People are invading Asheville — my city.
I meet some of them on Sunday mornings after worship: “We’ve just moved here from Arizona. We’re new in town. My wife and I are from Florida. From Texas. Connecticut. New York.” A family across the street speaks only in Spanish. Down the road and to the right, Korean neighbors built a little Methodist church.
It seems they all want to be here, in my mountains, in my city. And I’ve noticed that the natives can grow restless — genuinely disturbed by the invasion.
The roots of my life run deep into these mountains. I know the natives. For the longest time, I claimed to be one of them — a mountain man, born and bred in North Carolina.
I eventually faced the truth. I was born to missionary parents at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. My first birthday was celebrated in Hot Springs, but my birth certificate betrays me — I’m an invader. Like all of them, I want to be here. This is a good place to be.
The move to Yancey County introduced me to igloo snows, BB-gun forays into mica mines and rock quarries, hockey games on a frozen South Toe River, and Mr. and Mrs. Bodford.
Mr. Bodford loved his preacher, so he gave Daddy a corner of his garden and taught him about growing green beans and onions. Mrs. Bodford cooked us a groundhog for lunch.
Haywood County is where I was planted into the soil of pastoral ministry.
Lou Belle Browning loved her preacher. One Saturday, she just appeared in our kitchen with all the supplies, and like it or not, my pregnant wife learned how to make homemade apple jelly.
Wayne Garrett loved me, too. His workshop became a second home. Together, we bought a beehive for $25 from a keeper in Sylva. The bees were mean. “Demons!” we’d call them as we fled down the hill. But the honey was sweet, just like my life here.
A recent backpacking adventure took me home to Cherokee. At Chasteen Creek Trail, my family set up camp in fading light, and with a flashlight in my mouth, I attempted to cook dinner after dark. The invasion of bugs was swift — a swarm of tiny, green, moth-like creatures dive-bombing into my can of Campbell’s Chunky soup. As quickly as I spooned them away, another green layer covered the surface. My son Joey saved me. “Dad, just turn off the light.” So I sat in the dark, ignored the extra protein, and ate as if they’d never come.
John tells the story of Jesus sitting around a campfire with his closest friends. The after-breakfast conversation reveals Jesus’ expectations for those who love God: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.” Another reminder that the Biblical narrative is really a love story. God loves people. Once, Jesus sat down on a mountain and taught the God-lovers that they are to be salt and light. Not to remain in the shaker; never to keep light to themselves, because God loves people — the invaders — who sometimes need spice and are often in the dark.
My prayer for my mountains and for my city is that we’ll never turn off the light or act as if the invaders had never come; that we’ll see the people around us and know that they need us — know that they need these mountains and the generations of people who have lived here for centuries; and know that because of you, the hearts of people like me will come alive, and our world will somehow be better because of it.