Wildfires, Bus-driver Lee & Finding Hope

There’s nothing left to sift.” This was the thought going through my mind as I stood at a distance watching a man sifting through the ashes for items where his home once stood. The dystopian-like devastation before me was surreal. The inferno of flames reached temperatures that bent steel and reduced absolutely everything to a substance-less than ash. What remained of the 2000 plus homes I saw was either a lonely still standing chimney of a house or the mangled and agonizingly misshapen cold-steel frame of a mobile home. In either case, all else was ash save the random ceramic pot that somehow survived what metal could not.

While the West Coast has seen millions of acres ablaze recently, the towns of Medford, Phoenix, and Talent Oregon were perhaps hit the hardest. In a four-hour tour, I witnessed well over two-thousand homes that had been completely annihilated by the wildfires, and that was just a peek at the devastation that had made an unwelcome visit. The loss, trauma, and needs experienced by these communities will take years to work through.

Two Christian and Missionary Alliance churches that have been in the thick of things are Medford Neighborhood Church and The Living Room in Central Point. Pastor Lee Gregory of MNC is also well known as “Bus-Driver Lee” The twin roles of local church pastor and bus driver have given Pastor Lee the opportunity to serve the parents and kids of his community well. The respect Lee has gained has also allowed him to rally his community of faith to be the hands and feet of Jesus when crisis struck in the form of wildfire blazes consuming homes and businesses alike.

I arrived early at the Jackson County Expo the morning I met with Lee. The Expo had become the staging area for fire crews, human services, and logistics. Lee wasn’t there yet; however, I saw his ICARE sign at a booth set up by one of his parishioners named Michael. Michael filled me in on the stories of people they had been helping. You could see the compassion in his eyes as he talked about the difference and impact they were having. Soon the booth was visited by Red Cross representatives and other humanitarian aid reps looking For Lee. Then I saw the bus roll through the parking lot. Lee had arrived, and people rallied around him.

I learned that Lee had lived in Paradise, California, another city hit hard by wildfires in 2018, which is currently feeling another threat (read more here). During the fires of 2018, Lee and the leaders at Medford Neighborhood Church developed a ministry called ICARE to help people who had been affected by the devastation. When the wildfires hit anew in the Medford area, they relaunched ICARE for another round of ministry, this time in their neighborhoods. 

Over the previous few weeks, Lee and his bus had been shuttling people back and forth behind the fire line. As the bus approached the many restricted fire-hit areas, all it took was a handwave from Lee, and he was allowed where others could not go. As I boarded the bus with my wife Amy, Rachel from the Alliance NW District Office, and Max and Olivia from Alliance Video, Lee introduced me to some other passengers on our journey. Seeing how God uses Lee’s job as a School-bus driver beautifully interweaving with his call to ministry is still putting a smile on my face.

Driving a bus has networked Lee with thousands of families and leaders in the community. He has earned their trust and respect, allowing God to place him right where he needs to be at this time to be the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing hope and compassion to so many hurting people.

Lee’s son, Dan Gregory, who pastors The Living Room, a church plant in Center Point, was also on the bus. The Living Room has been active in serving the community as well. The church lobby is packed with items to help displaced families. Everything from clothing to toothpaste is arranged and organized efficiently for those who need it. It was a blessing to see two pastors, a father, and a son, respond with great compassion and a real tangible touch in their community.

The Living Room shares space with a Hispanic Church (The Potter’s House). Santiago is the pastor the Potter’s House and his home was not spared as the fires ravaged house after house. While Santiago was not able to join us, his wife Leonor along with some others from their church were on board and about to see what remained of their homes for the first time. Two other men (Fred and Scotty), members of Medford Neighborhood Church, would also be going to see what was left of their homes.

Lee and Dan shepherded well. There were moments of Holy stillness held in tension with grief and loss. Our companions slowly and sadly absorbed with their eyes what remained of their homes. Places where laughter and dreaming once filled the air were silent now, leaving you numb and brokenhearted. I talked with Scotty as we stood looking at the charred remains of his home. Scotty, also a bus driver, is a musician and plays on the Worship team at Medford Neighborhood Church. He was able to get some, but not all, of his guitars out of the house.

