What brought you to Chicago?
I came to Chicago to go to school at the Moody Bible Institute, where I received a BA in Biblical Studies. Before I knew about MBI, which is a school that fund raises to cover all their undergraduate tuitions, my plan was to get a 4 year degree in Human Resource Management, then attend a seminary in preparation for ministry. Turns out, I'm terrible at business statistics and economics. So my acceptance letter to MBI was exceedingly good news!
Where are you from?
I grew up in Iowa. We lived in Wilton, a tiny town 15 minutes west of the Mississippi river, and spent a lot of time in neighboring Muscatine, a city of about 25,000. So lots of corn fields, farms, flat roads and white tailed deer.
What do you find challenging about living here?
One of the most difficult things about living in Chicago, especially considering my job as a pastor, is the cultural transience. People don't tend to stick around very long, so building family, long lasting friendships and relationships is hard. This city is full of colleges and excellent entry level job positions, which is why the average stay in the city is only 2 years! On top of that, once families start having kids, it becomes impressively complicated and expensive to stick around. The move to the suburbs for growing families is an understandably common pattern. This brings to light another related difficulty to living here: I grew up in the outdoors, open spaces, woods and backroads, where the only traffic jam is when you get stuck behind the harvesting combines. So constant traffic, being surrounded by thousands of people at any given moment, and the oppressive pace of the urban environment has been a major adjustment. While we love the energy and the beauty of Chicago, we've found that the only way we can be long-term residents is if we regularly escape the city. 3-4 days out of the city almost always leaves us ready to return and refreshed from the respite.
What are some of the reasons you love it?
I love living in Chicago because this city is beautiful, it is full of so many diverse incredible people, and everything is seemingly always at your fingertips. Culture, arts, food, experiences, industry, history, and all the luster of a world class urban center displayed in that unique Chicago way. This is a hard-working city. It is a culture-making city. It is also a city that, though broken and pining for healing, is constantly budding with flashes of renewal here and there. I sense in some people an obstinate, burdened optimism about Chicago's future, though usually expressed primarily as a vaguely hopeful longing. I love that there are people who want to make this incredible city better. More specifically, I LOVE the way spring and summer burst out of the oppressive Chicago winter. The lakefront thaws, people come out in droves, everything turns green, and life becomes so much more visible. Its like an annual reminder of the promise of resurrection. As a side note, if you drive down many Chicago residential streets, I think you'll see something you don't see in many other cities, and that is a lot of mature trees and beautiful greenery. Whoever has been in charge of the green space in this city over the years, clearly desired to maintain significant natural beauty throughout the metropolis. I love that!
Why do you stay?
I stay because I believe that a city like this (which influences the rest of the world in many ways) will only experience renewal, restoration and respite from brokenness when more and more people stay, devoting themselves to the mundane, long-suffering nature of GOD bringing HIS kingdom to earth. Called to participate in this grand vision the CREATOR insists on, I believe that every moment and every person matters along the way. Patience, persistence and availability over a long period of time can contribute in big ways...
That is what I feel called to as a pastor in Chicago. It may not be easy or glamorous, but the pressure is off! I'd have left long ago had I kept thinking this transformation was my job. l believe now I'm called to join, participate in and celebrate - not to generate - the renewal JESUS is up to. This is good news. There's also an honest answer to this question I have to include. That is that I don't know why I stay. The difficulties of a pro and con list are decisive. Many think our family is crazy to stick around, but we love Chicago and the people here.
How has community affected your time here?
Community has been the centering anchor for our time in Chicago. I came to go to MBI and "get outta dodge." But after experiencing this city for a few years, it grabbed me. The dream and vision of seeing the good news - that every man, woman and child is loved by GOD - permeate this city via dinner tables and relationships is profound, exciting, overwhelming and inspiring. Allison and I have sought to fill our home with people as a way of life, growing relationships, learning to be a reconciling kind of people. Hundreds of people have come through our home and we believe loving and hosting them in this way is one of the primary calls upon our lives. These communities, or families rather, have become so dear to us that we lean and rely on them in many ways. They hold us up, inspire us on and help us grow into who we are. I don't know how anyone can survive in a city like this without an intimate family to love, sustain, correct and help them... a people to know and laugh with and cry with. We cherish the people we're surrounded with. And it has been incredible to watch relationships begin and sustain as a result. Community has made our time in Chicago. It has made it sweet, doable and so fun.
Can you speak into the creativity found in the Chicago community (specifically in the circle of people you spend time with)? How does it inspire you?
