An Open Letter to My Sisters in the Suburbs

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To my Sisters in the Suburbs:

I know you. You hear urban ministers like me say things like, “Jesus didn’t commute from heaven to earth, he moved in and lived among the the poor” and in the back of your mind you wonder, ‘what does that look for me?  I mean…I have kids,  a mortgage, and a career. I want to look like Jesus, but  I’m not street savvy at all…I mean…what does that look like for me, a believer in the suburbs?’

You love Jesus with your whole heart but when you look at his ministry to the poor, you feel overwhelmed. I get that!  I’m an urban church planter, married to a man earning a Master’s degree in urban ministry, someone who loves John Perkins, Shane Claiborne, and Jen Hatmaker, and I still wonder about the logistics of fellow shipping with the poor.

I know how you feel sometimes.   You drop your kids off at the church’s children’s ministry wing, maybe it’s called something catchy like, “Kingdom Kidz Zone”, and the young director with a Masters in Child Psychology hands you a pager like you find at The Cheesecake Factory.  Then you make your way to the auditorium where the worship team made up of semi-professional musicians with their own album on iTunes, begins playing your favorite worship song.  You slide in next to your girlfriend as she hands you a bulletin with “Missions Sunday” sprawled across the title page and you’re intrigued.  Then you read the guest speaker’s bio:  young, passionate, educated, fairly good-looking, and wait…what’s this?  He’s planting a church in the urban core of your closest city?  ‘Oh no’, you think, ‘not again’.  Not another guilt trip to care about the city or even worse, a call to move there to “do life” with the oppressed.  When he gets up and quotes something like “seek the peace of the city”, you’re nearly ready to leave.  Not because you don’t care, but because you feel stuck. You can’t just up and move into the inner city, so does that necessarily mean you don’t care?  You want to give money and volunteer, but his pitch sounds so all or nothing.  He uses words like, “discipleship” and “obedience” and you feel unworthy, heartless, and shallow.

‘If Jesus, Emmanuel,  God with us, gave up the glory of heaven for the mire of earth’, you wonder, ‘does that mean I have to give up the glory of my four bedroom colonial for the mire of a fifth floor walk up with a crack house around the corner?’ Even though you know Jesus’ voice and you don’t think he’s calling you to move into the city, shame creeps over tender heart— you’re afraid you’re not “radical” or “obedient” enough.

I understand all your feelings and I want to apologize.  I think the way I’ve been conditioned to talk about my calling has contributed to your consternation. I’m so very sorry.

You see for many of us in full-time urban ministry, it has been all or nothing.

I came to this calling after spending a week doing side-walk Sunday school for urban kids in the middle of a run-down housing development in New Orleans. Those kids who needed baths and a good meal would stare up at me and say, “can I have some more candy” and I wondered ‘Is this the only thing they’ve eaten all day? If I’m the only picture of Jesus in their lives, what happens if I leave?  What happens if the church never comes back? They need Jesus!’

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 And knowing my Shepherd’s voice, I sensed him say, “Feed my sheep in the city.”

 So I went home to my college and changed my degree plans to include studying dance so I could teach inner city girls.  I wanted  to give them a sense of accomplishment and worth through the discipline of technique and the beauty of art.  It all changed for me.   It was all or nothing and honestly—pretty sexy to give it all up for Jesus.

At that time I was hearing about groups of people moving together to form intentional communities in the roughest neighborhoods.  They chose to live on a single income and put signs on their doors that said, “all are welcomed here”.

And it’s all so sensational, isn’t it?  “Wanna do something great for God?  Move into the city.”  We’re the ones who look like Jesus’ ministry to the oppressed, right?

I’m afraid urban ministry has become a new sex symbol in the church.

Obviously, I think urban ministry is good and necessary.  There are groups of people forgotten and oppressed right in our backyards.  I read a post that calls the inner city your Samaria,  and it’s true. The inner city is a place we’ve forgotten because it’s hard to see hell on earth on a daily basis. “White flight” is real, but those of us called to the city have no right to shame you for the past.  We can only invite you to dream for a new future with us.

What if the privilege of the suburbs met the poverty of the hood?  What could God do?  How could lives be restored?  How could we practice Shalom together?  What if we shared in this calling and widened the tent to include space for everyone, suburbanite and urban missionary alike?

We would love for you, our suburban sisters to join us in caring for Samaria. But know this— urban ministry is not a better way and it’s definitely not the only way to seek God’s Shalom in this broken world.

My “all or nothing” will never look like your “all or nothing” and I think that’s the mark of a true disciple: knowing your Shepherd’s voice and following him into your specific all or nothing. 

I’m sorry because I see your faces when I share my calling to plant a church in the city.  I see your interest piqued. I see the wheels turning as you imagine caring for the homeless and an under-resourced school.   I see the love of Jesus shine in your beautiful eyes.  I see you lean in with amazement when I tell you my story of moving to Hollygrove, a dangerous neighborhood in New Orleans, and just months later our house was shot in a drive-by.

