Intro to Watsonopolis

Watsonopolis is a place where the Watson family posts their writing, reflections, images and videos.

Most of the stuff we post are our own thoughts, wonderings, and stories that emerge from our lives, our living, the world around us and the world within us.

You'll find us reflecting on our travels, our faith, justice, and what it means for us to live well in 21st century America. 

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The Nature of Cities and the Future of Memphis

For the last several months I've been taking an online course through Bakke Graduate University.  I'm taking the slow train towards a Doctorate in Ministry degree with this outfit, as I've mentioned before.  The course is titled, "The Nature of Cities" and we've been doing a lot of reading, writing and reflecting on the origins of cities, how they grow, where they come from and where they're going. 

For me, much of this course is viewed through the lens of cities in which I've lived and most especially through Memphis.  Below is my final post to the online forums.  I'm mostly reflecting on the future of Memphis as a global city or a city of days gone by.  If you're from Memphis or live in Memphis, you'll love the secret Memphis references.  If you're not, hopefully you'll still find a nugget to consider for your own cities.


"Oh Mama, Can this Really Be the End?"

Recently, Memphis Magazine won the Gold Medal for General Excellence for City and Regional magazines.  In reflecting on this award, the editor wrote, “Ours is such a weird, funky, and supremely unusual place, we have a huge advantage over just about every other city magazine in America…no one else has our kind of raw material”.

Author Mike Davis has written that Los Angeles is one of the most often destroyed cities in film and literature.  Memphis, on the other hand is the most sung about city in music.  Mentioned in nearly 1000 published songs, Memphis’ life, history and culture as the King of the Delta South; Memphis is a city celebrated.  In commenting on the South, the Delta and Memphis’ chief role in the region, Willy Bearden, chair of the University of Memphis’ Everything Southern Conference quipped, “They don’t write books about Iowa”.  The point being, so much of American culture finds its roots in the region that begins, as historian David Cohen put it, “in the lobby of the Peabody [hotel in downtown Memphis] and ends in Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi”. 

Yet, despite the city celebrated, Memphis is also a city challenged.  Though one of the top 20 largest cities in America, it is a city whose population has been in decline while crime and other social ills are on the increase.  Memphis is losing the battle of attracting talent, economic weight and the educated.  When viewed through this lens, Memphis is shaping up to be an after thought city, only referred to in sentimental songs about a day gone by. 

However, there is another way to view these changes in Memphis and its position among the cities of the world and the cities of the US.  And that is as a giver and an unlikely shaper.  I suspect that very few of us knew of Memphis’ prominence in American music.  The influence is subtle, yet profound.  I wonder how this subtle influence in American music, then gives shape to music worldwide.  Though it takes a bit to see the connections, they are there.  Similarly, with those individuals who have left Memphis for ‘greener pastures’, they carry with them this history, heritage and culture of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.  As they go, they likewise influence (and are influenced by) their new homes and new home cities.  In this regard, Memphis is everywhere. 

There is yet, a second way to see the challenges facing Memphis and that is as opportunity.  And I want to beware of boosterism here, but I’m more thinking of Jane Jacobs’ comparison of 18th century Manchester and Birmingham.  Can 21st century Memphis become 19th century Birmingham, England?  Birmingham was the inefficient backwater of England at one time while Manchester hummed along with a prolific and efficient economy.  Yet it was Manchester’s efficiency that led to its downfall and it was precisely Birmingham’s eclectic and inefficient economic base that moved its innovations and development forward. 

Could the need for a diverse economy given the economic challenges facing Memphis be the city’s cattle prod that positions it for a 21st century resurgence?  Because Memphis cannot rest on a tech industry or tourism industry or oil industry or film industry, Memphis must have heart, be gritty and grind out the kind of inefficient economy that develops new forms of work and creates new pathways for economic growth just as Birmingham did in the most unlikely ways.  Stated differently, it is precisely Memphis’ challenges that hold the creative keys to a strong future.  Certainly the jury is out on this being the future, but the possibility is a real one. 

