The Case of the Missing Pew….

Recently, I moved from the state of Mississippi to Charlotte, North Carolina.  The transition was unexpected–just as unexpected as the transition to Mississippi was after I graduated from seminary years ago.  As the movers were bringing in my things, I noticed the shape of a piece of furniture.  As my mind began to reel working to figure out what it might be, my pulse began to rise.  When the blankets fell away and the furniture was revealed, I realized I had just solved the case of the missing pew!

In the middle of the pew, still intact, was the note I had written to the movers, “Do not move–this stays here!”  Yet, somehow  this pew that belonged to my former church had followed me all the way to Charlotte.  It is not something to be proud of–stealing a church pew!  Yet, as I have wondered how to get it back to Mississippi, I have been thankful for its arrival, for it has forced me to reflect on the journey I have been on for the last several years.

I graduated from Duke with many offers at my feet.  I could have worked with an Archbishop in Israel/Palestine, with several congregations around the world and nation, but in the end each of the twelve positions I was offered I turned down because I wanted to spend some time in deep reflection about how to be a pastor that stands in divides and points to a different way.  I wanted to engage for a time with a community that was a shining star in terms of working to break down barriers in attempt to fill their pews with all God’s Children.  So, I decided to engage in a one year fellowship looking specifically at intentional reconciliation relating to religion & race.

About three weeks away from graduation, I received a phone call from a man named Keith Tonkel in Jackson, Mississippi.  He was calling to tell me he’d be happy to take me to lunch and share stories once I got settled in the church he thought I would be working at near him.  I shared with him that “sadly, I turned that position down because—it didn’t feel right.”  Keith asked me to share my entire story with him and so I did.  Afterwards, he said, “this might sound crazy, but would you let me fly you to Mississippi and help you find a position.”  It was crazy, but I flew there in complete trust that somehow this connection was important.

When I met Keith at the church, I walked in and was overcome with a sense of excitement that indeed this felt like the right place.  He called an emergency meeting with his leadership afterwards, they heard my story, and voted unanimously for me to engage in my fellowship year as part of their community in Jackson, Mississippi.  I had never heard of Keith Tonkel before, but he is a pastor who has grown an incredibly beautiful community.  He was part of a group of pastors who signed a statement called the “Born of Conviction” statement during the Civil Rights years that stated that they would work to break down the divides in the communities particularly around the issue of segregation during that time.  His years in ministry have been challenging, but the fruit of his faithfulness is evident in the congregation that he serves.  Wells Memorial UMC in Jackson is known as the most integrated church in the state of Mississippi.  My one year never ended and I decided to stay on in Mississippi to continue serving at Wells and to step into leadership with the Commission of Religion & Race.

People have asked me over the years, “What did you learn while serving under Keith?”  I learned a lot under Keith, but mostly I learned who I want to be.  I want to be someone who is constantly asking God to help me see through the present into God’s future.  I want to see possibility in people, in the stories in my community, and on out  into the world as well.  I want to be someone who recognizes the gifts of others and the potential in us all to live into the story God is writing all around us.  I want to be someone like Keith who lives in FAITH, with great HOPE, and with a boundary crossing LOVE.

I want to know that my life has been a gift in relation to the case of the missing pews in our churches–how can we have pews that represent the radically creative nature of our truly amazing God.  If our pews all look the same, then I believe we are missing out on a wonderful gift that God desires for us–the rich witness of God’s creatively knit community.  I wondered how my transition to Charlotte would be.  What I have found so far is that there is a wonderful journey unfolding before me.  There are fantastic people traveling on the road right beside me and many asking wonderful questions that I believe will keep us moving in the direction of continuing to wrestle with this case of the missing pew…

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