some truly awful senior pictures taken of me with a globe (I’ll try to find them and share here). I asked to meet with my youth pastor, who told me to start where I was (still great advice for anything and anyone) and referred me to the senior pastor, who suggested I go to a nearby Bible college and then referred me to the missions pastor, who didn’t seem to actually have much knowledge or interest for missions at the time and I can’t actually remember anything he said to me, except that I could not go on the adult mission trip coming up.

I set my sights on Bible college, and filled out my application, and got rejected. Determined to make the most of it, I did a gap year style thing and went to St. Louis to help some (white) friends with a children’s ministry in the housing projects. That summer truly messed me up with culture shock, confronting my inherited racism and stereotyping narratives, melting my judgment of privileged Americans into a puddle and the beginning of chipping away at a white savior mentality. I read my first John Perkins book that summer, proposing ideas about community development. I got told off by the educated black woman I shared a room with for espousal of the right wing anti-feminism I’d been taught. I still remember how she fasted regularly and prayed on her knees every morning with her face in the carpet and that I couldn’t understand how either her anger at me or her feminism could coexist with all the time she spent in spiritual practices.

I started Bible college through online courses and classes at a satellite location. I took a semester long course on the “Global Christian Movement”, that gave me a new way to view the ultimate goal of a missionary as “planting indigenous (led and formed by culturally local people, as opposed to colonizing another country with white culture) churches.” In 2004 I enrolled full time at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in the Missions Department pursuing a degree in Evangelism and Discipleship. October 23rd, two months after I got there and already through 3 or 4 short-lived crushes, I met my husband Nate. I was fairly certain I was meeting my husband. I know that’s super annoying to hear. The night after we met, we had a conversation on the steps outside with a guy who was aimlessly walking through our schools plaza about love and God and acceptance. And I felt it again, that alive connection that I wanted to give to all people for all my life.

When we met, Nate told me about a church he had just visited that Sunday. The pastor and his wife were from South Africa. We laughed about how they had given him a couch the day they met, because they’d just gotten new ones. Who does that? It was a brand new church plant, a few months old. He thought he was going to go there regularly. We talked about church planting. I told him that’s what I planned to do. The church sounded intriguing to me and though I wanted to go check it out, there was no way I was going to follow him there. He never went anywhere else for the next 12 years, from that Sunday til we left the church in 2016, 9 years after that pastor had married us, 9 years after they’d employed me to work part time, and 7 years after they hired Nate full time.

This church was mind blowing to us. First of all, South AFRICANS, as missionaries, to America? Yes, please. We need some outside voices in the American Church, I thought. They were white South Africans, so not exactly minority voices, but they weren’t from here at least. Also, they empowered women. By that I mean, they let women preach. I can almost see myself clutching my throat like Ariel, finding out this glimmer of hope that there could be a way to use my voice, that there could be a mic of the people again in my life. They were charismatic, and that was a little weird to us, but I had experienced the mic of the people, and had read a lot about Christianity around the world at that point, and I was down for any supernatural stuff that wasn’t weird or manipulative, like I’d witnessed in American charismatic churches. They didn’t require the false pretense of a seminary degree for leadership, they didn’t use hierarchical titles like “Pastor”, and they showed interest in being supportive of other churches- a sign of security and maturity that’s absent or at least not apparent in many churches. They were part of a church planting network that had churches in “cities all over the world”, and took great pride in being able to connect us with people whom we could go visit in almost any country. The pastor and his wife took interest in us, ate meals with us, looked us in the eyes when we spoke- things I hadn’t experienced much of growing up in evangelical churches or in any of the other places I’d visited in Chicago.

Over time, I’d notice that most of the churches started in cities all over the world were started by white South African couples who emigrated to mostly the wealthiest parts of the wealthiest cities and suburbs around the world. If you speak to anyone from that church planting network about this, they will be sure to tell you about Nigel, who moved his family to a black neighborhood of South Africa a few years ago. I’m not sure if Nigel knows he is their token representative for all racial reconciliation, social justice, or work outside of the upper class. I wonder if he’s aware of how they talk about the “dangerous place” he lives with glowing admiration for his immense sacrifice. I’m not sure how his wife would feel that I’ve never heard any mention of her name.

But, we didn’t know these things yet. We saw a small, scrappy, church family that valued women and had plenty of ways for us to bring our skills and passions to the table. We saw a husband and wife in leadership modeling something we wanted to do. We saw something different- less hierarchical and more inclusive- than the churches in which we’d grown up. As we fell in love with each other, we also fell in love with this church and all the possibilities that could be explored together in living out our faith in Chicago. We were all in.