Given the historic (and to some degree current) situation for Memphis as an American culture influencer and the possible future of Memphis as a resurgent shaper in the US and the world, there are questions that I do believe will shape how I continue to pastor in this “weird, funky and supremely unusual place”.  Perhaps the chief question is, ‘How does the gospel get contextualized in such a way that the past is honored and the future is envisioned?”.  How do we proclaim and live out the truth claims of Christ in a place rich in artistic, cultural and musical heritage and all that that will imply in a place, while at the same time pushing for the kind of innovation needed from a people in a city that is a part of the fast moving 21st century?  My gospel proclamation must have the rhythm, feel and flavor of the Delta yet my Christian discipleship of my congregation must prepare them for global engagement and the multi-layered effects of urbanization. 

The short of it is that, as a minister in Memphis, I must know the history of my city.  I must also know the current landscape of my city set against the larger, global landscape of the world.  And I must also consider the future of my city.  To be a faithful, contextual shepherd requires it.  Memphis deserves it. 


Closing Note:

Professors and fellow classmates, I’ve greatly enjoyed our class these past many weeks.  I’ve not only learned from each of you, but I’ve been shaped by you.  You have challenged me, encouraged me and given me space to consider ministry in my city as we have, together, considered the city to come.  I pray for an opportunity to visit each of you in your city and commit to continue to pray for you as you lead your ministry and love your city. 


“Oh Mama, Can this really be the end?

To be stuck inside of Mobile, with the Memphis blues again”

-Bob Dylan


Post-Easter Reflections

Easter was later this year than in years more recent.  Yet for me, it seemed to come right on time.  Had it come earlier, it would have been too early.  Had it come later, it would have come to late. 

The days leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are dramatic.  They are filled with a roller coaster wave of emotion.  Intrigue, horror, disbelief, tragedy, celebration, sorrow and tears fill the week.  Lots of tears. 

My days leading up to this Easter were rollercoaster as well.  Absolutely not to the degree or depth of Jesus’ Easter week, but a taste.  Or better said, bitter reminders of why Good Friday was good and why the Resurrection was necessary. 


Ginger is my aunt.  She and my Uncle Charles have been together for years now.  By any measure of love a couple has for one another, theirs was deep and honest and true and warm. 

Earlier this month, Ginger was out helping a friend who’d broken down on a rural road in Love County, Oklahoma.  She stepped out of her truck and another truck came by, hit her, killed her and sped away.  In the wake of her death, she left 2 adult children and a grieving spouse – my Uncle Charles. 


I met Marye at the Med the week before last.  For 12 years now, Marye has been working in the Med’s Adult Special Services unit.  That’s code for the HIV/AIDS unit.  Marye shared with me her amazing story of how she’s provided care to thousands of Memphians living HIV/AIDS.  She shared how she’s lost family members to the disease.  She told me of how her mother-in-law scolded her and then ostracized her when she began working with AIDS patients. 

The she introduced me to one of her patients; a woman just older than myself with two daughters.  All three of them living with HIV. 


Olga is a hero of mine.  She works hard to raise money for St. Jude and his fellow saints of ‘lost causes’.  She gave me a tour Tuesday before last.  I was blown away at the work going on in that place.  Like a citadel of hope anchored in downtown Memphis, day after day they treat the youngest among us whose bodies have turned on themselves.  Though I’m sure there are times where their work feels like one long defeat, they labor and labor looking for the right mix of medicine, care, prayer, good luck and love – hoping against hope that a child’s life doesn’t end before it has the chance to begin.  I left St. Jude proud of St. Jude and of Olga.  I left glad that there is a St. Jude and sad that we live in a world where even our bodies can be at odds with us. 

Vollentine Elementary School

One Wednesday a month I head up to Vollentine Elementary School to join the Principal, Counselor, and a small handful of teachers and parents for the monthly Site-Based Council meeting.  Vollentine is a wonderful school, but it has had its share of challenges in recent years.  Nearly 100% of the school is on free or reduced lunches, which means nearly every student is at or below the federal poverty line.  Their grades are poor.  They are an academically struggling school by most measures.  Poor neighborhood plus a poor school most times means a bad outcome for its students. 

At this meeting, the Principal – a dynamic young educator bent on turning the school around - shared that the school met its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for the year.  This is the first time in years Vollentine has met these goals marking a turning point for the school.

Jos, Nigeria

The place that Lisa, Nathan and I once called home was in the news again last week.  Following the country’s election, violence broke out.  Muslims killing Christians, tribes fighting other tribes and everyone jockeying for power.  Some of the violence took place just north of our city, Jos.  So far as we know, none of our friends have been victims, but we continue to pray. 

