I grew up in Southwest City, Missouri. Most people wave at you when they see you driving down the road. People are friendly to a fault. When I met someone who did not know me in town, I would usually list off my older relatives. When they determined I was Walter’s grandson and Galen’s son, they were satisfied with that fact.
words + photographs JOSHUA MANNING
When I was in school, our rival was Noel. They were only a few miles away. We didn’t like them. Noel was the party town. People would ride canoes down the Elk River. They would drink, which was horrifying to my conservative sensibilities. The houses weren’t well maintained.
The primary employers are big poultry plants. Towns the size of Southwest City and Noel don’t have enough people to fill one plant. Since there are two plants, the situation required a drastic solution. Immigration was the key. People started showing up in town. Their kids showed up in my class at school. They were fascinating to me. I had never met anyone who couldn’t speak English before. Most were from Mexico. It was a little uncomfortable.
The new arrivals in Noel were much more diverse and not well trusted. As the years have gone by, that diversity has increased. Currently more than 30 nations of birth make up a town of 2,000 people; people from southeastern Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and folks from Central America. These folks brought different religions with them. They wore different clothes. They were rumored to be illegal. Ladies have told me their husbands don’t let them drive to Noel after dark.
As I grew older, the Christian faith I grew up with became a major part of my life. I knew with every fiber of my being I wanted to follow Jesus. Every aspect of my life must be made to reflect a life changed by Him. My wife and I were set on being missionaries overseas. We had aspirations of going off into the unknown, doing something grand and important. When we discovered the need of a pastor at Noel, it was a bit unexpected. I thought I would fill this role for a little while and probably do something else later.
It is now later. We are five years into our work at Community Baptist Church, with five services meeting in a total of five languages. Communication is slow and frustrating. Oﬀering plates are notoriously tiny. We attract folks to our church who would not feel comfortable in a regular church. We struggle to keep the building clean due to the various standards of what clean looks like in different cultures. Visitors from outside town come into our church and rarely return. Our food pantry feeds the hungry. Our showers clean the homeless. My wife taught most of our church how to drive a car. One time, a teenage girl left church, went to my house next door, and tried on my wife’s clothes during service. Our life looks nothing like the plans we made.
My wife and I question why we should subject ourselves to this madness on a regular basis. To that question comes one simple answer time after time. Love. I worship a God who is perfectly righteous and holy. In my sinfulness and brokenness I deserve nothing but condemnation from Him. And yet. Love. For reasons unknown to me, God has shown mercy. He loves me. He said in His word, “My disciples will be known by their love for one another.” So I love the people in Noel. I hurt when they hurt. I rejoice in their joy. I tell them Christ loves them and teach them to turn and follow Him.
My folks, in their way, show that love to me. They cook me exotic looking foods that often make me feel quite ill. They have given us an entire wardrobe of clothes from their culture. We are regularly in their homes fellowshipping and enjoying the company of our friends. In a funny way, nothing has changed from the way I grew up. The towns of Noel and Southwest City are still small. People still wave when you drive down the road. People still want to know about your family. The faces have changed. The languages have changed. The clothes have changed. Yet, there is still a joy in loving your neighbor. JM
Joshua Manning is a husband, father, pastor of Community Baptist Church, host of Proclaiming Noel, Soli Deo Gloria.
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