Editor’s note: This is a story from last summer that was just shared with the Free Press from a local church. It is a first-person look at how a visitor to Hillsboro experienced the community both as an outsider and as a person of color.
I vowed that Summer 2019 would be the summer my 11-year-old daughter, who has spent her summer days staying close to me, and I would be a part of something more memorable and life-changing. Rather than sleeping the summer away, binging on Netflix, and indulging in the benefit of me being a teacher on summer break, we would look for meaningful opportunities.
Under the leadership of my church New Found Life Bible Church, in Dallas, Texas, led by Pastor Christopher and First Lady Undrea Gray, we were invited to attend their annual youth mission trip to Hillsboro, Kan., to fellowship with Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church, under the leadership of Pastor Jeremy Matlock.
Excited that this was not only an opportunity for my daughter to spend four nights and five days in a new place but for her to experience being on a mission trip, I quickly began preparing her bags for her departure.
The moment my excitement changed to anxiety was when my pastor called and asked if I would chaperone as a female youth leader. Speechless, I immediately began thinking of all kinds of excuses as to why I could not go. I was not nervous about being on a mission trip but rather frightened because the mission trip required that we stay in the homes of people of the opposite race.
Never, in the history of my 31 years of living, had I ever stayed as a guest in the home of a stranger, who was caucasian. Every emotion, every learned fear, every uncomfortable thought rose inside of me like an internal, deadly battleground. Seeing my anxiety increased my daughter’s anxieties until she cried out, begging me not to send her alone.
I tried to comfort her by acknowledging that the youth from our church have been on this trip several times and that she had nothing in the world to be worried about, but she refused to go without me. With all fears balled up inside of me, I decided to step out on faith and go.
On this journey to Hillsboro, Kan., the youth were excited to arrive and reconnect with their previous-year host families. My daughter and I, being the first mother and daughter attendees, were chained by the anxieties of the unknown. To keep from being exposed, we cracked a smile here and there, but most importantly, we emotionally comforted each other’s insecurities.
As we arrived at Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church, we were greeted by families who were readily and excitedly anticipating our arrival. We walked along inside the church to greet everyone else and meet-up with our host families, whom we were all assigned to stay with during the duration of our time in Kansas. Metaphorically glued together with superglue, my daughter and I looked around nervously for our host family. Gracefully approaching us was the Jost family. Dustin, Ashley, and their three beautiful children, Graysen, Kinley, and Sage Jost.
We introduced ourselves, then sat down together to dine over a delicious dinner the church had prepared for us.
As we conversed over dinner, I felt my anxiety slowly disappearing into the background. From the few moments in the simplicity of our conversation, I knew that I had made the right decision to be a part of something life-changing. It was an empowering sight to see an environment where blacks and whites, for once, did not seem separated but joined by love, faith, and the blood of Christ Jesus. We connected hands for a moment of prayer, hugged, said goodbyes, then headed to the homes of our host families.
Now, although still chained by anxiety, the Jost family welcomed my daughter and I with open arms and warm hearts. There was not a moment in their home where we felt unwelcome or mistreated. In fact, if one did not know the back story, you would have thought that we were a blended, interracial family. Without any time wasted, we took the time to learn about each other’s stories. Not with interrogating questions like “What’s your criminal background or your credit score,” but by sharing who we were as individuals.
My heart was comforted even more when we shared our religious beliefs and testimonial encounters with God. A spirit of humility, love, compassion, and peace fell over us in a way that released our chains of fear and anxiety for good. It was in that moment of laying aside our differences, and un-distractedly focusing on our heavenly father, where we realized we were more alike than different.
In fewer than two hours, I felt like we were all truly brothers and sisters by the blood that flowed through our veins simultaneously.
The Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church family in Hillsboro, Kan., and the New Found Life Bible Church in Dallas, Texas, have truly shown me what it means to be the church and to have the church in us. They taught me that we do not have to be a product of our environments; that to see the change in this world we call our home, we must first be the change we seek to find. To see a predominantly African-American Baptist church from south Dallas and an all-white community of Christians in Hillsboro, Kan., come together in a way that seems unnatural was necessary and empowering.
My life, the lives of all involved, our children, and their children’s lives will forever be changed. A nation divided does not have to remain divided. We have a God-fearing duty to stand for unity, equality, and peace for all people. There is no one to blame for our invisible walls we built around our hearts for protection of the unknown.
To know better means to do better. We must agree to uncomfortably do the unthinkable by joining hands with our children, other ethnicities, and bridging the gap of separation by faith.