I wondered to myself, “If I only had 5 minutes warning to evacuate, what would I grab? What would be the most important thing I would take? How would my heart-break knowing what was left behind?” These are merely some of the questions that thousands of people are asking right now.

It is in the devastating moments like these that the church needs to rise up…
It is in the days of dark valleys that the church needs to bring the Light of Christ…
It is in the midst of despair that the church needs to bring a spark of hope…

These were the actions and responses I saw happening through my friends. ICARE, the ministry at Medford Neighborhood Church, Stands for “Compassion and Respect for Everyone.” Those words flowed out of Lee’s heart like a rushing river. “Why do we help like this?” Lee asks, “Because we need to have compassion and respect for everyone.” For Lee and Dan, this is not just a slogan; it’s a daily rhythm for a follower of Jesus.

We live in a time and culture that is alight with political, social, racial, and gender wildfires, to name a few. These cultural eruptions have created a deep divide in our country. There seems to be no middle ground, no room for different opinions, no capacity to consider the other person. We are ideologically entrenched, making enemies of each other. Compassion seemingly recedes into the underbrush.

I appreciate Lee’s heart around compassion and respect for everyone. He is right when he believes that expressing love in this way will put out the wildfires of upheaval all across our country. This posture is the heartbeat of Jesus’ teaching. Love and compassion indeed find welcome hearts when communities experience natural disasters. However, when we show compassion and respect for everyone, including those who are not like us, or those opposed to us, we follow the way of Jesus and become agents of healing in the world.

The road back will be long and hard for those who lost everything around Medford, Phoenix, Talent and Central Point, and other Oregon towns. Many will not be able to rebuild and will move elsewhere to start over. Many will need help for years to come. But as the rubble is slowly removed, I know of a couple of Alliance Churches that will offer compassion and respect to everyone they meet, which is the beginning of a renewed hope for many.

If you would like to donate or help go to: https://www.medfordneighborhoodchurch.org/

Educating Monty: (on racism, injustice and white supremecy)

“You have heard it said, ‘Whatever you do unto the least of these,
you do unto me.’

I’m a white guy who has been working through my lack of understanding of systemic racism over the last twenty years or so. While I have engaged and taught on injustice, reconciliation, and all “ism” themes through the years, my depth of understanding was insufficient compared to the realities of life for so many people of color. I have needed to stay engaged by doing the hard work of continual learning. I wrote previously about being complicit, complacent, convicted, and confused in an earlier post. I won’t rehash those thoughts here, what I’d like to do is offer some materials for you to begin doing your hard work of seeing the need for race equity. My journey has lead to repentance, listening, and doing more work. While the list isn’t exhaustive, it is a good starting point.

Glenn Harris, the President of ‘The Center For Social Inclusion’ notes that racism affects us all when he states:

“Racial equity is about applying justice and a little bit of common sense to a system that’s been out of balance.  When a system is out of balance, people of color feel the impacts most acutely, but, to be clear, an imbalanced system makes all of us pay.”

I was one of many in the energy-filled room for an organic neighborhood church conference in Seattle several years ago. One of the speakers was Dr. Christina Cleveland, and she was speaking on her book “Disunity In Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart.” Christina was a powerful and compelling speaker. As I began entering into her words, stories, and images, I hadn’t consciously connected how racial reconciliation and church planting might be linked. I left that day with a renewed conviction. I bought her book, and my journey of awakening went to the next, more rooted level. 

Previously, I would have been one of those who said, “I see all colors the same because Jesus has called me to love everyone regardless of skin color.” Or, to put it another way, “I’m color-blind, I treat everyone the same.” While there is some truth to that, the whole “colorblindness” is part of the problem as well. My journey has caused me to see and celebrate skin color because our skin color creates a lived experience and tells the story of generations. 

In actuality, being “colorblind” continues systemic injustice towards people of color. When I acknowledge color, I recognize a real human story, a tangible experience, a reality that our neighbors of diverse ethnicities encounter every day, and their stories are heartbreaking.

But, once you see, you can’t ever unsee.

