THE MISSING MASTERPIECE

People were laying in the street, no one could drive through. Milwaukee Avenue is a main thoroughfare cutting diagonally through my neighborhood on the west side of Chicago (please remember I just called my neighborhood "the west side"). And it was on Milwaukee that dozens of people blocked traffic with a message painted on a large canvas sign stretching from one end of the street to the other: "El Barrio No Se Vende". I don't think you need a single session of my seven-year-Spanish education to understand the message: "The Neighborhood Is Not for Sale". (For the record and to my shame, I'm not even close to fluent nor even appropriately conversational in Spanish.) And I don't think I need to further describe the tension this created when I tell you that due to the hundreds of cyclists who make their way downtown on Milwaukee everyday, this avenue is known as "hipster highway" to locals.

The Logan Square neighborhood sits about three miles northwest of Chicago's city center. It's a community in transition. In recent history Logan Square has been home to predominately Mexican and Puerto Rican families. However over the past fifteen years in particular ... well ... let's just say many more people who look, think, live, and act like me have moved in--and just so we're clear I'm white (please see "The Great White Assumption"). That's right. Logan Square is in the throws of a powerful sweep of gentrification. Now hearing me say all this you may assume I understand gentrification. I don't. In fact, I may only understand that I don't understand. I mean, I even thought Logan Square was on west side of Chicago. 

 

THE REAL WEST SIDE

A few weeks ago I was standing on a roof in the Hermosa neighborhood. I was standing on top of a building under significant renovation. More precisely I was standing on top of a dream being realized. A local pastor, I'll call him Simon, and his congregation purchased the building a decade ago with the vision of architecting a thriving multi-use facility that would house missionaries, student gatherings, city-wide events, church services, offices, and much more. And as we stood scanning the city--east, west, north, and south--Simon told me he hoped they were three months from opening their doors. By the way, Hermosa is six miles northwest of Chicago's city center.

Simon loves Chicago. Nearly everyday he wears a Cubs hat which obviously predates any recent hint of October baseball. He spoke with tremendous pride about his great grandparents moving into the Lincoln Park neighborhood nearly sixty years ago (Lincoln Park is just north of downtown and today is one of the most affluent in the city). However his pride turned to angst as he retold the story of his grandparents and parents being taken advantage of through real estate development. In one instance they were nearly forced to sell their home for around $30,000 and months later the property was turned over for hundreds of thousands. With each wave of change and gentrification his family continued to move west. Which is what brought him to where we stood in Hermosa ... the west side of Chicago.

Hearing his family's story I felt compromised. Not because I was white. Not because he villainized anyone. But because I called Logan Square "the west side". So I asked him, "Simon, I call Logan Square part of the west side of Chicago, is that right? What does that communicate when I say that?" Simon graciously smiled, shook his Cubs hat slightly from side to side. He said, "Logan is more closely associated with the center of the city than the west side. And without knowing it you may inadvertently leave out and not think about communities further west than you when you do that. That definition and vision leaves people out." In other words calling a neighborhood three miles from city center "the west side" could communicate I think there's nothing of value further west. It's as if I'm saying Logan Square is on the edge of the city.

My eyes opened wide. I couldn't believe it. After all, I wanted to reach "everyone". I wanted to work to see all the diversity of the city's west side expressed in our church gatherings. But I had failed to even appropriate define terms and the boundaries of who and what make up the west side. This omission and subsequent realization got me thinking. Left to myself I miss a lot. Left to our own ethnicity, denomination, and cul-da-sac of culture ... we miss a lot. It was only in rich, diverse community and friendship and conversation something missing was discovered. And so ... if left to myself I don't even understand the nature and appropriate terms for the neighborhood I've called home for three years, why is it that I think I can understand the eternal implications and nuances of the gospel outside of a vibrant and diverse community? Why do you?

 

THE MISSING MASTERPIECE

Paul had mostly Gentile Christians in mind when he wrote the letter we now know as Ephesians. In other words he was writing to people who were originally not part of "the people of God" (namely Jews) but now through Christ had been fully and supernaturally welcomed in to God's forever family. 

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:1-9)

Paul puts grace on repeat. But not before anchoring all of grace in the former deadness of each one of his Gentile Christian readers. And dead means dead. He wanted to make sure they understood they were bound up in a pattern of problems, a course of chaos, and a fleeting flow of foolishness. All of which found them under God's righteous wrath. Once this theological foundation is established Paul comes in with the announcement of God's unmerited mercy informed by his love--not because his readers loved God, but because God loved them. Not because we somehow loved God in our deadness (as if that is possible), but rather because God loved us in our deadness. That's mercy. That's grace. And that's a revolutionary remedy to the issue of the dead human soul.

Grace wakes people up.

Grace causes dead people to rise.

Grace is worthy of repetition. 

Growing up in the church I've heard this message of grace countless times. And for that I am eternally grateful. However most preaching of this first movement in Ephesians 2, stops there. It leaves out verse 10 (practically if not actually). But listen to what Paul writes after all that salvation by grace alone business, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good workswhich God prepared beforehandthat we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). Verse 10 is the consummation of vv. 1-9. And in failing to appropriately or perhaps fully expound this text with the preceding nine verses we have missed a lot. I have missed a lot.

