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Why I Left the Bible Belt and Moved to NYC (and You Should Too)

In the summer of 2006 my husband and I sold everything we owned (excepting our clothes and books) and moved from Huntsville, Ala., to Brooklyn, New York, to plant a church. We didn’t have much of a plan—looking back we wish we’d had a better one—but we did have heart. A lot of heart …

The story of Justin and I moving to New York is a defining one; it’s the story that most explains who God’s calling us to be. It’s a story about risk, obedience, priorities, light and dark. It’s a story about following God to unlikely places …

In December of 2003 my brother died in a car accident. Two years later I found myself talking about his death to a room full of college kids expecting modern world literature but settling for a story. I guess it was Tolstoy who got me going on death and grief. I like to think it was him or Dostoevsky, a holy nudge from one among the cloud of witnesses.

After class that day one of my students stopped at my desk. He pushed his long hair out of his face—what was his name, again?—and asked me a question. I can’t remember the exact words he spoke. I was packing my things, shuffling papers, barely registering. But I know he asked me about my brother and I know he told me about his dad, his dad who’d died in a car accident, his dad who he loved like maybe he’d never loved anybody else. I remember looking up at him, standing straight up and realizing this was a different kind of moment than any I’d ever had in my whole life. As Matt said these words, “Why is it that you seem to be doing so well, and I’m not?” I prayed, “God, don’t let me mess this up.”

Over the course of the next few weeks and months, Matt came to Christ. It wasn’t smooth. He almost drove away the first time he visited our old, country church building—it just seemed like everything he’d always avoided. But he was patient. And God was good. And Matt was baptized, washed in the river I played in as a little girl on vacation, visiting Alabama cousins.

Matt was the first person I ever helped bring to Christ. I was 24 and I’d been a Christian for 15 years.

In the first few months after he was baptized, Matt started a Bible study group with people he worked with. He studied with his best friend. Eventually he moved across the country to attend Bible college. Blue-haired with a studded belt, he was absolutely full of the Spirit of God.

That process—meeting, loving and introducing Matt to Christ—was the most exciting, satisfying thing I’d ever done.

At some point I remember sitting across the table from Justin, probably over Mexican food, and hearing him say, “If I could just do that all the time, it’s all I’d ever want to do.” I couldn’t agree quick enough.

Meanwhile …

The Bible Belt began to itch.

Justin and I both grew up in coastal Florida. We attended small churches. We’d never heard of Christian pop music. Our friends at school mostly didn’t go to church anywhere. And, as vocal Christians, we were widely considered strange or other. I narrowly avoided being voted “Most Likely to Be a Nun” because it quickly got around that being a nun was “against my religion.”

Somehow we heard about a college in Tennessee where everybody was a Christian. And we just about fainted (our “youth groups” combined totaled 10). So we went. And it was wonderful. Not perfect, but good. It felt good to be understood.

After college Justin started preaching at the first church to give him a job, a beautiful, small congregation in the sticks just north of Huntsville, Ala. We have only good things to say about that church. God blessed us through those people.

Still. We couldn’t help noticing a few things about Bible Belt culture, things we’d never before experienced. First we noticed there were a lot of churches. A. Lot. Of churches. One afternoon I found myself printing mailing labels for ladies’ day invitations. Surprised we needed four sheets of labels I decided to count the churches, all within 30 minutes of our building. I counted 64. That’s 64 separate buildings, 64 sets of elders, 64 preachers, 64 places with “Church of Christ” on the sign.

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JenniferGerhardt@churchleaders.com'
I'm a writer and Bible teacher (ex reporter and college English teacher). I've been writing and teaching about God since my first church Ladies' Day at the age of nine years old. I speak at events, lead Bible studies, and write Bible study curriculum and devotional materials.