Welcome to “My Space” (Mar-Apr 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Joshua Ross
March – April, 2008

Looking from the outside in, it’s not a place you’d want to live.

The iron gates and warning signs do not send out the vibes of security. And the thin sidewalks and the tiny patches of dirt are littered with beer cans and cigarette butts.

Three story “units” and enormous oak trees shield sunshine, making the courtyards feel like perpetual dusk. The grass struggles to grow for lack of proper nourishment, causing the earth to be covered with cement-like-dirt. The roots of the trees are the only signs of life peeking out of the ground.

The Louvre Apartments taste of darkness, insecurity, and poverty. These are our neighbors Jesus has called us to love.

For more than thirty years we have lived across the street from each other. We’re divided by West Bellfort Street—a four-lane road and a median. Yet, the space between us is deeper and more complex. Our church members and the apartment residents see each other—we walk into church dressed in our Sunday best; they are carrying their laundry baskets down the stairs to the laundromat a half mile down the road—we don’t know each other.

Louvre Apartments, neighbor to Southwest ChurchLabels would deem them as impoverished, mostly Spanish-speakers, dysfunctional families, single moms, lower-class, and loud. Labels would deem us as mostly middle class, English-speaking, nice-car-driving, church going white folks. This is no social match.

In October of 2007, the leaders at Southwest Central Church (SWC) chose to take a cookout outside of the city gates (the church property) and to enter into a sun-deprived courtyard at the Louvre.

The apartment manager was surprisingly enthusiastic about our desire to “hang out” with her residents. She had one suggestion—she wanted us to arrange the cookout anytime but the heaviest drinking times, Saturday to Sunday night. In her mind, the thought of mingling church folks (those who are supposed to have it together) with beer drinkers was embarrassing. Our church chose Sunday afternoon. We would trust our people to make their own decisions if an ice cold beverage was offered their way.

I wish I could write that we entered into this experience with no fear, only love and conviction. That would be far short of the truth. Nervousness and apprehension gave birth to low expectations. At SWC, we are like most churches; we are attached to church space. We find it easy to invite people to enter into our territory where home field advantage is appreciated and desired. Stepping on to someone else’s turf means that one must relinquish power, control, and every hint of manipulation. Possibly unknowingly, we have replaced the imperative in the Great Commission “Go” with “Come.” We seem to be content with playing the “Jesus game” on our own turf.

Southwest Church and neighborsThis activity was a reminder that it is hard to leave the pew. The pew is more than a Sunday seat; it has become the centerpiece of Christian practice.

But our people took hold of one thing—a willingness to give it a try. If it worked, we would do it more regularly. If it flopped, we would pat each other on the back and never try it again.

We made two rules:

1. This wasn’t a SWC event. We urged our people not to attend if they saw this as a SWC social event. We’d rather them socialize at IHOP or Chili’s.

2. If you bring a lawn chair, you must bring one extra for a neighbor.

In the late afternoon, the sound of soccer balls clanging off the brick walls ceased as the children of the Louvre watched three white, non-residents, wheeling a ten-by-three BBQ pit down the narrow walkway. We had measured all of the entry ways, and this was our only way in. Fortunately, our youth minister took “Cookouts 101” while in college.

Residents stood on their porches and peeked out windows and watched dozens of boxes full of buns, patties, wieners, chips, napkins, condiments, ice coolers, and charcoal infringe upon their playground.

As I was lifting an ice chest out of my truck, a young man asked with confused expression, “What are you doing?”

“We are from the church across the street,” I said. “We want to come and have a cookout with you. We want to get to know you.”

“How much are you selling this for?” he asked.

I was thinking, “That is what is wrong with our world. We put a price on everything. Some things don’t have a price. You can’t buy love and companionship. You can’t purchase the in-breaking of the kingdom.”

I kept my thoughts to myself. Instead, I simply told the gentleman that we were there as people that share the corner of Stella Link and West Bellfort. Everything was free. I opened the ice chest and tossed him a cold one . . . soda.

Over the next two hours, we stepped onto the turf of our nearest neighbors and we made friends. We didn’t enter with an agenda, but only with a craving to join our fellow human beings on a journey in life. Over three-hundred and fifty hamburgers and hotdogs were grilled, yet that was only a foretaste of what God did among us.

