Building hope in Memphis, Tennessee
When Jordan walked into Hope Church for a young adult event, her first thought was, “I don’t belong here.”
So she kept a wide smile plastered to her face and tried to get through the night.
No one could see what was going on inside Jordan, a young African-American woman and talented athlete who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. No one guessed her history of substance abuse, sexual trauma, and depression. No one knew that she had lost a child. But Jordan knew, and she was certain that all this made her different from all the “nice church people” who smiled her way.
On the way into worship, there were two people sitting at a table, a white man and a white woman, also smiling. Something inside Jordan prompted her to stop. They introduced themselves, asked her a few questions, and told her about Hope’s campus ministry. It was a short conversation, but there was something in the way they interacted with her, something in what they said, that Jordan couldn’t get out of her mind afterwards.
The next Wednesday night there was a Bible study on campus, and yes, Jordan was in attendance.
While every story is unique, there is something in Jordan’s story that is interwoven into the DNA of Hope Church’s campus ministry, a ministry led by CCO staff Heather and Ivan Strong Moore. This common thread is a common message, a message that Heather and Ivan aim to convey to each and every student they meet:
You belong. Whoever you are. Wherever you come from. Whatever you’ve done and whatever has been done to you.
You belong. You are welcome here.
It is a message and ministry shared by Heather and Ivan’s church partner, Hope Church, and a commonality that drew Heather and Ivan to Memphis, Tennessee to reach out to students at the University of Memphis and Southwest Tennessee Community College. In 2016, Hope’s senior pastor, the Reverend Rufus Smith, spoke at the CCO’s Jubilee conference and was impressed by the racial diversity of the crowd. He resonated with the conference’s emphasis on integrating faith into every area of life. So he returned to Memphis and urged Hope Church to partner with the CCO.
Hope Church is known for its efforts to welcome all people, even those who may not have much in common. In Memphis, the fourth most racially segregated city in America, this work of hospitality has led Hope Church into the work of cross-cultural ministry.
In “How the Country’s Largest White Presbyterian Church Became Multiethnic,” Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra tells the story of Hope Church’s transformation, including a key decision initiated by the church’s founding pastor, Craig Strickland. In 2010, the city of Memphis was nearly 60% African-American, but at Hope Church, less than 1% of the 7,000 weekly attendees were black. The church was struggling to welcome all of its neighbors.
So when Reverend Strickland discussed his succession plan with church leadership, he proposed that his successor be African American. The church hired Rufus Smith to serve alongside Strickland in 2011, and two and a half years later, Reverend Smith became the new senior pastor.
When Jordan attended her first event in 2017, Hope Church had just reached the tipping point of multiethnicity—about 20% of church members and staff were people of color.
“Most churches would say that they’re into racial reconciliation, but Hope is taking really practical steps,” Heather and Ivan explain. “It’s possible for our diverse group of students to feel welcome, and we don’t take this for granted.”
Of course, just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Compounding the racial segregation, a disproportionate number of Memphis’ African-American residents live in extreme poverty.
“Our black students are aware of racism all the time,” Heather says. “But they don’t have a place to talk about it. They need a place to lament and people who are willing to stick with hard conversations.”
Last spring, Memphis commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the sanitation workers’ strike, a protest connected to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Hope campus ministry students traced the protest marches with a prayer walk, worshipped at a commemoration service led by a diverse group of pastors, and visited an art exhibit showcasing photographs of the striking workers.
Heather and Ivan knew that it was important for the students—black and white—to attend these events together.
“It is important for them to experience things and see the feelings that come up through others’ eyes.”
After the art exhibit, the group debriefed, and Heather noticed that Jordan seemed especially moved.
Heather, Ivan, and Jordan knew each other well by this point. In addition to the Wednesday night Bible studies, they drove her to church every week, and she visited their house frequently. Heather asked her what she was thinking.
“I was thinking about you and Ivan, how different you are than me,” Jordan said. “You don’t look like me and, on paper, you have no obligation to me. But I think I need you in my life.”
Heather and Ivan were deeply moved by these words because they know that they also need Jordan. And they know that God is building something in Memphis where people with different life experiences can be a blessing to one another, can come to need one another in ways none of them anticipated.