The Flourishing Church: Ecclesia Fights for Life on All Fronts

August 16, 2010


by Lindsey Howald Patton

Flourish magazine, Summer 2010

When the harsh 2009 winter came through Texas, it wrecked a small community garden on Houston’s Frances Street. It left row after neat, cinderblock-lined row in a frozen, crippled state so that the garden looked like it would never be green again. The gardeners, a small cluster of Third Ward neighbors and Ecclesia Church members, felt disheartened. But Manuel Raymond Sanchez wasn’t the least bit fazed.

It all has something to do with how God Himself is a gardener. Sanchez believes this without a doubt, and not only because he dabbles in gardening and tends to see things in terms of familiar analogies, and not because he read John 15 once and thought it made good sense. He believes it because God actually raised him, Sanchez, up like a plant when he was a tiny weak thing, with hardly a root, that needed prayer, and nurturing, and hope.

Sanchez’s story is a long one, one which winds its way in and out of brokenness and misery and back into joy again, like any other of its kind. Since adolescence he’d been an alcoholic, and angry at people who claimed to follow God but didn’t seem to love anybody but themselves. In 2006—when the woman he’d been in a rocky relationship with kicked him out for good—he started living on the street. But things got better. God “prospered” Sanchez, as he puts it; he attended Ecclesia, an urban Houston church community, not to mention any other religious service he could find, and he went through a nine-month rehabilitation program. Now he is Ecclesia’s building administrator.

If God could do that for him, then there was no way Sanchez’s garden on Frances Street was going to stay in its deadened, wintry state.

“Things that happen in nature also happened in my life,” he says. “That’s just the way God works. That’s what gives me hope—that people can see that and take hope from that and love grows from that. That’s basically how God redeems us.”

Not just “green”
Although Houston has 50 or so community gardens to its credit, more than other major Texas cities according to the American Community Gardening Association, the so-called “Space City” certainly doesn’t rank among North America’s greenest communities. But Ecclesia is different. It’s nestled in a special area, the artsy, progressive, urban Montrose district. Montrose is the home of the most gay bars in the city, as well as the most art galleries. In that setting, Ecclesia’s diverse group of churchgoers and regulars at the attached coffee shop, art gallery, and bookstore—from young tattooed hipsters and transvestites to “bloggers and businesspeople and homeless folks,” as Ecclesia’s pastor Chris Seay describes it—fit right in.

Asked if he feels like an anomaly standing next to the stereotype of a conservative Texas Christian, Sanchez has to think for a moment.

“My circle is those people,” he says, considering the Seay brothers—church founders Chris and Robbie—and their passion for international social justice issues. There are also the fellow congregants who express interest in the garden in Houston’s Third Ward. Others help Sanchez gather recycled materials to use variously throughout the church building.

But surrounded by people with similar proclivities, it’s easy to forget the glance of surprise he gets sometimes when he meets people “from the outside.” When Sanchez tells clerks at the store that he’s picking up some supplies—his hands filled with biodegradable bags and nontoxic building supplies like low V.O.C. paint—for Ecclesia, they repeat with incredulity, “You’re from a church?”

Yeah,” Sanchez always replies, with emphasis and pride.

Of course, an interest in “green” products is by no means a rarity in Texas—or anywhere else in the U.S. right now. Possessors of an environmental conscience are so widespread—from celebrities driving Toyota Priuses to suburbanites shopping at Whole Foods—that greenness can be officially be called trendy. The result is that those who have cared about these issues longer than Al Gore’s documentary on global warming are a bit defensive of their own authenticity.

So Sanchez can’t help but insist, “I’m not just buying it because it’s green.” On that last word his voice drops with just a touch of disdain, which is unusual for mild and understated Sanchez. But he grew up in California during the 1970s. One of his first real jobs was at the Texas Hemp Company, and he’s still a fervent advocate of the many uses of what he calls a “persecuted” material. In short, Sanchez was green long before the word was used to describe anything but the color of the garden in spring. So when he watches food and product packaging grow increasingly “all-natural” and then sell off for prices only the upper-middle class can consistently afford, he is perhaps understandably perturbed.

“For me, I don’t want to judge anyone else or anything, but I’m tired of it … being a fashion or a fad right now,” he says. “Man, it’s all about the money.”

Choosing God over money
When Sanchez was homeless for several months in 2006, “just sleepin’ on my bench,” as he puts it, it was a unique kind of homelessness. He had plenty of places to sleep, actually, friends with extra beds all over the city. He had a steady job building burial vaults.

Sanchez slept on that bench not because he had no other choice, but because he felt God wanted him to.

He’d been in that bad relationship for too long and couldn’t stay sober for long enough, and at some point he thought he’d try and see if God could do better for him than he had done for himself.

“I was like, Lord,” he says, a touch of that desperate prayer coming back into his voice. “Obviously I don’t know how to do this. … I just give up. It’s totally you.”

So he found a bench, a simple wooden one nestled in the landscaping outside the Menil Collection, a modern art center. And during those few months Sanchez learned he didn’t need nearly as much as most people think. “Nothing I have,” he wrote in a poem that November, “And it is all mine. It’s all mine.”