Dr. Prince

Dr. Prince was one of the first people we met on our very first trip to Nigeria.  He lived in the flat above us in the apartment complex we lived in in Jos.  He’s remained a dear, dear friend for years now.  He was in the US presenting at an AIDS conference in Denver and prior to returning home, he stayed with us.  We were encouraged by his visit and we talked about a wide sweep of topics – Muslim / Christian relations, HIV/AIDS work, approaches to ministry, immigration reform – but mostly we talked of God’s love and the work of God in the restoration of all things.  And we talked about how difficult it can be to live in the ‘in between’ of here and now. 

These people and places made up my Easter preparation.  These things and their juxtaposition to the highest holy day reminded me of the weight of Good Friday.  Jesus took on the weight of the world.  He took on the million ways humanity has made a mess of the world.  He took on tragic accidents and tragic diseases.  He took on broken systems and broken neighborhoods.  He took on violence and what can feel like dreams deferred.  And in return he offers life.  Life beyond bodies, lives and families destroyed by trucks, or AIDS or cancer.  Life beyond the violence of neighborhoods.  And somehow, that life is extended to us now, not just in some sweet by and by.  But rather God is active in the renewal of all things even now.  Jesus was resurrected.  Death was defeated in all of its forms.  And that defeat is being worked out in the million cracks and crevices where death finds home.  And in its place life is taking root.  Even though, like a germinating seed, it’s not always seen.  Nevertheless, its still there, waiting to burst forth like a spring flower from the soil, or like a savior from a tomb. 



Downtown with Daniel

Daniel Harris is one of the most amazing men I've met - ever.  He exhibits a deep and consistent faith that challenges me and incites in me a hunger for God.  After being with Daniel, I leave and long to pray, read the Scriptures, visit with dear friends, be still and quiet, sing, cry and laugh.  He's just that kind of blessed, gifted, gentle, mischevious soul.  

Daniel lives in East Memphis, but his heart is for the downtown Memphis community.  The eclectic Bohemian blend of homeless people, City Hall movers & shakers, business tycoons, young professionals, artists and owners of the small corner shops and cafes that make up the community - that's where Daniel's life comes alive. 

He stumbled into this passion after reading the Bible and discovering God's heart for the poor and for cities.  And when that message took root in his heart, he's never relented.  Over the past 7 years he's consistently traveled to downtown Memphis to build relationships, share his life, hear their stories and point folks to the One who pursues with love and hope and grace.  When I mean consistently, I mean 3-4 days a week, spending anywhere from 10-20 hours each week investing in the downtown community.  And it shows.  If you walk anywhere with Daniel, you feel like you're with the Mayor.  And that's what I call him, the Mayor of downtown.  

Several months ago, just before Christmas, I was with Daniel.  It was after dinner one night and we walked into a cigar shop.  The owner and Daniel have struck up a remarkable friendship.  I walked in and it was like when Norm would walk into Cheers and everyone would shout, "Norm"!  Everyone patted Daniel on the back, the ladies gave him kisses on the cheek, the owner stuffed cigars into his pocket and the gentlemen surrendered their seat to Daniel.  

This same cigar shop, a few months prior, had emptied out into the streets in search for Daniel.  Daniel had been reported missing and word spread to the shop.  Family and friends were concerned.  When the cigar shop owner got the message, he announced it to everyone in the shop and they poured out of the shop and into the streets; an impromptu search party.  Daniel was discovered at a tavern down the street leading a Bible study.  

I have seen this scene, of downtowners caring for and loving Daniel, be played out over and over.  Literally a dozen times in the last 18 months since I've known Daniel.  People love him.  They listen to him.  They talk with him.  They share things with Daniel; secrets, hurts, fears, memories, questions, regrets, hopes and prayers.  Daniel is their pastor; he's the chaplain for downtown - literally.  

Here's the thing though.  Daniel has Cerebral Palsy.  Which means, that each time he goes downtown, it is (in my mind) an Everest sized chore.  Generally he takes one of the Memphis Public Buses to get downtown.  And while he's downtown, he makes his way up and down the streets.  He's quite mobile, but like I said, it is a challenge.  Still, Daniel is undeterred.  He knows that God has called him to this place, these people and this community.  This has been his rhythm - living in a different part of the city, but having his heart beat for downtown, he travels in and out of the heart of Memphis each and every week.  

