When most people think of missionaries, they think of someone who has traveled to a third-world country.
But Travis White considers himself a missionary to East Texas.
“When I say I’m a missionary, people ask me ‘Where are you going?’” he said with a laugh. “There are a lot of great things going on here, but there are still a lot of needs to be met.”
White was on the payroll at Colonial Hills Baptist Church when he felt God calling him to quit and become a full-time missionary in the area.
“They said, ‘We thought you should have done this two years ago,’ (when I stepped down in November)” he said. “They gave me six months to raise funding to go on my own.”
Was he afraid to lose his source of income?
“I want to give a big, spiritual answer, but I was afraid,” he said. “But, there are a lot of people in the Bible who were afraid.”
So far, White has seven churches that have agreed to financially support him in the same way they would support a foreign missionary.
White has reached 68 percent of his fundraising goal, which, while not substantial enough for his family to live on, is good progress, he said.
“(I couldn’t do this when I was working at Colonial Hills because) it was hard to maintain full-time commitments there and try to work with ‘the’ local church (as a collective),” he said. “The move freed me up to work with any church that wanted it partner.”
Even though East Texas is considered by some to be the “belt buckle” of the Bible Belt, According to the Pew Research Center, only 47 percent of Texans attend religious services once a week.
When people think local evangelists, they might see something different than what White has in mind.
“I’m not standing on the corner preaching,” he said. “There are four things that are critical to being a missionary: learning the culture, learning the language, finding what is relevant and living it out. East Texas has its own versions of that. We have a language other than what is spoken. It has its own culture like anywhere else.”
Most of all, he’s interested in connecting East Texans to a place where they can make a difference in someone’s life.
“I see great ministries, and there are people sitting in churches who are hungry to be more connected,” he said. “But many people don’t know how to get connected, or find their sweet spot where their giftedness, passion and talent meet. We assume that because Joe in our church is a carpenter, he should work with the building ministry, but that may not be his passion … God is not a God of confusion. I call it the Esther principle: we are where we are for such a time as this.”
White is director of the “One Love Network,” an organization that partners with churches and nonprofits to do good in the community.
The sky is the limit as far as projects to tackle. Currently, White is working with churches to create community gardens for marginalized citizens to use. He says there are two-fold goals: church members fellowshipping with one another and providing for a community in need while creating an opportunity to share their faith.
“We can go from squash to Jesus very practically,” he said.
Another issue White believes needs to be addressed is how isolated neighbors are from one another, he said.
“The biggest issues are fear and busyness,” he said. “We equate busyness with success, and we don’t know how to talk to strangers anymore, because we’re so afraid; ‘What if they’re different than us?’”
While White doesn’t set out to plant churches, he said that could happen from the communities that form in a neighborhood just by being connected and caring.
“It’s the opposite of planting a church; when you start neighboring, a church plant often comes up organically.”
He and his organization have helped youth groups and work groups respond to housing needs for marginalized families, have also partnered with those groups (and the city) to do cleanup projects across the city. He is helping to create a partnership between two local churches that will help launch some intentional neighboring efforts in one of the most marginalized areas of the city, he said. Another group he meets with is going to start writing love letters to residents of nursing homes.
“Various youth groups and small groups call on us when they want to serve the city (we keep our ears open for greatest needs and help vet the need so that the group is best matched to a project that fits them). And yes, we have worked as a coordination point to gather needed items when disasters strike (both locally and throughout the US),” he said.
All of that is an expression of White’s faith.
“A lot of people have gotten cynical about church,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways we can reach our city and it’s not just sitting in our brick-and-mortar building waiting until someone is hurt enough to come to us.”
White also leads discipleship groups in the hopes of spreading his vision.
“We need to learn to see God in our story instead of manufacturing our story,” he said. “If we equip each other to be disciples, no one will have to teach you how. Your passion will drive you … We don’t know what will come of any of it, but we know something will.”