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We were enjoying time at the Southeastern Regional Spring Conference in Florida on May 2, 2018. I was just about to speak about church planting when we received news that the Village Plaza shopping center in Wilmington, North Carolina, where our church was located, was on fire.

I’m not sure I have ever felt as helpless as I did in that moment. On FaceTime my wife, Cala, and I could see our family and friends standing in complete shock as our church went up in flames. We were set to fly out the next morning. That night seemed like the longest night of our lives.

Photo by Cala Dickey.

Photo by Cala Dickey.

By the time we got home the fire, which was still burning, had completely gutted the shopping center, which included a barber shop, a supermarket, a beauty supply store, a restaurant, a machine shop, and CityLife Church, which we had launched in March of 2017. Just two months prior we had renovated and expanded the building, allowing us to add seating for 70 more people, a stage, and another office.

Just a few years ago, Cala and I were serving as youth pastors in Dayton, Ohio, when it became evident to us both that the Lord was calling us to plant a church. We contacted Brian Ehlers, our regional church planting director at the time, so we could take the proper steps to walk in the calling God had for us.

Pastor Mike washes the feet of close friend Tone McDuffie as a symbolic act of reconciliation.

Pastor Mike washes the feet of close friend Tone McDuffie as a symbolic act of reconciliation.

God used an unusual circumstance to speak to us. About four and a half years ago we were on our way to an amusement park with our best friends when they began joking about Cala and me starting a church where they regularly vacationed. For years our friends had vacationed at Wrightsville Beach in Wilmington. We all agreed that a church near the beach would be pretty amazing.

At the time of the conversation we were all laughing, but over the next couple of weeks the Lord spoke to our hearts. Both Cala and I, without the other’s knowledge, began looking up housing in Wilmington. When we discovered we were both feeling the same way, we took a trip to Wilmington to seek confirmation. The Lord made it evident that that was where we should be, so after a season of growth, training, and wrestling with the Lord, we finally packed up our family and moved to Wilmington.

When we moved we had nothing, not even jobs, so we asked the Lord, “What’s next?”

The next season was a season of frustration (because I tend to want to make things happen quickly), but it was also one of the greatest and most memorable seasons we have had on this journey. Although we didn’t know exactly what the next season would look like, that didn’t stop us from dreaming and casting vision. In our condo, we had three large mirrors that extended from the ceiling all the way to the floor. We filled those mirrors with pages describing the vision of what our church would look like.

It was in that season that we knew the Lord was leading us to Wilmington’s inner city. After much preparation and planning, we started meetings in our home. We knew that inner city people rarely leave the inner city, so we needed to locate there. After a few months God opened a door in the Village Plaza shopping center for our first building. The Village Plaza was in a community that was 92 percent African American. Racial issues have dominated this area ever since the Wilmington massacre of 1898 when anywhere from 60 to 300 black people (depending on the source) were killed.

NEW MSG MVP ad 12 0518 Cala and I want to see racial divides come down. We knew God was calling us to plant a multi-ethnic church but that can be challenging for a white pastor moving into a black neighborhood. We did not want to be viewed as another “white person trying to be the hero for the black person.”

Once we moved into the shopping center we just started building relationships and loving people. We believe that people will be drawn to us because of our love for one another. There is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to racial divides, but God has been moving in mighty ways. Our desire is to see a church where people walk in and can’t tell if it’s a black church or a white church. Praise God, our church’s DNA is black, white, Latino, wealthy, poor, privileged, and homeless. We are very diverse.

I often joke that CityLife is a 300-member church; most of them just don’t come on Sundays. We have built friendships with people from all walks of life, from business owners to drug dealers. One former gang member even lived with us for a while. Our church family extends far beyond the walls of any meeting place.

Pastor Mike prays with a friend.

Pastor Mike prays with a friend.

