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Chattanooga bridge

I remember the first time my wife and I crested the final hill into Chattanooga. Drafting behind an eighteen-wheeler into the sweeping curve of the Tennessee River Valley, it was as if the bend in the river were a mother’s hand welcoming us home. I had just finished a church planting apprenticeship in the hot springs of central Arkansas. I was green behind the ears and charged with the audacious goal of starting the next bastion for Jesus. We moved to Chattanooga, a revitalizing city known for internet speed and innovation, yet haunted by systemic racial injustice.

The moment we saw the stark silhouette of the aquarium against Ross’s Landing, the sand began trickling into the base of the hourglass. We had three years to launch a self-sustaining church from scratch. In America’s Bible Belt, Chattanooga is the buckle. The city’s sea of churches didn’t need another congregation, particularly the hipster kind swimming with skinny jeans, flannel, and craft coffee that I wanted. Drowning in waves of indecision, I struggled to understand why God brought me to Chattanooga until accidentally—and most likely divinely—I ended up in the segregated Southside.

South Chattanooga is known by many as “that part of town.” It has been overlooked for so long that poverty, under-education, gang violence, and drug addiction are the neighborhood’s status quo. It holds the highest percentage of youth in the city, the highest illiteracy rate in the county, and an overwhelming majority of households are run by single mothers. In the face of Chattanooga’s painful racial history and the Southside’s needs, we decided our mission would be one of reconciliation. Instead of starting a notoriety-earning church plant I became an urban missionary—a move completely counter to my commission to launch a celebrated, successful movement.

In the face of Chattanooga’s painful racial history and the Southside’s needs, we decided our mission would be one of reconciliation.

Although our church didn’t exist physically then, it suffered from multiple personality disorder. Still clinging to visions of grandeur, I created at least eight different church names, mission statements, and logos ready to roll depending on who God brought through the not-yet-open-doors. However, none of the identities seemed to fit—none spoke to what I was seeing, hearing, and feeling in the city with a river running through it, enveloped by scenic mountains and spanned by seven bridges. In the Bridge City, development leapfrogs many neighborhoods and leaves residents to be run over by racial segregation, economic oppression, and systemic under-education. Chattanooga’s selective advancement creates a perpetually traumatic game of Frogger, excluding many citizens from the community’s innovation and development. I realized our church’s identity needed to be one of inclusion. We would communicate that those who live in the projects are equal members of the Bridge City community as those who peer down Lookout Mountain with blurred visions of reality. And there it was: Bridge City Community would be our name.

I should’ve been arrested for the amount of loitering I did in South Chattanooga. I loitered on the streets, at the schools, at the recreation center, and anywhere people were bound to see me, ignore me, or speak with me. Conventional church vocabulary refers to this as mentoring, evangelism, or outreach, but let’s call it what it is: hanging around uninvited. Very early on I shared my reconciliatory church planting intent with Mark Thomas, the director of the South Chattanooga Youth & Family Development Center. Mark grew up in the brick row houses of the Southside projects, abandoned by a father who lived less than a mile away and raised half-time by a mom who sold crack. I hoped to engage him and the Center in a long-term relationship. I told him our mission was rooted in the words of the Prophet Micah: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God and our neighbors. Standing in the linoleum lobby of the recreation center I made my case to Mark that partnership with a nonexistent church was a good thing.  I could see the skepticism in his eyes and feel the distrust as he questioned my real reason for wanting to plant a church in the ‘hood.

I should’ve been arrested for the amount of loitering I did in South Chattanooga.

To be clear, I’m about as white and hipster as they come. This is especially evident in South Chattanooga. My beeswaxed moustache offers me an inescapable notoriety on the streets, something that paid off that day. Mark didn’t realize I’d already started visiting the neighboring elementary school weekly. Within minutes my elevator speech was interrupted by groups of kids giving daps, throwing up peace signs, and offering me high fives. But even this vote of confidence didn’t convince him. He needed assurance of my commitment before he’d truly welcome me into the rhythm of the neighborhood. “You say you’re committed to the Southside,” he said. “What will you do if you lose your funding and people stop supporting this mission?” I gave him the only answer I believed in: “I’ll still be here. I’ll still plant the church. I’ll suffer alongside my community.”

