More in Common

In American culture, there’s often a divide between rural and urban dwellers. Yet when two leaders from these communities view their lives through a holistic Gospel lens, they find surprising common ground. Listen as they discuss fatherhood, marriage, discipleship, death, and hope in Christ.

Laura Haley: Today’s audio interview is brought to you by More in Common. More in Common is a joint venture between the Chalmers Center and the Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. This event was recorded on May 7th 2019, as part of Theology on Tap Chattanooga, hosted by the Camp House.

American media and culture invest daily in stirring up division between rural and urban dwellers. Yet when two leaders from these communities view their lives through a holistic gospel lens, they find more in common than the mainstream narrative would have us believe. Join pastor Alton Hardy, the son of sharecroppers now working in an urban neighborhood, and Chris Horne, the son of a single mother from the deep south, now serving in rural Appalachia.

Our moderators include Karen Ellis, and Justin Lonas. Today’s discussion covers a range of topics including fatherhood, marriage, discipleship, but most of all hope in Christ. I hope you enjoy today’s conversation.

Justin Lonas: Appreciate you guys coming out in the middle of a busy week for all of us. I’m Justin Lonas of editorial and content specialist at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College, which is a really long name. I’m going to bring people up one at a time and introduce you as he comes. So, Alton, you get to go first.

Pastor Alan Hardy is the pastor of Urban Hope Community Church in the Fairfield neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. Chris, come on. Chris Horne is the RUF campus minister. That’s Reformed University Fellowship. Chris is an Upstate and Boone North Carolina, which is also where I grew up, which is pretty, pretty small world. And then lastly, we have Chattanooga’s own, soon to be Dr. Karen Ellis. Karen is the director of the Center for the Study of Bible and Ethnicity at RTS Atlanta. It’s a reformed theological seminary in Atlanta, where I’m also a student. So, we got connections all around. But I’m going to let Karen tell you a little bit about how tonight came about and what we’re going to be talking about.

K.A. Ellis: Right. So thank you, everybody, for coming. How did this conversation come about? Well, it all started, once upon a time, I wrote a blog post. Part of my work is largely done with the underground church overseas, and I’m an advocate for them. I started to notice some commonalities between how rural and urban pastors, and also people who were doing Christian work among indigenous Americans, I started to notice some similarities. I started to just ask some questions about, some of you guys are dealing with this issue. You’re dealing with that issue. How are you guys addressing these things?

I ran into Justin. Well, he was at my house, we were having dinner, he and his wife. We were sitting down and we started talking about what it was like for him growing up in Appalachia. Then I said, it’s almost like there’s somebody invested in keeping the rural people and the urban people from talking to each other. It’s almost like there’s some strange force that doesn’t want us to share information with each other, but actually wants us to have animosity towards each other. Of course, we know, if you have a biblical worldview, we know that that person is Satan, who has been the enemy of humanity and the creator of division and destruction.

We thought we would take a nice dig in his eye tonight, and poke a thumb in it, and put two people together who have experienced growing up and working both in rural and urban areas and discuss how we all have more in common than we do not in common.

Justin Lonas: Absolutely. Thanks, Karen. Just a little background on the Chalmers Center, and why we would be interested in having this conversation as an organization. We serve as a church equipping organization, helping churches care for the poor in their communities in ways that make sense biblically and economically. For sustainable community development.

Part of the framework of how we think about poverty is that people are created to be relational people. We are created to have a relationship with God. We’re created to be at peace within ourselves as God created us, a relationship with ourselves, a relationship with other people, and a relationship with the rest of creation. When that relationship with God is broken, as we believe it has been, for all of us since the fall, in Genesis chapter three, apart from Christ, it doesn’t just affect our relationship with God, it breaks and tears up all those other broken relationships as well.

The funny thing about broken people is that they make broken systems and then the broken systems can grind up people and it’s just a cycle of brokenness. Again, to quote our philosophy as an organization, is that the local church is the epicenter of where God is bringing healing for material poverty, as well as all the other effects of sin in the world. That’s why I’m really excited to having this conversation with pastors, with people that are in ministry, because this is where this stuff happens. You’re going to hear that tonight from them.

