What Johns and Missionaries Have In Common

I was walking up my street, headed towards the Family Dollar because I needed some Swiss Cake Rolls. Obviously. As someone who works full-time from her couch, trashy junk food seems like a wise choice for my overall health and well-being. But hey, at least I was walking, right?

The top of my road intersects with the neighborhood's busiest street, and this area is always filled with activity. A grungy gas station advertises Lotto and beer in tall letters. Inside, the cashiers hide behind bulletproof glass walls and slide your change through a tiny slot. Men loiter outside, chatting and selling single cigarettes. Sometimes women walk on the outskirts of the intersection, sliding into cars that pull over.

As I neared the intersection, I saw a car had turned onto my street. I watched a woman climb into the passenger seat. My kids and I had seen her a couple hours before on our way to school. She stood on the corner, a deep scowl on her face, mumbled words dancing on her lips. She seemed to be struggling, so I worried when I saw her getting into the beat-up truck. I memorized the license plate as they drove past, unsure of what, if anything, I should do.

But by the time I reached the top of my street, another car had slowed down. This time, he was waiting for me.

A large white man in business casual clothes sat in the driver's seat, and as I walked past, I heard him call out to me through the open passenger's window. I instinctively looked, but experience has taught me that a man who looks like him slow driving around my neighborhood is up to no good.

Muscle memory forced my neck to turn away, my face to harden, and my pace to continue uninterrupted. While my practiced demeanor was cold and unaffected, two refrains shouted in my pulsing brain. My daughter lives in this neighborhood! and You don't know me!  

My anger surprised me. For years, men have trolled the neighborhoods where I've lived, looking for available women. Years ago, the experience was so common I stopped having any emotional reaction to it. And I started dressing like a boy in baggy jeans and over-sized hoodies so I wouldn't draw attention. But I don't walk as much these days. And if I do, I'm usually wrangling my two kiddos, so I avoid this particular brand of attention. Unexpected rage flooded my system.

Almost instantly, I remembered another slow moving vehicle I encountered many years ago. I was walking with my roommate near our house when a van slowed down and pulled up alongside us. I tightened. The window rolled down and - without stopping - the driver began to ask us if we knew where we'd be spending eternity. I had no words. And so, this man I'd never seen before began to share his salvation message with me. All I could think as he followed us down the street was You don't know me.

We recently celebrated 20 years of Mission Year, a year-long urban missions program I volunteered with ages ago. I later served five years on staff. Mission Year lovingly grabbed my 19-year old shoulders and reoriented my life towards reconciliation, bridge-building, justice, service, and seeking Jesus. It was also this experience that introduced me to slow moving vehicles - the johns and the missionaries.

As I reflect on what I have taken away from Mission Year almost two decades later, it is something then-President Bart Campolo told us at the very beginning: It's all about relationships. Our understanding of the news, of social issues, of faith, of parenting, of the world is enriched and expanded through our relationships.

And when we try to move through life, engaging people through our worldview first, rather than relationship, we risk the bumbling (and damaging) encounters of slow moving vehicles. We make assumptions. We exploit. We demean. We injure.

It's all about relationships. I've tried to live with these words. To commit to people, rather than doctrine. To reach out to people that intrigue me, bug me, or are near me. My hope is that I won't become a person who approaches people with my own agenda and in the process, forgets the humanity of the person in my path.

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