We walked around the complex, inviting bystanders to come and join our feast. I knocked on the door of José. We shook hands and had small talk. Small talk was how I figured out how much English he knew, and I already knew how little Spanish I know!

Although, I easily passed high school Spanish, I can’t really speak Spanish. I was grateful that José was able to speak broken English. Within the first five minutes, I learned that he had moved to the United States from Guatemala.

Back home, he was hunted by drug lords. Unable to find him, they put bullets into his mother. José had left a life of utter darkness and emptiness—running from enemies, drugs, alcohol, and gang activity—in search of something new.

He held his young daughter who was salvaging the last few crumbs from a Doritos bag. José asked, “Why are you here anyways?”

“Because of Jesus,” I said.

I asked José if we could pray for anything for him, and he said Delmy, his wife, was pregnant. That small request has paved a way for the two of us to stay in touch. Our handshake came after an agreement that he would let me know when his baby was born.

I finally woke up and noticed the kingdom of God that day.

We had social introverts sitting on the porches of complete strangers. We had more than a dozen elderly, Caucasian widows step into an apartment complex made of younger, poorer minorities, and they exchanged handshakes, hugs, and moments of laughter. We befriended American citizens and illegal immigrants.

The fellowship that is only found in Wal-Mart lines or McDonald’s playground—the moments that bring together people of all different walks of life—came this one day to an overcrowded courtyard. That Sunday afternoon, for two hours, we joined in a gospel experience. We stepped into this complex and we discovered that God was there. He was in the process of loving, liberating, and announcing the good news of the kingdom.

This encounter was one of those thin places—a moment where heaven and earth kiss.

That night, I went to bed pondering who played the role of host that day. Did we host them? Did they host us? Or, maybe, God hosted.

God the Creator cannot be separated from God the Host. As the curtains roll back in the opening scene of Scripture, God not only creates—the Creator becomes the Gracious Host. With the power of a spoken word, God created space, filled it with substance, and invited his creation to enter it. In essence, he said, “Welcome to my space. Enjoy and embrace my space. Enter into this. Live in this.”

Jesus, God-come-to-Earth, didn’t need a home to play the role of the Host. He hosted people on street corners, in market places, at drinking wells, and even in the most sacred of places—the Temple.

Alan Roxburgh is on to something when he says, “What God has in store is in the neighborhood.”

At SWC, we are learning a few things:

First, hospitality is still one of the greatest forms of embracing, receiving, and claiming the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Through this central piece of the gospel, relationships are formed, walls of segregation are abolished, and true community is cultivated.

Second, we need to broaden our definition of what it means to host. As we passionately strive to follow Jesus into the world, we will find ourselves hosting people in our workplaces, long lines at grocery stores, and on street corners. When people step into our space, we become hosts of the presence of God. Our space becomes a place where people encounter something different. In this space, we become the ears of God, the words of God, and the breath of God. Our space is Christ’s space. In these places, we join in the ministry of reconciliation.

Louvre Apartments courtyardWe are God’s people—living in his space, becoming the representatives of his space, drawing people into this space—where people encounter the power and presence of the triune God. The people of SWC experienced this on a Sunday evening in October. That evening opened our imaginations to new possibilities. We experienced the joy of becoming people who live fully for God and fully to the person before us.

We learned that one great gift we can give to our fellow human beings is to ask, “Can we come in to your space? Or, you are welcome here in ours.” And when we come together, Jesus is in our midst, carrying out the work he began two thousand years ago.

Three months later, José showed up at our men’s prayer lunch to tell me his son, Joshua, came into this world on January 4. I went over to his house to hold and bless their precious child. As I held Joshua, with Delmy and José relaxing on their couch, I knew that I was standing on holy ground.New Wineskins

Joshua RossJosh Ross is the Preaching Minister serving the Southwest Central Church of Christ in Houston, TX. He graduated from ACU in August of 2003, and completed his Masters of Divinity from ACU in May of 2006. He is married to Kayci and they had their first child, Truitt, in May of 2007. Josh’s passions are preaching, racial & socio-economical reconciliation, and discipleship. You can reach him at joshross15@gmail.com or visit his online journal at
[www.h-townpreacher.blogspot.com].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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