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Ordinary obedience

North Fresno family follows Jesus into the heart of the city

by Myra Holmes

Matt Ford doesn’t consider himself radical. After all, when God calls his followers to do anything, no matter how strange and unusual, obedience should be the normal response.

“That’s what it means to follow Jesus,” Ford says.

It just so happens that for Ford and his family, following Jesus has meant a dramatic change in lifestyle.

Four years ago, Ford, who grew up in North Fresno (Calif.) MB Church and now serves as pastor of student and family ministries there, his wife, Beverly, and their two children sold their “very nice” suburban home and moved into one of Fresno’s most crime-ridden, violent and impoverished neighborhoods.

Ford describes it as an act arising out of simple obedience to Christ’s command to love his neighbor as himself. He says that even the biblical superheroes of the faith are “just everyday Joes who are following Jesus in an ordinary way.”

He remembers clearly the turning-point moment when theoretical discussions about discipleship, community and poverty turned personal. He and friend Craig Blodgett were discussing the book The Irresistible Revolution, by Shane Claiborne, when Blodgett asked, “What would it look like for us to make a change in our lives?”

Ford felt a “deep working of God’s Spirit,” stopped the conversation and said, “If we go down this road, it’s going to happen. If we’re not willing to let it happen, we’d better not personalize it.”

As with many acts of obedience, Ford’s change of heart had been brewing for a long time. He was serving as youth pastor at a different church when he began to feel a disconnect between his life and the gospel. He was teaching through the Sermon on the Mount—full of kingdom values such as love of the poor and generosity—and felt he was confusing the students. “My life wasn’t matching up with what I was teaching,” Ford says. He realized he had a choice: change his life or stop teaching this gospel.

In addition, he and Beverly had a growing realization that the things they were pursuing—nicer home, nicer vacations, nicer cars—weren’t bringing them joy. They began to wonder how they could obey Christ’s command to love their neighbors in a suburban neighborhood marked by isolation.

“The gospel invites us to love our neighbor as ourselves,” Ford says. “Well, how can you love your neighbor if you don’t know your neighbor?” They needed, he says, to be “liberated from the American dream.”

A long series of conversations between the Fords and Craig and Amber Blodgett convinced them that God was indeed calling them to personalize what they were learning in a dramatic way. So they obeyed.

The two families committed to moving together to Fresno’s Lowell neighborhood, hoping for two houses next door to each other. They chose that neighborhood not only because it is one of Fresno’s worst, but also because other Christians, like Randy White and Nancy Donnett, were already building community and living out the gospel there.

Within a week the families had spotted the two houses that they now call home. Even though God led quickly, it wasn’t an easy move. For one thing, it was what Ford calls “a bank-breaker.” Selling their suburban home didn’t make financial sense, and it took every dime they had to make their dilapidated Lowell house livable.

But, Ford says, “God views money very differently than we do.” Instead of fear, they found freedom in letting go and saw God’s provision.

Even harder, each time they faced an obstacle—and there were many—they also faced friends and acquaintances who told them to abandon their vision. Ford points out that Scripture never portrays obedience as smooth sailing. They now see the obstacles as teaching moments: “God was leading the way through the rocky, murky waters.”

Looking back, Ford says the move was a wild journey—emotional, difficult, so exhausting that they’re still recovering—but also good, because his family has been changed, blessed and freed.

“We desired to plant ourselves in a community where our community could transform us,” he says. And it has.

As they’ve lived alongside people for whom the American dream is out of reach, they’ve learned about the art of celebration, about simple living and about family. They’ve been freed from a “bigger and better” mentality and have discovered new depths of generosity.
“The people in our neighborhood don’t have a lot, but they give a lot,” Ford says. Instead of spending all their earnings on the latest “stuff,” the family now lives more simply in order to have more to give at the end of the month.

Ford says his view of salvation has broadened. “Now we see that Jesus has saved us so that we could bring heaven to earth,” he says. “God is in the process of passionately redeeming and transforming this world that we live in, and he invites us to be a part of that process.”

Before the move, in their insulated neighborhood, it was easy to be blissfully ignorant about poverty. Now, the consequences of injustice and poverty are just outside their window. He talks, for example, about grieving when a friend was nearly hit by a bullet intended for a gang member.

“I don’t suffer like most of the world, but I carry with me every day a deep, deep realization that the world is not as God intends it to be,” Ford says. “As I enter into the stories of my neighbors, see the violence and hatred that seems to be all around me and the chaos that comes with deeply rooted poverty, my heart aches for God’s redemption plan to come to completion.”

He says they’ve come to understand that their everyday choices make a difference. So, in addition to the dramatic change of the move, they’re making smaller adjustments as they learn and grow. For example, they consider the source of that shirt or those groceries before they buy. “To us, that matters. The gospel demands that it matters,” Ford says.

And, really, he says, that’s what obedience comes down to: evaluating one’s life against the gospel, then making adjustments where it doesn’t match up. For some, it might mean moving to an urban neighborhood. For many, it will mean doing something “strange and unusual,” Ford says. “I think that God is inviting all of us to do more countercultural, crazy, strange, out of the box things with our lives.”

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