1999 was an explosive year.
NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days straight and terrorist bombs leveled Moscow apartment buildings, sparking a merciless Russian march into Chechnya. Y2K threatened to topple the western infrastructure while India and Pakistan traded heavily armed blows over the disputed region of Kashmir. And in a tiny corner of Nashville, Tenn., a 22-year old version of me almost lost his faith.
It was the sheer volume of carnage. How could God really be in control of such a wildly violent, dismal and corrupted planet? (An ancient and cliché question, I know, but sincere just the same.) I listened closely, for a whisper or a bellow, but the clamor of the evening news was my only reply. No booming voice from the heavens, no reassuring sermon from a Sunday school Jesus.
I was on my couch with a handful of pretzels and a head full of bad news when I decided to take Christ’s admonition to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” to it’s logical conclusion. It was the only thing that seemed to make sense in the midst of such a spiritual crisis.
Through the television screen I could see weeping Chechen grandmothers and streams of hobbled Albanian refugees. Enough said. That’s where my faith will become relevant, I thought. No more miming the gospel to contemporary Christian music on a street corner, I’m going to find a way to walk quietly alongside those who are suffering.
“Walk” might have been a tad ambitious. “Stumble” is closer to what actually happened when I touched down in Tirana, Albania to run a small church bakery feeding Kosovar refugees. There were cultural misunderstandings and linguistic mishaps. I frequently mixed up the Albanian words for sugar, yeast and butter, producing some rather disappointing (not to mention entertaining) batches of bread. I stepped on my Albanian friends’ cultural toes, and they helped me see the relative limitedness of my white, middle class desires to “save the day.” It was a fruitful, albeit tense, relationship.
And I began to chisel out a model of following Jesus that seemed to make sense against a backdrop of genocide, spiraling violence and abject poverty: work hard, work humbly and try to do the work that others either can’t or won’t do. Bakeries were a perfect fit. I couldn’t find many examples of people or organizations committed to setting up bakeries for local churches, yet I knew many churches in the developing world had a desire to minister to their communities through food programs. The beauty of bread, I realized, was its simplicity and prevalence among most people groups.
Bakeries just make sense.
With a mixer, an oven and a clean working space, a local church in the developing world (places where I still find much hope) can easily bake a thousand loaves a day. Using half the bread for ministry and half for profit, the whole operation remains self-sustaining and even provides a few jobs for local church folks. Streamlined, simple, effective.
I know bakeries won’t save the world, and I’m pretty sure they won’t stop bombs or machetes. The biblical axiom: “Man will not live by bread alone,” after all, is there for a reason. But Christ, working through local churches committed to sowing kingdom seeds in their communities, is a much surer bet. The more we can do to support and encourage those local congregations the better.
I came home from Albania with a renewed hope in following Jesus, in witnessing less with my words than my actions, in creative “kingdom building.” That term, according to the evangelical circles in which I had been trained, ultimately seemed to refer to the saving of souls, the amount of tracts one could pass out on a street corner or the number of hands raised after a rousing rendition of Carmen’s “The Champion.” But as a moderately privileged western Christian, it was critical for me to find a way in which I could follow Jesus and support His church without belligerence or bullying.
God is good, His Church is full of promise and the kingdom is still emerging, despite the fact that these truths, at times, get swallowed up by the news, our hurt, our cynicism. Being a behind-the-scenes baker is just one way I found to keep after the King in a manner that somehow intersects with the daily news, while all the while trying to change the headlines.