When my husband and I moved our family from Richmond, Virginia to Tacoma, Washington, we had every intention of landing in a downtown area. We love the grit of urban living, not to mention the local shops and the walkability. The whole reason for relocating was to train and eventually church plant with Soma Communities, so it made sense to go where the action was. But as we listened to the elders (and tried in vain to find a good housing fit in the city), it became clear that we were needed in the suburbs. As any good Keller-disciple would, we balked. But the Holy Spirit was clear, and peace only came when we turned our attention to a large apartment complex in Northeast Tacoma.
From the City to Our Suburbs
To give you the lay of the land: Our back yard is a golf course, and the surrounding hills hold large homes with views of the Puget Sound. Our neighborhood is Tacoma’s wealthiest; it’s also its most isolated, and we rarely walk anywhere. And despite the abundant local resources, our immediate neighbors are not the wealthiest. In fact, they’re just the opposite.
My neighbors and I live in three-story buildings, six units per stairway, twelve units per building; there are about 545 total units in our complex. From day one, my husband has called forth the vision for our neighborhood: We need to reach all 545 of these units with the Gospel. I am all about strategy, logistics and intimacy, so I put up my hand and told him I couldn’t even think about that. I’d rather just concentrate on being faithful with the few I’ve already been given (even though this is often just a convenient excuse to doubt God).
Faith in Jesus & Love for our Neighbors
The day we moved in we met our downstairs neighbor—we’ll call her Alicia—and her daughter, Tina. Tina was entering first grade, as was our oldest daughter, so we were thrilled for an easy and immediate friendship. Tina began playing at our house regularly, and it didn’t take long before we had her at our dinner table. We eventually met her teenage brother, Michael, who pretty much keeps to himself.
Within two weeks of moving in, my husband invited Tina to attend Soma’s Sunday Gathering with us. I jumped on him, stage whispering something like, “You can’t ask a child to go to church with you; you need to ask her mother before you make that offer!” In hindsight, I was being ridiculous. Tina has no boundaries, and she’ll ask for anything. “Can I play in your house?” “Can I have an apple?” “Can I stay for dinner?” “Can I go to the beach with you?” So it really didn’t matter whether we asked her or she asked us, it was only a matter of time before she ended up attending Sunday School with our kids.
And amazingly, when Tina bounced down to her apartment to ask Alicia (whom we rarely saw) if she could go with us on Sunday, she said yes. Not only that, she told Tina that she planned to start going with us. And she did! As a result, we started seeing more of Alicia. She began to eat dinner with our missional community, and she started asking questions about God. Suprisingly, she took notes during the teachings, and then sat on our couch and pelted us with questions.
It’s important to note that Alicia, Michael and Tina have some disturbing though sadly common pieces to their story. Alicia has recently divorced her drug-addicted, abusive husband (also Tina’s dad). He’s been in jail most of the time we’ve known her. Michael was also abused, and Tina saw things no child should. As a result, our girls now know that drugs can make people violent; I certainly never expected to broach that topic at ages four and six.
Now Alicia is permanently disabled, and survives on state and federal aid, and a little bit of money that her dad left her. She spends the bulk of her time in bed, feeling too bad to get up, feed the kids…do anything. She doesn’t drink or do drugs, but she takes enough prescription medication to fill her entire bathroom drawer (she showed me). And despite repeated efforts to quit, she still smokes. When I met Alicia, she had a sign on her door that let the UPS guy know what to do with any boxes if she didn’t answer the door; the last sentence on it said, “I’m disabled.” And that’s how Alicia saw herself. That’s who she thought she was.
About the third Sunday Alicia attended the Gathering with us, one of our elders taught on the power of the Gospel. He talked about God creating us to love and enjoy him, and about how we rebelled against that plan. He told us about Jesus coming to purchase our lives from death and give us back our original identities as daughters and sons of God. He talked to us about faith and repentance and lies and truth. I watched Alicia cry when she heard that truth. When the teaching was finished, I turned to Alicia and asked her if she believed everything she’d just heard. She said yes, and I was overjoyed!
It took me about six months in our apartment before I gave God credit for his genius. Most healthyish families in the U.S. have a plan that goes something like this: We’re going to save our money/leverage ourselves so that we can move into a nice home where everyone has his or her own bedroom and we have a yard for the kids. It makes sense. Our chief goal as Americans is intellectual, emotional and financial independence. Period. And why on earth would I rent if I could own (current housing market excepted), and why would I stay in a loud apartment complex with who knows what kind of people in it when I could move my kids to a safe, quiet environment with other nice families?
