(This blog was originally posted on christianitytoday.com. You can find it here).
“Pop it! Shoot me! C’mon, shoot me!”
This is an abridged version—curse words and racial slurs removed—of a one-way conversation that took place on the first day I lived in Memphis, Tennessee.
It was Memorial Day 2009. My wife and I were unpacking the largest moving truck I could drive without a CDL. We had arrived in the Bluff City the day before with our 1-year-old daughter in tow and every remnant of our four years of marriage in North Texas crammed into a box.
We were excited and nervous about the move. It was tough to leave community in Denton, Texas (consistently ranked as one of the best small towns in America). But we felt God leading us to Memphis. We were eager to meet the challenges of this city: crime, racial divisions, and other “deal-breakers” for many of our friends.
Then it happened. Two of my neighbors started to argue, the gun was drawn, my wife ran inside, and I stood on our front porch. The neighbor to our immediate left hurled insults while slowly retreating; the man with the gun, our neighbor to our immediate right, walked forward, the muzzle of the gun held at his opponent’s forehead as they both walked in awful harmony. This is how it ended up going down in my front yard.
For whatever reason, the gunman’s resolve broke. He retraced his steps to a friend’s car. The other neighbor continued his verbal onslaught on a man he considered a backpedaling foe.
This, of course, was a costly misevaluation of the situation.
From the passenger side of his friend’s car, the gunman—who had been virtually silent throughout the whole incident—let his Glock do the talking. Stumbling through a haze of disbelief, I had just enough time to hunker down behind a stone column on my front porch as his bullets peppered my freshly acquired rental property.
The other neighbor ended up alive but wounded.
Why We Stayed
At the risk of sounding cliché, others were wounded that day. My wife, my sister-in-law, and I were unscathed but very shaken-up. We were actually more affected than we thought we’d be—more than we hoped we’d be if we were ever given the opportunity to bear up under such circumstances. We had run through this scenario in our minds, where we had much thicker skin. In reality, we were shaking. Actual bullets will do that to you, I suppose.
While the first responders, television camera crews, and our entire neighborhood began to spill out onto the street, my wife and I prayed inside. We were confessing our anxiety, pleading to our Heavenly Father for guidance, and acknowledging that we wanted to trust God and not make any decisions out of fear. We knew we were led to Memphis for a reason, and we would stick it out.
Besides, as we began to tell our story to lifelong Memphians, we were met with wide eyes and gaping mouths. We didn’t talk to anyone who had experienced something similar (and still haven’t, three years later). This is an important point, since Memphis gets a bad rap. The truth is that upwards of 90 percent of violent crime happens between people that know each other. So, violence happens, yes; but it rarely takes the form of some innocent passerby being targeted while minding his or her own business.
This was true in our incident. We were oddly comforted to find out that our entire neighborhood was exceptionally pleasant except for two houses that had a longstanding gang/drug feud; we just happened to move in right between them. We had to be on the lookout for stray bullets, but didn’t have to be so worried about bullets aimed at us. Again, oddly comforting.
So we stayed in Memphis out of obedience, discipline, and commitment. These aren’t altogether bad motivations, but white-knuckling it probably wouldn’t have kept us here for more than a year.
But when we least expected it, Memphis surprised us. We started to love the city, and it was as if the more we fell in love with the city, the more the city fell in love with us. Our motives blossomed from duty to delight; our experience morphed from merely surviving to intentionally thriving. Memphis is like my college strength coach: a harsh intimidator at first to weed out the uncommitted, but also a loving father to build up those who are truly invested.
In brief, we decided to “Choose901.”
It was a little over a year ago that this phrase, Choose901, became a part of our vernacular in Memphis, whose area code is 901. Since then it has picked up steam, enjoying its own website, Twitter account and hashtag, and merchandise. The website is a one-stop shop for learning and loving Memphis. The tagline? “We choose Memphis and think you should too.”
