Rooted to a Place
When we invest our energy, prayer, and time in the specific place God has planted us, the gospel moves into the neighborhood.
by Winn Collier
I was raised a gypsy. A Baptist gypsy. My dad was an itinerant evangelist, and we made our home in a 40-foot Kountry-Aire fifth-wheel trailer, setting up house in a different city every week. Each Friday night after the closing service, we’d pack up and haul our rig onto the interstate toward the next location.
We drove into the night, diesel fueling the truck and gas station coffee fueling my dad. I’d offer to be his co-pilot, to keep him talking. To this day he reminds me I rarely made it to the city limits before I conked. In the wee hours, we’d pull into a supermarket parking lot or a 76 Truck Stop and snooze while the lights of the semis swept across our trailer walls.
During the traveling years, I never had one thing most people take for granted: a permanent address. Fast-forward 30 years, and now I do own a little piece of a little street. The bank has loaned us money and allowed us to unpack our family and our belongings and continue unpacking our life in a home we’re making our own.
Since arriving, I’ve scoured the nearby blocks for the history and stories that have shaped the Ridge Street neighborhood. My elder neighbors are particularly happy to oblige, eager to tell the anecdotes that will keep the new neighborhood from forgetting there was an old neighborhood here first. I live in a particular place, a distinct neighborhood in a particular city. The place I call home matters. It matters to me, and also to God.
Reading the Bible, you quickly realize how God attaches Himself to specific places. In the creation story, He began with one miniscule patch of land: Eden. And then as mankind wandered—both geographically and spiritually—God promised land as a goal embedded with literal and metaphorical blessings. Scripture reveals His delight in particular locations of the past (Mt. Sinai, Bethel, Jerusalem) and future (a new earth, a new city). And what is the incarnation but God’s insistence on arriving to a particular people settled in a particular place?
Craig Bartholomew, in Where Mortals Dwell, argues that the creation story is first about one particular spot of land, even as it tells the story of God crafting the universe. To him, focusing on Scripture’s opening chapters as a place story, rather than treating it simply as an earth story, is far more helpful for us in terms of daily life.
Think of it this way: it’s impossible to sink my fingers into the whole planet, but I can easily dig into the cool soil of the garden on 5th Street. I can’t truly love the book I will one day write or the men my boys will one day become. I can love only this one word or sentence or story. I can love only this Wyatt and this Seth, right now. I must love the place where I am this moment and the neighbor I have now, right next door.
It is too easy for us to consider the place we live as simply an address where we pick up mail or own a house. The places of our lives, in fact, provide the specific terrain where we participate in God’s redemptive work.
A friend who works at our homeless shelter downtown issues a vital challenge for our churches: “As Christians, we must ask what it means for us to be bound by a responsibility to our neighbors in the immediate places around us.” This is why pastor Tim Keller urges young professionals in his New York City congregation to serve their city rather than simply use it for what it can offer them. Instead of them staying briefly to build up a resume and then leaving for another place, he asks, “If you’re planning to stay one year, how about two? Or if two, how about four?”
At odds with this patient presence, we abruptly encounter modern life’s frantic movement and its huckster promise of endless possibility, tempting us to continually long for the next place, the next opportunity. If our attention always stretches for the places we’re not, then we miss the grace of where we are. As Dallas Willard says, “God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being ‘right,’ we will simply have no place to receive His kingdom into our life, for those situations and moments are our life.”
Yet when we root ourselves—when we give our energy and prayers and labor to God’s renewal in a specific locale, we affirm (and exhibit) that His love is not abstract but specific. God does love the world, but this necessarily means He loves Philadelphia and San Francisco, Atlanta and Baghdad. God loves my neighborhood, and God loves your neighborhood.
I’m embarrassed to admit how many places I’ve lived without knowing the first thing about the city’s history or woes. Thankfully, all that is required to remedy my ignorance is a little curiosity. I need only to care. Where I live now, we suffer a high poverty rate coupled with a high cost of living, a toxic mix. How do I engage this reality? How does the love of Christ speak into this? These are questions that I must ask.
Jesus’ incarnation teaches us to be present with all the people and all the places of our life. Our God is not aloof or distant. Rather, we are disciples of One who became flesh and blood and who, as Eugene Peterson put it, “moved into the neighborhood.” Following Jesus means investing ourselves in the joy and brokenness of the places we find ourselves.
I’m familiar with one church in Cincinnati that determined they would surrender to and suffer with their place. With scarce jobs and high crime, their depressed urban neighborhood had endured a mass exodus. Several churches with dwindling congregations shut their doors. However, this church (though their practice had been to meet in homes) decided that presence in this struggling neighborhood meant owning physical space. So they purchased an abandoned church building and began renovations. On the day they moved in, a car slowed at the curb. A woman rolled down her window and, thinking the movers were from the church that had closed, asked sadly, “So, you are moving out too?”
“No,” they said, “the opposite. We’re moving in.” A smile broke across the woman’s face. “Oh, yes,” she responded, elated. “Thank you.” She drove away, knowing God had sent His people to be present in this place, present with her.