As I began to grasp the more significant, accurate picture, I knew I had two choices. I could decide to live for justice and inclusion, or I could play it safe and try to keep everyone happy. I chose the former because the truth of the latter will leave us blind and numb to the plight of our brothers and sisters of color, and that is not the Gospel Jesus proclaimed. A Gospel devoid of social justice implications is a truncated Gospel at best, a half-Gospel that continues the generational curse rather than inaugurating generational blessings. I long to be prophetic, not political.

If you are a white person, and especially if you are a white pastor, it is time to do your homework. It’s your responsibility to educate yourself on these issues. Please don’t expect those who have experienced the boot of systemic injustice to try to teach you, that is not their job.

Let me list some things you can do to begin this journey, as well as some great resources to consider. There are many more books than the ones that I have read (I am still in the process), so if you have some that have impacted your life, please post them in the comments.

Things You Can Do:

1. Read books that make you squirm.

2. Watch documentaries and films that make you uncomfortable.

3. Shut down racist tirades by your friends, family & co-workers.

4. Share what you’re learning with the people you know.

5. Listen to the voices of People of Color without diminishing their story.

6. Let the lament of people of color become your lament.

7. Do life with POC, not as projects but as friends.

8. Start a discussion group using any of the resources I will list.

9. Speak out, show up, and say no to the status quo.

10. Never stop learning.

11. Repent and confess the bigotry and racism that you begin to see in your life.

Learning to “see what you don’t see” is an uncomfortable process. You will lose many of the illusions with which you have lived. Your pre-suppositions and pre-understandings will shake to the core. But lean into the disruption anyway, it will benefit us all.

As we begin to see every person as Jesus in disguise, as divine image-bearers, we will fulfill Jesus’ commands of the high ethic of love and Micah’s prophetic vision revealing how God desires we live: 

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah 6:8 (NIV)

Some of the Books, Documentaries & Films I have learned from:

Powerful: Ava DuVernay’s documentary explains the prison industrial complex from the 1800’s to the present.
Classic: To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s book turned into an Academy Award winning movie.
Eye-opening: This is Angie Thomas’ 2017 young-adult novel about a young black girl growing up turned into a movie.
Wow: This Netflix series follows five teens from Harlem become trapped in a nightmare when they’re falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park. Based on the true story.

Another good Netflix series that follows a group of black students at a predominately white university.
This movie won Best Original Screenplay. I think my jaw hit theground a number of times. This is white-supremecy turned into a horror flick.
The Spike Lee film based on a Biography ofMalcolm X. Covering key events in his life including incarceration, conversion to Islam and starting the Nation of Islam movement.

The Spike Lee film that shows escalating tensions that ends with civil unrest. Patterns we are still seeing today when our focus is on the destruction of property over the loss of human life. The film ends with contrasting quotes on the use of violence as self-defense vs. the use of non-violence with Malcom [X] and Martin [Luther King, Jr.]
This is Ava DuVernay’s historical drama about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.

USA Today noted that: “There’s a moment in the film when one of the racist Southerners slaps him and he quickly slaps him back. I call it the ‘slap heard ’round the world,’ ” Boyd says. “So instead of standing there, taking the slap and turning the other cheek, he fights back.
“That scene is really satisfying because it ties to the politics of the late ’60s after the assassination of Martin Luther King – a lot of people are no longer willing to be so peaceful.”

TIME’s critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote that “Peck’s aim seems to be to reintroduce Baldwin and his way of thinking to the world. Not that Baldwin is forgotten, but sometimes we need a bold red arrow to help us redirect our thinking, especially in a media world as cluttered and noisy as ours.”
imdb notes: “The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman‘s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.”

These titles are an excellent starting point. I would appreciate hearing what resources have helped you grow in your understanding. Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Posture, Pivot, Plans & Prayer

For my Alliance NW friends in ministry: Attached is a personal video and key resources to help move people from fear to trust in and through the COVID19 reality. I also look at ministry pivots and plans about transitioning into what will be the new normal post COVID. I wrap with an update on my transition into the District Superintendent position.

Links and mentioned downloads:

9 Ways we’re trying to engage online
24 Questions your church should answer before people return
24 MORE questions your church should answer
Alliance NW COVID19 Resources