Photo Sep 06, 4 25 16 AM

A Sudden End

I was drifting in and out of sleep beginning at 4:00 am one Saturday morning. When the clock struck 5:00, I don’t remember whether I was awake or asleep; I only remember jolting straight up in bed as six gunshots pierced the unusually quiet night air. I stumbled out of bed into the dimly lit hallway, down the grand staircase of the 333 House. All was quiet, aside from the creaking of the 100-year-old floor boards beneath my feet. Unable to tell if I was awake or dreaming, I made my way back upstairs to my room, where my roommate was still sound asleep.

As soon as I shut my door, I heard footsteps in the hallway. I opened the door to find my friend Tannon stumbling toward me, still half-asleep. “You alright?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Okay. I just called the cops.”

My heart sank. “So that actually happened?”

He nodded. “Yep.”

Within minutes, we could hear sirens in the distance, as the Harrisburg Bureau of Police filled 13th Street with nine cruisers. Tannon and I stood in the upstairs window, looking on, as the alley across the street from us was roped off with crime scene tape.

As Tannon made his way up to the third floor to check on the rest of the house’s residents, I walked downstairs to the living room and sat down in one of the leather chairs that was pointed toward the window. Red and blue lights danced through the drapes and against the walls and ceiling. The whole scene was surreal. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time; I guess I couldn’t think of anything, all I could do was feel.

I crawled back into bed a half hour later, but I couldn’t sleep. When I got up at 8:00, the morning light revealed what had previously been hidden in the darkness. Evidence markers littered the alley, and the beat cops had been replaced with detectives in suits and ties. Though I still had no idea what had taken place aside from the six shots, in my heart I knew and grieved.

Life is so fragile. At any moment, it can come to a screeching end. But that wasn’t what humanity was originally destined for; we were created to live forever, in constant connection with our Creator. While the beauty of this is often cloaked by the terrifying moments of our lives, it still pushes its way through every now and then, just as the sun breaks forth across the sky to mark each new morning. Between the horizons, we experience a life that is fragile and terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

I drove halfway to Maryland that afternoon. I wasn’t far from Harrisburg, yet I was deep in the rugged back country of Rural Pennsylvania. I began hiking the Appalachian Trail, beneath a thick canopy of trees. Thunder rolled in the distance, but all else was silent. Though it was still early in September, a few leaves had already turned from green to gold and fallen from the sky to the earth below. I would bend down at random intervals, pick up one leaf at a time, and examine it as I walked. After a few minutes, I would set it back down and pick up another. I did this four times. Each leaf had its own unique features, but there was one that was different from the rest. This leaf was still mostly green, with a vein of gold shooting down the middle. As I stared at the leaf, I was hit with the realization that sometimes we fall before we reach our peak of beauty.

A few hours later, I returned to The Hill. As I was sitting at one of the local restaurants waiting for my meal to be prepared, I searched for news articles on the Internet, hoping to gain some clarity on what had happened that morning. The first entry I came to confirmed my fears.

When the police arrived, he was still clinging to life, but life was absent by the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital. Blood remained, spattered against the wall of the church building near where he had fallen.

Nathaniel Green was only 39. I never met him, but I know his life wasn’t supposed to end that way. Every person has a destiny far greater than having their lives taken from them. Sometimes we fall before we reach our peak of beauty.

The news article quoted one of my neighbors, who was in his kitchen cooking spaghetti when the shots were fired. “It really needs to stop,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.” His words were simple, yet they carried a certain weight to them; they carried the angst of the neighborhood. I have only lived here a month. I can’t even begin to say I understand what the lifelong residents of Allison Hill are going through, what they go through every day of their lives. But I can join in the grieving. I can hope and pray and believe that things will change, and with God’s help, I can stand up and do something about it. While I have no idea what that looks like, I think it begins with getting to know my neighbors. This is something I don’t have a very good track record in, whether I live in inner-city Harrisburg, or the suburbs of North Texas.

The night of the shooting, we were gathered in our living room. We had just finished watching a movie that showcased the raw power of God, on display of the streets of cities across the world, all because a few people were crazy enough to believe that they are who God says they are, that Jesus Himself lives inside of them.

