The following is the first chapter of a book I’m working on entitled “Plant: One Interns Memoir of growth, mess, and starting a church in Salt Lake City,” or “The Tenacious Photosynthetic Doubt of Redemption in which a boy grapples with the most basic questions of life through heavy drinking and smoking.”
I promise other posts will not be as long.
The first time I met Kyle Costello, we picked up dog poop together. It was August and a church I was a part of by the name of Imago Dei Community was holding their annual kickball tournament. I rode my bike there to help set up, locked it, and found my uncle Kevin. Kevin was a pastor at Imago and had recently convinced me to move to Portland from Colorado where I had grown up and lived my whole life.
He was setting up the speakers under a make-shift-gazebo-thing when I got there. I asked him what I could do to help. He told me I could pick up dog poop. I said okay, hesitantly, and noticed that it was hesitant, so tried to pick up my voice and sound excited, “Okay!”
“I just sent Kyle over. Have you met Kyle? He just came on staff from a church in Las Vegas. Here…I’ll introduce you.”
We walked over to where Kyle was and Kevin introduced me, “Kyle, this is my nephew, Levi.”
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Levi.”
“Kyle.” He said and offered to shake my hand, but then said, “I won’t, because there might be dog poop on it.”
Kyle had a shaved head like my uncle. He wore glasses, shorts and a brown polo. He looked youngish, around thirty or so and had broad shoulders. I would find out later that he was the kind of guy who ran marathons for cancer patients. I was the kind of guy who ran to the Plaid Pantry for cigarettes.
“Levi moved out here last summer from Colorado, just to be in Portland and maybe intern with Imago.” Kevin said. “I told him to help you.”
“Sweet.” Kyle nods, smiles. “Well…let’s pick up some crap.”
At that point, I would not have predicted that two years later the three of us and multiple others would be involved in a church plant from Imago to Salt Lake City.
I never had any desire to move to Salt Lake City. Neither did Kyle. I was completely content in Portland. There were good coffee shops, good beer, good art, good music, a very diverse urban center, basically what I called, “culture.”
I wasn’t sure if Salt Lake had this.
What I knew of Salt Lake was conservatives and Mormons. Also, snowboarding. Salt Lake is a huge snowboard capital. So I liked that. But everything else…well, it was questionable.
All I knew of Salt Lake I knew from driving through it years ago on a road trip with my grandparents to California. I remember the Salt Flats stretching out like an ocean and the smell overpowering, like Yellowstone geysers. I remember how close the city felt to the mountains, as if the city came first, and the mountains had slowly crept up around it, like giants. I remember that the Olympics were about to be held there, so there were giant billboards and statues of Olympians in tight fitting spandex. Then all I saw was desert, desert, desert. This was what I knew of Salt Lake City.
Like most good stories worth telling, there’s a back-story to how all of us winded up in Salt Lake. If one watched movies all day, one might get to thinking that every character suddenly arrived at exactly where it was that they were in the film and give little thought to the history, failures, suffering, families, marriages, and so forth that give things shape. The truth however, is that most of the exciting things that happen in movies are two hour glimpses of a characters whole life. Movies are compressions of time. So naturally, the bad parts are left out. Not even the bad parts necessarily, but the monotonous ones. So in writing this, I would like to write as much about those parts, as the exciting ones. Because the truth is, life is not exciting. Not all the time at least. There was a time I thought it was. I thought that every single moment was to be spent in some high-speed car chase or dangerous romance. When this did not happen I got disappointed. If I wasn’t leading a Scottish rebellion against England or subverting the Roman Empire as a gladiator I felt like I was failing somehow. But perhaps a lot of life is about finding contentment. Finding peace in the small things, the simple things. Maybe life isn’t epic at all, and maybe that’s okay. So this is a story about the small things, and how small things can be great things.
This is about mustard seeds and yeast.
This particular story, of a group of people living life together, gathering occasionally to sing songs, learn about the nature of God, and love a city (also known as a church) starts with the story of an individual, Kyle. Not because he’s the leader necessarily, but because he’s the most handsome, and well, just a good place to start.
Kyle grew up Mormon in a small town called Eely in Eastern Nevada. His family was fifth generation Mormon. So, kind of a big deal. Kyle was 18 and about to go on his two-year mission when he started questioning his faith. And in that faith, questions are a bit, um, well…not quite allowed. It wasn’t even that his questions were out of place. Kyle was studying the faith and preparing an apologetic defense and explanation to those he would encounter, so he came up with a list of questions he figured most people would be likely to ask. He was able to answer all the questions except one or two. So he went to his dad. He handed his dad the piece of paper and his dad stared at it, slowly, and then looked up. His dad looked at him and said, “Why are you asking these questions?” Kyle explained.
“You don’t ask these questions son,” his dad, all of a sudden looking very stern-like, said.
A few days later Kyle got called into a meeting with his grandpa, a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And it wasn’t like going to grandpa’s house for milk and cookies. Kyle met with him in his office, an all-of-a-sudden-strange-looking place. His grandpa once again asked him,
“Why are you asking these questions?”
“You don’t ask these questions.”
“You know why.”
“No. I don’t. It’s for the mission.”
“Do you realize what you’re asking?”
His grandpa stared.
“Your questioning me,” his grandpa shook his head. “You questioning your father, your great grandfather, your elders, the prophets…” etc. etc., etc.
So Kyle left that day for the first time wondering what it was, he really believed. Six months later he had his name resigned from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Six months later he didn’t even know if he believed in God. Kyle enrolled in the University of Las Vegas. He never went on his mission.