 

DOCTRINE AND DELIGHT

We miss at least two things. Firstly we overlook the action-oriented nature of grace. Notice Paul says, we were created for good works, not just good doctrine. As recepients of grace we should be naturally compelled to grace-filled work. As one writer puts it, these good works cannot be the grounds for our salvation, but rather they are the goal of our salvation. Secondly, we miss a beautiful word ... "workmanship". From this term we get the English word "poem" or "poetry". Since they have been saved by grace for good works these followers of Jesus are woven together like divine poetry--a poem that announces the glory of her author. Once again knowing Paul's particular audience is vital to understanding this passage's deepest meaning. He is writing to a group of people--every other race but Jewish--about being woven into the fabric of family. Therefore this masterpiece is necessarily multiethnic. 

So what does this all mean? Well what I'd like to suggest is that historically many white theologians and preachers (including myself) have focused primarily on vv.1-9 and therefore been instrumental in developing a robust doctrine of salvation by grace alone--think John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and John Piper. On the other hand many non-white, non-majority culture theologians and preachers (which doesn't include me) have found brilliance in v.10 and developed a robust gospel activism and delight in the multiplicity of God's people--think Cleophus J. LaRue, Jarvis Williams, and Dr. John Perkins. In other words within mostly white Christian streams we are so careful to get doctrine precise we have missed the delight of diverse community and holistic kingdom renewal. 

Which begs the question, what of our doctrine is incomplete if it has not been studied, affirmed, informed, and enjoyed within the multiethnic family of God? What of this masterpiece are we missing? 

These hermeneutic habits come from a particular history. Throughout the history of the white evangelical church we have faced tensions and disunity over theological issues which have caused many white theologians and churches to regularly reaffirm what we think and believe. Conversely many non-majority culture thinkers and churches and leaders have faced social injustices which created pressing need to fight for the fullest acknowledgement and rights of human dignity and equality. Now I'm not suggesting some Christian traditions think about the Bible and others live it out. Rather I am saying we have not struggled together in both gospel doctrine and gospel activism. Therefore the fullest expression of God's multiethnic people as a masterpiece alludes us. And that's exactly what Pastor Simon helped me to see. 

 

THE WHOLE GOSPEL IS A WHOLE LOT MORE

A friend once asked me if I believed the poor had something to teach my church about the gospel. Similarly he asked me if I thought Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and African-Americans understood something about the gospel I failed to see on my own as a white millennial male. One could ask the same question about women. You see, my friend and I come from very different Christian cultures and traditions, but we are brothers. Nevertheless I hesitated answering his question even though I knew I couldn't say "no" ... I wanted to know what he was getting at. After all, as a product of thinking and doctrine I was fearful to suggest the Bible couldn't be rightly handled or understood on its own. So I just asked more questions. (I do that a lot when I'm nervous.) And it wasn't until I walked down from the roof top with Simon that I understood what my friend was trying to show me. 

Simon asked me about partnership. He wondered what partnering together would look like for the sake of a greater impact on the west side of the city. I silently wondered if partnership would require me and my family to move to "the real west side". But I quickly noticed a hesitation and a slight grin emerge as he waited for me to answer. I said, "what are you thinking?" He told me he knew my church desired to become more multiethic and embrace the beauty of all who lived in our city. But he also said we had differences in our theology. Then he said, "historically white churches don't want to partner with other churches or organizations that don't have the exact same theology as they do." I agreed that made me nervous. He went on to explain and I listened. Majority culture churches tend to consider theology first and mission or action second when it comes to partnership and cooperation. Non-majority culture churches on the other hand often consider mission first and theology second. It's not about importance, it's about order. As I instinctively devised a robust doctrinally-charged response to his statement the irony set in. I laughed just enough so he could hear me. He smiled. 

Reflecting on this experience I wonder ... what if we actually believed we couldn't see and enjoy the wholeness of the good news without community ... diverse, multiethnic, multi-class community? What if we began to see we can't even comprehend the fullness of Ephesians 2:1-10 without brothers and sisters from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities helping us to discover what we cannot on our own? What if I admitted the west side is much further west than I originally thought? 

 

BEAUTY AND TRUTH

Perhaps the most impactful things Simon shared with me was about the bigger picture of gentrification in Chicago. After he recounted the movement of his own family progressively from Lincoln Park to Hermosa he said his family was by far not the only family. And then he said, "this is actually by design. The powers that be know white people won't live next to black people and so they use Latinos as the bulldozers of African American communities, pushing them further to the outskirts of the city to prepare the way for white gentrification."

Now, my dear white readers, before you react defensively to such a claim, let me appeal to Ephesians 2 again. Isn't there a course of this world and though you may have been saved by grace, were you not also one who was following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience? Do you see? Gentrification is not a myth. Nor is it an issue for some people, in some neighborhoods, or just "ethic churches". Paul makes it clear, this dark pattern of the world is a gospel issue before it is anything else; a gospel issue which Jesus triumphed over on the cross and now through his Church.

Perhaps standing in such a gap for the least of these and the most vulnerable is part of the beautiful "good work" God would have us weave together in this world stanza by stanza. It is the beauty and truth of Jesus and his gospel that marks and makes us the masterpiece of God. Now it may not cause us to lay down in streets, but it sure enough should cause us to lay down our rights and our very lives. For me, that took deeper root in Chicago's real west side. After all, Hermosa in English means "beautiful". 

Jason Helveston