Let’s talk a little bit about why urban and rural are divided? At some level and other, you can’t ever really be divided. Because I bet everyone here likes to eat food. There’s only so many places you can grow food and raise animals and things in a city. So, you need the countryside to help you eat. Cities are a place where culture gathers and things like that.

In the United States, 80% of the population lives in an urban or suburban setting. The urban rural divide is not something new. It’s been going on for a long time. People have been moving to the cities. In a global economy, the cities are winning. Those of us that live in Chattanooga, we’ve seen how our city has changed dramatically in the last 15, 20 years. But that growth isn’t always shared by everybody. What’s happening in downtown Chattanooga is great, but how’s that working in East Chattanooga? How’s that working in Tryon, Georgia or Lafayette or Dayton, Tennessee, the outlying communities, the small towns where the manufacturing is gone and people are struggling with opioid addiction?

What we’ve realized as we’ve been having this conversation to get ready for this is that the brokenness that we see in rural areas and the brokenness that we see in urban areas, it’s not very different. It looks different, and the culture wants us to believe that it’s … You got hip hop and rap in the inner city, country music in the outskirts, Confederate flags sometimes flying in the outskirts, all kinds of differences as a culture just tries to play up those differences. But we want to think about what it’s like to bring these things together. Maybe Lil Nas and Billy Ray Cyrus we’re on to something. That song caught a nerve with Old Town Road. People are thinking about it, it’s not just us.

I want to start there. I want to go right down. Alton and Chris, you guys can take turns as you feel led on this. Who benefits from keeping these cultures apart? The urban centers and the rural cultures apart? What ways have you seen this negatively affect the church?

Chris Horne: Sure, a lot of people benefit from that. As someone that I grew up in a very working class white, rural, context in Middle Georgia. Our family was not in the church at all. My experience that I did have with people that were in the church was not positive at all. I had a family member, I grew up in Georgia, he was in Mississippi. Just very exploitative of … This is a low-income white guy, and exploiting poor African American folks in his community. Yet, calling my mother who was a single mother, very hard working woman and berating her for not having kids in the church.

Just from an early age, being able to tell there’s a huge disconnect here, between what this organization around Jesus is supposed to look like and what the reality of that is. In that situation I saw someone in the church benefiting from exploitation, and benefiting from that divide just very personally. Was soured toward that at a young age.

I know that the evil one definitely benefits from keeping us apart because we’re not sharing the gifts and graces that God has given us and the struggle by which we can both persevere together. I know that’s been a deficit in my own life as a believer is not knowing the stories and knowing the struggles well enough to know how to walk alongside my sisters and brothers.

Alton Hardy: I would say that … I have a loud voice, so I try to moderate it a little bit. I would say, the church loses out when those two groups are systematically kept apart. Because they don’t get to hear how common their stories are. Working with the urban core and now starting to read about the poor in the rural areas, me being from the rural South myself, it’s really not that much different in the social walls that you see in both of those communities.

Who benefits from I think, in one way, the evil one benefits and I think to some degree, the political government, whatever you want to call it, the systems keep standing in place that are really not really helpful in the long term, or the long run. I just think, if you really studied Dr. King, some would say the reason why he was killed because he was starting to bring those two groups together in so many ways.

I do think there is some systematic force, as Karen said, that tries to keep that urban rural, poor, apart from each other, but their stories are very similar. I think what’s happening here coming together and talking about our commonality, I think the kingdom of God is being strengthened. There’s been a benefit to see how, actually, the church can do better and really serve both of these communities collectively together. Because they’re really the same thing, just different color of skin here or there, but it’s really the same group of people.

K.A. Ellis: One of the reasons why I wanted these two guys … You guys are really trophies of God’s grace, and the more we get into your stories, the more you’re going to hear that tonight. That they’ve entered into, because of their faith in Christ and their union with Christ, they’ve entered into a head space where they’re actually representing a different kind of culture, to the communities that they serve. That it’s not owned by politics, and it’s not owned by other cultural agendas. But they really want to reflect something that is a different kind of witness, a different way of people relating to each other. They actually, the two of you represent a large number of people who are doing work on the ground that you never get to hear from. These are not the usual suspects that get a platform or whatever. They’re doing hard work on the ground.