Seeds of hope lingered in the room as the credits rolled. Within minutes, we begun to aggressively pray for our neighborhood. From there, we began to think of ways we could be more active in releasing the hope that swallows up death into the streets around our house. As I sit in a quiet coffeehouse in the suburbs, allowing these words to flow freely from my soul onto paper, a few of my friends from the house are knocking on doors and meeting our neighbors. And now, I think I will make my way into the city and join them.

For more on life in Allison Hill, click here to read my post “On the Hill.”

Photo Aug 28, 12 59 07 PM

On The Hill

I love living in the heart of Harrisburg, just over a mile from Downtown, the Susquehanna River, and the Pennsylvania State Capitol. One of my favorite things about city life is being in the heart of everything, taking in the beauty of the city without using my car for days at a time. I love the rich history of the Keystone State, and the East Coast as a whole, which is much different than my other home, located at the crossroads where the South meets the Midwest.

Harrisburg from across the river

Harrisburg from across the river

But not everyone sees the city through the same lens that I do. I’ve talked to a handful of people who have told me Harrisburg is in really bad shape, most notably due to a budget deficit of more than $1 billion, which is kind of a lot for a city of just under 50,000. And then there’s my neighborhood, Allison Hill, one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the city, where condemned houses crumble, trash piles up in the streets, drug deals are commonplace, and it’s odd when you don’t hear arguments at 2:00 in the morning. In the past month of being here, I’ve witnessed knife fights, fist fights, gun fights, drug deals, and been asked “What the f*** are you doing here?” by one of my neighbors.

In spite of all of this, I absolutely love my city and neighborhood, and not just some future version of the community. While I’ve spent quite a bit of time walking the streets and dreaming of redemption making its way through the streets, my heart is filled with a growing fondness for the neighborhood in its current state—while it’s still a mess. And I think this is what Jesus calls us to, not to retreat into our quiet suburban homes and pretend the worst parts of our cities don’t exist, but to grow in our love for the entire city—the good, the bad, or the ugly.

Allison Hill

Allison Hill

Of course, I’m not saying everyone needs to move to the worst part of their cities, as I have. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it for most. But I think we should at least care when there are parts of our cities that lie in ruins. I think it should bother us that there are children that fall asleep each night in fatherless homes, that there are single moms forced to spend each new day trying to figure out how they’re going to put food on the table three times before the sun sets. Not all of us receive the call to go, but we can all care, we can all pray, we can all hope and dream and grieve when tragedy strikes our city. Because we’re one city—and a division in social standing should never cause us to forget that.

As I was jogging the other day across the State Street Bridge, which connects Downtown to The Hill, a thought made its way into my mind. At the time, I was pondering how quickly the scenery changes, how quickly the beauty of the river front gives way to streets of crumbling houses littered with trash.

Life is fragile and terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Little did I know how soon I would experience this full range of emotions.

Part Two of this entry, “A Sudden End,” is available here.


Adventures in Saying “Yes”

This past June, I was part of a missions team that made a trek across the Northwest in an old city bus, spreading the love of God in churches and on the streets of every city we visited. As we drove across Montana and into Idaho, I was talking to my friend, Cristina, and she was telling me about the things going on back home in Pennsylvania, where she and her husband, Tannon, had taken over the leadership of a large community house and missions base. We began talking about the possibility of me visiting for a few weeks and helping out with some things during the transition. An hour later, she looked at me and said, “You know, you could just move to Harrisburg.” This comment wasn’t unfamiliar. A year ago, when Tannon and Cristina moved to Harrisburg from Oklahoma, they had said the same thing.

My response was similar both times, a slight laugh. But this time, it was different. “You know,” I said. “I’m actually at the point in my life where packing up and moving across the country would make the most sense. But I don’t think that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“Why don’t you pray about it?” Cristina countered.

“Sure,” I said, with no intention of actually doing so. “I’ll pray about it.”

