One lunch, one mission: desegregate ourselves by race and by class

One lunch, one mission: desegregate ourselves by race and by class

You know that feeling of regional vertigo, when you’ve been traveling so long that when you climb out of the car or step off the plane you can barely remember your own name, much less what state or country you’re in?

Maybe you’re hungry, and you think, “I’ll just grab a burrito from Cosmic Cantina on the way to the hotel,” and then you realize that Cosmic Cantina is roughly 867 miles away, and you haven’t a clue where to get food around here. Yeah, that. In addition to the bodily weirdness of traveling so far, there’s now a mini existential crisis, a spiritual displacement, as if your very identity, including the God you worship, is now up for grabs.

All because you walk on unfamiliar ground. Which is another way of saying that place matters.

Just thirty hours before pulling up at our new home in Michigan, we had put the truck in drive and waved goodbye to our housemates in northeast central Durham, North Carolina. For three out of four years in seminary at Duke Divinity School we had lived in an intentional Christian community called Isaiah House of Hospitality in Durham’s inner city. That was home. It probably, in some ways, always will be.

Cue all the stereotypes: abandoned businesses, boarded up houses, overgrown lawns, rusted cars, police tape, prostitutes, roaming dogs. FBI raids. Gunfire at night, especially in the summer. Drive-by shootings of innocent children. If ever there was an “abandoned place of Empire”–to quote the language of the movement known as new monasticism–this was it.

And we lived there on purpose with our housemates Rebecca Byrd and her husband David Arthur. In fact, they plan to raise their children, grow old, and die there.

If you’ve heard of activist Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, David and Rebecca’s choice doesn’t need much explaining. Shane is one of the key spokespersons for a movement among young American Christians known as new monasticism.

New monastics focus their attention on the “abandoned places of Empire”—that is, America’s forgotten urban centers. And rather than individuals or families taking personal steps of downward mobility for the sake of the poor, New monastics form intentional Christian communities: households or networks of households that share life together (meals, prayers, chores) and in which the poor are key participants. Among the various practices of these communities, racial reconciliation is a hallmark.

Which was how our residence at Isaiah House began.

When Tom and I first arrived in Durham for his first year of graduate school, we lived in a single bedroom apartment near campus–our attempt to live more simply by saving on fuel. We had two choices about where to worship: we could either worship at the nearest church, which fulfilled our commitment to seek and build community on the ground we walked upon (rather than commuting like mall-shoppers to some distant congregation); or we could, in the words of Tom’s lifelong mission statement, “desegregate ourselves by race and by class.”

Since the nearest church was, in fact, the imposing and rather impersonal Duke Chapel (think cathedral), we opted for the latter.

Which meant either a Spanish-speaking congregation or a black church; and since my Spanish was negligible and Tom’s nonexistent, we settled on Asbury Temple United Methodist Church: a historically black congregation with a strong civil rights history in northeast central Durham, whose Bahamian pastor had a voice like James Earl Jones. He could have read the phone book aloud all Sunday morning and I wouldn’t have been bored.

The church itself, planted squarely on the corner of what once was a busy business district, had that faded but dignified look of a long-retired school marm: once imposing, not quite on public assistance with its crumbling brick and broken signage and mostly gated parking lot. But on the inside there was life.

That first Sunday Ms. Mary greeted us with warm smiles, a bulletin, and a handshake. I imagine if you show up today, she’ll do the same for you (although the church has merged with others and changed names, worship still happens there). She quickly introduced us to some other Duke folks: a professor, a student, someone who already had a doctorate in psychology but was now pursuing ordination. Not a huge congregation. But large enough that when we saw one other white couple sitting on the right side of the sanctuary, we made a quick, nonverbal decision to desegregate to the left.

Which is why it took several months before we actually met David and Rebecca during the Passing of the Peace. We just never managed to make it all the way around to that side of the sanctuary before the pastor said, in his deep rumble of a voice, “The Lord be with you.”

But one Sunday David stood at the lectern, inviting the congregation to his and Rebecca’s home for lunch just a few blocks away to learn and pray about their vision for hospitality to “the least of these.” Isaiah House was, in some ways, an extension of the church’s mission in that community, and they welcomed anyone, anyone.

I glanced at Tom, who looked sideways at me and nodded. This was a no-brainer.

{To be continued}

Read part one of Sarah’s story.

Part two of a series detailing Sarah Arthur and her husband, Tom’s,  journey from Durham, NC, to Lansing, MI. Expanded from the book The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos Press, 2017).

3 thoughts on “One lunch, one mission: desegregate ourselves by race and by class

  • December 3, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    I am new to NC and was told there is an Isaiah House in Durham. It appears you moved to Lansing, Michigan. Please let me know if I am wrong.

    • December 26, 2016 at 10:14 pm

      Hi! Yes, Sarah moved to Lansing a few years ago, but her and her husband’s time in Durham is foundational to their family’s experiences in “The Year of Small Things.”

      • December 27, 2016 at 7:02 pm

        But, we should add, Isaiah House of Hospitality is still in Durham, NC, run by our former housemates Rebecca Byrd and her husband David Arthur.


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