I’m Suzanne Stelling, former CSPC Director of Women’s Ministries, and this is how I’m living deeply.
We were reading Scripture, and our lives did not look like Jesus’s life. We had basically built a beautiful kingdom for ourselves. We’d made a refuge (my husband, Grant, is a landscaper) and it was remarkable. Plants, trees, and flowers were blooming from February to November. Grant had put three ponds and a stream on the property, and to the tunes of bull frogs and Spring Peepers, that’s where I did all my writing and studying for the groups I taught at CSPC. It was peaceful, a superb fit for my reflective personality, even heavenly. But Grant looked around and said, ‘I don’t see living like this — in our own safe, glorious kingdom — anywhere in the Scripture. I think we need to leave. This refuge needs to go to somebody else who can steward it well.’ Grant reminded me that we are warriors, fit for battle more than comfort. Revelation 7:9 says every I’m Suzanne Stelling, former CSPC Director of Women’s Ministries, and this is how I’m living deeply. , every race, every tongue will be represented in Heaven. And we’re looking at ourselves: ‘We live in a white area, we go to a white church, we have white networks. We need to actually uproot if we’re going to practice living like the kingdom.’ So we started driving toward East Knox on Sundays after church. We looked on a map, and 37917 looked curious. We started driving the streets, and we found citydata.com. There we could find out from a bird’s eye view the racial, ethnic, and financial percentages that made up specific neighborhoods and streets. We were looking for racial and class diversity. We ended up finding Woodbine Avenue and moved here in 2016, when we were still serving and attending CSPC. There were all kinds of diversity here: racial, class, also gender expression & identity diversity in the neighborhood. The music, the cars, the culture was completely different. So – ‘Hello, this is new!’ And it was a huge growth curve, but God was so patient with us.
The first spring on Woodbine was depressing. I felt sadness and disconnection. I’m a woman of the dirt, land, seasons, and natural beauty. I missed so much- the stream in front of our house. God said, ‘I am your living water.’ I said, ‘I’ll miss the fire pit.’ ‘I will light a fire within you.’ I said, ‘I’ll miss my house.’ He said, ‘I am your home, Suzanne.’ I said, ‘I miss all the wild creatures, the deer and the foxes.’ He said, ‘Believe me, Suzanne, I will bring you wild creatures like you’ve never known.’ I didn’t know exactly what He meant then, but now I know: He brought us people! That was when I started learning to pray for an urban neighborhood. Everywhere I did not see the kingdom of God and its beauty, I learned to pray for it to come. I learned to walk my neighborhood constantly, even though people would say, ‘You’re crazy for walking these streets of gunfire and drugs and prostitution.’ I started walking the streets and just praying, ‘God, bless that home. God, I’ve heard them arguing, please bring them peace. God, renew their love for each other. God, where there is evil, just root it out, convict them of their sin and free them from any demonic oppression,’ and on and on as I’m walking down my street. And that was revolutionary. These were real, aggressive prayers, not just assertive prayers. I felt the ground shake under my feet. Wrapping my neighbors in His love, praying over them, and checking on them is being the body of Christ. But it was a huge learning curve for me- learning how to love my neighbor who is different from me: When the gay couple down the street broke up, or when my porch filled up with hungry and thirsty Black teens after basketball on the street, or interacting with all the non-traditional families around us, or leaning in when George Floyd was killed. I’ve learned to listen and love, to completely not judge, and to live more of a small, hidden life. When I was at CSPC (I left my position about a year and a half ago; we now attend a church close to Woodbine), I was seen and known by so many. Since I’ve left, it’s a smaller life. I am just invested in my block, literally loving my neighbor. That’s my purpose.