While at the UNLV he met Joy, his current wife, only wife at that actually. Joy was a Christian. With a name like that, go figure. Kyle and her started dating and so the conversation once again opened up towards faith, God, religion, so forth. It was a very messy time for both of them. Kyle didn’t want anything to do with religion and Joy, naturally, didn’t want to date someone like that, and neither of them wanted to force the other. They would break up. They would get back together. Then they would break up.
One day Joy dragged Kyle to church. It was a big church, what someone like me might call “hokey,” but all things considered, a good church. As Kyle sat there he didn’t feel or think much at all about it, you might say he was “Puttin time in with the girlfriend,” but as the pastor started speaking, something happened. The sermon was, by all accounts, typical, but what the pastor kept doing, and without perhaps anyone else but Kyle realizing it, was use himself as an example. As he preached, he would talk about the darkness in his own heart, how he was trying to overcome it, and how the Gospel was transforming him. To Kyle, this was astounding. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, this would never happen. As much as you put your faith in God, you put even more so in man, so for a man to get up there and simply explain that he, too, was afflicted with the human condition, was literally mind blowing.
This jacked with Kyle. For a long time.
So began a discovery back into the heart of God, but separate from religion.
Kyle became a Christian, married Joy, and a few years later was on his way to seminary. From here he worked at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas for a few years before he felt God telling him to move to Portland.
So Kyle moved. With Joy of course, and they didn’t really know what to do, but felt okay. They knew about Imago Dei and Kyle had met Rick McKinley (the pastor of Imago) at a conference a while ago, so they started to plug in there. Before long, Kyle got hired on as the youth pastor and everything in the world was good.
However, not two months after they moved to Portland, their dog died. And then, two weeks later, Joy’s dad committed suicide.
Everything was not good.
But it was during this time, they learned what the word, “community” meant. And I mean, really understood not in a “I went to bible college so let me tell you about the Greek indicative plural past tense,” but in the way that you feel the woman you love deep in your bones.
The Costello’s were flying back to Las Vegas for the funeral when they were greeted by a mob of people that could honestly only be described as HEAVEN when they got off the airplane. The community of friends from Central absolutely swarmed them, Joy swept up as in a cloud of women loci, and for the entire week hovered in a swarm of love, compassion and community, not even allowed to descend to the dirt of the earth until she got back on the plane to return to Portland.
Yet, as soon as they go off the plane from Portland, they were swarmed again. They were film stars on the red carpet compassion of the Imago Dei paparazzi. They had expected it from Central. But this? They had barely been here a summer.
So if you ask them, they will say this was the summer they learned about community.
So the Costello’s did what they could to move on. They were loved. They were in community. This helped a lot.
It was nearly two years later when Kyle was asked to speak at a church planting conference held in Salt Lake City. A bunch of people wanted to take back the city from the Mormons and figured a church was the best way to do it. Salt Lake was a battleground. They invited Kyle to speak because they knew his background and figured he could give some valuable insight to how the next crusade of the Christian church was to be won.
As Kyle listened to speaker after speaker go on and on using terms like battle, fight, win, take-back and so on, his heart broke, and he also got a little angry.
When it was Kyle’s turn to speak, he did so. Mostly, he just spoke his mind and said that “taking back” the city from the Mormons was not the Gospel, it involved very little love and humility and was based on religious pride and Christian rhetoric rather than a desire to see transformation in the Mormon community.
When he was done, a lot of crickets started chirping. And as Kyle left the conference he thought very little of it. “I said what I had to say,” he thought.
But there was one guy, all the way in the back, watching. I picture him like Aragorn the Ranger, smoking his pipe in the dark back corner of the stadium, watching Mr. Costello, listening. Taking puffs and blowing O rings, a hood on his face.
A few weeks later, this dark ranger approached him, his name was Paul, and he was part of the Orchard group. A church-planting group.
“We want you to start a church in Salt Lake City.” Paul said.
“UhughufCough!” (is what Kyle said.)
“We liked what you said, we think you’re the guy.”
“I’m honored,” said Kyle, “And I really think someone should plant a church in Salt Lake, but not me.”
The Orchard guy said, “Well, we’ll be in touch.” And I like to think that this exchange happened in a parking lot and the guy flicked his business card at Kyle while saying, “We’ll be in touch,” very ominously, as if both of them knew that they had no choice. Kyle, you-are-the-chosen-one-sort of-thing. And then he lights a cigarette and peels away in a dark sedan, leaving Kyle in a dark parking lot, alone, standing with a briefcase beneath a dim lamppost and a confused look.
For a year the Orchard guy kept calling. Kyle kept saying no.
Seriously, who wants to move to Salt Lake City? I’m happy where I’m at here. Why are you still calling? I said no, don’t you get it? I don’t want to do it, I don’t feel called there, God says no, my wife will hate it, why are you calling me at three in the morning? Okay, maybe I’ll pray about it, yes, really I will, I’ll ask my wife, yes really, but I’m not saying anything, she’ll probably say no, not yet, no, will you calm down, it really is late you know, yeah, yeah, I know you guys are up for awhile in New York, have I been to New York? No. Do I want to go? I don’t know, is this a trap? If I go to New York does that mean we are going to meet? I never said anything you know, yes, I’ll look at that website, yeah, I’ll pray about it, this is really getting old you know…
Kyle eventually said yes. His wife said yes. His background/family/religious history said yes. God was probably okay with it. And eventually Kyle himself began to like the idea.
It’s just too bad it had to be Salt Lake City.