I moved to Morehead City 5 years ago to take a job as a community college English teacher. My move here was a career move. If I wanted to teach English at a community college I had to make the move, because Carteret County is where I got the best job offer. I'd always lived by the motto “I will always live where my closest friends and/or family live.” But now I'd have to throw that motto out for the sake of accepting a great job offer and move to the coast of North Carolina, 2 hours north of Wilmington, right near the southernmost tip of the Outer Banks. The map below illustrates where all my friends and family live (green) and locates Morehead City (blue) where I had 0 friends in 2015.
The first week I arrived in Morehead City, I remember sitting at an IHOP with my mom preparing myself mentally to invest myself into the task of becoming a college professor. As I waited on my pancakes and eggs, I braced myself for an isolated life that would likely be lonely. I would endure it. I would try out local churches but they would likely be full of families who operated as tribes that I would have to work to fit into. That’s the way churches in small towns operate, right? Mostly married people, over the age of 30 who I would talk to on Sunday mornings, but likely not talk to the other 6 days of the week. As I tried to decide what flavor of pancake syrup to use, I assumed sacrificing the comfort of having family and friends nearby for the sake of the career I wanted to be another hard reality of adulthood I had to accept. I stared blankly at the blue and red IHOP decorations around me attempting to decide if I was ready for settling down in a town where I knew no one.
One Harbor Church
It was my first week in Morehead City and I had the contact information of a man named Andrew who been a mentor to one of my friends in college. At the very least, I hoped that this man might be my friend. I cold-called Andrew and said “Hey, I just moved to town. Could we meet up sometime?” Andrew invited me to church later that week, and I was thankful to have at least one contact outside of work.
One Harbor Church was held in an old theater in downtown Morehead City. Downtown Morehead has multiple seafood restaurants along waterfront including well-known Sanitary. I walked in the front door and met Andrew. He was an older than I expected with jet-black hair, glasses and a strong handshake. He asked me to sit with him, but I declined because I always to sit on the back row. Anytime I visit a new church, I sit at the back so I can step outside if I feel weird. I get anxiety at church sometimes when packed into a row of people I don’t know.
After the sermon a man came up on the stage and said “If you would like to meet one of our pastors, go upstairs and you can meet Ryan who is our worship pastor. We’d love to talk to you.” By this point, my anxiety had settled down and I felt comfortable. I figured now would be a good time to chat with a pastor. I walked to an upstairs room and met an energetic guy who was someone I could see myself actually being friends with. We talked for a few minutes and Ryan said “Would you like to get coffee sometime this week? Maybe on Wednesday?”
I said “Of course.”
I met with Ryan later that week, he followed through on his word. And we had a good conversation. Ryan was the worship pastor and he explained to me how he ended up in Morehead City after growing up in California his whole life. I asked him “Why did you give up a life in Los Angeles to move here?” That kind of baffled me. He said the pace of California life is brutal compared to North Carolina.
Later that week Andrew invited me to his house where he held dinner and a Bible study. Andrew was in his late 50’s but he had the energy and quick wit of someone my age. His gregarious nature was infectious, and his wife Sally welcomed us into their home for dinner. The Bible study at his house was a mixture of about 10 people between the ages of 25 and 40. About a week later, Andrew and I met up for breakfast at a local diner and we talked about the fact I was 31 years old and was single, (which became a common topic of breakfast conversation over the next year with Andrew and I).
I had only been in Morehead City for about 2 weeks and three personal invitations from people from One Harbor church. My low expectations for my move to this small town were turning out to be wrong because of this church.
Over the course of a year, these types of interactions continued with One Harbor Church. At the local coffee shop, I ran into a guy named David who I knew from church. He was about to start a guy’s book club meeting. I asked what they were reading and they invited me to join on the spot. I ordered the book on Amazon and joined the next week. I have multiple friends to this day from that book club. After hearing a sermon one Sunday at church, I had some questions about how the pastor defined grace. So I emailed Bryan, one of the pastors, who preached that Sunday with my questions. I expected an email in return with suggestions on why I needed to read my Bible more with specific verse suggestions. Isn’t that what pastors do when you ask them a question? Just tell you to read your Bible more? That’s not what Bryan did. He asked me if I wanted to get coffee and talk about the issue face to face. The people of One Harbor Church seemed to consistently debunk my low expectations of Morehead City.
These interactions happened outside of the church and not on Sundays. This church had somehow cultivated a culture of befriending others that extended from Monday to Saturday. As much as I enjoyed the Sunday morning services at One Harbor, what I needed when I moved to Morehead City was an integrated community that that wasn’t confined to a church building. It was the hospitality of the people at this church who were available for friendship on Wednesday nights and Friday nights that has provided the community I needed to settle into this small town. This hospitality eventually inspired me to return the favor for leading a community group in 2018 and 2019. I wanted to facilitate a space where people could receive hospitality as it had been shown to me the first two years I lived here in Morehead City.
Being Hospitable During Social Distancing
The hospitality of the church leaders extended even through the COVID outbreak. On April 28th 2020, I got a text from the pastor’s wife Jill that said:
“Since we can’t have people over during this season of social distancing we thought we could still cook for friends and do “take out” meals. We are having Taco Tuesday tonight at our house with pick-up from about 5:45 to 6pm. Chicken and pork tacos! Let us know if you want swing by and pick up dinner.”
