Christians often conceive of vocation as a calling to a specific kind of religious profession. “I am called to the ministry.” At the same time, Christians also reference callings to particular places, especially far flung locales perfectly suited for display on Facebook and Instagram. This tendency towards photo op ministry has biblical precedence in the epic journeys of our founding saints. Abraham was called out of Ur. The Israelites out of Egypt. Jesus out of Nazareth. Paul out of Israel to the ends of the earth.
Thus, many white American Christians stock up on frequent flyer miles, jetting around the world in search of the next “Third World” ghetto they can spruce up with a fresh water well, a new church, and the light of the Gospel. With good intentions and unacknowledged privilege, a number of my friends have embarked upon World Races in which they departed upon “a journey to 11 countries in 11 months to serve ‘the least of these’ while amongst real and raw community.” Judging from the pictures that have filtered through my social media accounts, “the least of these” often function as exotic backdrops to the “real and raw community” of young, pretty-looking American Christians with iPhones full of selfies.
Truth be told, I am just as guilty. My junior year of college, I felt the Lord calling me to participate in a short-term mission trip to Guatemala. As an act of faith, I boarded a plane that spring break with twenty other students from my college. While there, we played with children in an orphanage, helped construct a new church (and I employ the verb “helped” with a very loose definition of the word), and hiked to a waterfall to go cliff diving. We also visited a landfill in order to participate in a local feeding ministry. With a few minutes to myself, I began to walk around the dump and happened upon a child sitting with her grandmother. I offered the girl a piece of candy and motioned that I wanted to take a picture with the woman.
The image haunts me to this day.
Steaming trash heaps in the background, the woman’s face and my own fill the foreground. Her skin is leathery and wrinkled, her eyes are world-weary; I am smiling a silly grin that betrays both my arrogant privilege and asinine cluelessness. When I returned home, I immediately posted the picture on Facebook.
I mention this story, because I am at the threshold of graduation from divinity school. For three years I have locked myself in Wingate Hall and the Z. Smith Reynolds Library and now ministry beckons me. And if I am really honest with myself, I must admit that the thought of a glamorous adventure—no matter how altruistic my intentions—still excites me. If I had my way, I’d pack my bags for New York City or Alaska, camera in hand to document my illustrious ambition and endless philanthropy before I move on to my next venture.
But there is something to be said for going home, returning to one’s beginning in an effort to root oneself in the community that first marked you. For me, that community is the American South. It has been a long time since I lived in the South (and I do not count my time at Wake Forest University, which strikes me as something of a bubble). Committing to the South requires me to confront the region’s history and sins, which are, in fact, my own sins. Ambition might drive me to bigger vistas and greater heights, but God calls me to a place that I so often find infuriatingly backwards and pompously religious. And yet these are my people and I am theirs.
This is the very nature of Jesus’ incarnation, that he eschewed that which one might glorify in favor of “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Yes, he descended from heaven, but he assumed one form, in one place, at one time. Thus Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “[I]f we want our very being to rise up into God’s being, nothing is more important than rooting ourselves in a place where God can happen. Yes, we’re on a journey. But not all movement is progress toward the Promised Land…The difference between progress and wandering seems to depend on whether we can trust God to deliver us from bondage in the place where we are.”
Incarnation. Rootedness. Community. Trust. These are the markers of Christian ministry. They are the vocation of those who seek to embody the love and grace of Jesus, who dispatched with omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence to embrace dialogue, solidarity, and particularity.
After graduation I will return to the South, remembering that according to the way of Jesus progress generally requires one to regress, that ambition and marketing are not spiritual disciplines, that Christians are called to follow Jesus humbly in their peculiar particularity. Of course, there may be times when Christians are called up and out. Indeed, perhaps I will be called up and out of the South one day. Ultimately, however, our call is to discrete nexuses of space and time in which we must make homes and communities, embracing the banal and finding in it the work of God.