They tried not to start a church. In fact, when the movement behind Mission House started looking more like a church service than a community development mission, Anthony and Dustin shut the whole thing down. They didn’t want to lose their central focus: living on mission in the community.
“Man, we would have a sizable core and facilities by now if we had just run with it,” Anthony says to Dustin, who chuckles.
Self-professed best friends, Anthony and Dustin have two very different energies. Anthony is compact and speaks with vivid and pointed images that cut through the fog of misconception. His gaze is simultaneously direct and yet deeply reflective.
Dustin emanates a good ol' southern boy vibe: easy grin, easy mannerisms, each movement relaxed and deliberate.
And then there is the one glaring difference between them: Anthony is black. Dustin is white.
The fact that these two men found each other, recognized in one another a similar DNA for ministry, and struck out to tackle deep-rooted injustices in Salisbury, N.C., is a testament to their commitment to one another and their community.
Initially, they began Mission House as a community development organization aimed at transforming the ugly underbelly of Salisbury.
“We’re a mid-sized city with big city problems,” Anthony explains, as we sit over coffee.
Outside the window a few homeless men ease into the streets, the sun shines hotter and brighter than any November sun I’ve seen.
“Yeah, we’ve got gangs, drugs, human trafficking, all because of the 85 highway,” Dustin adds.
In those early days of Mission House, Anthony and Dustin partnered with a local group called Night Crawlers, a prayer and presence group that did prayer walks through the community. They also began a civic engagement group called Rowan Concerned Citizens, as well as hosting community based ministry cafes and other smaller community-based projects.
Through their careful and intentional engagement, Dustin and Anthony have come to understand the heartbeat of Salisbury.
“The city is trying to find a new identity,” Anthony explains.
“We have a traumatic past: lynchings, KKK. Up until the 20th century the Klan was based nearby.”
“Among the black community, Salisbury is known as ‘Rope City,’” Dustin says.
While Mission House focuses its ministry efforts on many injustices in Salisbury, the city’s racial tensions have become an unavoidable reality — one Anthony and Dustin are willing to tackle.
“Ninety percent of the city’s employees are white,” Anthony says.
“But 40 percent of the city’s population are black,” Dustin adds.
There is a blot of racism and oppression that stains the soul of Salisbury.
At the center of the city is a monument titled “Fame.” This monument depicts a stone angel whose wings stretch 23 feet high. In one arm she holds a dying Confederate soldier. In the other, a laurel wreath to crown him. The inscription reads, “Gloria Victis” — glory to the crushed.
“Fame” unabashedly celebrates the South’s role in America’s bloodiest war.
After the tragic killings of the Charleston 9, the country erupted in a conversation about the viability of the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate and oppression for the black community. Salisbury was not immune to this debate.
One afternoon, Anthony and his wife spotted a protest gathered around “Fame”. A group of white citizens wore Confederate flags and huddled beneath the angel’s shadow.
“We need to engage these people,” Anthony told his wife.
He addressed the leader of the group and asked him, “Why are you here?”
Anthony could tell the man was nervous. They both were, facing each other and the muted ugliness of two centuries of violence.
“We’re here to try and protect our southern heritage,” the leader said.
“This flag doesn’t mean hate. It’s just our heritage.”
Anthony nodded and thought for a moment.
“What heritage are you representing?”
The leader balked and then said, “Iced tea.”
Back in the cafe, Anthony, Dustin and I were stunned by the man’s answer. It was both totally honest and utterly heartbreaking.
“People in our community want to tear that monument down, but we want to talk about how we can reclaim that symbol and start a conversation,” says Anthony. Dustin nods in agreement.
Listening to these two pastors finish each other’s thoughts, I have to ask a question that has gathered at the back of my mind.
“So, how do you two work together?”
I falter for a moment and then continue.
“I mean, as you are dealing with the racial tensions in the city, the oppression and marginalization, you both must bring very different life experiences to the table as a white and black man.”
I’m worried that I have asked an inappropriate question. How does one talk openly about such matters with out inevitably touching a nerve? But Anthony and Dustin are gracious.
“I had to walk through my bitterness toward white people,” says Anthony.
I am stunned by his immediate vulnerability. But perhaps this is the result of a life lived in reconciliation: a willingness to face honestly ourselves, and the world around us.
“And I had to walk through my guilt as a white man and find a way to move forward,” says Dustin.
It turns out Anthony and Dustin have worked to love each other in the most human of ways. They’ve learned each other’s stories, they’ve listened to one another, and they’ve grown together.
From this personal place of reconciliation they are turning outward to lead their city.
“Reconciliation is about peace,” Anthony explains.
“It’s about sharing stories from our community, lamenting in times of grief, and addressing, in times of worship, when someone is shot on the street.”
Earlier in the month, Dustin wrote a worship song titled “Rope City”. In the song, Dustin named the history of their city and called for a new identity.
Eventually, the groundswell for Mission House to become a church was too overwhelming to ignore. On Sept. 20, 2015, Mission House officially started meeting at Isenberg Elementary School for weekly worship gatherings.
As a church, Mission House practices an exegesis of scripture that highlights Jesus as a savior who engages the marginalized and oppressed. They break open a Bible teaming with insights and revelations for a voiceless community held in bondage.
“The Bible gives us a lens to see how Jesus is at work in the neighborhood,” Anthony explains.
Whether a church or not, the core DNA of Mission House remains the same: to be an army of love ministering to a community crushed by spiritual, political, economic, and racial forces.
“We want to be a presence in the social fabric of neighborhoods characterized by alienation, violence, and purposelessness. We want to have a reconciling presence.”
In my notes, I didn’t mark whether Anthony or Dustin said this final statement. It really could have been either, in sync as they are with each other and their ministry. Their friendship and partnership is a beautiful picture of reconciliation: two men, two communities, one ministry — working out grace and peace and love beneath the arcing, stone shadow of a broken history.