According to Dr. John Perkins, the innovator of Christian Community Development, relocation is the first issue anyone interested in biblical community must address. For decades disciples of Dr. Perkins have moved into inner-city urban neighborhoods. Local churches have followed suit, moving from suburban to urban areas to pursue social justice and racial reconciliation. This movement stems from a desire to imitate Jesus, who came to earth to give sight to the blind and free the oppressed. The Incarnation was the ultimate relocation, and the impetus for God’s justice and mercy to reign. In his translation of the Bible, Eugene Peterson popularized relocation language for ministry when he interpreted John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”  

The Incarnation was the ultimate relocation, and the impetus for God’s justice and mercy to reign.

Since The Message’s publication that verse has served as the rallying cry for evangelical relocation. To move into the neighborhood, as it stems from the Incarnation, is an incredible witness to holistic reconciliation. Yet it isn’t always welcomed by indigenous residents. Relocation can raise the hairs of imperialism on the necks of those who are generationally displaced by gentrification. The freedom and ability to leave is perhaps the greatest privilege of all—inevitably unavailable in under-resourced communities of color. The impulse to relocate is good, but if done without building a solid relational foundation it can become an avenue for holy recognition. In my experience this means honoring the courage of mostly white, male pastors who sacrifice the comforts of privilege to serve and save the poor.

What is needed for true reconciliation is something greater than physical relocation; what is needed is solidarity. Reconciliation requires embracing empathy with all of its baggage. Reconciliation is a grind, not a fad or multiplicative tactic. It is a joint effort between indigenous residents and outsiders, culminating in an improved condition that resolves disparities in education, socioeconomics, and race. But change only comes through a shared struggle—in other words, through solidarity. Too often we seek to imitate the Savior and wind up with a savior complex, elevating ourselves above our neighbor instead of living in mutuality with them. Australian aboriginal elder Lila Watson highlights the error in this perspective when she says, “If you’ve come here to help me you’re wasting your time. But, if your liberation is caught up with mine then let us struggle together.”

What is needed for true reconciliation is something greater than physical relocation; what is needed is solidarity.

So did we move into the neighborhood where we planted Bridge City Community? No, my family and I never actually moved into the Southside where our church lives, moves, and has its being. If it would further engender us to the community we wouldn’t hesitate. But we have experienced the torn fabric of segregated communities woven together through the ministry of habitual presence—not in opposition to relocation but as an alternative to it. As a result, our church was conceived from the community and embraced by the neighborhood. What began as a brand new church with no existing members grew into a congregation born from the very neighborhood in which we exist.

Habitual presence has led to healing. We laugh and cry together where we once refused to confess anything to each other. We lament and shout hallelujah in worship together. We open our home and our neighbors welcome us to share meals at their tables. We admit generational guilt and they extend their hands as signs of peace. Through communication, consistency, and commitment, we experience meaningful engagement with the neighborhood. This has been our path to reconciliation. Meaningful engagement is movement into the neighborhood because it turns stranger into neighbor. Movement is incarnation. Incarnation is solidarity, deriving its reconciling powers from habitual presence.

Meaningful engagement is movement into the neighborhood because it turns stranger into neighbor.

Humanity didn’t send an invitation to the heavens asking for God to come down. The Father sent Jesus uninvited as one of us in order to redeem all of us. Christ’s incarnational thread stitches up wounds through His unrelenting commitment to abide with us. Restorative transformation arrives solely through vulnerable relationships in which secrets, suffering, and fears are shared—not in order to dismiss or overcome burdens, but to carry them for one another.

Christ’s incarnational thread stitches up wounds through His unrelenting commitment to abide with us.

As my wife so beautifully declared about our community, “In this church we have to ask for forgiveness all the time.” In our life with neighbors and friends in the Southside, forgiveness isn’t a luxury but a necessity. It allows us to proclaim reconciliation loudly and clearly. We don’t placate or pity our neighbors; we struggle with them. Through this common struggle we are all being made whole, and solidarity is repairing the tears in the fabric of our community.

 

This article originally appeared in Nations Journal Volume 3.

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  • Josh Woodrow

    Rev. Josh Woodrow is the founding pastor of Bridge City Community in Chattanooga—an urban mission humbly pursuing reconciliation, justice, and mercy. He is married to his wife, Jenny, and together they have four wonderfully wild children—Harper, Rose, August, and Silas who love to keep them busy with creative chaos. Josh has too many hobbies, but loves to roast coffee, build stuff with wood, and try to keep his 1972 Triumph motorcycle running. BridgeCityCommunity.com