I recently spent a Saturday morning picking up trash and talking to people in one of Tulsa’s roughest neighborhoods (or at least the worst one the city was comfortable sending a few hundred well-meaning church folk into for a few hours). As a whole, our small army filled trash bags, trimmed hedges, cleared sidewalks, pulled weeds, spray-painted addresses on curbs, repainted a house or two, and talked and prayed with a lot of folks. And, in true Believers Church style, we also painted countless faces, cut hair, gave manicures and put up some inflatable games in the neighborhood park.
I watched as entire families were reaching out to other families. Mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children and siblings, aunts and uncles. And we realized, all over again, that location means nothing. These people were just that … people. Imagine that.
Almost every single yard had a fence around it. One woman even yelled at me when I approached her door to offer help with her yard. Her house was marked on a map the city gave us, but I had unknowingly invaded her space.
Many people were gone or wouldn’t come to their doors. They were entirely unsure of what to do with a bunch of smiling, garden-glove-wearing people with rakes, lawn mowers, weed whackers, paint, brushes and hedge trimmers in tow. We even had city dump trucks and heavy machinery circling the neighborhood to pick up larger objects and piles of bagged garbage as we progressed. It was glorious. In all honesty, I think I’d be startled as well if something like that happened to me.
I struggled to put myself in the shoes of the people we encountered. I fought to see beyond the fences that threatened to separate us from them and them from each other. But my passion for hearing and retelling others’ stories started to work its way into the morning. After a while, I forgot about the fences. I put one foot in front of the other, filled those trash bags with a vengeance and talked to people as we worked.
At one point, I met an elderly woman who came to her fence with curious eyes. She was 82 and wore rose-colored glasses. I struck up a conversation with her, wherein she told me she had lived in that house since she was 31 and diligently swept the sidewalk every other day. She told me about her eye surgery she’d had a few years ago, necessitating sunglasses. But I like to think she chose the rose color to make her dilapidated neighborhood look just a bit brighter.
She was beautiful and charming. With a smile, I told her she didn’t look a day over 45, and her quick-witted response made me laugh. “I’ll pay you later!” she said, as she reached over the fence and touched my arm. She was the first and only person in that neighborhood that ventured to touch me that day. It moved me. And as brief as the conversation was, I felt like a wall had come crashing down, at long last.
There was so much more I wanted to say to her, to ask her and to pray over her. My heart burned with compassion. But for some reason, it was left unsaid. In retrospect, I think God purposely caused me to leave things unsaid. Outreach, in its truest form, should leave many things undone in our hearts. It should leave us burning to give more, to say more, to pray more readily and more fervently. It should leave us desiring to be there every weekend or every day, not just once a month. It should leave us wanting to venture beyond the fences we have constructed and realizing that the only place for us is in the center of God’s will.
I serve a God who breaks the rules every day, who invades our universe and pulls us close to Him, dancing on the wrong side of the fence. He’s beckoning us to join in a wonderfully undignified, epic story, to add our culture and our stories to one another, and to join in the beautiful diversity of humanity.
All this simultaneously scares me and stirs me. I love it.
So to all this I say: To hell with fences! That’s where they belong anyhow. I’d rather be on the “wrong” side of the fence in the center of God’s will than sitting comfortably in a life of privilege and false security.