Then you ask me, why/how/ when did I decide to go into full-time ministry in the urban core and I quote those same scriptures, “seek the peace of the city” and I point to Jesus who didn’t commute and your heart drops.  ‘No, not again’, you think.

Then I watch shame’s dark cloud attempt to blot out that stunning love for Christ in your eyes, and I think,  ‘Oh no, not again.’

Words like “radical” have become a noose around your necks, my sweet Sisters, suffocating your spirits and killing your dreams of being used by God in a meaningful way. With this powerful movement in the Body towards a gospel that reflects Jesus’ love for the poor, I’m noticing a chasm widen between us, the “radical” ones and you, the “comfortable” ones.  It’s subtle, but real and exactly what the enemy loves to do.  Disunity.  It’s his wheelhouse and I am so very sorry for playing into it.

I’m sorry if you don’t feel like your contribution from the ‘burbs is enough.  It is.  I’m going tell you now that the only reason I can do what I do is because of you.

I’m sorry that we who have been called to give it all up to serve the oppressed in the city have made you question your fidelity to Christ because you’ve chosen to stay in the suburbs.  I want you to know that we do understand!  If you can’t give up the house, if you can’t imagine yourself living across the street from a drug dealer, if you can’t quit your jobs to stay home to be available to the poor, it’s ok!

Really.

Stay in the suburbs.  Don’t move.  If God’s not opening the doors for you to move into the city, then stay!

Geography does not indicate fidelity. 

Stay because I love your hearts and your fellowship more than I love my city.  Stay because you are a light in the darkness right there in your cul-de-sac.  While your neighbors stress about status symbols and material wealth, you’re there to hold up the cross where everyone’s deemed worthy and hungry souls can find His richest of fare.

Stay because my kids need your kids.  Your kids, who talk about Harry Potter, Wii games, and tea parties keep my ministry kids grounded.   I worry with all this talk of the poor and all this exposure to the homeless or angry fathers who yell, “Shut the fuck up” to their barely walking two-year olds, my children will forget the pure joy of talking about a book, playing a video game with their friends, or just being kids—not ministry kids, but just kids. Kids who love to have fun for fun’s sake.

I need them to know that people actually go to college and finish with advanced degrees in fields other than ministry, theology, or urban development.  I need them to know it’s perfectly fine for them to become a doctor, engineer, scientist, or professor.  I need them to see good and godly stay at home moms who are not building a church with their husbands.  I need to them to see people loving Jesus because he’s amazing and not because he’s called them on an amazing mission.

Stay because you have been given so much and we are always in need.  Until every last child in the hood has a well-rounded education, and until every teen values her body enough to wait until she’s in a committed relationship before risking pregnancy, and until every black man is given a fair chance to earn a livable wage—we’ll need you.  We need you to come and tutor, advocate, mentor, donate, love, and lead.

I need you because your hearts are so beautiful and your love for Jesus is so authentic. 

You are the ones calling me in to speak to your mom’s group on raising kids with hearts for the poor.

You are the ones sending our church money to form a Jesus-centered community so that all people no matter where they live can hear the Gospel that Jesus loves them so much he would rather die for them than live eternity without them.

You are the ones who email me with offers to help. “Yes, yes!” you say,  “I will open up my home to bake batches of pumpkin bars and stuffing muffins to bless the people who have to work on Thanksgiving.  I want to be a part of Operation Turkey Sandwich!”

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You are the ones commuting into the city to deliver bagged lunches to the working class who have no other option but to work on Thanksgiving Day. It’s stunning, my friends.  It’s that stunning love of Christ that fades away when faced with the unfair expectations of dropping it all and moving into the city.

I’m so sorry for the social justice snobbery of my urban tribe that says, unless you put some “skin in the game” you’re not worthy to battle alongside us.  Ladies, I’ve seen your skinned knees when you pray for us.  I’ve seen you crucifying excess and comfort to give to urban organizations.  I’ve watched you wrestle with Jesus then hobble away with a softer heart and a new name.

The cross-shaped love that bestows unsurpassed-able worth and pronounces, “good” over all people is wild and fierce in you, my friends.  That’s radical. If you ask me, faithfully following our radical Jesus makes you radical.  That’s it.  That’s all.  That’s enough. 

This “radical” label is a love-robbing legalism. It’s a noose around the necks of lovely Kingdom women. It’s chasm-creating rhetoric. And I’m done with it!

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So, I’m stretching my hand out to you now to remove those nooses from your necks to fashion a bridge with them. I want us to move freely between city and rural, educated and street smart, rich and poor, suburban and urban.

I want so many of you to step into my context and know the people I serve, but I don’t want you to feel obligated by my testimony or some book that says being a Christ follower means becoming an inner-city dweller.