I know that one of the commonalities in your stories, both of your stories is both of you have experiences with fatherlessness, and father wounds. I wonder if both of you could just talk a little bit about how God has made you and is making you trophies of God’s grace in that area, and how you are now using that testimony to shape the people that you’re discipling.

Alton Hardy: I would say, as a 52 year old father, husband, kid from the South, I’ve had a lot of pain in my life, a lot of experiences on a host of levels. I would say, by far more than any other pain that I’ve ever experienced, the most difficult to overcome and to get healing on was the fatherless one that I had in my heart. It has also been probably the most impactful part of my ministry that the Lord has given me so far, that he has used me in as well.

What was meant for evil has turned out to be to a benefit. In an urban community where I’m at, in most urban communities, the common denominator is fatherlessness. I really don’t even have to read another book about it. It comes out of my experience. I could see fatherlessness on a kid, on a young person, male or female. There are just things you saw about yourself that you can see in others.

I don’t have any hair now but I remember as a kid, I used to always long for someone to rub my head. I never knew where that was coming from. But there’s something to that, just that affirmation of saying that you’re somebody. Someone is affirming your identity.

Being in the urban community and how the Lord is using that. I speak into it. One of the things, I was sharing this earlier, a pre-conversation before this conversation is there was a time in period of my life that I did not really understand the effect of fatherlessness. Then there was just this light bulb got turned on, and I saw it everywhere. I saw all the effects of it. I saw how it impacted my confidence. It was just like, once I saw it, I saw it.

Now that I’m in a community that is inundated with fatherlessness, it’s like, I try to get young men and young women to start the healing process. One thing I’ve come to understand that the fatherless womb, until it is really dealt with, the healing process in that … I’ll give you a casing point. As a young man, I just met him recently. He was in a heroin drug game. He started, I said, “I hate my dad. I hate it all the time. I hate my dad. I hate.” When he started hitting the table. But you could see the hate dripping from him. I said, “Son, I know, but you’re going to have to confront … I’m not saying you all got to be best buddies, go and drink Kool Aid together or something like that and going skateboarding. I’m not saying you got to do that. But you’re going to have to deal with that.”

I said, “Reason why? Because you’re not going to be able to understand God.” He looked at me, said, “What are you talking about pastor?” “Trust me on this. You’re going to have to deal with it.” He went and confronted his dad. I deal with really hardcore hood guys. They got a little Jesus in them. He said, “Pastor, I want to kill my dad.” I said, “No, don’t kill him.” I said, he reconciled to him. He’s talking some other stuff. But he went and did it. He went and confronted his dad.

He came back. He told his story, tears running down his face. He said, “Man, I feel so much better.” But he looked at me, “Pastor, but I’m still not going to be his friend.” I said, “You, okay. You’ve done the hard part.”

Here’s my point, when I say this. Until people deal with their dads in the natural realm, and so many will let them go, forgive them, even though they’re dead or gone, or still alive, they really can start to really grow. I’ve seen that. It was my experience, until the Lord really helped me deal with my own natural father. I really couldn’t understand him. When he got me [inaudible 00:18:54] so God really uses that for me, in the context that I’m in all the time.

Chris Horne: Yeah, absolutely. Talk about return on investment for the evil one, growing up without a dad, not only can you not understand God, not only can you not know how to be loved, to be known, to be spoken a hard word to and still be able to stand. It’s very difficult to find a center of yourself, and to know who you are. Part of what I love hearing about your story, and we were on the same age, I think when we realize this is the cause of a lot of pain. Is that God loves to break generational sin. He loves to move in.

I don’t know that either one of us decided we’re going to get our life together and break our cycle. Yet, there was the Holy Spirit coming and applying the work of Jesus to my life. Now, it’s amazing because I live in Appalachia, and it’s almost exclusively white, very economically depressed, but I work at a university that’s set in the middle of that. The resources is very secularized, progressive. Yet still, I know when I’m working with a student, and they are expressing a lot of resentment and frustration toward me. I’m feeding into a disappointment that they are feeling from their dad.

It’s painful, because they’re not yet always recognizing that. Knowing God and knowing yourself, that’s it. I was so resentful toward God. Before I was even resentful toward my father. He wasn’t there at all basically. He has expressed in our one conversation in the last 15 years that he has no interest in this relationship. I think that was more wounding, was that I thought maybe if we if we reconnect. But he said, “I’m not interested. This was a mistake.” That I resented God, because I didn’t recognize that all those years … I came to faith in my early 20s, is that God had been loving and pursuing me and actually working His intention like you just said, along with the sin of my father and my sin, He was working His intention along with that now to bring a testimony of God’s grace to the fatherless. Even people that grew up with their father, physically present but never seen their father’s smile, never seen their father’s eyes, never having their father’s full attention.

You said something the other day, and the guy was saying, if Jesus needed His father’s affirmation, He came up out of the waters of baptism and The father said, “You are my son. I’m pleased with you.” Not hearing that, being able to say, this was wrong, you deserved a father can be incredibly healing. That resentment is gone toward God for that past because He was working His intention along with that-

K.A. Ellis: There has to be something to the fact that there’s all these secular social movements that appeal to 18 to 24-year-olds. I’m thinking about the Jordan Peterson and to the extreme of like, the Antifa movement, and just this search for some sense of belonging, some sense of identity. What makes a good father? Then I’ll throw it back over to Justin. What makes a good father?

Chris Horne: When you were talking about this earlier, I was learning from you. So, tell us-

Alton Hardy: Well, I use my story, growing up without my dad being in the house, and what makes a good father, and really speaking into the urban community that I do ministry in. I’ve heard the young men say this, and I do this, a good father in one sense, think of our heavenly Father. God had to really teach me this experientially. When I first got called into ministry, God gave me Marine Type A leader. When He said seven o’clock, He meant 6:55.

But you got to understand, I grew up really hearing my momma’s voice with 12 children. Trying to be a mom to 10 to eight kids in the house all the time. It was like, it’s mama, I come home. She’d be home at 9:00, I’d get home at 11:00. I was used to that. A good father is one that his word is his word. God is His Word. It’s the same. You can count on it.

This pastor leader, I couldn’t stand this guy. I was, “[inaudible 00:24:23] get hooked up with a guy like this. This guy’s crazy. He’s like Adolf Hitler or something. He’s mean.” It took me a long time. It was not until about maybe my teen years ago. I was reflecting on this guy as in a God type way. He doesn’t realize how I used him to help him understand how I am, that I would have a good sense of understanding when God speaks His word, He’s not stuttering. He’s not stumbling, He’s solid. He’s core. He’s foundational, He’s facts. He’s real facts.

You see people on Twitter, facts. No guys, I’m fact that. I’ve been tweeting this from all eternity. I’m not changing. Our father is one, you know He’s there. He’s not up and down. He’s not cold and hot. When God says He loves you, God says you can take it to the bank next summer, next winter, next spring, next fall. I still love you.

So, a father is one who can love you and yet speak truth to you? When I think of a father, I think of that someone who’s not hot and cold. When people are looking for … When you hear this Jordan Peterson and people start thinking about men and fathers, it’s like when you hear Jordan, it sounds like he believes what he believes. He was like, man [inaudible 00:25:57] that has to believe something. You come back next year, Jordan, you still believe in me? No, I changed my mind on that. I think of a dad as someone who’s solid

K.A. Ellis: Take my tithe pastor. Just thinking about culture and cultural movements and how much power culture and politics have over shaping the communities that you’ve been given charge over. In what ways have you seen politics leveraged for the benefits of your communities, and how do you balance that with actually changing the culture? Changing a culture of dysfunctionality where people they’re used to operating … When you operate in a broken system, you don’t have to look much further than your own life to see this, because we all operate in some broken systems somewhere, but you develop ways of bow dangling your way through. Figuring out, okay, how can I get around this to get what I need?

