Mission Boston: reflections on evil and grace

Published originally on CGCS.SEBTS.EDU here

Student Essay by Boe Ellis

The steam rose through metal grates in the ground at the base of each column. The mist reached about waist high and merged with the damp, steady drizzle outside and with the welling up of disbelief in my own eyes. My Christian, church planting mission trip to Boston had been frozen in time; interrupted by history and the breath of six million people murdered in concentration camps during The Shoah. The Holocaust.

This was definitely not on the itinerary, at least my itinerary. I was in downtown Boston on my way to the subway station and eventually back to our hotel in Medford when I ran across Congress Street to get some pictures of The New England Holocaust Memorial, with its six, 50-foot high glass columns and more than a dozen sobering quotes etched into glass panes inside the columns. As if Boston couldn’t provide its own backdrop for the lostness we were hoping to encounter, and here the Lord sends me a flashback from evils past. It framed vividly for me the way our fallen world reveals itself occasionally in horror, but most often in everyday idolatry.

And nowhere is this more obvious than in the great cities, the epicenters of the American Dream, and the mission field that week for our Southeastern North American Church Planting team of 16 students, one professor and three media guys. We arrived October 2, 2010 to serve with church planters who have already planted themselves in an area that is just two percent evangelical, and where the largest unevangelized peoples are the white Americans. Welcome to the Northeast. And welcome to Tanner Turley’s new world. He and his team from Southeastern/Open Door Baptist were the first on our agenda.

Turley’s upstart Redemption Hill Church landed in Boston just a few months prior as three families and a single woman who were willing to plant their lives in Boston. They chose Medford, just five minutes north of downtown, and an area with a diverse cross section of people. From multi-generational neighborhoods in the east to college kids in the west, this was the right fit according to Turley, who briefed us Saturday night and served as our guide for the next few days.

We worshipped together Sunday at Hope Fellowship Church in Cambridge and headed out after lunch to the nearby Tufts University. This is the target area for Turley’s team and it provided our first assignment. We would prayer-walk the pristine grounds and seek the Lord’s help. In smaller groups we covered the campus in an hour. It is solemn work and completely necessary work if Turley’s team is to have any success penetrating the closed campus where only one Christian organization has been allowed access.

Everything in Boston, on its face, can seem closed to evangelicals. Plurality and universalism are the norm, but with steadfast prayer and a willingness to dig in, we saw the Lord’s response. Turley’s team member Abby Cook had made inroads into Tufts. In fact, the next night we would assist Turley and Cook with their very first outreach on campus, a pizza party hosted by Redemption Hill.

We saw more evidence of God’s work Sunday night in Allston where we visited another SEBTS graduate, Jan Vezikov. He recently planted a church there with both Russian-speaking and English-speaking congregations. We were absolutely moved as the Gospel echoed in the Russian tongue in this historic building in Boston.

We would return later in the week to Jan’s church and pass out granola bars and 1,000 invite cards in the bustling Commonwealth / Harvard Street area. And later that night, we enjoyed the cookout Jan does every Friday night as he passes out hot dogs and hamburgers to the neighborhood passers-by.

Our pace never slowed during the week as we deployed from our home base, the Hyatt Medford Place. And, as is the case with any mission trip, we used the hotel and surrounding coffee shops and restaurants to be on purpose about engaging the people there. This is how we learn an area as we see the humanness of the people who call it home. We would spend a week with them, sharing our own lives and testimonies and sharing the Gospel.

You wrap those one-to-one conversations into some formal activities and all of the sudden, you are on mission. And I thought, usually at the end of each day, if only I could live every day like this. Such is the challenge. And such was my reason for going on the trip. It is the only way I could know what to compare my everyday life to.

To recap some of our activities briefly:

  • We met with Joe Souza, a big, boisterous Brazilian-American and the new NAMB church planting strategist for the Boston area. He is God’s called leader for the area as his heart for Boston is as big as his appetite for Brazilian fare.
  • We met with Dan BK (short for his real surname which no one can pronounce). He is a Nepalese native and Southern Seminary graduate who has now planted four Nepalese churches in Greater Boston.
  • And maybe the highlight of the trip, at least for me, we had a luncheon, a kind of summit, held in a private, basement-level meeting room in a small Italian restaurant near Medford. More than a dozen church planters and church planting strategists from all over New England came to break bread and share their war stories with the students from North Carolina. Their passion and sincerity was infectious. Their unashamed intention was to lure some of us back to New England. I think it worked. Time will tell.
  • We prayer-walked and engaged the whole city of Medford as teams covered sections of town and brought information back to Turley’s team. We did the same thing for planters who have not yet landed but are soon coming to the South End, Charlestown and Revere.
  • We passed out more granolas, water and invite cards for Redemption Hill at the Medford T-Station and at bus stops.

Before I knew it, the week was over and it was time to head back to Wake Forest, but not before reflecting on my encounter with the Holocaust Memorial.

I was standing Friday afternoon on a busy sidewalk on a street corner near Harvard Square praying with a man I had met just five minutes earlier. He said he was an alcoholic and that he had sat recently at the foot of his bed, drunk, with a gun to his head. We got to “Amen,” and he looked at the invite card I had handed him earlier. He looked at his phone and began dialing. “Pastor Jan, yes, my name is Ricky. I just got one of these cards from this guy on the street. He was praying for me. I want to know more about God.”

I stood there and I remembered one of the quotes on the glass at the Memorial site. It read:

“Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present it to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is a raspberry and you give it to your friend.”

I stood, with the world in slow motion, as Ricky talked on the phone with Pastor Jan, and I praised God for my Savior, who gave not a raspberry, but everything He had, his life, for me, his friend. I hope soon Ricky, living like me in this fallen and often evil world, will do the same.