How many memorable moments have you experienced? What makes an ordinary moment extraordinary for you? How do you determine whether a momentary surprise can become a memorable moment?
In the summer of 2015, I was one of the adults accompanying our high school students on what I call “Discipleship Immersion Trips.” Our name for these experiences are purposeful. Mission trips are not wrong; nor are they a waste of time. However, mission trips are often planned with an “us-them” mindset (we are going to do this for them).
“Discipleship Immersion Trips” are planned to accomplish more than service projects. These ventures seek to develop young people in the understanding that following Jesus is a lifestyle thing; not a legalistic thing. The focus is to nurture the young person who is learning the nature of Christian discipleship is servanthood. Discipleship is learning how to live the way Jesus lived. The Way of Jesus applies gracious and compassionate love to every person. Key relationship qualities of redemption, honesty, reconciliation, collaboration, humility, honesty, vulnerability, patience, etc. are essential.
This particular trip was to New York City. We stayed in campus housing at Wagner College on Staten Island. As senior minister, these journeys provide me the opportunity to interweave several callings, commitments and visions. As people who seek to reveal God’s compassionate love in the world, we invest our lives in peace-building, healing and forgiving. As a liberal Baptist congregational pastor, my role is to equip other persons how to live the Way of Jesus. This is especially fulfilling when I can facilitate this learning in young people.
During this journey, our young people listened to a woman who had been active in her neighborhood church for more than 30 years. However, when her daughter let it be publicly known that she was entering procedures of gender confirmation surgery and hormone therapy to become male, several members and the pastor asked her to not return. Our teenagers could not believe a church would treat her in this way. In fact, they were angry at her church and asked me and our minister with youth how anyone could consider themselves as Christians and act in this way. I was gladdened to know our young people are being formed to understand Christian faith in this way. This conversation allowed for several heart-talks as we explored why some people seem to be filled with hatefulness and rejection while still claiming to be committed to follow Jesus. We discussed how fundamentalism is fear-based and why love as God loves is so threatening to legalists.
Another conversation allowed our students to listen to a man in his early 80s, a retired medical doctor, talk about his marriage to his husband, a Broadway producer, who had died of cancer the previous year. They had been together since 1967. Their relationship of almost 50 years had endured tremendous challenges. They were rejected by family members and friends. Yet, meeting these challenges made them closer; their relationship was solid and their trust of one another was unflappable. The retired physician told how their search for a church took more than 20 years. Their desire for a faith community was extremely strong. Eventually, they found a faith community where the people accepted them, embraced each of them for their gifts of compassion and included them in a variety of congregational ministries. Again, our youth were shocked to learn how many churches, even in NYC, reject individuals or couples over sexual bias and blame God for their hatred and prejudice.
Through that week, our students delivered meals to persons living with AIDS, served meals in a soup kitchen focusing upon those who have been rejected by society, discussed peace-building and violence at the United Nations, worked in a rooftop vegetable garden at Metro Baptist Church, a local church which is known for its progressive social-gospel efforts tracing back to the Baptist leader, Walter Rauschenbusch and guided worship in a public park for persons who were experiencing homelessness. All week long, we had wonderful conversations about the nature and character of God’s love.
At the end of that week, on Friday, June 26th, 2015, we were on the Staten Island Ferry on our way into the city for the day. My phone dinged. I looked to check the headline informing me the Supreme Court of the United States had just struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage and legalized it in all 50 states. I looked over at Ellis Island and greeted Lady Liberty stretching forth her torch to the heavens with her message, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” It was a memorable moment. My mind thought of people we had met during that week and 37 high school students we were sending out to a world where millions of people are needing the liberty of God’s love. As we continue to follow the Way of Jesus, let us remember all those unmentioned on the Statue of Liberty. And, let us continue to lift the torch of God’s love in a suffering world.
Rev. Dennis W. Foust is the senior minister at St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C.