I love Cleveland and Bradley County. That was not always the case. Going to Lee and returning to attend the Seminary for one year introduced me to aspects of the region that I greatly disliked. I did not like living in headquarters city for the Church of God, all the denominational negatives from around the world flow into this town like sewage to a septic tank. I was bothered by ongoing racial segregation; Blacks were seldom seen in the public arena. Most troubling for me was the socio-economic divide. Cleveland was clearly a prosperous industrial town with a high concentration of wealthy citizens, both old money and new money. But literally on the other side of the tracks was abject poverty. I had been in homes inside the city limits that had dirt floors and no functioning plumbing (no longer the case). The mindset of the old mill villages was still dominant. Everybody knew their place and stayed there.
When we returned to Cleveland in 1984 our hopes were that it would only be for a few years and then we would return to the “real” world. We asked ourselves almost daily when was God going to let us get out of Cleveland? We didn’t hate it here; we just were not comfortable here. We were stuck. Cheryl was teaching at the seminary when I resigned my position at Westmore in 1988. The State Overseer had committed to place me in a pastorate within an hour’s drive of Cleveland. He did not keep that promise and I was left without a place of ministry. A few months later God spoke to us that we were to start a church in Cleveland, the last place in the world I wanted to start a church. At the time there were more churches in Cleveland per capita than any other community in America.
We started New Covenant in January of 1989 as a Bible study group in our home. By July we were organized as a church with 28 charter members, if my memory serves me well. Within a year we were averaging around fifty but began a season of ups and downs. I was struggling with why we were not growing, especially why we were not reaching the native Clevelanders. Pleading with God for answers one day I asked “Lord, why are we not growing? What’s wrong? What do I need to do?”
He answered, “You have to love Cleveland.”
Without hesitation I responded, “Father, I love the people of Cleveland. That should be enough.”
“If you don’t love the place where they live, people will have a hard time believing you love them.”
“Oh. Then you’re going to have to help me.”
It was a word of wisdom, a lasting insight. Place is important. It was also a convicting word. I came out of that conversation with God aware that I had been arrogant, like some kind of spiritual carpetbagger. I began to pray and a love for Cleveland/Bradley County began to grow in my heart. From time to time I remind God I am willing to go anywhere he wants me go, but I am happy to stay in Cleveland. It is a wonderful place to live.
We have had opportunities to relocate. Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary offered Cheryl a faculty position and me an administrative position. The president of Asbury Theological Seminary called and asked us both to join the faculty there. Cheryl has been approached about a host of positions all across the country; I could always find a pastorate.
Yes, our community has problems, all of the things I observed earlier and more. But it is a good place, full of good people working to make it a better place and I am thankful to live here. Did I mention the near-by mountains, streams, and lakes?
February 19, 2010