Christian Community and Changing Culture: An Interview with Jesse Eubanks, Executive Director

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Incoming Team Member Lorissa Matthysse interviewed Executive Director Jesse Eubanks about how Love Thy Neighborhood makes, shapes and impacts culture. 

Lorissa Matthysse: What Is LTN specifically doing to impact the culture around them?

Jesse Eubanks: We’re like a domestic Peace Corps but with Bibles. Twenty-somethings from all over the country move into an at-risk neighborhood together to practice being active and present neighbors to the people around them. Our Team Members live in intentional community together where they bond at profoundly deep levels. Most of them go on to become permanent lifelong friends. Experiencing God’s love daily through the words and actions of their housemates shapes how they understand the gospel of Jesus. Grace moves from a theological concept to a relational experience. Love becomes tangible first to our Team Members among each other and then this allows them to make love tangible to their neighbors. As John 13 says, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Grace moves from a theological concept to a relational experience. Love becomes tangible first to our Team Members among each other and then this allows them to make love tangible to their neighbors.
Our program is pretty complex but it involves things such as being part of a healthy local church, the discipline of resting well, reading curriculum and neighborhood outreach. The biggest part of the program involves our Team Members serving about 30 hours a week in a specialized internship. They serve at understaffed ministries that are doing powerful work on the frontlines of homelessness, the sex industry, healthcare, the arts and more. As our Team Members serve, they place an emphasis on building relationships. One of our mantras is “people over projects” to keep us focused on the importance of building a single meaningful relationship at a time where the gospel can be shown and spoken regularly. Over time, we see God transform the hearts of neighbors.

We’ve even seen a tipping point in one of our neighborhoods due to the involvement of so many Christians from churches and nonprofits partnering together with a common vision. Our local newspaper just did an article about this neighborhood highlighting how much great change has taken place. Crime is down. Home ownership is up. Businesses have moved into the neighborhood. Beautiful murals cover the sides of buildings. Abandoned properties are on the decline. A church now has multi-racial leadership. We see the gospel redeem culture at a personal and communal level.

LM: What makes LTN unique from other urban ministries?

JE: In some ways, we’re not unique. We steal and adapt most of our structure and approach from other ministries. We’re always looking to see who else is being more effective than we are. Who is impacting the lives of their neighbors better? Who is caring for the souls of their participants better? Who has better financial practices?

No matter what our theology is in our head, we will all end up preaching the theology we actually live. God’s grace experienced will become God’s grace preached.
Something that I do love about the culture of Love Thy Neighborhood is our emphasis on building lasting, intimate Christian community. Some ministries fixate on the mission, the work and the action. People become as valuable as the things they can achieve for God which leads to a spiritual rat race. We believe that the first movement of Christian faith is being loved. Many people become Christians because they experienced God’s love but then they quickly fall into the culture of “getting busy on mission for God” and they stop experiencing God’s love personally. We emphasize God’s specific love for each of our Team Members. We believe that scripture calls others Christians the Body of Christ because it’s through our relationships that we experience God’s personal love for us. How we relate to other people is how we will relate to God. No matter what our theology is in our head, we will all end up preaching the theology we actually live. God’s grace experienced will become God’s grace preached.

 

LM: Why do you feel you are called to minister to this city and environment? Why is it important?

JE: God has a special place in his heart for the outsider, the outcast and the forgotten. There are over 2,000 passages in the Bible about God’s concern for the poor. This is not a secondary issue for God. Jesus himself told us that how we treat the poor is how we treat him. Tim Keller says that, “Our heart’s attitude toward the poor reveals our heart’s attitude toward God himself.” I agree.

There are over 2,000 passages in the Bible about God’s concern for the poor. This is not a secondary issue for God.
There are over 8,000 people who are homeless in our city. There are over 5,000 women working in strip clubs in Kentucky. There are over 3,000 women who have abortions each year in Louisville. Each of these numbers has a face, a story, a hope. Jesus cares about each of these people. People need the gospel in words and deeds. Isaiah says, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” That is our response as well.

