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The gift of an invitation

What one late friend taught Aaron Neff about belonging.

Photo by Paul Blenkhorn on Unsplash

A friend of mine recently died of cancer. His name was Leslie Ray Harvey. I knew him only a little more than a year but felt like I had known him for a lifetime. Why? Because from the first time we met, I felt like I was sincerely welcomed into his life. I felt a sense of belonging with him. When I met him, he was so humble and unassuming. I didn’t realize at the time that he was a well-known and well-respected business, community, and church leader in the city of Rochester, New York. Aside from my personal relationship with him, I knew him primarily as the chairman of Aenon Missionary Baptist Church’s board of trustees. For all the Presbyterians reading this who may think of a trustee as necessary and important but not glamorous, his position as board chair was a very respectable role in his church. He was an esteemed church leader.

In our first conversation together, he was the first to suggest that our two congregations ought to start a relationship and collaborate in ministry together. His congregation has predominantly Black members. My congregation has predominantly White members. Building multicultural church partnerships is a goal of mine, and I was very happy to reciprocate my own eager interest in collaborating with Leslie’s church. He and I got together a few more times to consider how to start and grow our vision. He introduced me to his pastor, and our momentum was growing until some setbacks occurred. His pastor took a new position in a church out of state and creating new ministry partnerships suddenly took a backseat while their church was in transition. Then, he was hospitalized, diagnosed with cancer, and, in a matter of weeks, he died. I saw him a few days before his passing and promised him that I will remain committed to our vision of collaboration and partnership. I wholly intend to fulfill that promise.

I felt such a sense of belonging with my friend Leslie, and, as I have reflected on my relationship with him over the weeks since his passing, I am learning three important lessons about belonging.

First, belonging is about grace. Martin Luther King Jr., said in 1960, “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours in Christian America.” Not much has changed in over 60 years. Despite my intentions to build bridges of diversity in my role as a pastor, I had little to show for my plans when I first met Leslie. In other words, I had done nothing to earn Leslie’s trust or friendship, but he gave it without hesitation. He assumed that I would act in good faith. His invitation to a partnership was a total act of grace, and it touched me deeply.

Second, gratitude is the appropriate response to belonging. Grace always involves the risk that someone might take advantage of you. The only moral thing to do when someone offers you grace is to respond in good faith and with gratitude. When I first realized that Leslie trusted me, I felt a sense of duty, born out of gratitude for the gift of grace he offered me.

Third, belonging transcends both host and guest. After Leslie’s graceful invitation to partner and my grateful response, we suddenly found ourselves yoked together on a spiritual journey. He took a risk by inviting me in, which moved me deeply. I responded by cherishing his invitation, which showed respect and gratitude for the risk he took. And, as a result, a vision and pathway toward that vision was created that transcended us both. That vision was about us – him and me – but it was about much more than that, too. It was about a vision for our churches. It was about a vision for the kingdom of God. It was about a vision that, God willing, will outlive us both.

This blog was written in tribute to belonging, in memory of Leslie, and with the permission of his family.