My first cross-cultural mission trip was to Louisville, Kentucky. Our church was just bold enough to send a team into the west side of the inner city, a surprising feat considering how rural we were. I was too young to have any clue of just how young I was. And too young to pick up on the racial tension. But included was a downtown hotel with an indoor swimming pool plus the biggest McDonald’s I had ever seen across the street, so by the week’s end I was begging not to leave.
But somewhere along the way I changed.
Today I live in Louisville’s inner-city…and I’m pretty exhausted. I’ve intentionally rooted my family in neighborhoods where life is much different than our rural, white, middle-class childhood. I knew the culture would be foreign, but thought, What’s the big deal? I lived overseas for three years. This won’t be any different.
Yet it has been crazy different. I mean, blaring calls to prayer kept me lying awake at night overseas, just like apartment-jarring renditions of Purple Rain do now. Those aren’t all that dissimilar. It’s my reaction that’s changed so much. In Africa I graciously chalked it up to ignorance and sheer difference in culture. It even carried a certain adventure. But here I take it as an intentional and slightly terroristic attack on my 1,000 square feet of peace. You should know better! I snarl (to myself, of course, as I peek out a blind).
I’ve tried to explore what’s underneath this tension. My initial fear was that I just may not fit in the city. In his Biblical Theology of a City pastor Tim Keller writes that “many people hate cities because of the diversity of cultures, people ‘not like us'” (5). And he goes on to describe evangelical Christians as “the least urban religious group in the world” (6). Those trends brought some serious indictments on my soul, but I don’t think they quite diagnosed the problem.
In The Kingdom Strikes Back: Ten Epochs of Redemption History missiologist Ralph Winter notes that the story of redemption is one of resistance. God relentlessly propels his mission despite the resistance of his people. This is certainly evident in the Old Testament, but it’s just as true in the New. In John 4 Jesus reveals just how true it is when he leads his reluctant disciples to trek through Samaria, where he models cross-cultural engagement with a Samaritan woman. Many devout Jews to this day hold their breath when a filthy Gentile walks by so as not to be contaminated. Samaritans were perhaps even more vile to the Jews because they were half-breeds. They had just enough in common to inflame their differences. John Piper compares it to the relationship between blacks and whites during the Civil Right era.
So maybe I’m living in Samaria. Jerusalem and Judea are pretty comfortable, and the ends of the earth are actually novel. But Samaria. My Savior has forced me to you. And breathing your air has reminded me of the toxicity of my own. Help me be a better man.