I was born in Jackson thirty-two years ago to an African-American father and a Hispanic mother. Our city was a very different place back then. In fact, it was less of a city and more a small town, with a far less diverse population. Growing up I didn’t have many friends that looked like me, and it was made abundantly clear by my peers that I was going to have to choose a side. But choosing was never really an option for me. My parents had divorced when I was three or four, and I was now being raised solely by my father. So culturally I was being raised to become a black man, but as a child that culture didn’t seem to match my outward appearance.
I think that I was in third grade when one of my black classmates pointed out what many others had likely already thought. During recess one day he said, “You know that you’re not black, right?” I don’t quite remember how I responded that day, but I do remember the rejection that accompanied that question. About a year later a white, female classmate told me, “You know, you would be cute if you were white.” That statement threw me for quite a loop as well because I could never get my head around what it truly meant. I don’t think she said it to be mean, just as my other classmate didn’t make his statement out of ill-intent. It was as if both of them expected me to be able to do something to change the very nature of who I was, and, if this metamorphosis was to occur, then I would be capable of earning their approval.
This dilemma haunted me all the way through high school, and as a result I eventually created two different versions of myself: one Matthew that all of my white friends knew and another Matthew reserved for my black friends. But this became an increasingly difficult act to juggle and still left me always questioning who the real me was and if anyone would accept him. Thankfully, my parents were always very supportive and taught me to be thankful for who God had made me to be. Even so, it can be hard to trust your parents when the whole world seems to be telling you something different.
You see, although I was raised in church, I did not truly become a Christian until around the age of twenty, after having moved to Arizona for college. I have no doubt that one of the major contributors to the strengthening of my faith during that time was my attending a multi-ethnic church. I had been raised primarily in a black church setting but had also occasionally visited white congregations during my upbringing, so it was not unusual for me to worship in a setting different than my own. However, up until that point in Arizona, I had never worshipped in such a diverse setting where everyone was seemingly free to be exactly who God had made them to be.
I was only in Arizona a couple of years before the Lord led me back home to Jackson (somewhat against my will, I might add), but I knew that I would never look at church or life the same again. I had gotten a small taste of glory and was hungry still for more of it. I would go on to finish my education at Union, feeling led to one day go into ministry. (Any of my old friends who might be reading this, feel free to laugh at that notion!)
Near to my graduation, it was as if I had a moment of clarity. I came to realize that one of the reasons I had struggled my whole life with my ethnic makeup and the issue of cultural identity was that God had been preparing a way for me. Maybe, just maybe, he would use me as a sort of bridge between cultures right here in our own town. Shortly thereafter, a former high school teacher of mine, Russ Pflasterer, approached me about helping plant a multiethnic church in downtown Jackson. Although he came from a different cultural background than my own, with different experiences, God had given him a similar vision for a “house of prayer for all people.”
I’ve been blessed to call this man of God “my pastor,” and we’ve been on this journey together for almost ten years now. There have been ups and downs, and the church is still not yet as reflective of Jackson as we want it to be, but God has done and is still doing some amazing things! We’re growing and becoming more diverse every year, but most importantly we are preaching the gospel and reconciling people both to God and each other. In our culture both of those are hard tasks, but we’ve learned that God always supplies for everything that he asks.
One of the best things to have happened at our church is our efforts at helping people to stop talking past one another. Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest difficulties our society faces. Whether it be politics or religion, race or economics, often we can’t seem to find any place of agreement, any mutual ground or settlement, and this reality is proving to tear our country, our states, our cities, and our communities further and further apart.
Yet the thing that bothers me the most about all of this is that many of the same people who can’t seem to agree call themselves Christians! They claim to worship the same God, the One who became a man in order that he might love his enemies by taking upon himself the sins of evil men and thereby reconcile the world to himself through his death and the resurrection. The One who gave to his followers his very own Spirit, that they might be able to love in the same way that he loves—that they might be able to reconcile with others in the same way they have been reconciled.
Unfortunately, it seems that we seldom witness such grace being extended across the aisle, but that is exactly what we need: more grace! More grace for ourselves and more grace for each other. This is what I would love to see Jackson become: a grace-filled community! This is why we not only planted our church but also seek to work constantly with other churches, organizations, and institutions to bridge those divides that separate us. We want our church and our community to look a little bit more like heaven, where everyone is in unity around the supper table of the Lord, and less like the world, where everyone is fighting for their own individual piece of mud pie.
But unity does not mean uniformity. God has created each of us uniquely, just like the flowers of the field, and we are most beautiful when we are placed altogether in a lovely bouquet. Yet a rose is still a rose, a violet a violet, a tulip a tulip, and a daisy a daisy. I need to be willing to allow room for that rose to blossom—for it to become all that it was intended to become. And I need not be jealous of its beauty, for it too will allow me to blossom in the way that I must. Likewise, we must not remain satisfied with having only rose grounds or tulip grounds, but rather sacrifice for one another and allow each other the space to grow and be pruned so that we might become the beautifully diverse garden God intended.
Some days I wish I had understood this as a child as clearly as I do now. Maybe it would have saved me from a lot of internal anguish and feelings of rejection as I sought to discover who I truly was. But such is the way of life; we grow and mature, and we learn as we go. Yet, thankfully, we also find that God does not make mistakes, and he uses every challenge in our lives for our good and his glory.
So I’m happy to say that I was born here in Jackson, Tennessee. And I’m happy to still call it home because there is a garden springing up here, and I get the pleasure of helping till the soil.
Matthew Marshall is a native Jacksonian and one of the pastors of City Fellowship Baptist Church. He is married to Rachel and is a father of four. He works at Union University in the Office of University Ministries as the Director of Service and Diversity Initiatives and also serves there as the Director of the Center for Reconciliation. Matthew has a B.A. in Christian Ethics and a M.A. in Education.
Header image by Katie Howerton.