As a result, I’d venture to guess that most apartment complexes are filled with single-parent families. Our complex, which is really pretty nice, has lots of single moms and very few dads. There are married couples here and there, but not a lot. My family is the anomaly. And if we choose to stay here even after saving enough to buy a house with a yard, we’ll be even more peculiar.
But we’re here to stay, and we’re praying for more people like us to move into our complex, because reaching all 545 units is still God’s goal, even when it isn’t mine. In addition to Alicia and her family, there’s a woman across the hall who just lost her home, her business and her marriage. There’s a couple nearby who have divorce papers in the filing cabinet, but just aren’t ready to pull the trigger. There’s a young mom and her fiancé living in our building who are both unemployed and have criminal records. They’re all very open when they talk to us. They’re kind of low-hanging fruit in the garden of discipleship, because they have too much need to sweep under the rug.
Even Introverts Can Disciple in the Burbs
Part of the reason I’m praying for people to join us in the harvest is that I’m tired, and honestly, I really don’t love people as much as I should. I’m an introvert, so I just need down time to recharge. Too often I parley that into an excuse to withdraw from my neighbors, but I can only ignore so many knocks on my front door. For several months after we moved here, I sat in my bedroom and cursed when I heard a knock. My girls love nothing better than finding out who’s on the other side of the door, but I confess that I often want to ignore it.
Last winter was particularly difficult. I was feeling lonely; I missed my friends in Virginia, and I was bummed that I’d had to leave a job I loved. Besides, Western Washington’s notoriously gray winter was really starting to get to me. There were afternoons when I napped in bed or on the couch, and I cringed when my phone rang or a neighbor stopped by; those were days when I completely lacked motivation. Struggling with depression myself, I really didn’t feel like I had much to offer anyone else.
But the Holy Spirit contended with that. He engaged me in my hideout, and compelled me to stand up and walk to the door. Many times the result was a needy friend sitting on my sofa, engaging in honest conversation. It’s stunning to recall the hard things I’ve been led to say to Alicia; more amazing still are her responses. I’ve interrupted her in the middle of devastating fights with her teenage son, and she has received that as help rather than criticism. My husband and I have told her that she isn’t healthy enough to be involved in a romantic relationship, and she has responded by admitting addiction to men who misbehave. I’ve counseled her to apologize to her children for her own impatience—without telling them what they’ve done to deserve it—and she has done it. Not perfectly, but sincerely. I finally told her to rip that ridiculous sign off her door, and she went downstairs and did it; she just needed someone to remind her who she is in Christ. God would not introduce her as “Alicia, my disabled daughter.”
Mission from a Greater Refuge
The only possible explanation for Alicia’s ready response to all of this is the radical regeneration of the Holy Spirit—not just in her, but in me as well. I am so humbled when I watch God at work in her life; she makes me praise him for his power and grace. I believe him more because of my relationship with Alicia, though it’s the hardest friendship I have. She has apologized to me a lot. I’ve had to apologize plenty too: for withdrawing from her, for speaking impatiently to Tina, for lacking the energy to follow through on a promise. And amazingly, Alicia forgives me with the same grace she’s been shown. Isn’t it just like God to raise new life from the ashes.
When we first became part of Soma Communities, we attended a weekend retreat for missional community leaders. I distinctly remember hearing one of our elders say, “Your home is not your refuge. Who is your refuge?” And we all knew the answer: Jesus is our refuge. When I am hidden in him, with his perfect strength flowing through my weakness, I can engage my neighbors. And even as I am on mission among them, he is on mission in me. As a result, our family talks a lot about the Gospel these days, and it’s bringing healing inside our home and beyond our front door. It may not be the home we thought we wanted, but we’re convinced it’s the one we need.
Stephanie Thomas works for KidShine, substitutes for Tacoma Public Schools, and struggles to be a good neighbor and friend. She and her husband Chris love to explore the Puget Sound area with their two elementary-aged daughters, Anna and Emi. Steph’s dream job is hair styling. She can be found on twitter @imstephthomas and you can keep up with her family and their mission at thosethomasfolks.com.