Under the Stars and City Lights

The first time I drove myself to college at night, I was shoved off the interstate onto the wrong exit and got lost in downtown Dallas. As a somewhat inexperienced driver who had been downtown only once in fourth grade, to say I was terrified is an understatement of massive proportions.

The scene that greeted me only heightened my fear. The buildings were old and run-down, nothing like the glittering skyscrapers I had seen from the highway. It seemed like the lanes were two sizes too small and were always going the wrong way. And the nearby pedestrians… well, I could tell they weren’t exactly hitting up the Myerson Symphony Center anytime soon.

I pulled into a gas station and drew a deep breath (after making double-sure my car doors were locked). There were only a couple of other cars in the station, but the empty parking lot next door was practically paved with glittery glass shards. I could only imagine what had transpired over there—where those glass shards came from and how they got there—and I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable. My hands were shaking, not from the January chill as much as from fright, as I pulled out my phone to Google Map my way to campus.

I passed that parking lot on my way back to the interstate and didn’t think about it again.

About a year later, in the following December, I found myself burned out on the service project I had been doing for the last two and a half years. Despite the project being similar to what I had grown up doing (working with children), I never felt that invested, and I knew I was wasting valuable time (which is a whole other blog). I was growing miserable; I dreaded service every week, and I hated that such was the case. Service was supposed to be fulfilling and rife with opportunities to see God at work, not stressful.

Hearing about my struggle, a friend suggested I join him for his service project. He had been serving in a homeless ministry ever since I had known him, but I didn’t know much about it. I was curious, and I knew it would be safer if I went in a group, so I agreed.

We carpooled with some other DBU students and made our way to the city. I wasn’t driving this time, but I recognized the dark parts of town, and the nerves began to take over again. However, with my friend in the seat next to me and my pride to maintain, I forced my anxiety to stay in my head.

We parked in front of a bakery, and the whole group convened in an empty parking lot—one I recognized as the one I had seen on my little expedition back in January. Before I could fully process that realization, the leader of our group started explaining what was happening. This wasn’t just a ministry or some offshoot of a bigger church—it was a whole, independent church that met outside and served the streets of downtown Dallas. We, as volunteers, were to walk the streets and ask anyone we came across if they had any prayer requests or were interested in free Chik-Fil-A.

Every alarm bell I had went off. For twenty years, I was told to never speak to strangers and to avoid compromising situations of all types, and I was being asked to break both of those principles at the same time. And there were no children in sight to hide behind.

The friend I had come with, of course, was a nonplussed pro, only shooting me a quizzical look at my expression before someone started to pray.

Pray I did—and with my eyes open, too. (I know, so rebellious.) I had no idea what to expect as I trotted behind my group for the rest of the night.

One year after that fateful Wednesday night, I have been attending West End Church almost every week. I’ve been able to serve actively in ways I never was able to serve in my home church, and I’ve found fulfillment in a place I never thought I would. I have never feared for my own safety; instead, I have grown more comfortable with and more aware of my surroundings. And, most significantly, I have learned so much about how people relate to each other and to God.

I’ll be frank: I grew up in what most people would call a rich-kid town. Even though my family wasn’t particularly well-off compared to some of our neighbors, I was still raised with certain expectations for everyday life. Even though I knew these expectations were unrealistic for most of the world, it never really changed the way I thought or behaved. It took some time hanging out downtown twice a week with people who live such a different life from my own to really make that knowledge real and relatable.

Just driving through that scene wasn’t enough. I actually had to leave my comfort zone—get out of the car—and interact with the things that frightened me to discover what life in the city streets was really like. Most of the things I was scared of turned out to be much less scary when I obeyed God’s leading, and I’ve grown tremendously as a result. I’ve learned that the places that look the least God-like are the places where He wants to send us, to mold us and shape us all into kingdom-minded followers.

And you know what? I still don’t know what to expect each time I cross that parking lot and venture onto the streets. I’ve learned to face the unexpected with grace—or at least more grace than I had the first time I was down there. My comfort zone stretches just a little bit more every week, and even when the weather is cold or wet and I just want to go inside, I love it.

Written by Catherine

Image credit: Charles Guo, a member of the church. The friend who first invited me is mysteriously missing from this picture, but there are plenty of other friends here!

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