But today, that rhythm began to change.  Today, the boys and I helped Daniel move into an ancient apartment in the heart of downtown.  Through the prayers and efforts of several people, Daniel was able to secure a wonderful place in the very neighborhood he loves so deeply.  

I've known several people whose hearts have been for a place and a people.  Friends who felt called to international missions and took short term trips to the location of their calling while they waited for the right time to relocate.  And when they were finally able to go, it was a celebration.  Which is why I wanted to be a part of this move.  

Though the distance and culture are quite a bit closer than, say Indonesia.  The passion, the heart, the faith...well, I just don't know that I've known anyone 'wait' better and more faithfully than has Daniel.  And now, a new season of his life and ministry is about to begin.  And, frankly, I wanted to be there for its birth.  

Daniel's move may have gone unnoticed in much of downtown, just like Jesus' birth went unnoticed by much of Bethlehem.  But, though unaware, the world changed on that day.  And I think similarly, in some small ways we won't realize until seasons yet to come, downtown changed today because a man of tremendous faith and love moved into the neighborhood.  And that can still change things.


Motives for a Better City

In case you missed the memo, a little over a year ago I started a slow journey toward my Doctorate in Ministry degree.  The first course took me to Ghana where I spent two weeks learning about how people of faith and good will are affecting change in amazing ways.  Then I spent the better part of 8 months reflecting on and writing about that experience.  And if you're ever interested I've got a 112 pages of pure brilliance that I'm happy to show you as a result.  

I've just begun my second class, which is remarkably closer to home (online, at my dining room table), yet decidedly longer (the course is 4 months, I have no clue how long I'll take to write).  The course topic is the Nature of Cities.  I'm in the class with 3 professors (one from Seattle, one from Canada and one from LA) and a half a dozen students from Kenya, Ethiopia, LA, NY and one cat from Memphis!

One of the first topics dealt with people's motives for making a better city.  Below is my abbreviated response.  



Motives for a Better City

Why do you think many have tried to develop a better city? What do you think is wrong with cities and what can be done about it? Do you think Christians should tell non-Christians how to live and how to achieve a more just city?

What a fantastic series of questions right out of the gate for us to consider.  Even as I begin to form a response I have a sneaky suspicion that, after several weeks with the class, I’ll return to edit and amend if not delete altogether. 

Nevertheless, in all my city ignorance, here we go. 

As Bakke and others have stated - despite our bucolic beginnings, we as a people and community, ultimately ‘end in a city’[1].  And though Dr. Boyce has pointed out in his Prologue to the Nature of Cities[2] and other places that cities address God’s plan for humanity to ‘be fruitful, multiply and subdue the earth’ I think that another divine hardwiring is also in play; namely a groaning for the future city. 

I wonder if part of the desire for many to develop a better city is not somehow bound up in, what Pascal would describe as a God-shaped void.  Similar to the ways that people, myself included, recognize a longed-for connection with the One who created them and seek to address that connection in ways both God-honoring and God-awful; likewise is there a longed-for connection to a Home that was lost in the Garden but will be found in the Better City.  Our efforts at developing, in my case, a better Memphis is an outgrowth of my longing for the city to come. 

Just as I might feed the hungry because I long for the day when no one is hungry, or I clothe the naked in protest for the day when all are well clothed, or house the homeless in anticipation when we all live in the places that Christ has gone to prepare for us – I labor, now, for the city whose foundations and builder is God as a part of my preparation for the City to come. 

Even if I don’t know the Biblical narrative regarding the urban trajectory of redemptive history there is something in me that longs for a better city, a place that is most fully ‘home’.  Maybe this is why many of us have tried to develop a better city. 

What is wrong with cities and what do we do?    The answer to that is both painfully simple and enormously complex.  People are what are wrong with cities.  We fallen image-bearers of God are the ones who have made a mess of the world.  Because of the sin that entered the world through the actions of people, sin has tainted not only the human heart but the world as well; including cities.  Cities did not make themselves sinful, people did.  Systems and structures did not become marred with sin by themselves, people made them so. 