How have you seen the interplay between politics and culture? Which one do you think is a stronger force?

Chris Horne: I think that’s part of what, talking about people they have similar spiritual dynamics in their communities. Yet, I can’t imagine a stronger sense of divide politically between where those two folks are coming from. I feel like the message there is still from both communities. And this is what’s tragic, it’s a longing for Jesus, a longing for redemption, to say, we feel that we have been forgotten, and that we don’t have a voice.

Of course, not only does Jesus work in our lives and redeem us to himself and give us new life, He gives us a space and a voice and He gives us gifts, and He gives us dignity and worth, by which we can go and take our gifts for them to be born out in the creation. I’ve definitely seen political movements and low-income white communities, it doesn’t feel like our current political movement that is catching fire there is in any way moving that community toward anyone. But really a calcifying within ourselves.

But there’s still … It’s like we’re talking about Jordan Peterson, young men are saying this person sounds like he knows what he believes. He’s courageous enough to say it. There is such a self-reliance spirit on the white communities in low-income white communities. Saying, hey, we feel that we have been forgotten is in some ways, I think helpful stuff to move toward the need of the gospel.

The way it’s being expressed is harmful. But it’s being said, we’re good. When I grew up, it was like, yeah, you could be poor as long as you were white. Acknowledging need is helpful.

Alton Hardy: A lot of the times when I’m speaking and preaching in Birmingham, almost without fail, someone will say, “Man you should run for politics. I said, “No, I’m good. I like being a preacher. I don’t want to get paid off or something like that.” But I end up saying stuff all the time that just I think speaks to the failure in so many ways, especially in the urban context. I think is the same in the right rural context as well, the failure of systems that doesn’t have the redeeming power to bring people back to true dignity, the true image of God.

Casing point, because I don’t speak to symptoms I used to. When I did, I was angry all the time. I can tell you how many times in doing ministry in Fairfield, when I’m talking to young people under the age of 30, 25, have never really heard about marriage in its proper perspective. I never forget one girl in my class, she was sitting in the counseling that we married, she’s a pastor. I have two kids, she was 19. She had her first kid at 14. She said, “This is hard.” She says, “Do you mean to tell me that I was supposed to have a husband to do this with?” I think yeah. I said, “Didn’t the social worker never told you that?” She said, “No, nobody never told me that.”

I was at a meeting … This is true, about two weeks ago, and I was speaking. I said, why is it that social workers aren’t talking to you guys about marriage, family? The social workers didn’t like it. Because they say, “Well, that’s not our job to do.” This is a failure of the church because, in the cities, you got a lot of social programs, and you have very few little what I call gospel truth, other than Jesus loves you. But I go beyond Jesus loves you, but Jesus also have some standards.

One of the things is having, so I come up against some of the social on the ground politics has been played on these urban communities. If you know anything about the black community, we have higher marriage rates, Karen, you know this, pre ’60s. Now, what happened in the ’60s? Who came in? I call it in my context, obviously is leading people out of Egypt to the promised land of freedom. The God of Egypt is Pharaoh. Well, who was Pharaoh. Pharaoh don’t care about marriage, he don’t want you honoring God.

Pharaoh said, “Come back to the projects, I’ll put you up for all your life until I come and kill you in about 50 years. Have as many kids as you want. Don’t glorify God. Marriage glorifies Him. I don’t want you glorifying I’m. But I take care of you. Come back to the projects and live in there.” This is where I usually get in trouble. So, I try to be careful with the politics because … You know what, I’m a 6’4″, I’m a big guy. To me, I look like I’m 5’2″ 180 pounds. I said, “Lord, why did you make so big? Because I’m heavy saying stuff. Some people look at you, they have to think twice because I don’t have enough money to pay no bodyguard. I’m in the PCEA.

Justin Lonas: That was good. I think Alton could make a side living as a bodyguard. That’s a new strategy for you. One of the things that we’ve been hanging out today and last night prepping for this, and one of the things we’ve come back to over and over again is that the political realm flies above the local church too often. We do have to address these things because they affect us sometimes.

But who’s doing the work? We’ve been moving from tweeting to discipling. That’s our motto for this. I want to take a little bit of more of a pastoral turn here and talk about just some of the hard realities of ministry in your context. Poverty results in all kinds of brokenness. Sometimes that brokenness expresses itself in ways that create death and destruction; drugs, violence, domestic abuse. Death can just be a constant and pervasive part of life for many of the people that you’re serving. How do you navigate finding life and light in the midst of all that? How do you walk with people through grief and trauma, who have just seen so much of it in their lives, that they’re kind of numb to it?

Chris Horne: I think that if we don’t have something to say, as followers of Jesus, and especially as ministers to death and suffering and longing, then we have nothing to say. We have nothing really to bring, because death is the final enemy and it is the fear beneath all fears. Something working in the university, what surprised me is how many of our students have dealt very seriously and closely with death, especially in their family.

We have about 15 students in our group currently who lost a parent at some point. What has surprised me is that how infrequently they’ve been told that God hates death, that the death is the thing that is wrong. That everything that we’re experiencing in brokenness, this culminates in death. It’s all just another way of saying things decay, and they die. You pick a peach right off the tree, it’s not going to get better than ripening, because it’s going to decay.

That’s what we know. We have not said loudly enough, we have not spoken loudly enough about Jesus wailing outside of Lazarus tomb in anger for his friend whom He loves who He’s about to raise from the dead. He has the power to call people from death to life. Yet, there he is in anger and weeping over death. An opportunity that we have to speak and to have an alternative witness is to actually say, it’s okay to hurt over death, and to weep over death with hope. Learning to hold two things that seem an obvious contradiction to each other is the job of a Christian. Is to be able to say, I’m hurting and this is wrong and God says this is wrong, and He hurts with me. Yet, I also know that Jesus sweat great drops of blood in Gethsemane and then He walked out of the tomb.

Both of those things are true. I have hope and sorrow. That, I think is a part of what’s thrilling about discipleship is we have so many conflicting emotions, we have nowhere to put them. We don’t know where to put them. Jesus comes along and says, “I absolutely validate that sorrow, and I want you to sit in it. I want you to sit in that unmet longing for life long enough to feel me and sense me sitting with you.” Because it’s only through the valley of the shadow of death that we actually begin to understand that He walks with us toward hope. Or else, I don’t know what we have to offer. We have no celebration to offer if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. I think that’s the opportunity that we have.

Alton Hardy: I have learned being in this hardcore urban environment and seeing a lot of death and a lot of just chaos, constant chaos. Just last week at Resurrection Sunday, what, two Sundays ago, a young man was at church, the following Sunday he was in a shootout, shot six times. Last Sunday, we prayed for him at church. What I try to do, and I get this all the time, for people in the urban environment death is so normal, chaos. Everybody knows somebody has been killed. Just at the high school we lost, this year, Fairfield high school, probably five people.

So, seeing young people die is not anything uncommon to them. They go around, they put the rest in peace, [inaudible 00:38:40] and they just move on. No counseling, no, nothing. No really understanding of the afterlife. Everybody’s going to heaven, Nipsey Hussle. It’s just this typical thing. But here’s the thing that we try to deal with in the environment.

This has snuck up on me in the last year, because I think we Christians, we know it, we got the Holy Spirit, we’re just laughing, we’re having a nice glass of water, eating a nice steak. We’re good. We got Jesus. I think sometimes if we’re in that bubble all the time, we currently even understand what it’s like to be outside and just be in total chaos.

Here’s what we get all the time. This is one of the things I realize is urban hope, just being in church are present. As he said, you can’t tweak this, you just go to be present, you have to be there. Here’s what we hear the young people saying. I say, what do you see when you hear me talking to you, young man? They don’t really know the Christian lingo. He said, “You got that good energy.” Good energy? I’m like Star Wars? He had no Christian lingo. He said, “No, you got that good energy.” I said, “What do you mean?” “Positive.” I’m like, “Positive?”

