House number 1209 is a peculiar house in Greenville, North Carolina. It sits on what was formerly considered to be the most crime-riddled street in Greenville. The house stands out amidst its neighbors—the fence is crazily painted and the house looks different than its neighbors. For years, no one has lived in the house.
But 1209 is not a lonely house. In fact, there are often crowds around it. Community groups hold meetings there. Folks from all over the neighborhood come together for breakfast there on Saturday mornings. And on Sunday mornings, a group of people gather together at the house for a church meeting.
Aaron Saufley can be found at the house quite a bit. He’s there on Saturday mornings, sharing breakfast with neighbors. He also shepherds the little group of people who gather on Sunday mornings. By traditional standards, he’s the pastor of the little church utilizing the house… though he’s a bit uncomfortable with the “pastor” label in the midst of the church that has sprung up. Don’t be mistaken though, he shepherds a flock of people that are doing and being church.
An idea sure to get a ‘no’
The church came about almost as a kind of dare. Aaron and Laura, his wife, were having conversations about where and how they were feeling called to live out their faith. They were unsure about how to take their next step in faith.
“I just threw out something I knew she would say ‘no’ to,” Aaron recalls. “Let’s go make disciples at the breakfast house.”
“That’s exactly what we’re going to do,” she responded. Her response was not sarcastic or ironic. She was serious… and off they went.
Why meet at the house?
Aaron had been hanging out there on Saturday mornings for five years. The Saturday morning breakfasts originally began as a feeding service for residents of a near-by shelter who, at that time, didn’t have access to food on Saturdays. Over time, the breakfasts turned into a neighborhood gathering. Through five years of shared meals, Aaron learned quite a bit about the neighbors.
“A lot of folks are not involved in the church at all, and for reasons that really shouldn’t be.” Many of the neighbors feel marginalized because of problems with addiction, or shame over poverty, or criminal backgrounds. “Here they are with a very raw, sometimes very intense faith, doing it by themselves with no one to form a community with them. I thought it’d be really cool if that kind of community happened here.”
Little, but diverse
Aaron invited his Saturday morning friends to come back and talk about faith on Sundays, and many have responded to the invitation. “We’ve got all kinds,” Aaron remarked about the make-up of the church. One member lives in a tent in the woods. Others come over from the nearby community shelter. Others are full-time neighborhood residents. There is diversity in the little group: spiritual, social, and racial.
Though he has training and experience as a pastor, Aaron is more of a gatherer than a pastor. “When we gather I don’t preach, I don’t lecture… they’re teaching each other.”
Their gatherings are simple: everyone brings what they have to offer, usually in the form of food to be shared with the community. They eat together, then they start talking, sharing where they’ve witnessed God in action in their lives. Following a time of celebration, they confess their struggles to one another.
“They’ll confess when something’s going wrong,” Aaron reports. “People struggle with anger. We end up hearing about crack addicts… people struggle with alcohol… It leads to some raw, desperate prayer times. Those prayer times have taught me a lot.”
“Then we crack open the Bible.” The “teaching” time has a simple formula: read the Bible passage, digest what it says about God, what it says about people, and figure out what we need to do. Sharing a communion meal, in remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ, is a consistent feature of their gatherings.
While the formula is simple, the gatherings lead to some deep, intense discussions. “We looked at the woman at the well (John 4), and that has volumes to say to Gospel-centered racial justice and racial reconciliation,” recalls Aaron. “There were people there who said ‘I can’t talk about this, I want to forget.’ But there were others who said ‘we need to talk about this in order for it to get better.’ I was afraid it was going to get out of hand. But we all came back around. We all determined that we’re going to love people no matter who they are or what they look like.”
“When are we going to give some money again?”
The group has found their own identity and even given themselves a name: Jesus House at 1209. Right now, they’re praying for ways to open up for them to start other Jesus Houses. Aaron says “We want to be disciples who make disciples who make disciples.” So they are an “all-in” kind of community—everyone contributes. Though money is scarce for many of the group’s members, they still take up an offering—not for support of their group, but for the advancement of their vision. “This is a church with no overhead, we don’t pay rent, I don’t pull a salary,” Aaron notes. Instead, they use their offerings for missions giving—like buying 60 Bibles for Christians in persecuted areas. “We’re putting a larger focus on what we’re going to do, and people are asking, ‘When are we going to give some money again?’ Who does that?!”
Stay where you are
Pastor Aaron has been asked how well-meaning members of other churches can get involved in Jesus House at 1209. If those asking are from outside the neighborhood, he generally tells them to “stay where you are.”
“We’re able to do this because we’ve been serving in this community for years. We have built trust. So they will tell you what they’ve been doing the night before, what their struggles are. Trust is a big issue in this neighborhood.”
Instead, Pastor Aaron says to find a group to go serve and be patient in giving of your time. Invest the time it takes to build trust. Be humble enough to listen. And once trust is established, then others will listen to you.
Then, he says, “Start a group with a vision to reach people.”
Reaching to the fringes
As this article is being written, Jesus House at 1209 is making plans to walk through their neighborhood together in an attitude of prayer. As they walk and pray, they’ll be looking for the possibilities of another Jesus House. Even more than looking for a site to host it, they’ll be looking for the people to include in it. They’ll have their eyes out for those who are desperate for God, but who don’t have a community.