450 is an interesting number. 450 could mean anything. 450 could have 250 added to it and that would be 700. Maybe we could add another 100 or 200 to make that number 800 or 900. These numbers are arbitrary and in a contextless existence they seem like a nice increase. Yet, do these numbers mean anything?
To you these numbers are abstract, random and seemingly arbitrary. To you they are merely numbers on a computer screen. Yet, to our faith community those numbers represent Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, they are merely numbers to more than just my reader. To the Chattanooga city council, the mayor, business owners, local faith leaders and the developers they are also merely numbers on a spread sheet. Collateral damage in a city on the move in the South. A city that is experiencing a renaissance of both the best and worst part of our heritages.
This number is the amount of section 8 housing units in the projects our community gardens are located that are slated to be demolished by the supposed non-profit Chattanooga Housing Authority.
For the past year and a half these numbers have leapt off the pages of the Times Free Press articles, crime blotters and from negative community whispers into our faith.
Faith is belief in the unseen. There is no place more unseen in Chattanooga than College Hill Courts. These numbers have miraculously transformed in the light of faith for Mercy Junction. They are grandmothers taking care of their developmentally disabled grandson, they are children who have water fights in the garden, they are the hungry high school students that eat the rest of the food set out for our events, they are the 13 year old abuse victim who silently attends church, they are the 19 year old male with so much promise that the rest of society cannot see, there is the proud parent bringing their baby to the church to excitedly show us their first steps, there is the paraplegic who borrows money and always pays us back. These seemingly numbers are miraculously transformed to flesh and blood. They are human and represent Jesus Christ. How can we do anything as a community of faith, but fight with them against the principalities, powers and rulers of darkness in this world. Especially those who would treat them as less than human, less than the dignity afforded even a Samaritan beaten by the side of the road.
Following Jesus Christ is now inextricably tied to our neighbors in College Hill Courts. It is a lie to believe that the church occurs because we meet inside a building, we recited incantations together, a person lectures us about morality and we attempt to hit the right notes of 19th century hymns. The church is free, because God is free. There is a reason that we do not find Jesus in safety, it takes vulnerability, risk and sacrifice to follow the path Jesus sets out for us. Many will turn away, like they did so many times before. They will recite the well worn phrase, “This is hard teaching, who can follow it?” Still, we meet together not to be a church, but to be a part of the church. It is time for us to venture out and find the church. This is exciting, threatening, radical and the only way worth living.
Thanks be to God.
Brian Merritt is a Presbyterian minister in Chattanooga, TN. You can follow him on Twitter here.