We came as learners, and part of our learning was opening our home- because when you open your house, you really reveal what you know and feel about people and the gospel. We have neighbors at our dinner table every Monday night, and I often cook with the children on our street. We’ll invite our block to neighborhood desserts here and there; everyone brings a dish. Our next gathering is for Saturday morning blueberry pancakes, 10 AM sharp! Halloween is huge- we grill hot dogs, serve hot cider, and involve a whole bunch of our neighbors to help us, and it just becomes a hangout spot for the night. Kids are roaring around, and it’s so much fun. Usually, whatever we’ve opened our home for, we send everybody home at dusk. There are times when we just have to say, ‘Okay, everybody out. We need alone time.’ (We had to learn to do that- we’ve got to stay healthy and strong as a couple.) The other way we’ve opened our home is to overnight guests- people have stayed as little as one night and as long as two years. It’s always an adventure, and it’s always someone who found out about us through the grapevine. Our longest – the two-year guest — was a young man battling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression, and anxiety. There were a few times when he would not want to come out of his room because he was undone. We learned personally, daily, what it’s like to live with that and how to support him through some really hard times. Of course, it changed us as well. This was loving my neighbor.
I’ve now put our last few years into words in a new book. It’s called The Woodbine Chronicles: A Neighborhood Love Story, and it’s available online or at the local Bear Den bookstore (they’ll deliver it to you personally for free!). My hope is that the book will challenge peoples’ notions of safe Christianity. God’s people get slammed up against difficulties all the time, but I had lived in a mostly beautiful, safe, and thoughtful life that did not require much risk. God said, ‘Okay, enough of that. We’re done with that, probably forever.’ I wrestled with Him and got to the point where I said, ‘Okay, let’s go!’ and trusted Him with my destiny — my safety, future, money, career, marriage, friendships. Most of what’s in the book came from my daily journaling. As I leafed through my entries to compile everything into one book, one thing really struck me: All the love and input God poured into me over several years to make it possible for me to expand enough in heart to be here. I would have described myself as a joyful and loving person, but also as an introvert. After a full workday at CSPC, I would pull in to my driveway on Woodbine and my car would be bombarded with kids asking, ‘What are we going to make for dinner? Where have you been? What are you gonna do now?’ Everybody would be putting on their apron and washing their hands, and I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘I’m exhausted. I have no love in me at all, God.’ So I’d whisper a prayer: ‘God, you made me the way I am. I need you to expand me, to expand in me.’ And He did. Reflecting on His faithfulness over and over, year after year- that was a beautiful part of writing the book. Of course there have also been heartaches. In having people live with us, not all of those stories have gone well. We learned some really hard lessons. And that’s part of the humbling work God has done in us- the humbling when you get squashed, the humbling when you’re like, ‘Lord, I have no words other than help.’
This isn’t a book with all the answers. Its purpose is to get people asking questions and talking about how we live. Questions are in the book over and over, essentially asking, ‘What does it look like to bring the Kingdom of God to where you are?’ And the questions are not easy. Grant & I have wrestled with them, and continue to. For instance: We like our privacy, but is that the Kingdom way? We like to control and amass our money. Is that the Kingdom way? We like our options, our recreation, you fill in the blank for yourself. But is that the Kingdom way? The Scriptures have a lot of warning for the wealthy, and since Jesus says there’s a deceitfulness to wealth, we’ve got to watch out for that. Since I’ve moved, I can identify some of it, but I didn’t see it when I was still living in the West Knoxville bubble. Scripture says God is with the poor, the sick, the homeless, the hurting and the jailed, the marginalized, and we just don’t see them much in West Knoxville. It almost has to become a discipline in your life to engage people who are poor or who are nonwhite or any of those other things. So I would recommend those of you in my CSPC family literally take time to lay out your life, all your goods, all your strengths. Identify those things and then ask God what to do with them or what not to do with them. Talk with each other. We had a supper club and we would go to them and say, ‘Why would you not move where we’ve moved?’ Immediately they could reel off answers why they would not want to live here: ‘The schools are terrible. Safety concerns. Drugs, racism, access to prostitution, cultural differences. It feels so unsafe.’ So we’d press a bit: ‘What does a disciple of Jesus look like in that scenario? What would Jesus ask of you, you who are salt and light, who have money and skills and networks? How could you get involved?’ Conversations about things like that. I’d love to raise all kinds of questions and get conversations started through this book. There are lots of questions in it and not many answers.