I remember when I got plugged into music at Missio Dei I was blown away by the diversity and volume of musicianship here. It seems like amazing musicians are everywhere! Not to mention, artists of every variety, and in a concentration I never anticipated (coming from rural Iowa). I get together quarterly with worship leaders from all of our Missio Dei congregations to write music, and it is truly a thing of beauty to see anywhere from 10-15 people collaborate on creation. Fresh ideas, profound content and incredible experiences along the way make this one of my favorite things to do. Also, we put together a robust Good Friday liturgy every year as a church, and the last few years we've had a big team covering all the different aspects. Music, decoration, visual art, acting, reading, writing, lots of original work and lots of reimagined work. This makes the experience powerful, intimate, customized and personalized, a unique practice that helps shape our community and helps our community express herself. Other things I love in Chicago is the unexpected creativity you find around every corner it seems. You just can't predict what someone will come up with next, or what will catch on and have staying power. Companies like Chicago Music Exchange have wildly inspiring spaces and engaging in-person and online presence, restaurants by the thousands always bring something new to the table, and the list goes on and on. Sometimes new is just a fad and for its own good, but there is a genuine newness coming from many of the creatives I've interacted with. All of this inspires me to join in, to help how I'm made to... which is primarily to help facilitate collaboration, shine a light on what people do well, and to help guide, motivate and encourage the work.
When do you feel most empowered and comfortable in your own skin?
One thing I feel the most alive while doing is leading a band of musicians who haven't necessarily had a lot of experience creating a sound space. It is one thing to play an instrument well. It is entirely another thing to contribute to a singular sound made up of multiple instruments (to play in a band). Basically, I love training on the job, helping musicians learn how to be a band. When everyone starts to catch on and really jam, everyone feels the same thing and that opens the door to some really special creative opportunities. I also love helping people do this more broadly speaking. In other words, I love coaching, developing and empowering people to do what makes them feel most empowered and comfortable in their own skin. It is fun to encourage people in this way. More specifically, when it comes to building and leading communities of JESUS, big or small, I love being able to help people figure out what role they can and should play in that work. Lastly, there are few things more satisfying than spending a couple hours working on my guitar and pedal board sounds or studying one of my favorite theologian-pastor-authors. This is a big part of how I recharge.
Has living in the city affected your style and the way you approach your day-to-day look? If so, how?
Well, my style has definitely become less baggy, less print, less color than before... I've begun to prefer more basic non-print and dark colored t-shirts (save for my favorite gear branded t's), and of course, lots of denim pants. So dark blue or grey jeans (not skinny though...), my comfortable leather boots, a black or maroon t-shirt and a zip up hoodie or a simple button down. I also love Goorin Bros and almost always have one of their hats on, usually a duckbill. Or I'm wearing a bears or cubs hat. I've also always had a special affinity to flannel, growing up in Iowa will do that. Seems to be widely accepted here in Chicago and I can wear it when I'm chopping wood for my dad back home.
If you're up for it, would you share a specific story about an encounter you've had in Chicago that has moved you/stayed with you?
I'll never forget when I began to re-realize the power of story. As a pastor, my job is to help lead, disciple, equip, care for and love people in the way of JESUS. But being surrounded by the metrics of Western society, this can easily feel like the insurmountable task of changing people and the city by convincing them to be, think and act differently with systems and proven methods. However, being correct and offering good advice ends up only going so far... not very far at all, in fact. A few years ago I was sitting at a coffee shop listening to a brother who was filing me in on his last month, his discouragement, his shame, unfulfilled expectations and simple over-busyness. I could tell he was feeling distraught and spent. Part way through his story, I began to feel the pressure to have some good answers and inspiring thoughts to share. But I quickly realized those would probably just make him feel worse and that right now he simply needed my ears and solidarity. So I continued to listen and draw more story out. Then, when he was finished, instead of axioms and imperatives, I decided to share my own recent experiences and story that had some remarkable resemblances to his. In that moment, we both felt a massive sense of relief as we embodied what it means to carry one another's burdens, to be honestly known and willing to be helped and supported. I think that experience was more transforming for both of us than a book recommendation, a scripture prescription, or a spiritual pep talk. In this way, we opted to abide in the presence of GOD together, welcoming HIS love in wonder, accepting HIS unconditional acceptance of us. It was a moment where story produced freedom, rest and refreshment. For me, this experience has shaped every interaction since. It is too messy to be a system, too unpredictable to be a method, but I think its exactly what it looks like to love GOD by loving neighbor. I think this practice will better bring about the change in Chicago that we all hope and long for. Story is the road to reconciliation and every person matters more than their contributions and failures.