Reflecting on the SOS Memphis Reunion

What influence has SOS had on your life? Reflections from the SOS Reunion

Bilbo opened the door to a rather unexpected journey. Lucy happened upon another world hidden behind winter coats in a dusty wardrobe. Like a portal into another dimension, SOS, too, transported me into another realm nearly 17 years ago.

As I walked through the doors of a home repair camp in Memphis, Tennessee, little did I know I had stumbled upon a different world right in the heart of the city in a neighborhood called Binghampton. I discovered there a counterformative ecosystem in which the prevailing scripts of my American social imaginary were exposed and exchanged for a narrative shot through with the wonder and peculiarity of the kingdom of God.

In short, SOS ruined my life.

Okay, to be fair, SOS was not the sole harbinger of The Great Ruining; that drama unfolded with a cast of characters including Illini Life Christian Fellowship at the University of Illinois and Colorado LT at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, CO. But the theater in which much of the unfolding drama took place was no doubt there at a place called Service Over Self. SOS and the people I came to know as a result of SOS pulled back the curtain on a different way to live—and that alternative existence could not be ignored.

In 2005, as a college senior, I sat in a 15-passenger van rolling south down I-57 from the cornfields of central Illinois to that iconic Bluff City nestled along the banks of the mighty Mississippi. I had no idea what threshold I was about to cross, not just across America’s grandest river, but from the quaint terrain of my white, conservative, middle-class, university existence and into a city with a history and a culture as thick and visceral as the humidity which clings to the atmosphere.

In that land of the Kings—a city where rock ‘n roll, blues, and barbeque sprouted up and shaped the culture of an entire nation; where the barrel of a gun stared down America’s prophet whose only weapons were words and brotherly love; where great beauty and tragedy reside uncomfortably adjacent; where the seeds of class inequity have sown a harvest of tremendous philanthropy and gut-wrenching poverty; and, where the stench of America’s original sins still rise up from the floorboards—I encountered a people and a way of life that was simply impossible to shake off. As if cupid’s arrow pierced my heart, I was lovestruck over this strange attraction I found at Service Over Self.

Warmer, safer, and drier—an inauspicious goal; to offer home repair as a tangible sign of the kingdom to those whose bank accounts were hungry. But those three words “warmer, safer, drier”, as simple as they may sound, usher in a measure of sanity and comfort that any of us would want for our own homes.

SOS doesn’t just toss out charity roofs as if they were a handful of candy on the 4th of July; rather, SOS seeks to embody a generous justice that both upholds the extravagance of God’s free grace in Christ while also respecting the dignity of each homeowner who has the capacity to be a full partner and activator in the gift. SOS home repair camps are not merely platforms to speak the good news of Jesus, but the acts of service are an integral part of the holistic gospel of the kingdom which Jesus came to pronounce and demonstrate.

Jesus came preaching and healing; he called for repentance; he blessed the poor; he upended the dominant narratives of the religious and political elite while taking children up on his knee; he responded to faith whether he saw it in a social outcast or a civic leader; he got a reputation for being gluttonous as he dined with misfits; and he cooked breakfast for those who rejected him.

A great heresy that has reared its ugly head for centuries says that the body is rubbish but the soul is valuable, that material things are bad but spiritual things are good. That gnostic error is one that SOS has faithfully pushed against as they embody the hands of Jesus, swinging a nine-pound hammer in the midst of the muggy midafternoon heat of a Memphis summer. Jesus Christ came to reconcile all things to the glory of God–even a house in need of a new roof.

While learning the trade of constructionprimarily in tearing off an old roof and installing a new one—I also came to know the names, faces, and stories of Memphians who are my neighbors, people previously hidden to me, now standing in front of me whose stories I couldn’t ignore. I sat in couches and at kitchen tables among portrait-covered walls and smelled the glad tidings of southern home cookin’. I met Americans living in “poverty”, though I often realized that it was their faith in Jesus that made them truly rich and exposed much of my own poverty! I didn’t walk away “just feeling grateful” for all that I had back home in my own kingdom of comfort; no, I left having faced a reckoning with the economic injustice that stains our country, and the extent to which I am complicit in upholding the scaffolding of its sustaining.

So, as I replay that famous end-of-camp-week question many years later—how has SOS changed my life? —I see that God has set the alarm clock once again, awakening me to his vision that justice would roll down like the mighty waters. We are not called to pass our days until the sweet by and by, but to take our stand against evil and injustice wherever we see it, to tend the flame of Christ’s light, and to shine with acts of mercy and justice.