Perhaps this is what gave him an incredibly simplified view of what it is to prosper as a human in this world. Sanchez recalls a former 10-dollars-an-hour job—what most adults would consider barely scraping by—as “too prosperous” for his comfort.

“I knew that I couldn’t serve two masters,” Sanchez says. He’s talking about vodka, about the money that enabled him to buy it, but when Jesus coined that phrase there were only two choices, and the split was clear. Choose: God or money. It can’t be both.

The question of money and spending is one Chris Seay has wrestled with for years.

“To me it’s one of the great struggles of the global reality,” Seay says. “I think if there’s an indictment of the Western church … it’s our wastefulness. I mean, we literally throw away what could mean life or death to the rest of the world.”

Seay is one of a small group of pastors who began something called Advent Conspiracy in 2006. The idea behind Advent Conspiracy is simple: Stop buying junk. Cheaply produced, dearly priced, manipulatively advertised, meaningless junk. Through a series of powerful viral videos, Advent Conspiracy proclaims the message that if America put the money it spends on Christmas gifts into well-building organizations in the Global South, that amount would actually eradicate the world water crisis.

Tying the Advent Conspiracy message into Christmas is a way of showing what Seay says consumerism is really all about, whether we realize it or not.

“The birth of Christ is really about the promise of a Savior, right?” Seay says. “And consumerism is really very much the same thing. It’s constantly promising something that it can’t deliver. … You don’t market new cars as being practical and getting you from place to place. They market it, whether it’s a car or a wine refrigerator or whatever, as something that’s going to mysteriously make you happy. … So at Christmas we often are buying into the wrong promise.”

What do you do with that?
The personality and passions of a church body are in many ways defined by its leadership, and Ecclesia is no exception. Seay is somewhat of a go-getter, a lover of chaos and big issues, and if he brings something to his congregants’ attention, he knows they’ll jump on it. Case in point: This spring Seay paid a visit to Argentina, and on the way back to the airport a pastor friend happened to mention a laundry soap business his church wanted to purchase. It was in the shantytowns, where poverty and unemployment were far more common than their opposites, and the mission was two-fold—start manufacturing environmentally friendly soap and employ people while you’re at it.

Seay leapt on it. “We don’t have the money on hand, but if I go back to my people”—there’s an unmistakable note of pride in his voice on my people—“and say we want to buy a laundry soap business to employ people in the shantytowns, they’ll do it,” he told his friend.

In two days’ time, all of the money had been collected, and on the third day Ecclesia sent it over to Argentina.

There are several videos of Seay on YouTube, and in all of them he’s speaking out against consumption, trying to get the reality of worldwide need and poverty to hit home. The first one that pops up on a search, from 2007, is called “Eight Dollar Hot Dog.” In it a bearded Seay, sitting in the empty stands in a baseball stadium, admits that sure, he loves this—ball games, swimming pools, hot dogs—American way of life.

“It wasn’t until a few years ago that it dawned on me that I might be enjoying the very best of life at the expense of others,” he says. And then, PSA-style, he hits you with the numbers. Eighteen billion dollars on makeup. Fifteen billion on perfume. Ten billion would give the world clean water. Eighteen would feed everybody.

At the very end of the video is a completely candid moment. The stands aren’t empty anymore; Seay is surrounded by fans whose attention is captured by whatever’s happening on the field. He’s staring at the cell phone in his palm, and then looks over at the camera, still rolling, with a look of frustrated helplessness.

“So this is the problem,” he says. He’s got his eight dollar hot dog. He’s got his nine dollar drink. And right then he receives an email from a church member who’s doing work out in Malawi, struggling to help sick preschool children.

“And I have to realize that the food I have here tonight costs more than the medicine needed to cure those children of malaria,” he says. He looks at his phone. At the camera. His phone. The baseball field.

“So what do you do with that,” he says quietly, not entirely a question, more a statement sort of thrown out into the void. It’s a nagging thought that perhaps can’t be quieted so long as you’re truly aware of the phenomenally vast gap between the wealth of some and the poverty of the majority of the world. It’s a question Seay admits he’s still unable to answer today.

The answer might be revealed in small incremental efforts that add up to something different than selfish gain and waste. In the recycled shelving and doorknobs Manuel Sanchez rescues from Houston’s Reuse Warehouse. In the community garden emerging from a harsh winter on Frances Street. In the church’s partnership with Mission Year, which sends young college graduates into the inner city to live on poverty-level incomes and experience a world their privileges never would have gained them admittance to. Answering that question is a little like raising up a new plant, really. You decide to care about it. You get others involved. You cultivate it with increasing wisdom and pray it grows. You give it as much nourishment as you are able, and then you ask God to do the rest.

Lindsey Howald PattonLindsey Howald Patton currently lives, teaches and writes on South Korea’s east coast. Originally from a tiny farm town in Illinois, she earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Her work on the arts, faith, and culture has been seen in local publications Inside Columbia magazine, Vox magazine, and The Columbia Tribune.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Donald Collins August 19, 2010 at 10:14 am

This is why I’m so proud to call Ecclesia home !!!!!! Chris , Robbie , Manuel , and all the other brothers and sisters are shining lights in a stormy world !!! PEACE !!! LOVE RULES !!!!!!!!

kelsey October 26, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I am so proud to call the author my cousin!

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