This mentality has taken my family from unpacking our U-Haul with trepidation to tearing up at the thought of leaving. There is a brotherhood here, a sense of being on a team. And the church—through local congregations, parachurch ministries, and nonprofits—is appropriately leading the charge.
Culture of Collaboration
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. The city still needs education reform, still bares the scars of racial prejudice, and still has too much crime and corruption.
But it is precisely because of the city’s past that its future is bright. There’s nothing like a foxhole to bring two soldiers together. Likewise, there’s nothing like a broken, hurting city to unite the church. I’ve observed the body of Christ at work in numerous cities in numerous countries, but I’ve never seen a culture of collaboration like the one in Memphis.
I’ve seen churches co-hosting guest speakers for discipleship conferences, marriage retreats, and training events. I’ve heard pastors praying with and for other congregations and filling in each other’s pulpits. Organizations often share their pool of staff and volunteers. Churches give platforms to organizations and parachurch groups that are excelling in certain areas of ministry. Parachurches explicitly tell churches that they will close their doors if the local congregations no longer want them around.
In other cities where my wife and I have lived, if we would have had a dinner party or game night for 20 guests (assuming they were all Christians), all 20 would have gone to our church. In Memphis, we will invariably have six or eight churches represented around our table or living room.
Don’t mistake this for a willy-nilly ecclesiology where people aren’t committed to their own fellowship or are lazy about membership. My wife and I are deeply committed to First Evangelical Church. However, we regularly rub shoulders with folks from Second Presbyterian, Fellowship Memphis, Christ the Rock, Kirby Woods Baptist, Independent Presbyterian, Highpoint Church, Christ City Church, Christ United Methodist, and Germantown Baptist. When I’m fortunate enough to meet an unchurched Memphian, I’m happy to invite them to First Evan. But I’m just as happy to recommend about 10 other evangelical churches if it makes more geographical or denominational sense for them.
In addition to the churches, numerous organizations and nonprofits are fostering a unified ethos:
Binghampton Development Corporation and Service Over Self are improving the quality of life in one of the most historically dangerous communities in Memphis.
Streets Ministries, Eikon Ministries, Urban Youth Initiative, and Memphis Athletic Ministries all reach out to urban youth in some of the most underprivileged parts of the country.
The Poplar Foundation, Barnhart Crane & Rigging, and the Kemmons Wilson Foundation are businesses and philanthropic groups stewarding God’s resources to further kingdom initiatives.
Operation Broken Silence is providing care and shaping policy to free women from sex trafficking.
Refugee Empowerment Program and Su Casa Family Ministries address the needs of the refugee and Hispanic populations, respectively, of Memphis.
Memphis Teacher Residency, among other teaching programs, is helping to reform urban education in the city.
Downline Ministries and City Leadership are training church and city leaders to make a difference in their community. (Downline promotes discipleship in and through local churches, while City Leadership recruits and develops leaders to serve the city.)
These organizations practice collaboration over competition. It’s as if each understands that the social issues facing our city are too big for one organization to tackle.
Choosing Your City
We Memphians hope that 100 years from now, historians will look back bewildered, wondering, “What happened in Memphis?”
Indeed, even today we trust that you’ll be able to discern—with a nod to Augustine—that within every city are two cities simultaneously emerging. One city represents all that is good and beautiful and just; the other, everything that is corrupt and evil and disintegrated.
Sometimes you have to experience the latter before you can collaborate in order to pursue the former. Such is the case with Memphis, and we are the better for it.
However, we don’t want to be the only ones experiencing the fruit of such a united endeavor. We hope other urban centers will foster their own cultures of collaboration for the good of their cities.
In the end, this isn’t really about Memphis at all; it’s about wherever you, the reader, currently reside. We urge you to take up this challenge in whatever area code you call home: to Choose _ _ _ .
Love your city well in Christ-centered, gospel-motivated word and deed; we promise she’ll love you back.
Jason Seville is the director of emerging leaders for Downline, chief editor of “Downline Builder: Customizable Curriculum for Biblical Discipleship,” and a church-planting resident with Fellowship Associates.