“We think that its best for Neighbors Abbey that you no longer be Presbyterian” were the words she said. But what I heard was: “Just 3 years in we’re backing out of our 7 year grant commitment, and now you have 6 months to double your annual fund raising from $25k to $50K.” It reminded me of the arrows I shot in scouting camp as a kid. Hers landing dead center. Mine… well I’d pulled the string but there was no chance it was gonna go where I’d aimed. Not any more. I didn’t even have to watch to find out.
There’s always more to a story. I’m sure there is more than I will ever know about what that decision entailed as well as details that I probably leave out (or have blocked out) to try to save face. But the truer story is in the course of events that led up to and followed that tipping point.
Four years earlier, Neighbors Abbey had begun on the back porch of our innercity SW Atlanta bungalow. We’d been living in that area since 2004: I’d managed a coffee shop, we’d helped small local churches, led neighborhood causes or cleanups, and tutored and build friendships across religious and racial bounds. The Abbey was a place that centered around faith practices (rather than dogma) and was committed to following Jesus into the art of neighboring. In many ways we were a house church… but growing into a storefront church. We sat on that waver line for 12 months (which is probably the primary cause for my presbytery’s withdrawal of support). We were multi-racial, but also fairly homogenous when it came to weekly worship gatherings—all college educated types. Together, we grew in our emotional IQ, recovered from bad theology, and walked toward a generous love of God, Christ, and the other. We’d developed meditation practices, justice advocacy work, multi-cultural neighborhood based projects, and mentorships with community kids.
For me the Abbey was/is a huge point of pride. It was proof that I “fit” somewhere. It was an entre for befriending atheists, pagan, or Muslim and Jewish neighbors. If you’d been burnt by Christianity I could say, “well not this kind of Christianity.” It was evidence that my hunches about practices, community, and beauty were well founded. The Abbey helped me feel legitimate in the eyes of my father and other evangelical leaders that I wanted to be proud of me. I was half way into writing my first book and the Abbey would prove my thesis. The Abbey was a “plausibility structure” for a new way of life that my wife and I really needed to believe was possible. And the Abbey was the way, in my assessment, that real justice could get done in SW Atlanta. If not the only, at lease the best way that victims of child sex trafficking would be rescued, or that literacy and creativity could be truly cultivated in our blighted community.
So you can just imagine all those things going away because of one conversation.
Well they didn’t. I would not let them.
I doubled down on the non-profit we were starting. We hired a director, I really pushed our young board to raise money. We’d shut down the Abbey as a church, and move laterally to being a community based organization- new name but same people. That would pay my bills. It would keep all those other needs in play. And I’d be part of the action. I dreamt that one day, Nightline or some Lilly foundation would discover us and we’d get the recognition we needed and deserved, and sustainability would be reality.
But then my non-profit’s board resigned (not everyone, but enough to make it impossible). My daughter’s education situation was getting worse. The value of our house had dropped by 80% and the other local school and library were closing. Our two cars that had been parked in front of our house were both wrecked at once by a kid in a stolen Escalade. We were hitting a wall!
I needed some space to rethink everything. I went for a week to the Pastoral Institute in Columbus, GA. While there I started admitting how far out on a limb I’d gotten. And when asked to consider giving some or all of it up I fell into a deep depression. Almost nihilism. If those things of such value were no longer possible then life felt meaningless. My compass had been joy and justice and beauty. If I weren’t able to trust that compass anymore then there wasn’t much left to life.
Here is the point where a good story teller says that God shows up‑was always there leaving footprints in the sand, or something like that.
Instead we slugged through some marriage therapy. We wrestled with moving to a new neighborhood in Atlanta but couldn’t make the numbers work. I tried a couple other job ideas. But not much changed in our situation. Eventually I took a job in Cincinnati where I could use some of my talents and scratch a little at that itch of invention. We had to short-sell our beloved 100-year-od bungalow and move into a ranch rental. Once we got a month into things I still felt that loss of the Abbey and the loss of identity. People in Ohio didn’t need me or appreciate me the way (I needed to think) they did in Atlanta. And no end seemed in site.
It’s hard writing when no end is in site. Its always hard writing a blog or short story that discloses so much without offering a conclusion. I guess, then, that this is more of an ode to that place that emerges after giving up on the conclusions.
At least my book did get done. And in it I refer to the creative process—how creations are born from dreams, requiring a hovering-focus, risk, listening and reintegration, and how rest is part of the process-not the book end of an idea or project. Such an image of repeating circular cycles is enormously challenging for dreamers who want to see an arrow move from the bow through the air and finally rest upon the desired target. Cycles imply that the arrow just orbits in circles. Cycles have no clear end or beginning.
I’m not sure where my obsessiveness over Neighbors Abbey began. And I’m not sure how it will end. I suppose I could tell you where I think our family’s new life in Cincinnati got started. But I can’t say how it will end either. I can’t even say, for sure, if we’re in a dreaming stage or a risking stage, or a Sabbath stage.
So I wonder. Do you feel between stages too? If so, what has it felt like for you? Are you finding any joy in being out in the orbit and no longer on target? What do you miss about the target? And if you can’t identify, do you ever wonder what would happen if you did let go? What if your arrow got lost in orbit instead of landing safely where you’d aimed it?
Troy Bronsink makes life with his wife and two kids in Northern Cincinnati. He’s the author of many chapters and articles and most recently Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers.