You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but this place is full of leaders. Sure, the boarded up windows and sloppy graffiti might be cause for concern. And the challenging glares of those crossing the street might make you want to drive faster. But make no mistake: church leaders, pastors, elders, and missionaries make their home here, amid the squalor, amid the sun-creased faces.
I drive this way every day, up a side road that leads out of the heart of Richmond, Virginia. With all the potholes and missing concrete, you can be sure it hasn’t been paved in years. This path is no shortcut, but it takes almost twice as long to get onto the interstate through the rush-hour snarl. I’ll take the potholes, thank you very much.
I don’t know the history of this area, but my guess is that it’s similar to most other places that get bypassed by the major highways. Interest moved with the roads and left a fading beauty in its wake—local restaurants filled in for chains, corner stores staggered in with bars over the windows, grays and browns spread from house to house. The only touch of modernity is a sleek courthouse and expanding police station on the corner.
In any case, this isn’t the type of place where you want to have a flat tire. And that may be the very reason I had one… right there… right in the middle of the smoke-damaged houses and shattered windows. After pushing aside a broken bottle under my feet, I wrestled with the jack, which I’d never had to manhandle before. I confess that a bit of anxiety did reach my fingers and perhaps that’s what made the process take so long.
No one stopped to help, and I was fine with that. I just wanted to be finished without having to explain how I’d opened a huge gash in my tire.
But I wasn’t completely alone. A young man strutted up the sidewalk and stopped to watch for a moment. Then, he strutted closer.
I’d seen this movie; it never ended well. Instead of terror, though, a wave of calm smacked into me. Even when the guy said he’d just gotten out of jail and needed to call his ride, the expected panic didn’t come. Peace… that dreadful peace wouldn’t leave. So, I handed over my phone. And, yes, that’s a dumb move, but listening to his call showed me more in a minute about the nature of this place than a hundred trips through this section of the city ever did.
The bravado masked uncertainty; the swagger plastered over need. And me giving him my phone to use was probably one of the few acts of charity this guy had ever experienced. “Good news” to him was me simply getting out of my car and seeing him as a person and not a potential road hazard on the way home.
Changing demographics—from quaint corner of the city to neglected side route—don’t change the need. As long as people are there, the need for the gospel is there. I don’t suggest you get a flat in a scary part of town, but I do think it’s easy to focus only on the places where we’re comfortable. We feel safer with what’s familiar.
That’s not what Jesus did, though. He went to the places least expected to find leaders. He dusted off the despised and neglected, and he gave them a new role as fishers of people. He made crooked IRS agents into evangelists. He made prostitutes into pillars of the church. He made swearing fishermen into saintly bishops.
Here be leaders… if we’re only willing to look.