In a series of recent posts (**see below), I’ve been fleshing out what it means to “love a city”. What it means to be rooted in place and proximity to work that has transcendent and transformational value. I want to spend the next several posts introducing you to people in my city, Oklahoma City, who are literally loving the “hell” (the brokenness, darkness, oppression, and injustice) out of this city. People who are remaking the world by remaking this city, one changed story, one redeemed institution at a time. These folk operate on the margins, often in places normal folk dare to tread. Each story is one I am connected to relationally. I introduce you to them for several reasons: 1. To bring to light the amazing work they are doing on behalf of some of the most beautiful, forgotten people in our midst, 2. To offer as models to other individuals of what can happen when you step into the arena of loving a city, and 3. To provide you the chance to engage with them as they build a better world by loving their city.
I am so proud of them, and I cannot wait to share their stories! Here you go!!
I first met my friend, Ben Nockles, back in 2007 after he had returned from serving on the pastoral staff of a large church in Colorado to start a church plant in Oklahoma City. At that time, my wife and I were looking for a new church, and, sitting one Sunday evening in Panera Bread, I spotted a flyer for Ben’s church startup that caught my eye. We went the next Sunday, and my life has never been the same. I realized in one sitting that this was a man of deep convictions with a huge heart for the vulnerable (so you can see why we connected immediately!).
Ben spent several years pastoring and leading that little group of folk before folding himself and his congregation into the congregation of another church with a similar mission: To love God and love the city. Because of my deep respect for Ben, my family followed him to this new church, and continued to grow in our friendship. After spending several years on staff helping members of this church figure out what it means to truly love one’s neighbor (especially if that neighbor looks entirely different from you racially, economically, socially, etc.), Ben began to be stirred and convicted on behalf of the fatherless in our city. I remember having many coffees with Ben, listening as he shared the “dark” side of the statistics in our city. While it is true that our city can boast the Devon Tower, a revitalized downtown, a water canal district that rivals San Antonio, and even one of the best NBA teams in the world, there was still much work to be done on behalf of the marginalized, oppressed, and often silent members of our community.
In other words, as I’ve heard Ben remind city leaders from the Governor to the Mayor to the District Attorney to corporate CEOs (and anyone else who will listen), OKC is a great place to live for many folk, but not for all, and until it can become a place of blessing for the least of these, the work is not done.
During this season, Ben started to move from a pastor of a specific congregation to stepping into a gap most folk in our city did not even know existed: that of the orphan. To date, Oklahoma City has over 10,000 children in our foster care shelters on any given night. That means that these children, who are eligible and available to be placed into “forever families,” wake up each and every morning to an institution rather than a home. They often spend Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays surrounded not by family but by state employees. For my friend Ben, this is unacceptable.
“A Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families…” Psalm 68;5,6
Ben became convicted that a large part of the solution to this problem should come from the local church, a body of people tasked both by the prophets and by Jesus to care specifically for the orphans and the fatherless in their midst. Over the past several years, Ben transitioned from the pastor of a specific congregation to the pastor of a city, overseeing the work of calling the Church towards “an idea whose time has come.”
To this end, Ben started the 111Project, believing that, if every local church committed one family towards the purpose of foster care, Oklahoma City might be the place that left no child without the love, support, and hope of a “forever” family. This man is a prophet in the truest sense: he has a righteous indignation over something that breaks the heart of God, and he is not afraid to speak truth to power on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. And yet, he is also aflame with a vision for a city where what should be might be one day.
Listen to Ben’s story about the 111Project: (if the video does not show up, you can access it here)
My respect for my friend is ocean deep, for I know personally what stepping into this space has cost him. For Ben, loving this city has meant many hours hugging and loving on children in overcrowded foster care shelters. I have seen my friend get angry, shed tears, break down, and deeply grieve as the number of children in foster care continues to rise, but I have also seen him get up, day in and day out, and face head on the principalities and powers that create such a system of injustice for our most vulnerable members time and again, believing that one day, this will come to an end; that one day, no child will call a shelter a home; that one day, mourning will turn to singing, that families will be reconciled and all things, even this, will be made new!
Listen to Ben talking about foster care:
(If this video does not open, you can watch it here)