A week or so later, we were driving through the night from Portland to Sacramento. We were on the final leg of the trip, and I was ready to return home to Texas, to life as usual. Tannon asked each of us to take a few minutes to ask God what He had for us in the next season of life, as we dispersed across the country to our individual states and cities.
Ten minutes later, I slid across the row of seats to Tannon and Cristina, who were sitting at the front of the bus. “I’m moving to Harrisburg,” I said casually, before laying down on my makeshift bed and sleeping through the night.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee house on State Street, overlooking one of Harrisburg’s most beautiful cathedrals, just a few blocks from the Pennsylvania State Capitol. It’s September now, I’ve been here for almost a month, and I’ll be here for the next year of my life. I live a mile and a half away, in a large community house with somewhere north of a dozen people. The house in located in the Allison Hill neighborhood, which is widely known as one of the roughest neighborhoods in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

You know those awkward seasons of transition? This hasn’t been one of them. I’m still connected to Texas through my business, so it’s almost like I’m exploring for a year, only I’m staying in one place instead of traveling the country. The journey hasn’t been without challenges though. In the weeks before I left Texas, I began to feel really lonely. At first I thought it was God’s gentle way of releasing me from everything I’ve ever known, preparing my heart for living in community. But then I moved into a big house with a bunch of people and the feeling didn’t really go away. And that’s the worst type of loneliness, when you’re around people but still feel isolated.

I remember one night, I think it was last week. I was talking to two of the girls that live in the house—one an old friend, the other new—and while I don’t remember how the conversation went exactly, I remember telling them that I felt so alone, but that I didn’t feel like I could pull back the curtain and let people into my experience.

I’ve noticed that one of the ways my mind plays tricks on me is to get me closed off in my own little world, and then convince me that I’m just being needy if I drop the facade and let others know what’s really going on inside of me. But I’ve also noticed that when I push past the fear and open myself up, I often find another person looking me back in the eyes as they drop their own facade and share that they’ve been feeling the same way. And while this isn’t always how it goes, I’ve found that feeling alone is a common human experience, even when it looks like we’re surrounded by friends on the surface. There’s a hidden power in letting go of what someone will think of you and inviting them into what’s going on inside of you, even if it’s only for a moment. And I think we need this; I think we need to be honest about where we’re at more often, and perhaps then we wouldn’t struggle as much. Because the worst part of the struggle is not the struggle itself, it’s that feeling that you’re on your own, that you have to protect yourself, that no one else could possibly understand what’s going on inside of you.

In short, I’m embracing my newfound freedom to let people around me know when I’m not okay. I’m realizing that having needs and being needy are not the same thing, and sometimes you just need to take two minutes and let another person see your inner world before you return to conversation about the weather or good coffee. Letting down your walls feels terrifying at first, which is probably why we spend a lot of our time running from our own emotions, sticking to small talk and conversations about whether or not it will rain on Thursday.

I have heard it said that when you come to Jesus, when you taste of the springs of the water of life, it satisfies your thirst so that you never thirst again. And I think this is in the Bible somewhere, about a spring of eternal life that wells up inside of us. But in my day-to-day life, I’ve noticed that I thirst. In fact, I feel like I thirst more than I did before I found Jesus. The only difference is, I know where the water is. But the more I drink from the well that will never run dry, the more I thirst. The more I’m filled, the more I need. And I’m beginning to think that God designed me this way, that He didn’t create me to just come to Him once and get fixed once and for all, but that He created me to continually thirst for the life that He offers. Perhaps maturing in Christ is about becoming more dependent, not more independent. Perhaps God wants me to continually keep coming back to Him, only to find that He has already put everything I need inside of me. It’s crazy to think about that, that everything I need I already possess (2 Peter 1:3), but I often forget that, and I know I’m not alone This might be why, all throughout the Bible, God continually urges us people to remember—to remember who He is and what He has done, so we can remember who we are and all that God is inviting us into.

These are just a few of the things I am thinking about this afternoon. I may not know all of the correct Bible verses to describe these feelings, but I know that I thirst. I know that I need. I know that I need to be filled back up with Life each morning when I roll out of bed. I’m beginning to believe that everything God says about me is true, but I’m still on the journey. And I know that no matter what comes my way tomorrow, I don’t regret saying “yes.” I don’t regret jumping headfirst into this new adventure, and until God connects all of the dots, I will journey on.

So here I am for the next year of my life, a thousand miles from home—all because of a simple “yes.” Perhaps I’m a bit naive, but I want to capture this thing in me that says “yes” without hesitation when I feel God inviting me to something. I want to grab ahold of it and never let it go, no matter where I go in life or how much earthly success I achieve. I don’t want to only have adventures in saying “yes” when I’m young and carefree; I still want to be saying “yes” to the next divine invitation when I’m a hundred years old and still have a life ahead of me to live.