It’s not true. It’s a lie from the pit of hell to cause you to doubt your efficacy and value to the Kingdom. It puts an unnecessary boundary between you and God’s heart for the poor.

God’s love turned into a law is a filthy perversion and it’s one of Satan’s favorite tactics.

Partnering with Jesus is always an invitation, not an obligation. So, thank you for all the ways you’ve responded to his invitations to help our church and please forgive me for the times I’ve made them feel like obligations. I ’d rather invite you into my life of caring for the poor than shame you.

You are stunning, my sweet Suburban Sisters.  Never forget that.  You know Jesus’ voice and I trust you to follow as he leads.

And one more thing:

You are always, always  welcome to battle alongside me—you’ve put more than enough skin in the game.  

Yours Because We’re His,

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50 thoughts on “An Open Letter to My Sisters in the Suburbs

  1. After so many times reading books like Radical and Interrupted and Not a Fan (which I loved by the way) I really struggled to see exactly how this was a fit with my 6 kids and white suburbia that I live in. Thank you for the acknowledgement that ‘all in’ looks different for everyone and we should keep our eyes on Christ and his plan/direction/method for us to reach the least of these.

    • It’s hard to discern what our “all in” looks like. I’m so thankful for those books that call the church to remember the poor, but we have to balance that call with grace and humility. Thank you for stopping by!

  2. Beautiful post. I love urban ministry, but I firmly believe that not all of us are called to go into urban ministry. Or maybe we are called to go one day, but not today. The fact is that God can and will use us exactly where we are. Some of us need to go into the inner-city, but some of us have to stay in the suburbs too. We just need to ask Him what He would have us do…who He would have us love…how He would have us minister. Because you don’t gotta live in the hood to be needy…and you certainly don’t have to live there to need Jesus.

  3. This very issue came up in our suburban ‘Tangible Kingdom’ group this week. There’s definitely a sense of struggle over being in the suburbs and still viewing our lives as being on mission. Thank you for these beautifully encouraging and affirming words!!

  4. You are such a deep thinker and deep writer, Osheta. I love what you’ve said. Truly, we are all called to … what we are called to, and guilt doesn’t make following a non-call into a call. Awesome writing. Thanks… really thanks. xx

  5. Thank you for laying out the struggles on all sides. We are all the hands and feet of Christ, doing the best we know how. You cover us in His Grace, Osheta.

  6. “Geography does not indicate fidelity.” So good to read this! I love how you build up the freedom of each believer, not free to be individualistic, but to discover for themselves where Holy Spirit wills their gifts to be shared. I’m reminded of Phillip being led to the desert just for the one person in the chariot. That disciple would never be able to raise support to plant a church! Was Phillip “on mission” or being “intentional”? Ha!

    I love your celebration of diversity among the Body of Christ, and not shrinking it down to limit its meaning. There truly is room at the table for all, and this post challenges me to shake off my own biases and legalism.

  7. Wow Osheta. So much Christ in this. God speaks to me through it even though I’m your suburban brother. I’m trying to discern my own itch to get out of the suburbs and back into the city. Where is it coming from? Is it God or have I just bought into some kind of hipster/cool expectation for myself? A lot to think about. Thanks for creating a grace-filled space in which to reflect.

  8. Thank you for every word of this. Guilt about not being “radical” enough is certainly something I struggle with, and it’s especially discordant jangling around the joy and hope that ministries like yours and Shane Claiborne’s and Jen Hatmaker’s stir up in me. I know that I’m the only imposing the idea that my life has to look like theirs onto my walk with God, but still, the feeling of being stuck in my particular circumstances has a way of smothering any sparks that may have been lit. Thank you so much for acknowledging all of this and honoring the ways that we’re all contributing to the kingdom family. Grace makes beauty, always.

    • You know, I’ve struggled with guilt and shame alot in the past. Brene Brown has some wonderful things to say about shame. I’ll be praying for you and I’m so thankful you shared your struggle with me. Many blessings, Bethany!

  9. Powerful words on such an important subject. I love that you can talk about it, coming from your perspective as someone wrapped up in urban ministry. I’ve always believed that the heart of the city is a vital place in which to serve Christ, but you’re right that there is work to be done on the edges of town too.

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  14. This might be one of the most meaningful, healing things I have ever read. Ever. I just don’t even have the words to thank you for writing it.

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  16. I appreciate these words, Osheta. I especially appreciate the context in which you frame it: creating disunity. That’s important for me to remember!

    My husband and I have lived in the city for about seven years and I was involved in the “urban ministry world” years before that. One thing I’ve noticed is when people move into the city out of guilt or obligation rather than true joy and calling, it really doesn’t work out. I echo this message that they be free to explore their own “all or nothing” that God calls them to!

    Beautiful words!

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