It was one year later—one year since I left my life in Texas behind for Pennsylvania; one year since I moved to the ghetto. Here I was, one year later, leaving my life behind once again. Like last time, it’s a change for the better, but the uncertainty still gets me.
It didn’t become real until I began packing. As the hundred-year-old hardwood floors of my room became more and more visible, the knot in my chest began grow. This is real; there is no turning back.
I left the house Saturday morning, making the rounds and saying my good-byes. I was only saying good-bye for now, not good-bye for ever, but it was still hard. I had coffee with my friend, Kelsey, at the Starbucks where she worked, then drove back to Allison Hill. I passed my house and turned onto Market Street, pulling into the parking lot of a church moments later. As I was approaching the building in search of the pastor, Ricardo, another guy approached me. His name was Nathan. He was the worship leader at the church, and he told me he lived in Syracuse, New York, some four hours away. I left wondering why Nathan would drive from Syracuse every week to lead worship at this little church in the hood of Harrisburg, but then I remembered that Pastor Ricardo had moved here from Syracuse. You can leave, but you can’t run from your most loyal friends, because they may leave with you, which is how I ended up in Harrisburg in the first place. And then there are the ones like Nathan, who don’t leave, but get in their cars each week and drive to wherever you are, laying down their lives so they can be a part of yours.
I left Ricardo’s church and drove to another friend’s church on State Street, just a few blocks away. John’s congregation had just bought the blighted building and were restoring it to its former turn-of-the-century glory. This was there work day, and I was amazed to see how much progress they had made since I had last been there five days before. We have to restore the Church before we can restore the city, but that doesn’t mean we have to get out of town and come back when we have our act together. Rather, we should go ahead and move into the neighborhood; we should throw down some roots and begin to figure things out from there.
I left Allison Hill and drove across town, to the house Kelsey shared with Courtney to say good-bye to her as well. We sat in their living room for hours and talked about Jesus, and how we don’t always see Him in the church because we’re too busy focusing on our own self-interests.
I left Courtney’s house in Uptown, and that was when the nostalgia really began. I turned onto Green Street at it’s far northern terminus, up past Italian Lake, next to the Interstate. I began driving south, toward the heart of the city. I drove past the governor’s mansion and the house I had considered buying, back when I was considering making my move to the city permanent. I drove past my friend’s house and another friend’s house and past the coffee house I’ve been to upwards of fifty times in the past year. I passed another friend’s house as Uptown began to give way to Midtown. As I crossed the intersection where Green Streets meets Verbeke, I looked to my left and saw the sign marking the Broad Street Market. I had only visited once, but seeing that sign took me back to that August day when I first moved to Harrisburg.
I remembered the anticipation that had built up after spending the night in the suburbs. The light of day would reveal the city I would call my home for the next year, the city I had never laid eyes on before. I remember seeing the city for the first time; I remember the way it captured my heart in a moment. It has yet to let go. I remember crossing the mile-wide river and looking toward the skyline; it was much bigger than I thought it would be. I remember driving these same streets, these streets that have become so familiar; they were foreign back then.
I crossed Forster, within a few blocks of the southern terminus of Green Street. The two-mile drive had taken much longer than it would had I gone two blocks west to Front Street, which ran along the river. Green Street had stop signs at nearly every intersection, but it was a street that I had such a rich history with, a street that had shaped me. The towering dome of the Catholic church came into view above the row houses, as I turned right onto North Street, where Green Street came to an end. I noticed they were having a block party in the parking lot. Funny, the two churches I had visited hours earlier were having parties that day as well, and so was the Lutheran church that sat between them on the Hill. Sometimes, we think we’re the only church doing things in the city, when there are all these other churches doing the same thing at that exact moment.
I turned left a few blocks later when my new street of choice ended at the river. As I drove down Front Street, I noticed a small crowd gathered at Riverfront Park, along the banks of the Susquehanna. The first thing I saw was a man holding a sign that read, “Repent, judgment day is coming!” He did not look very happy. It seemed a bit random to me, until I saw the larger sign behind him. Oh yeah, today is the Central PA Pride Festival. With same sex-marriage now legal nationwide, the tension between the Church and the homosexual community had unnecessarily escalated.
I turned left onto Market Street, shifting my eyes away from another example of the Church’s failure to love like Christ. Jesus never held up signs telling people they were in danger of judgment, though this was a stark reality. Instead, He entered their lives, entered their pain, and was very honest with them about the path they were walking down. The difference was, He made sure they knew He loved them first. He didn’t just say He loved them; He actually demonstrated it before their eyes.
I crossed the boundary of Allison Hill. Waiting at a red traffic signal a few blocks from my house, I suddenly heard a person shouting into the silence. The noise startled me as I frantically looked about, trying to figure out where it was coming from. Fifteen seconds later, I noticed the street preacher in the neighborhood square. This one didn’t carry a sign, but something worse—a microphone. The content of his message was a lot less angry, but it was his tone that got me. As the signal turned green and I drove away, I heard him say, “Who can we trust in this world but God?”, referring to the people in this life that will leave us high and dry. His message was true—it was even good—but his tone was so abrasive, so rigid, so unlike everything I know God to be.
I began to think, He has a lot more courage than me. I don’t think I would stand on a street corner and preach like that. But then, I realized that perhaps that is a good thing. The leaders of the early church would stand up and preach on street corners. Their messages were often a bit provocative. They told the truth about the human condition, but a reading of Acts reveals that they typically did this in response to what God was already doing. Kind of like Jesus, who gave people an encounter with Love and Life before He told them that they were not on the path toward it. It’s a lot more effective to paint a picture of what someone’s life could look like if they sought a new path, rather than appearing out of thin air and telling them they’re doing it all wrong.
Perhaps the street preachers aren’t the ones with the courage at all. Perhaps the courage is those who remain remain quiet, who stay in the margins until the right opportunities present themselves. What I mean by this is it takes a lot more courage to trust God than it does to take matters into your own hands. It takes faith to wait for that perfect moment when hearts are tuned to hear the message that will wreck their lives forever, in the best way possible. Our message is certainly a message that will wreck lives—either for better or for worse. Which one are you displaying to the world around you?
July 28, 2015