Ward Brehm once wrote, “They say that if God wants to get your attention, he will toss a little pebble into your life. If that doesn’t work, he will throw a rock. As a last resort, he will heave a brick!”
Africa was definitely my brick. It rocked my world in ways I never anticipated. Seeing with my own eyes the devastation caused by extreme poverty, lack of access to clean water, the HIV and AIDS pandemic, and preventable diseases like malaria truly made me wonder how anyone could be as willfully blind as I was. I used to say, I went to Africa to help save Africa. Now I know God had the opposite in mind. He brought Africa into my life to save me.
Not long after that fateful trip, while running at White Rock Lake in Dallas, I sensed God say to me, “I want you to apologize to the community for the kind of church you have been.” I instantly knew exactly what he meant. I don’t know how I knew it. I just did.
The church took out a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News. In large, bold letters in the center of the page it read, “WE WERE WRONG.”
At the bottom of the page was our apology:
We followed trends when we should have followed Jesus.
We told others how to live but did not listen ourselves.
We live in a land of plenty, denying ourselves nothing,
While ignoring our neighbors who actually have nothing.
We sat on the sidelines while AIDS ravaged Africa.
We were wrong; we’re sorry. Please forgive us.
The only other thing printed on the page was our church name, phone number, and website. We offered no explanation beyond the words of our apology, because explanations at the point of apology always sound like excuses. We only wanted to speak the truth about our behavior and offer a sincere apology to those whom we had hurt.
Sadly, the church today is better known for its political stance than helping the poor, feeding the hungry, or helping to heal the hurting. Do we dare believe the church could be known for its love and compassion more than its rhetoric and judgments? That’s one risk I am willing to take.
In the years since our apology, Springcreek Church has become an entirely different church. Hundreds and hundreds of children now have sponsors. The Nyakach Valley of Kenya has networks of wells, pipes, and water kiosks to serve thousands who used to fetch water from polluted lakes and streams. Children no longer regularly fall ill to easily preventable diseases like they once did. Everything for them has changed, as has everything for us.
I sincerely believe God’s work done in God’s way will always be mutually transformational. We are as changed by the work we are doing as the people we intend to serve. Our investment in our friends overseas has profoundly enriched our church family. They have taught us so much about true wealth — to be rich in faith, hope, and love.
In addition, we are assured in Scripture that God always hears the widow and the orphan’s prayer. I sometimes wonder about my own prayers, but I am supremely confident about theirs. So, every day, on the other side of the world, there are widows and orphans who fall on their knees in the dirt and bless our name to God. This is the highest blessing anyone can receive in life — to be blessed by the least of these.
I never could have imagined how much three little words would totally transform my world — we were wrong.
Keith Stewart is the senior pastor at Springcreek Church in Garland, Texas. He is the author of We Were Wrong, the story of his radical transformation through following Jesus in the margins.