But here’s what we hear all the time, “Pastor, when we’re around you guys …” One guy, he was a shooter. You all know what that means? Meaning, on the streets, he’s shooting people. This is not bragging, this is to God. I asked the Lord to send me … This is for all the urbanites who may hear this. God had to do something in me to get me to understand the gospel of grace. Because God has brought me people into our church, 18 years ago, I couldn’t have done discipleship with them. My gospel didn’t go deep enough.

I had a gospel that cut off if you did certain things. Jesus can’t save you. God says, you want me to bring them? What if God start saving all the people whose shooting up in Chattanooga, what are we going to do with them? You did what? This one guy came to me. I said, you did what?” We were at the [inaudible 00:41:10] I already knew his story. Everybody was like, “Pastor we got a real, yeah.” Now what do you believe about the gospel? Changed everybody in the room.

Here’s what this young men said. Man, being around you guys is peaceful. I can stop looking around. They say there’s positive energy. They don’t know it’s the Holy Spirit. What we do is, Urban Hope is in Fairfield when these young men come in, they start to feel a sense of just what real life is, Zoe life. Snippets of the real life that God intended for all humans to have. They’re so in death and chaos, they don’t even know what life is. When they get around us, they’re like, “Nobody’s going to kill me?” There’s no bad music plan. A man is trying to love me as a father.

You know what I’ve learnt, Karen, it takes time. Young lady, I cannot mention her name. I kept trying to hug her. She had been so abused by her dad, her stepdad. She was like, “Pastor, it’s going to take me some time.” She’s like, “I’m trying to trust you, but you don’t know. Every man has touched me has abused me. You keep telling me you love me like a daughter, but I want to believe, but I’m having a hard time believing.” What I realized she says, “It’s just going to take time.”

What I’ve learned, what we do, brother, we sit with them. Even when they knock my hands down, I keep trying to put my arms up. Now, I’ve learnt what Jesus meant, we don’t pursue the sheep, you pursue the lost. Man, it is not a quick fix. It is not a four-minute sermon. It is a pursuit like God pursues us and that’s all I can really tell you.

Chris Horne: There’s no affirmation from the sheep than a young woman in your ministry is saying, I don’t trust men. I feel like I’m starting to be able to trust you. That’s beautiful. Part of what I hear you saying, I think what’s beautiful about that opportunity, in Hebrews 11, the writer of the Hebrews is talking about Noah, is talking about Abraham and Sarah, and saying that each of those people died before they got the thing that God promised them that they were pursuing.

He was commanding them saying, they agreed with it from afar. They were longing for a better city. I love what He said, God is not ashamed to be called their God. That He has prepared for them a better city. Helping to say, you’re coming from this thing and you can come to this place and you can get just enough of a taste to long for that better city. We can go there together, I think is powerful to change lives.

Alton Hardy: Yes.

Justin Lonas: Well, that’s the segue to the last question we have really just wanted to keep running with this gospel message. Everybody’s being discipled into something, whether they realize it or not. We were touching on that earlier with the movements that people are attracted to. People are looking for dignity, identity and significance. How are you seeing the gospel message shape, the people you’re serving into the image of Christ around these core questions?

Alton Hardy: That was my coming out of rural, Selma, Alabama, born to some poor sharecroppers with … I can’t even go into it, deep self-image. It was messed up from the floor up. My image of myself. Used to pinch my nose, all of the racial hatred you could come up with, I had it all and some, I hated everybody else. That’s where we cry the most at Urban Hope. That’s where people will tell you when Pastor Hardy starts crying, that’s the one. That’s where I call Him, the hope God. That’s what I try to, as Paul says, I try to take Christ and put Him in people. Because I see that longing in Fairfield every single day.

When I was with Jamal on Sunday, he was just shot up the next Sunday before. I had been chasing this young man for six years since I’ve been in Birmingham. His mother died when he was five. He don’t know who his daddy his. His mother died of HIV. He says hope for him is something that he can hardly even taste it. I’ve been trying to just get him to see it.

