Tuesday, October 17, 2006

On My Time in Raliegh, NC

I’m standing in the middle of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, and I must admit that, as an outsider, it feels more like two cities than one to me. The Governor’s mansion, the capitol building, and the skyscrapers are relatively small compared to, say, a Chicago, but they’re impressive nonetheless. The homeless men sleeping on the sidewalks and wandering the near empty streets are almost all African-American, and represent just a portion of the many who are in the care of the Salvation Army and the Rescue Mission. The upscale, hip, modern boutiques and restaurants are closed today, but on Monday they’ll be bustling with upwardly mobile middle- to upper-middle class (mostly white) people. The black-owned businesses, which once dominated the downtown scene, are all but gone now and their buildings sit largely uninhabited.

In their place more condominiums will undoubtedly rise, not altogether different, I’m sure, from the ones sprouting up all over town. They’ll be designed for young professionals, and they’ll sell from the mid-$200s about as fast as northern Carolina barbeque. Immediately surrounding the downtown complex are middle-of-the-road-single-family homes which stand in the place of older homes that the city condemned and razed. The newer homes are by-and-large occupied by younger white families, while the poorer, black families who once lived there have resettled farther to the east, where poverty and crime have concentrated.

This, in a nutshell, is downtown Raleigh, North Carolina as I see it—one city and yet two cities. One world, and yet two realities. One city is modern, upwardly mobile, and hip; the other city is mired in the effects of racism and economic disparity that have roots stretching beyond the days of the confederacy. One city is moving and hopeful; the other city is degrading and increasingly less hopeful. One city stands to receive several billion dollars of investment over the next decade; the other city waits to be condemned and razed and relocated.

And standing in the middle of these two cities is a small, all-but-abandoned building that’s owned by a local bail-bondsman. It used to house a restaurant, and then a store called Jimmy’s, but now it sits empty most of the time waiting for a buyer to bite on the $3.5 million asking price. The dream is that one day this decrepit building will become the footprint for a skyscraper. But for now it serves as temporary housing for the homeless guys who do piece-work for the bail-bondsman, and on Sundays it’s a house of hope and worship for both cities, that is, for Raleigh.

As we enter the building it strikes me more like a dance studio with a kitchen than a former restaurant or convenience store. There are a few stacks of chairs off to the left, a disco ball on the floor by the door, two small bathrooms to the right, and four pillars running right down the middle of the room. Downstairs are several storage spaces, by which I mean chicken-wire attached to two-by-fours, a few of which have been sheet-rocked and painted to better accommodate the children of Treasuring Christ Church.

As a seasoned church planter, I must admit that I wonder how these pastors are going to accommodate 100 or more worshippers in this space, but as the pieces come together I’m pleasantly surprised. On the immediate right is the welcome table full with bulletins, handouts, and resources for dealing with everything from suicide to bad attitudes. On the immediate left is the “refreshment table” which is, undoubtedly, the main attraction for the 10 – 15 homeless guys who attend services each week.

A little further in, to the right, are 30 or more chairs arranged in three, semi-circular rows where Pastor Kent teaches ecclesiology to homeless people, seminary students, and church members. In the back right are about 25 chairs turned away from the “stage” where Pastor Travis explores issues in Christian missions with those who are moving toward a career in missions, or who are simply interested in the subject. And behind both of these gatherings, about half-way in to the left, is the youth group—three adults and four or five teens sitting in a circle, discussing the Bible and life and the relationship between the two.

As we walk downstairs, one of the children’s workers exclaims, “Hey, they cleaned the carpet and it doesn’t smell so horrible! Yeah! Our children won’t have to shower after church today because of the smell!” She’s serious.

The children’s foyer is small but split in two. On the right side is the sign-in table where parents entrust their children to the church, and on the left are three blow-up floating rings usually reserved for an afternoon in the pool but today serve as seats for a children’s Sunday School class. The teacher has no such luxury—she simply sits on the floor, despite her formal attire, and pours her heart into the hearts of the children.

Back upstairs, Sunday School is drawing to a close and everyone’s pitching in to arrange the chairs around the “stage” area. Soon enough, everything’s ready to go and the 20-something worship leaders begin to escort their people to the throne of grace. What impresses me most, I think, is that both cities are represented in this church, both are engaged in worship, and both seem like one here.

In the front row and to the left is Otis, a very large African-American man who at one time played football for USC but as of late has fallen on hard times. He’s living at the Rescue Mission now, but by God’s grace the pieces of his life seem to be coming back together. Behind him and to the right is Henry, a more-than-middle-aged white man who rides a Harley Davidson and has been coming to the church for the last month or so. Henry says that he comes here because he needs the Word of God to get him through the week, and I think he’s serious because he’s wanting to be baptized in the Treasuring Christ cow trough. (At Treasuring Christ Church they can say, “Jesus was born in a manger and we were baptized in a cow trough!”)

In the back is a well-to-do middle-aged couple who are dressed in their Sunday best and look as though they’ve been in church all their lives. I never did get to speak with them, but I noticed how easily they mixed with people who were like them and people who were not. Scattered throughout the worship area are 10 or more homeless people who seem to be enjoying the worship and companionship as much as the food. And beside and around them are more than 20 seminary students who are there because, for the most part, they long to be part of an inner-city ministry.

Pastor Sean, the main teaching pastor, seems so young, but as he stands to pray and give direction to the service it’s obvious that God has gifted him to lead this church. He has such passion for God, love for the Word, and an unusual ability to relate to people from a variety of backgrounds. It strikes me that God has shared something of His passion for both cities with Sean, and has sent him here to lead an unusual, unifying, God-honoring work. He’s feeling a bit weary these days, but I think if he perseveres the Lord will use him to do great things in these two cities.

The preaching, delivered by a guest preacher today, is exegetical and hard-hitting. It’s about the reality and inevitability of persecution and suffering in the life of a Christian. But the people eat it up like a fresh made batch of baby-back-ribs, and they digest and apply it together once the service is over. In fact, a full hour afterwards, about a third of the people are still here talking with each other and serving the needs of some who’ve come today.

And as I stand here taking it all in, I think to myself, with tears in my eyes, “He who is faithful with a little will be faithful with much.” And I lift my eyes to heaven and pray, “Oh Lord God, please bless Treasuring Christ Church. They’re being faithful with the little you’ve given them, now please give them much. And Lord, please bless the two cities that are Raleigh, North Carolina. Amen.”

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