I turned on the faucet, filling the tea urn with warm, soapy water—thankful for the few minutes in the back of the restaurant, away from the craziness of the after-dinner rush. Grabbing a towel and soaking it in the water, I felt someone’s presence behind me. I turned around and there he was, staring.
“Hey,” I said with an awkward smile, wondering, What’s he doing?
“You know your dad screwed up, right?”
The anger in his voice caught me off guard. He didn’t know my dad—he barely even knew me. And why is he telling me this?
“He ruined it, letting so many of those people in.”
All I could do was stare back, the soap and water hiding my trembling hands.
I was 7 in 1999 when we moved for Dad to join the staff at Mt. Zion, a church with a 170-year-long history. My parents enrolled me in the academy that bore the church’s name, and most everyone looked like me. In a sea of faces, few stood out as different. But after some years, the demographic of the area changed, with many white people leaving and more black residents moving in.
The church had to make a decision: Remain where God placed us, loving whomever He brings into our lives, or leave. Everyone voted to stay. Yet as the area became more black and less white, a lot of people left anyway, offering the rationalization, “I’m not racist, but …” People at whose homes I had sleepovers; families we went to dinner with; children I played with on the playground; who I sat beside in kids’ church—they were gone. I was left with an empty chair on either side of me. In 2009 the school closed, and even more people moved, leaving behind tight finances and vacant pews. In only 10 years, what had once thrived was virtually abandoned.
Financial troubles don’t affect just the church—they extend to the lives of the staff and their families. And the stress and worry follow them home when they leave the office. My dad was constantly on the phone and in meetings. My parents had to buy discipleship materials out of their own pockets. There were yard sales and scrounging for copper to sell so we could pay bills. Meetings with banks and lawyers. Working odd jobs.
I remember wondering why my friends were leaving and talking poorly about my dad and church. I wondered, What was wrong with me that these people could so easily abandon me? In hindsight, I know it didn’t have anything to do with me. But when you’re a child, you don’t understand these things. You just know you’re alone.
Through the pain and financial woes, I learned several lessons—in fact, a lot of my understanding of who God is was birthed from that experience. Deuteronomy 31:8 says, “The Lord is the one who goes ahead of you … He will not fail you or forsake you.” And He didn’t. Even more tangibly, though, He didn’t let the church remain forsaken either. Yes, a lot of members left. But God filled up the pews with people from all different backgrounds and races—17 different nationalities, to be exact.
God didn’t let the church remain forsaken. Yes, a lot of members left. But God filled up the pews with people from all different backgrounds and races.
I recall one man was a meth addict until God stepped into his life. Now, he teaches a class for others who are recovering from addictions. He also does church maintenance, runs Open Gym, and volunteers his time to meet needs in the congregation. He’s even donated money to help the church stay afloat.
Because of Dad’s kindness, a police officer decided to come check out the church. He received Christ as Savior and joined with his family, who also accepted Jesus.
Another woman was a drug addict—and an amazingly talented musician. Now, she leads worship every week. She also sang at my wedding.
Every Sunday, there’s a college professor sitting beside an immigrant. A successful entrepreneur and a fatherless kid. A woman wearing a Nigerian headdress, who doesn’t speak English, next to someone who was born and raised only miles from the church.
Now, when I see some of the people who left, they’ll tell me tales of all their “good years” at Mt. Zion. About how they didn’t really want to leave, but they moved, and the church was just too far to drive to after that. Some will ignore me. Some will “congratulate” me when they find out that I moved after I married.
For a long time, I was angry with them for leaving. I felt abandoned. But perhaps I should be thanking them, because I was able to experience God in a whole new way. I grew up without security, and as a result I learned Who my security is. Jesus was my friend when others left—and He brought new ones. He provided financially when it didn’t seem possible that it would happen. He brought folks into our world who believed in the vision and who wanted to join in. People like that angry guy at the restaurant slowly faded away.
Not only was God my security, but my parents were, too. They were consistent. They stayed and loved every person who walked through the door, embracing differences and celebrating cultures. They responded with grace to those who left. They forgave, even when forgiveness wasn’t sought.
Back when I was 7, when my dad first took the job at Mt. Zion, I met this skinny, quiet boy. Fourteen years later, I married him in the worship center where we first said hello. That day, in a long white dress, I stood in the back foyer, grasping my dad’s arm, nervously waiting for the doors to open. Most brides say that the first thing they saw was the man waiting at the end of the aisle—that time slowed down and everything else faded away. Not me. But what I did see first was still a wondrous sight: every seat in the church filled, a sea of faces looking back at me. For some, Mt. Zion was once a place to flee. But to me, it’s still my home.