Amazingly, now one of my best friends is a black gentleman named Tone. Tone and I met when a group of us were inviting people to a Trunk or Treat event in the fall. (Trunk or Treat is an alternative to trick or treating. Kids dress up in costumes and “beg” for treats from people who have decorated their vehicles and filled the trunks with candy.) When we introduced ourselves to Tone and told him about the event, he seemed intrigued and actually came.

After some time he shared how he really felt at the time. He said, “When I found out you were coming to my community, my intentions were to shut you down. I gave you three months, but I’m glad you guys proved me wrong.”

We have had lots of other instances of how God has allowed us to break down divides and come together. We took the approach that “we aren’t coming here to fix all your problems.” We do want to see change, but we have the attitude that we’re all doing life together. The Bible says to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We want them to know that we’re going through the trenches with them. Racial issues hurt us as well as them. If there are shootings, they affect us too. We don’t just see events from the outside. Walking through the trenches with people is a very messy thing to do. CityLife is a messy church, but we all work together to keep our eyes on the One who can clean us up. At one event one of our sweet, little girls asked for prayer for her cousin who had recently been shot in the head and killed. We didn’t have to understand the situation to love her through that. Ministry is messy, especially when you walk with people whose path is completely different than one you’ve ever known.

Lillie Dickey poses with one of her “besties,” Theartis Evans.

Lillie Dickey poses with one of her “besties,” Theartis Evans.

We did a black and white sermon series on racism in January so I hung up a sign outside the church that said, “End Racism.” There was one guy who would always be outside the church hanging out. He and I had no connection and there was mild tension with the lack of communication. As I was driving away after hanging up the sign, he gave me a “thumbs up” and said he loved the sign. A few days later he called me over and said, “I see what you guys are doing here. You guys are giving hope to people who don’t have hope and I really respect that. I just want you to know that I’ve got your back.”

This gentleman may never come inside the building for a church service, but he did come in to play hoops with my son. He did have our backs outside the doors, and he is our family. It’s so easy for walls to become the identity of the church. The fire was yet another reminder that the building wasn’t our mission; the people outside were.

I’ve had people ask if I worry about our family’s safety. I laugh and say, “First of all, God protects us, and on top of that, all those men outside who run things are our family and they have our backs. People don’t mess with them, so they won’t mess with us.”

I pull into the parking lot and leave the van windows down; I’ve left money sitting out. If our kids are running around or if my wife is there, there is always someone watching. If they see something they don’t like, they stand up. They won’t let anything bad happen. It’s awesome to experience that with people we never would have had a relationship with before moving here. It’s amazing to see God do things like that.

NEW MSG MVP ad baptism2 0518That’s the toughest part about losing our building. Our family was there in that shopping center. Our kids were spoiled by the workers at the grocery store. They may be Muslim, but our kids were their kids. Cala and I were the witnesses at one of their weddings at the courthouse. We hung out with the guys at the barber shop and had many great conversations. Since we were in a shopping center we always had people popping in. Now we don’t get to see them as much.

Church members have been amazing. They go through the trenches with us, willing to follow us anywhere, which is encouraging because we aren’t sure where we are going. We don’t know if the shopping center will be rebuilt. For now another church only a quarter of a mile away from where we were is letting us use their auxiliary building rent free.

NEW MSG MVP ad 10 0518We would love to stay in this same area. Although it’s tough to look at the ashes where our building once stood, we know that the same God who provided for us every step of the way to Wilmington will continue to provide in Wilmington.

We are staying true to our vision of having multiple churches in Wilmington. Our goal is to launch our second campus on our third anniversary, March 19, 2020. Launching more campuses will help us concentrate on the communities we are located in rather than pulling people into the church from all over the area.

I often say that the building is not the church; the people are the church. Now we have the opportunity to live that out.

About the Author

NEW MSG MV 13 0518Mike Dickey is the founder and pastor of CityLife Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. He and his wife, Cala, have two children, Michael Dickey II, and Lillie.

About The Author

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