I’m sitting in what is now my new favorite coffee shop in Charlotte. It’s a 24-hour bakery charged with heavenly smells, romantic art, and antique furniture. It’s buzzing with noise and people, and characters of all sorts. There’s a couple on its first date, attentive to every word departing from their partner’s lips. There’s an elderly woman who really wanted my couch–I gave it to her. There’s a man with a wolf tattoo on his left calf. There’s an unfathomable amount of people on their cell phones. There’s a couple kissing each other while waiting for their pastry. There’s a store manager with a righteous anger toward me for putting my feet on the coffee table: apparently they don’t “tolerate” such behavior. There’s a Muslim woman alone on her laptop, her head wrapped in a colorful Hijab. It’s truly a microcosm of Charlotte: art, diversity, life, relationships, and personality all joined into a vast community. Here there is life, and endless possibilities to know and to love.
I really wanted to go to Uptown (Charlotte’s downtown area) tonight, and so one of my housemates and I made the trek up to the city-center. To me it’s not enough to merely live in a city: I need to know this city, and hopefully, in a small way, come to be known by it as well. And so I make it a habit to visit the beating heart of Charlotte at least once a month. Having been here only three weeks, the habit began tonight. We ate at an Irish Pub, walked along the most significant streets, and then made our way to Amelie’s for coffee and a book. It’s nothing groundbreaking, and I don’t suppose any trip to Uptown will be very significant in and of itself, but it’s impossible to love this city without seeking to know it’s heart. And so I walk the streets and look into the people’s eyes. And hopefully I can build some relationships, too.
I signed up for a men’s soccer league that starts up in September so that I can begin to interact with people outside of the Christian bubble of seminary. Since I don’t know anyone well enough to start a team, the organization will place me on a team of strangers, and through the process maybe I can build relationships and in some way proclaim Christ and His cross. And I’m sure I’ll have a lot of fun in the process. If anything, it’ll keep me from putting on a Seminary Belly.
But I’m not only seeking to immerse myself in the broader Charlotte culture; I’m trying to immerse myself in every sub-culture I’m in as well: namely Greyfrairs and RTS–and hopefully a church sometime soon. I’ve been invited to several events at RTS and Greyfrairs recently, and my first inclination has always been to stay at home. I’ve never really like crowds, deferring to the comfort of a small gathering of friends. But God has one way or another nudged me out the door and into the scary world of new people and awkward pauses. And I haven’t regretted a minute of it.
At the Greyfrairs picnic last Friday I had exhausted within an hour all my options of willful conversation with the parents–most of them didn’t seem interested in striking up a conversation with a 22-year-old seminary student in whom they have little in common. So I contemplated going home early, satisfied that I at least tried to engage with this group of people whose children I’m serving. But then I stopped and took notice: the kids, many of them my students, were playing soccer in the church lawn. Within an hour, what had been a short and somewhat awkward evening turned into a deeply satisfying venture into the lives of these families and kids as I kicked around a ball and earned their respect as a decent soccer player. In the process they no longer looked at me as merely their new history and literature teacher: they looked at me as their brother, their friend, their fellow. And they were no longer merely my students: they were real people, full of hope and anticipation and joy.
It amazes me that Jesus had the humility to full engage in God’s quest to save humanity. He didn’t just reach his hand down from the heavens to aid us in our plight. No, he became human flesh, forever changing His nature as God, and dwelt among us. He became like us, lived with us, and perfectly loved us by immersing Himself in the shattered world of humanity. It’s interesting that Jesus never went beyond the borders of Judea and Samaria. He didn’t travel more than 100 miles from his hometown His whole life. Instead, He learned to love where He lived and fully gave Himself to the people around Him. He dug down deep. If it was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.
Being a part of a community is like learning a language: you have to fully engage without reservation. You have to full immerse yourself in the community of hearts and ideas and joys of those around you, or you’ll merely float along aimlessly in the sea of faces of people you could have known and transformed. And it’s my prayer that as I spend more time in this city and with these people, I will learn to love where I live; for to love means to give without reserve, just as Christ without reserve lived among men as one of their own, fully engaged and fully alive.