I was confused by this text message. Were Donnie and Jill inviting me to come get free food at their house? Is that it? Why did I get invited? Was this a homecooked drive-thru for free?
I did not ask any questions, I just showed up to see what a COVID drive-thru cookout would look like. I showed up as 5 other people from the church were standing 6 feet apart in Donnie's driveway waiting on the food to finish. After Donnie got his food cooked he started handing out food in small Tupperware containers and thanking people for coming. It was an awkward interaction because I think some of us felt guilty for accepting free food from the pastor and his wife since there was no dinner conversation (COVID norms forced us to take the dinner and leave). I was the last one there and then Donnie and Jill were both insistent on giving me food before I left. Donnie and Jill put my dinner into a Tupperware thing and I walked away confused about how kind they had been to me.
George Carlin once said “Inside of every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” As I left Donnie and Jill’s house that day in my red 2001 Honda Accord, I laughed at myself and thought “This church keeps being hospitable to me in a way I did not think existed in America.” One Harbor Church keeps blessing me in small ways and the cynicism inside of me is threatened once again by the love of Christ seen in other Christians.
What Can the Love of Christ do to a Person on the Other Six Days of the Week?
If there were a term to identify what I have seen at One Harbor church one writer-----Rosaria Butterfield----calls it “radically ordinary hospitality.” Butterfield's book “The Gospel Comes with a Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World”
describes how she and her husband practice hospitality on a weekly basis:
“Kent and I practice daily hospitality as a way of life because we must. We remember what it is like to be lonely. We remember the odd contradiction: to be told on the Lord’s Day that you are a part of the family of God but then to limp along throughout the rest of the long week like an orphan begging bread. We know that chronic loneliness can kill people and destroy their hope and faith. . .We believe that the blood of Christ is thicker than the blood of water. Daily hospitality, gathering church and neighbors, is a daily grace. And we believe that radically ordinary hospitality depends on the family of God knowing where to gather, knowing how to be organic and spontaneous with Scripture and open arms.”
Many times the conversation regarding how to attract people to a church is centered around what happens on a Sunday morning: the music, the pastor’s sermon, the appearance of the building and many other details. Will people want to come to our church on a Sunday morning? But another question might also be-------how can we build organic friendships within our church during the other 6 days of the week? As Butterfield’s quote above suggests, by welcoming outsiders (Christian or non-Christian) into your home, it makes those who are not part of a church more likely to want to come back to church on Sunday morning. Like my own story of moving to Morehead City, I not only needed a church home, I needed friends. All churches open up their doors on Sunday morning. To make Sunday morning attractive is the norm. Let’s go one step further. Which Christians open up their homes for dinner and clear space on their calendar for friendship?
Hospitality is actually what brought Rosaria Butterfield to faith in Jesus Christ. Before she became a Christian, Butterfield was an English professor at Syracuse who was writing a book about the Religious Right. During this time of her life, she considered Christians the enemy as a Marxist lesbian. Her assumption was that Christians hated gay people and she wanted to know why. Yet as a good English professor must do, she said she must “earn the right to critique by reading the enemy’s books.” So she decided she needed to “somehow get inside of the head of a true believer” by accepting an invitation to dinner by a pastor and his wife named Ken and Floy Smith. Little did she know that their hospitality would make her open to faith in Christ. What she intended for research on evangelical Christianity ended up creating a friendship with the pastor and his wife. Over dinner they talked about the Christian faith and over many, many conversations in the home of the Smith family, Butterfield decided to become a Christian herself. All of this transpired in the privacy of the pastor’s home. She learned about the faith through conversations with two people who became her friends.
If anyone is looking for a why and how to be hospitable in the 21st century, Butterfield’s book is a perfect example of how her and her husband show the love of Christ on days not named Sunday. Her book is an argument for the power of hospitality in a culture of isolation and loneliness. I must point out that real hospitality must also extend to people who already consider themselves Christians.
It is easy to become unconsciously negative about the church as an institution; to become hyper-Protestant and say to yourself "Well, I am going to watch a sermon on Youtube and rather than going to church today." We have the resources to self-educate about the Scriptures in the 21st century. But we need the love of Christ and encouragement provided by other Christians. By showing up to church on Sunday morning, we give God an opportunity to connect us with the body of Christ. By showing up to Wednesday night Bible study we put ourselves in a situation to receive the love of Christ from other people. By accepting an invitation to lunch after church, we put ourselves in a situation to form friendships. To anyone reading this who is wanting to go deeper in their Christian faith, I say to take risks to befriend people in your local church. This is especially important for people who feel like burnt-out Christians who need to consistently challenge their own cynicism. That is basically a description of me: a guy whose low expectations were debunked by the members of a church in eastern North Carolina called One Harbor.
Morehead City does not fully feel like "home" yet. Will I make it my home for the rest of my life? Maybe. I don't know. I am a non-commital person when it comes to place. But I do know that the church here has given me a tangible and realistic picture of what love of Christ looks like. I will not forget this and strive to imitate their example.