Erik Santiago, Operations Director for Advance Global & North America, wrote us a great summary of the recent North American Central Hub gathering in St Louis, Missouri.
By the time I touched down in St. Louis for the Advance Central Hub Conference I had cancelled trips to Nashville, Portugal, France, Luxembourg and the UK this year due to COVID. What was intended to be a year of connecting with our Advance family all over the world, turned out to be me in my house with an increasingly antsy family licking the wounds of their own cancelled summer trip to Europe. And though I’ve now come to understand the deep French roots of St. Louis, it wasn’t quite the Eiffel Tower holiday I had envisioned. That said! This little midwestern gathering with our brothers and sisters exceeded my expectations because, in the end, it’s the relationships far more than exotic locations that truly feed my soul.
The North American Central Hub is a small but mighty four churches scattered over quite a large area from Texas to Arkansas to Missouri. They themselves have grown in sweet fellowship over the last few years and to join that little (masked and socially-distanced) party was such a gift. You can be sure that plenty of meat will always be on the menu, especially when a couple from conference host Cross Point Church provided glorious barbeque from their catering company. The meals were outdoors and the Lord saw fit to ensure stunning fall weather for a COVID-safe soirée. It never ceases to amaze me just how easy it is to pick up conversations I was having with many of these beautiful folks a full year ago. What we share in Christ provides such an easy context for understanding and relating to one another, especially at a time when we all feel a bit alienated.
A little secret of mine is that I get ‘conferenced-out’ pretty easily – a remarkable confession given that I attend and oversee the running of Advance conferences across the globe. But maybe you can relate given what can be a lot of information, a lot of relationship and (usually) a lot of rich food all packed into about a 48-hour window with little sleep in a strange bed. But I’m growing in stamina and this gathering helped because I think many of us have learned the lesson during this COVID season of how we can take gathering for granted. And I love gathering! But as the old saying goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” To which I’ve also heard someone respond, “Truth is, you knew what you had, you just never thought you’d lose it.”
This time together had a great rhythm and pace. There was plenty of unhurried time connecting, eating, talking and laughing. The worship was absolutely transcendent, due to a variety of factors – incredible leadership by Josh Harrell of One Life and Seth Durbin of The Bridge among many other gifted musicians, the extraordinary sound of the Cross Point sanctuary and the dearth of gathered worship opportunities we’ve all suffered in the last six months. But I think the biggest reason I always enjoy conference worship is that most of the people there have travelled far, spent money, gotten someone to watch their kids and sacrificed in a variety of ways to be in that room. With hands lifted high, shouting, weeping, praising, jumping and clapping, many of these church leaders rarely have opportunity for undistributed worship in their own churches, so this freedom creates a certain atmosphere. This was all rounded off by timely talks from PJ Smyth, Brian Barr, Shawn Craig and Ben Durbin that were all so relevant and encouraging given the state of the world and church right now.
One of the final, more memorable things I did during this short stint was to visit the most prominent landmark in St. Louis, the Gateway Arch. It is unlike any sculpture in the world, standing 630 feet with a one-of-a-kind wonkavator that sweeps passengers to a breathtaking observation deck at the top in just minutes. “The Gateway to the West” it’s called since many early American pioneers passed through it as they travelled from the east. This theme of the pioneer, the sojourner, was prominent for me as I craned my neck to behold this monument soaring above. Because no matter how rough a road we’ve had in recent months, our great Gateway ushers us into the presence of God whenever we seek Him. Not under the shadow of a great arch or even at the base of a great French tower, but at the foot of a Great Cross are the gathered people of God able to experience a little of the place we all long to someday fully be.