Scott Roley began his career as a musician in the Christian recording industry. But experiences as a kid attending a Martin Luther King Jr. speech and meeting John F. Kennedy haunted him with a sense of racial inequality. Roley left his music career and began working with the poor in Tennessee. His book, God's Neighborhood: A Hopeful Journey in Racial Reconciliation & Community Renewal, was written with James Isaac Elliott, with a foreword by his friend Michael Card.

You started Franklin Community Ministries in Franklin, Tennessee, and you were helping a lot of people. But you started the ministry without talking to Denny Denson, an African American pastor in Franklin. What happened with Denny Denson and what did you learn about what it means to be involved in racial reconciliation and community renewal?

What happens with most of us is that we want minority friendships. People will say to me, how do I really get involved? And I say, it's real simple, it basically costs you your life. What it really means is, you're willing to give yourself away to a person who's very different.

The best thing I could have done was to go to First Missionary Baptist Church here in Franklin. But instead of going up to the door, knocking, introducing myself, and spending time with him relating, I would go past the church. We would do these wonderful things among the poor in his neighborhood, but I never once asked his advice or asked for his help. Repentance came through another brother who suggested that perhaps Denny was not so impressed with me and the ministry as I hoped, and said that he was actually saddened by my inability to love. It was very powerful.

That was Hewitt Sawyer, he's another African American brother. I got up from where we were, went over to Denny's church, and sort of went up the stairs that I'd frozen on time after time, without courage, and walked in. I was so emotionally overwhelmed by my desire and the calling the Lord put on our hearts, he rose from where he was down in the front of the church, got up, walked up this aisle, and we met halfway, and I just blurted out my repentance. I was just so sorry and he wrapped me up in his arms and really cared about me.

People may be stunned that such an obvious thing wasn't part of your journey. Why didn't you go to him from the get-go?

My intentions are always, it seems, to do it myself. I actually want to be in charge. We care about credit, we care about being in charge, it's the way we're bred. I think the idea of actually extending and working and, not only doing the ministry with him but turning the ministry over to him, was so foreign to me that until it was the likes of John Perkins and Dolphus Weary and other of these marvelous community developers who began to teach me. And then Denny himself, as a South-Side Chicagoan, ex-Black Panther, was the last guy I ever thought I'd be friends with and now we're as close as brothers.

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So why did you guys decide to move there? I mean, for goodness sakes, your buddy, Denny Denson, pastors an inner-city African American church and he lives in the suburbs.

We just felt that if I didn't move in there was no way to build the bridges with the people because they were so suspicious of any white people. Even the do-gooders, even the people dropping off turkeys at Thanksgiving, they always wonder why they didn't stay. Like, why do you people come through? And the white people who are buying drugs in my neighborhood, they know why they don't stay. They just come down to use the facility and then they're out of there.

How did your wife feel about it? And how did the kids feel about it?

Linda's my hero. She's remarkable, and she's always cared about the poor. Part of my regret is that she doesn't have a house with the lush gardens and the garages and the size, the rooms, and she's never complained once about the home we live in. We bought a house here, it's a remarkable place. It's a little cottage. It cost us $40,000. We bought it in '97 and fixed it up. She's never complained once. She considers this our home. My children have felt wonderful about the move and have hit the ground running. We've had some awkward moments. People are distrusting of white people, but it's understandable.

You write, "Nothing kills momentum in a ministry of mercy like confusing a motive of serving with saving." What do you mean by that?

We have a tendency in the evangelical church to think that we're doing the saving, versus seeing Christ as the one who saves. Should the church save the poor, the lost? The question is, should Christ save the poor? Should Christ save the lost? We are his instrument, but that gets confused and therefore we have expectations that people are going to respond, when in actuality all we've been called to do is to be obedient.

You have a phrase that you like to say at the end of your talks. "Go out and make a mess."

A lot of people don't like that because they think being messy is not what Christians are about. I would say that being messy is everything that Christianity is about. You can't be a person who finds a savior if you're not a person that needs a Savior. And once we find a Savior we have a habit of thinking that's done. Now I'm saved, everything works out. The truth of the matter is, I got worse once I came to Christ. Most of us, if we really are honest would say, I'm still an imposter, I'm still pretending, I'm still a Pharisee, I'm still full of self righteousness. Those are the things the gospel challenges every day in our life. I'm saying to people, it's okay to be a mess. That's what your nature is. Trust Christ with it. Quit trying to make him like you, and give in and trust him.

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The mega-church model is built around a principal called homogenous units—the idea that people of like mind and cultural experience like to congregate with each other. Where do you see the Bible differing from our practice regarding the poor and racial plurality?

I think that the North American church has been given the American Dream and a marvelous opportunity economically. There's no greater place on earth to live. At the same time, mono-cultural experience is biblically not the highest expression of the demonstration of the gospel. If we look at heaven and say "on earth as it is in heaven," we see the plurality. Nowhere on earth is there a plurality like the North American continent. We have a melting pot that has, unfortunately, embraced the myth that the dominant-cultured people are better people. We've embraced it subtly, but the church has bought it hook, line, and sinker.

What has happened over the course of the last hundreds of years is that white people have congregated together and they've separated themselves from the growing plurality. Now, it's not so evident in the northwest where there are other cultural challenges and hatred that goes on, but the gospel has to attack at those points of contest. And that's where we've got to dismantle this idea that being together with all the same kind of people is God's desire. It's the desire of the North American church to make money and to get bigger, but growth isn't always the way the gospel works.

Related Elsewhere:

God's Neighborhood is available from and other book retailers.

More information, including book excerpts and reviews, is available from the publisher.

Dick Staub is president of the Center for Faith and Culture, which examines intersections between popular culture and religious belief. Complete transcripts and audio versions of Dick Staub Interviews can be found at Recent Dick Staub Interviews for Christianity Today include:

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The Dick Staub Interview
Dick Staub was host of a eponymous daily radio show on Seattle's KGNW and is the author of Too Christian, Too Pagan and The Culturally Savvy Christian. He currently runs The Kindlings, an effort to rekindle the creative, intellectual, and spiritual legacy of Christians in culture. His interviews appeared weekly on our site from 2002 to 2004.
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