The past 5 months have been some of the most difficult months I have ever faced. Over two years ago, Kelli and I decided to leave our jobs, home, and friends in California and move back to Phoenix to be closer to family and to imagine a new type of ministry to those in Phoenix outside the current reach of the church. We excitedly bought a house in a great neighborhood in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix that was a 30-min drive away from the part of Phoenix we grew up in. We were attracted to Mesa for a number of reasons. It is a city that was in a deep struggle to discover it's identity yet it had over 450,000 people. It had messy parts including poverty, illegal immigrant neighborhoods, and deep need (all things that are hard to find in the affluence of the city we grew up in). We felt as if God was calling us to make a difference here, to establish a people that would take responsibility for the deep needs of Mesa.
We began our work almost exclusively by developing relationships with people in Mesa who were without a Christian faith. Kelli got heavily involved in a local mom's group and built relationships with other moms and their kids. I got a part-time job at Starbucks and attempted to work more at building relationships with customers and coworkers than at making coffee. I started a book club at our local bookstore to attempt to connect with others around the topics we would discover in good literature. I joined a softball team. I tried to do as much work as possible from a local independent coffee shops in hopes of dialogging with regulars, workers, and the owners. As a family, we cared as deeply as we knew how for our neighbors. The list goes on…we were completely committed to living our lives for the sake of others. And we fell in love with this new way of life.
As we had made the move back to AZ, we had asked some friends and family to consider financially supporting us and a local non-profit had volunteered to allow us to raise this support under their organizational banner. We were deeply grateful for the families that believed in us enough to share some of their resources with us. We were raising between $2000 and $2500 a month which met about half of our needs. For the other half of our needs, we had to be creative. Kelli was at home taking care of the kids and using her days to build relationships with the moms in her mom's group. My $9 an hour working at Starbucks gave us a bit of spending money every two-weeks but it was hardly enough. To fill the gap financially, we decided to use our own savings – money which we had made from the sale of our house in California. We felt strongly that as we asked others to financially share in our ministry, that we needed to be willing to do the same ourselves. And so that's what we did.
About 5 months into our move back to Phoenix, we decided to ask some of our new friends if they might be interested in joining us at our house every other week for dinner and then a discussion about Jesus. To our surprise, several couples were interested and joined us. During those early days, we had both some others of faith join us as well as some without faith join us. It was about half and half. This made for interesting and often exciting discussions as those with faith shared honestly what their faith looked like as those without faith shared their questions and their thoughts about this Jesus figure. Every other week we would have dinner together (something the early church seemed to be doing constantly), look at a passage of one of the gospels together, and then talk about it. The discussion was simple and the agenda was minimal. We focused on the basics of who Jesus was and what exactly his message was. These were beautiful times.
Throughout the next year, we became tighter and tighter as a community of friends. We began tackling some projects together. We sent a 95lb care package to a soldier in Iraq and we had a community garage sale to help pay for the rehab costs of one of our own dealing with addiction. These friendships became deep and Jesus was seen in both our interactions and our times together – even though many in the group didn't profess faith.
During this time, Kelli and I had also made some good friendships with other local people of faith who had found themselves no longer fitting in the churches they had grown up in. Each of these friendships seemed to have a community of friend of their own, and we discovered that their were 3-4 others groups around us interested in re-imagining church in new ways. In March of 2005, we decided to have our groups partner together to host a screening of an film about the global AIDS situation. We rented out a local movie theater, invited a few AIDS organizations to join us, and invited everyone we knew to come and watch the film with us. The event was a huge success and we had over 300 people come out to see the film. In December of last year, we took this partnership a step further and hosted an "Advent" service to together explore some of the ancient Christian traditions of the Christmas season. In these times together we felt as though God was calling us towards a partnership in which we would discover a common identity as a community of faith – a community of communities we called it.
In the early months of 2007, The Symbol Communities was born. The idea was that we would be a people pursuing common paths of Christ, community, compassion, and creativity and that we would do this in our small groups weekly and monthly in "Symbol Collectives" (creative worship gatherings). Months later we added another corporate time together called "Common Meals" in which we would share food and practice hospitality together. For 9 months we practiced these rhythms and more and more imagined a collective identity.
This past September, following months of talk amongst some of the leaders, we decided to take our existence and mission even more seriously. We sought to discover how we could make a real impact in our city, we met with leaders of local social service agencies, we even dreamt of opening our own community center in the heart of Mesa. But the more we talked, we discovered differences amongst us. We have different dreams both for our own futures and for Symbol. We imagined how we might finance things very differently. We imagined mission happening a bit differently. And at the end of the the month as we hosted our monthly "Collective", it became all too clear to me that our time exploring a common identity together had come to an end. After 9 months, some of the essences of what we had hoped would define us weren't becoming reality. We struggled to realize a common identity beyond the more comfortable identities of our small groups. We were at a threshhold, poised to jump off a cliff of no return as a community – one of committing ourselves long-term to the deep needs of Mesa. If we had jumped and failed, the consequences could have been disasterous for those we were serving. It was clear to me that we needed to slow down and listen to God for some time before we jumped.
So we cleared the Symbol calendar for the month of October continuing to meet only in our smaller contexts and attempted to listen to God's call for our collective future (if there was one). It was in this time that Kelli and I began to really feel as through we had somehow gotten a bit off track.
To add to the tansition and pressure we were feeling form The Symbol Communities, Kelli and I began to really struggle financially during the past summer. Our savings was running out. We simply weren't bringing in enough money each month. I had been trying for over a year to kick-off a web/graphic design company but I wasn't bringing in enough money. Then it really hit the fan when our 2-yr old, Kirra had two rounds of stitches in two weeks. We were hit with $1500 worth of hospital bills and we weren't even bringing in enough money to pay our bills each month. Kelli and I were at our end. We had given our lives and a large amount of our savings to attempt to bring faith to those outside of the church and we found ourselves two years later wanting back into the safe walls of a church job where at least we could pay our bills and take care of our family.
We had some soul searching and some wrestling with God to do.
For the past few months, that is exactly what we have been doing. As we've listened to God asking for him to re-mind us of his calling for our family, he's refocused around the original calling of reaching those outside of the current reach of the church. We feel deeply called to the city of Phoenix and want to influence the church here to imagine local mission to those outside of the church. We feel God is asking us to make a difference in Phoenix that 20years from now will be seen across the city. Though we realize more than ever that to do this we have to be able to make it last last and to sustain our efforts long-term. We can't live off of our savings forever and need to take care of oursleves in order to fulfill the call of God in Phoenix. We need to rely on others more for help – both financially and emotionally.
With the future in mind, we decided to get more serious about something we had considered for a while – joining a international missions agency to have access to the relationships, the coaching, the accountability, and the fund-raising support of a larger organism. CRM (Church Resource Ministries) is a missions organization that has a large US arm and is deeply committed to seeing the US as a mission field. About 6 months ago, they launched a new division that works to develop missional communities (small groups of Jesus-followers on mission together) in major US cities. Kelli and I felt that the calling we felt from God fit perfectly into the calling that CRM feels with this new division. So in September, we began the application process with to join their ranks.
Two weeks ago, we spent a weekend in Southern California catching up with old friends and meeting with CRM to see if there is a clear fit for us to a part of things. The meetings went well and CRM invited us to a part of their organization giving us some tools for life and mission that are vital to our future in Phoenix. Needless to say, we are absolutely thrilled to be a part of something so much bigger than us. We now have relationships and conectedness with others living and doing a similar style of ministry in 5 other US cities, CRM staff living and ministering to the poor around the world, as well as with missionaries who are all over the world. We have access to coaching, to help when we need it, to counselors when we need to talk, to accountability both of our finances and our work, and to things like health-insurance and other benefits that we didn't have access to on our own.
So we are now missionaries with CRM. Starting in '08, we will raise all of our support through CRM (and not The Communitas Collective). We will be in the next few months re-locating to downtown Phoenix to live amidst a demographic of people that fits better with our calling. Downtown will serve as a better location to create a missional community similar to what we've been doing in Mesa for the past two years as well as serve as a central location in which to have an effective ministry across the entire Phoenix-metro area.
There will be much, much more to come in the coming months as God further reveals to us what he has in store for our family and our ministry. We'll keep you posted.
Through this journey, we come to more and more appreciate and be in awe of those of you who believe in us, who support us financially, and who pray for us. It sounds cliche, but we couldn't fulfill this call of God without your help.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.