How has SOS changed my life? At SOS I also met people with all the “potential” that the American dream could muster—people who took the downwardly mobile turn upon the highway of the Messiah from Nazareth, a maneuver that plopped these curious souls down as intentional neighbors in “nothing-good-comes-from-there” neighborhoods tossed into the trashbin of Memphis. Neighborhoods previously dismissed by elite Memphians’ collective shoulder shrug were stuck in cycles of poverty. Faith, determination, familial love, culinary know-how, and an irreplaceable body of knowledge of America’s slave and race history lived in their bones and in their homes, but the vital signs of these neglected pockets of Memphis were low; much of the lifeblood which generates and sustains flourishing in a local place had been drained for far too long. It's a complex story, and I as a college student then and a grown man today did not and do not pretend to know all the warp and woof of the city’s checkered tapestry. But there, I met individuals and families who counted the cost and considered the occasional stray bullet to be worth the risk. It wasn’t for worldly prestige, pleasure, power, or the promise of possessions. It was for the sake of obedience in the way of Jesus who taught and showed that it is better to give than to receive, that life comes from death, that love for neighbors and for enemies prevails.

At SOS, I met a man with a friendly smile and a towering frame whose immense hands were only outsized by the generous, selfless spirit within, a man endearingly called “Big Dog”, who extravagantly scatters the grace of God upon forgotten, wandering, hurting souls on the streets of Memphis. Himself a former local basketball superstar turned street-dwelling, hustling junkie of twenty-three years, was pulled from the wreckage by the prodigal God who takes delight in those far from home. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and Marlon Brown is an unashamed card-carrying member of the Memphis lost-and-found. With the weapons of the selfless Jesus way—be it a chainsaw for a widow’s fallen tree branch, a hammer for a social-security-check subsister’s dilapidated roof, or a new pair of boots for a homeless veteran’s bare feet—Marlon “Big Dog” Brown slays his way through the threatening forces of his own addiction-stained past and joins with the Savior who took up the weapons of a servant’s towel and a Roman cross.

At SOS, I met young women with university diplomas who took up residence on an eyesore of a street on a forgotten corner of America so that they could live close to refugees coming to America from those enemy territories on the other side of the world, places on the map with names like Somalia and Iraq.

As SOS, I met doctors, nurses and administrators binding up the wounds of America’s hemorrhaging health care system and the countless sick and dying in Memphis.

At SOS, I met men and women and youth overlooked by society and relegated to systems and cycles of inequity, but instead of giving up and taking the road of ease or the road of despair, they didn’t keep their heads down. They showed their God-given capacities and dignity and pressed against the waves of injustice and discrimination.

At SOS, I met the God who is reconciling all things in heaven and earth—the reconciling God who is reuniting God’s space and human space in a glorious harmony achieved by the subversive and revolutionary act of love and justice in Jesus Christ. I learned that the demonstration of the kingdom— the just and loving action that incarnates God’s good reign here and now—are an essential twin act of the robust proclamation of the gospel. When John the Baptist’s disciples queried whether Jesus was the Messiah—the long awaited inaugurator of God’s kingdom of shalom on earth—he told them to report what they saw: the blind received sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised.

At SOS, I learned about the vortex of safety that sweeps countless American Christians—including me! —into its clutches. Rick Donlon spoke to us of SAFE threats to the American church, things we often experience as good, but which can easily crowd out our souls of devotion to Jesus and his teaching—security, affluence, family/friends, and entertainment. To that same tune, through SOS I met entrepreneurs and business owners who took seriously Jesus’ teaching: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon…Beware of greed for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions…What can a man give in exchange for his soul?” These individuals made the outlandish, upside down decision to put a modest cap on their income and to distribute company earnings across the city and the globe for the cause of the kingdom.

SOS forced thrust a decision upon my life, one that is startlingly easy to avoid or ignore as a “Christian” in America. Will I live for myself—even as a church-going, Bible-reading, worship-song-singing “Christian—or will I surrender my life to a more sacrificial but more genuine, transcendent, expansive, and generative life? Will hoard a false peace or seek the shalom of my neighbors? Will be satisfied with a reductionistic, atrophied gospel that promises heaven after I die, or will I join the wild, reckless, and abundant life together with God’s family now? Will I be content for Jesus just to reconcile my soul and satisfy my dreams, or will I lay them in the soil to die and be reborn as the fruit of a better world?

Yes, SOS has ruined me for a normal American life. The tension is taught in my soul. But for this, I am grateful. I remember the words of Philip who would often say to SOS campers as they prepared to depart a week of SOS home repair camp and return to their normal lives. There isn’t something special in the water at SOS. What happens at SOS can happen in our lives wherever we live. The Holy Spirit, the gospel of the kingdom, the generous spirit, the community, and servant leadership we practice there—none of these are confined to the walls of SOS camp.

So, while SOS may have ruined my life—I receive it as an unexpected but necessary gift. And, what I do with this “ruining” as an apprentice of Jesus in my life here in Illinois, that is part of the continued “working out of my salvation with fear and trembling” here and now. By God’s grace alone, I persevere, and I fix my eyes on Jesus who is the author and finisher of this faith that empowers and sustains SOS in Memphis and me here in Illinois.


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