And yet, the solution to the human condition is also the solution to the urban dilemma.  Christ died for the sins of humanity, and yet that sacrifice has implications for the whole world.  The gospel of God has something to say even to the soil and sidewalks which are groaning to be set free from their slavery (Rom. 8:19-22).  Oftentimes, tragically, my understanding of the gospel and its implications falls short of an urban solution.  I allow the gospel’s power to terminate on me rather than seeing the fuller, deeper more penetrating and holistic ripples of the Cross event.  Certainly Christ died and rose to save people.  But that same power holds the possibility to transform our cities.  As Dr. Melba Maggay states, “Structures are transformed, they do not get saved”[3].  As the bumper sticker on the backs of so many Memphis cars says, “Jesus is the Answer”.  This is true.  Both for fallen people and for broken cities.  That is the simple part.  The complex piece is how is Jesus the answer, especially as it intersects with cities.  How is Jesus the answer to homelessness?  How is the gospel the answer to racial and economic segregation?  How is Christ the best and only response to grinding poverty?  Frankly, it is this ever-elusive 'how' that keeps me up at night; and keeps me enrolling in classes such as this one.   

I think that more often than not, rather than telling others how to achieve a more just city, we Christians might do better to show others how to achieve such a city.  We should embody a city that reflects the City to come.  The City to come doesn’t have ghettos that isolate people from commerce, education and meaningful living, so in the ‘city-now’ we should work to dismantle the structures that communicate isolation.   In the Cross, ‘no-bodies’ become ‘some-bodies’.  Likewise as those marked by the Cross, we labor against cities that say to people, “Because you live here, you are a no-body” and we rebuild communities that communicate, “because of God, you are some-body”.  We do this, again, out of our own groaning for the City of God. 



[1] Bakke, Ray.  A Theology as Big as the City.  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997

[2] Boyce, Ronald R.  The Essence of Cities-An Introduction to the Nature of Cities: BGU, 2010.

[3] Maggay, Melba Padilla.  Transforming Society: Reflections on the Kingdom and Politics.  Quezon City, Philippines: Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture, 2004.



To Living Hope on the eve of MLK Day, 2011

I delivered this message to my beloved church, Living Hope Church, on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011, the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday.


Tomorrow our nation will pause and reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is my prayer that as the nation remembers Dr. King, that we as a community of faith, that we, as Living Hope Church, will also reflect on the life and words of Martin, our brother in Christ, and the faith that propelled him to struggle for justice, righteousness and reconciliation.  It is my prayer that as we reflect and remember that we will, as followers of the one who came to reconcile all things to himself, consider again our Christ-calling to live as ambassadors of reconciliation even as we proclaim a Gospel that has the power to reconcile people to God and people to one another. 

 Jesus taught us that, of all Scripture, the greatest commands are to love God and likewise, love our neighbor.  It was those dual loves that propelled the young Baptist preacher into the struggle for civil rights.  He saw that injustice imposed on black children wasn’t just harming black children who were growing up believing themselves to be inferior, but the oppression was also damaging white children who were believing themselves superior.  King would articulate this by saying:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 

Months before his death, he would reiterate this idea again but in a more personal manner:

I said to my children, ‘I’m going to work and do everything I can do to see that you get a good education.  I don’t ever want you to forget that there are millions of God’s children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are.  For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be’.

It is precisely this sentiment that we labor alongside the teachers and families of Memphis at The Neighborhood School and Vollentine Elementary School.  It is precisely this understanding that moves us see the orphans of the Haven Orphanage in Kenya be cared for, educated and discipled.  It is because we understand that loving our neighbor can often be one of the most radical things we do and we see that the lives, the futures and the faith of our children, in Hope Park, is, in ways subtle and painfully obvious, inescapably tied to the lives, futures and faith of the children in Managua, Kabul and Memphis.  The gospel of Jesus, the love of God compels us. 

Not long after arriving in Memphis and joining Living Hope I wrote these words, upon reflecting on Living Hope and the life of Dr. King.

I long for Living Hope to be a community of faith that King would be proud of. A community that loves God, loves God’s world and follows Jesus courageously and radically. A community that recognizes the personal, corporate and systemic ways sin can destroy and righteousness can heal. A community that sees, as King saw, the links between racism, materialism and violence. A community that groans for and acts on behalf of the Kingdom of God. A community that more beautifully reflects the Beloved Community that is found in and through Christ.

 This remains my prayer and longing for our church. 

Will you pray with me, as I pray for us.  

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