What made you decide to start The House Tuscaloosa? What made you decide to walk away from traditional church ministry? Why would you leave a stable source of income? How in the world did you end up here? These are just some of the questions I’ve heard recently. The simple answer is, “God told me to do it.” But I fumble to find the words to explain the complicated answer. This is my attempt to get that answer down in a somewhat organized form. Those of you who know me well know that I run from the spotlight, so I pray and trust that this narrative will point you to God. Because without my faith in Him, this story would have a very different trajectory.
I have to go back to November 2016, when a female pastor acquaintance invited me to a lunch to learn about a new cohort of diverse pastors forming in Tuscaloosa. I almost did not go to the lunch, and I thought long and hard about joining the group, because it would take me far out of my comfort zone. But I answered yes. Through the group I met other pastors from different theological, racial and ministry backgrounds. I discovered the hidden gem in Tuscaloosa called Stillman College and its phenomenal Choir. I began reading authors I had never heard of before. I traveled to Israel with the cohort of pastors in the summer of 2018 and encountered the Lord in new ways. I was exposed to new concepts that gave me language for previously unarticulated thoughts and feelings.
Have I been I too comfortable? What is really the definition of church? Am I too busy to love people? Am I too busy to love God?What does it mean to be called a pastor? Should the church reflect or resist culture? Are our churches too beautiful for people to feel comfortable? Am I too scared of what some people think to stand up for people who have been forgotten? Is it possible to build relationships without being consistently present? Why do gender and race give some people such an extreme advantage, and why are they blind to that? Do I love God more than the ministry I lead?
My husband, Andrew, has dreamed for years about opening a used bookstore. In February 2019, I overheard a conversation about him looking for property to do just that. He said he had not told me because he didn’t want me to “freak out,” but he had been thinking it could also serve as a place where I could do ministry. We began talking, and I told him and the friend he had originally been talking to, “This could be a God moment.” But there was too much going on for me to think about it.
My “not thinking about it” turned into pages of ideas in my journal: bookstore, meeting / worship room with tables and couches, counseling / prayer room, grief support, free coffee, music lessons. What does the community need? Not duplicating and competing with churches already in area. Hire the “unhireable,” a place for people to complete community service, free wifi, life skills, weekend workshops, tutoring / literacy. When I looked up the definition of literacy, I realized that every program or ministry or whatever you call it that we could offer falls under that broader definition: competence or knowledge in a specific area. These thoughts came together around this big idea – we can create a literacy center and a used bookstore.
I knew the building needed to be an actual old house. Houses are comfortable places to extend hospitality and where relationships can develop. There are multiple Scriptures that talk about the House of the Lord. Some revivals began in people’s houses. Those were people who had been rejected by the traditional church but didn’t let that stop them from pursuing God’s call on their lives: Pentecost, Susanna Wesley’s Sunday afternoon services, Phoebe Palmer’s Tuesday meetings, and the Azusa Street Revival led by William Seymour.I knew the house needed to be in The West End community close to Stillman College where we could develop long-term relationships and partnerships with the students and people in the community, a place that is forgotten by many on the other side of the river.
Andrew and I discussed it with Amber (my ministry partner) in March, confirming that God might be leading us to start a non-profit, but deciding that the time was not right. God had not released me from the church where I was serving, Andrew needed to finish his doctorate, and Amber needed to finish her ordination classes. The bulk of work to get something like that off the ground would fall to me, and I was going to be too busy working and taking care of the kids. We agreed to revisit the idea one year later.
Two weeks later, I clearly heard God say, “It’s time!” Honestly, He had been trying to tell me that for a while. God had even given us a dream for the future. But I am a planner. I want to think out every step of everything that happens, what needs to happen, and what could happen, and then double check it all before it happens. I don’t like not knowing details and taking risks. I tried to resist the Lord and hang on and stay in control, but He said, “It’s time! I’m God. I’m in control. You’re not. You don’t need to know everything that’s going to happen. You need to trust that I do.” So I answered yes.
Only six months later, we have an official non-profit organization. We have a house on the campus of Stillman College (that’s a story for another day). We have a logo. We have a website. We have books. We have volunteers. We have donors. We have t-shirts. I have more faith.
None of the times I’ve answered yes on this journey have been beautiful moments. I’ve said yes kicking, screaming, crying and digging my heels into the ground. Sometimes my Yes has sounded more like, “I guess so” or even, “Whatever.” But those small acts of obedience seem to be enough for God. It’s still painful at moments. Some days I question what we’re doing, and I expect there will be more hard days to come. I don’t have a clear picture for the future, but for the past four months I’ve been saying yes to each day as it comes. And wherever God leads and whatever God asks, I intend to keep answering yes.