I think coming close to death, when we prayed for him on Sunday, he said when he was getting shot, the only thing that saved him because he was a big guy, he had a lot of weight on him. When the guy put six bullets in him, the doctor said, your fat saved you. That’s a sermon. Tweet that one. Your fatness saved you. That’s what the doctor told him. The dude put, with a 40 caliber.

He said pastor, he said, “When I was dying, I can’t go like this.” The Sunday before, he saw me, he came to church. As he was laying there on the ground or whatever. He’s like, “I can’t go out like this.” Started calling on Jesus. We prayed for him. Obviously, God saved him. That’s what Urban Hope is. That’s a whole sermon. That’s my life is trying to usher in that hope that no matter how poor you’ve been, no matter whether your daddy hasn’t been there, your mother hasn’t been there. You’ve been born wherever you’ve been born. I am a living testament, I was born out in a sharecropper cornfield with rattlesnakes, here I am in the PCEA, God is using me. There is purpose and intention for your life brother or sister no matter who you are. That’s the message that we give it at Urban Hope every single Sunday, every single day.

We say, you were created by our [inaudible 00:47:43] God who loves you. Your DNA is of God. Therefore, you have purpose and intentionality. That’s what we say, every single day in Fairfield. We can’t make people see that, but, Karen, we try hard to make them see it.

Justin Lonas: The spirit can, and he does.

Alton Hardy: We’re seeing it work out.

Justin Lonas: Absolutely. Part of the trap in our moment … There’s a lot of division geographically and culturally, but we all basically consume the same media. Part of what’s beautiful, what you’re saying is that our dignity, identity and significance, we receive from God as gifts. As we are the creature and he is our creator, and he gives that to us. Jesus restores that in us as a gift. Because what we’re trying to do culturally, is actually not looked for something to form us, but actually become archaeologists of ourselves, where we dig down into our own self and we find this purpose and we find this identity that we can then unearth and then say, all right world, you have to respond to this.

It’s such a self-defeating way of living, and it’s exhausting. Because we don’t have it within us. It’s not because we are inadequate, it’s because of how God made us to reflect His image. There’s actually something so freeing, as saying, aren’t you exhausted from trying to figure out and tell the world who you are all the time, and why you have dignity? But instead, to actually just receive that from Jesus, and to know that you are loved and delighted in Him. You were created in Christ Jesus for good works, that he prepared beforehand that you should walk in them.

Now, he’s just inviting you to walk. There’s almost just a physical relaxing of the body when someone says, I don’t have to discover who I am in here. Because the self hides, but God doesn’t hide. He reveals Himself to us and he reveals who we are. I think that’s part of what’s so liberating in our moment is to say, God gives you dignity, identity and significance, and it’s all gifts.

K.A. Ellis: In a perfect world, this would be a whole conference of guys like this, but I am persuaded that there is so much wisdom to be gleaned from folks who are … These guys are the shepherds out in the fields. An angel came and said, “Hey, something good happened.” There’s something to these voices and championing them and having the opportunity to hear from them and learn from them, that I think isn’t just valuable to us to listen to and say, oh, wow, so that’s what’s going on over there. But actually understand that we are moving, I think it’s good from being American Christians, to Christians in America, and reframing understanding ourselves as a people who are not bound by culture, not bound by politics, but we’re something different altogether.

These people have been all throughout the landscape of church history. Now, I’m all for honest tellings of church history and going back. But it’s also good to find the areas where God has sustained the church in hard places.

I want to thank you guys for the opportunity just to hear your wisdom, not just to hear what’s going on on the ground, but to hear how you’re approaching it and to hear that, though the dynamics that led to where you are might be different, the result was the same, and the answer was the same.

Laura Haley: Thanks for listening to this conversation. To stay up to date on our latest interviews, subscribe on iTunes, Spotify or SoundCloud by searching Chalmers Center.

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Laura Haley

Laura Haley

Laura formerly served as the social media manager and designer at the Chalmers Center. She enjoys serving weekly at her local community kitchen and has a desire to see the church build relationships with disenfranchised people. Laura lives in Chattanooga, TN with her husband Tim.

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