We are based in Louisville because I am from here. We started looking around at all of the incredible nonprofit ministries around the city and saw that they needed more hands to help. We saw three out of four college students graduating without any type of substantial employment. We saw Christians getting into their late 20’s who had never experienced deeper Christian community. We saw lonely elderly men and free roaming children in urban neighborhoods who needed good neighbors who cared about them. We thought, “Why can’t we create something that addresses all of these things?”

LM: What led you specifically to begin this ministry/how did LTN begin?

We actually had our male Team Members move into the shelter and live there with the residents. The mission saw some incredible things happen as a result. Simply put, their friendship ended up saving the lives of these men.
JE: In 2005, my pastor and friend Daniel Montgomery (Sojourn Community Church), was on the Board of Directors at Louisville Rescue Mission. The mission had an empty apartment and was trying to decide what to do with it. We ended up pitching a vision to the Board for what eventually became Love Thy Neighborhood. We actually had our male Team Members move into the shelter and live there with the residents. The mission saw some incredible things happen as a result. More residents started completing the recovery program. More residents started staying sober. More residents became legitimate Christians. Every time a guy would graduate from the program, he would often talk at length about how one of our Team Members – who were often between the ages of 19 and 22 – was the reason he made it through. They’d tell stories about one of our Team Members sitting up with them late at night when they were tempted to leave or having them over for dinner when they were having a bad day. Simply put, their friendship ended up saving the lives of these men.

In 2014, we became our own independent organization. Now, we are doing the same work we were doing at the mission but with far more ministries where we can hopefully bring extra hands, friendship and the gospel to even more lives.

LM: How do you respond to criticism towards what you are doing?

If we were always afraid of making mistakes, we’d never try anything new. I know we’ll make mistakes. I am okay with it.
JE: I don’t pay attention to it. I don’t have enough energy left over to worry about criticism from strangers. The people I trust most deeply in life are friends and loved ones I live with daily that actually know me and the work of LTN. They are the only opinions that concern me. LTN is a program created by fallible humans. We make mistakes. We try to correct them. God’s grace holds both our success and our failure. If we were always afraid of making mistakes, we’d never try anything new. I know we’ll make mistakes. I am okay with it. God’s grace can handle that for us and he’ll correct us as we go.

 

LM: How do you measure success in what you do?

JE: While we do weekly accountability with our Team Members and ask about the number of hours they volunteered, the number of new relationships they pursued and what the key ministry moments of their work were, we are more interested in seeing evidence that they are responding faithfully to our mission question. We borrowed our mission question from another great organization. They taught us to ask ourselves, “In this moment, how can I best love both God and people?” We want our Team Members to ask and answer that question faithfully. That’s success for us.

We ask ourselves, ‘In this moment, how can I best love both God and people?’ Then we try to answer this.
We also connect with the leadership at their service sites, the leadership within their churches and our own team so that we can continue to help each Team Member grow and become more effective. In the end, it comes down to seeing lives in at-risk neighborhoods transformed as well as the lives of our Team Members.

LM: What are some challenges you have faced while doing the kind of work you do?

JE: The biggest change has actually come with our applicants. A decade ago, our Team Members were 50% women and 50% men. Now, that scale has slid all the way to 90% women and 10% men. We’re not alone. Most other American gap year programs are seeing the same trend. It’s very concerning. Where are the men?

Young men are afraid that a program like ours will hinder them from getting a good job quickly enough. They’re wrong.
Young women are continuing to see the value of an internship likes ours while young men are either afraid to step into the hardship of adulthood (so they don’t) or they’re afraid that a program like ours will hinder them from getting a good job quickly enough. In both cases, they’re wrong. Often, our Team Members are paid better at higher levels of leadership than their peers or hired into their first professional job due to their service with us.

Also, while we’re seeing more young adults than ever show interest in Love Thy Neighborhood, we’re seeing more reservation than ever from parents. Parents are scared their children are going to “fail to launch” if they do a program like Love Thy Neighborhood. This also isn’t true. We are working on helping parents to see and understand that one of our primary objectives is helping young adults make the transition into independent adulthood. We’re like a bootcamp for adulthood that provides great coaching, support, structure, friendship and community. We hear from parents of alumni all the time about how impressed and encouraged they are to see their child flourish through Love Thy Neighborhood. It’s a good moment when our alumni can call their mom and dad and tell them about their first professional job offer. That’s a proud moment for them and for us.

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