A girl in her mid-teens sprints past me on the sidewalk where I load a bed frame into a truck outside my house in Oakland, California. She isn’t out for a jog; she runs like her life depends on it. Before my confusion subsides, she is already half a block away.
Then a young man runs by me 20 yards behind her. My instinct says she is in trouble, but I remain frozen. The young man slowly gains ground, and at the end of the block, he tackles her to the pavement as if they are playing football, but this isn’t a game, and the glass strewn sidewalks of Oakland are not astroturf. She flies headlong onto the concrete and screams.
I call 911.
The guy shouts at her, picks her up off the ground, and holding tightly to her wrist, drags her down the street and around the corner.
Feeling displaced isn’t bad.
My wife Marjie and I moved to Oakland nearly eight years ago to join an intentional community and church in the inner city. Motivated by a call to relocate to forgotten urban neighborhoods, this was our faithful next step in a journey of displacement and of sacrificing our surroundings.
In college, we encountered God’s kingdom and experienced Jesus in new ways by participating in short term missions. For Marjie, this was on an Urban Project in Oakland. For me, it was through a Global Project to China. Upon our return we continued to displace ourselves on campus by co-leading a multiethnic Bible study that focused on justice and reconciliation. While challenging and sometimes uncomfortable, displacement allowed me to grow in my love and passion for God and his purposes in this world.
Jesus’ life was one displacement after another. He always seemed to be hanging out with the wrong crowd (tax collectors, prostitutes), leading his disciples through the wrong areas (Samaria, the Gentile side of Galilee), and even touching the wrong people (lepers, the sick). The very nature of his incarnation is a story of displacement. God became human and lived here on Earth so that he could save and redeem the broken world.
In the baptism of Jesus in Luke 3, we see a beautiful picture of God affirming Jesus’ displacement and sending him into the world to do ministry. The sky opened up, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my son, whom I love, and with you I am well pleased.” Jesus’ home was clearly with his father, and yet he obediently entered into our world in order to establish his kingdom here. And Jesus modeled this to his disciples by intentionally going to the places and interacting with people everyone least expected.
Refocus on God’s mission.
We did not move to Oakland to save this city. God pruned away our messiah complex a long time ago. We moved here because we saw God at work and wanted to be a part of it. We knew from experience that following Jesus into hard places was an opportunity to grow, learn, and see the kingdom of God manifest in the kingdom of this world. The heavens did not open up for us, nor did we hear an audible voice, but we did feel a sense of God’s affirming presence when we made the move.
Despite challenges, we continue to rely on the presence of the displaced Jesus. The terrible act of violence that played out right before me continues to haunt me. Distracted by life and parenting and work, I had grown comfortable. This picture, seared into my memory, has driven me to prayer and a renewed passion for joining the fight against the exploitation of girls in our neighborhood. It reminded me of why I am here and how desperate this world is for the kingdom of God to come.
As we take steps to practice sacrifice this Lent, InterVarsity and World Vision ACT:S challenge you to sacrifice what surrounds you. How have you grown comfortable in your surroundings? What distracts you from following Jesus’ example? This week, I invite you to consider what part of your life you might displace so that God may reveal to you more of who he is and his mission in this world.
Josh Harper is the National Coordinator of Urban Projects for InterVarsity. He loves to ride bikes, grow food, and play with his two girls Lucia (3) and Beatrice (1).