Episode 34 – Widen Your Circle (again!) with Shannan Martin

When we think about the idea of “widening your circle,” what are we really considering? Do we actually want to dive into the stories of people who are unfamiliar to us – even if it’s uncomfortable? This week, Jessica spends time in the home of Shannan Martin. Shannan is popular blogger, speaker and author. Her new book, The Ministry of Ordinary Places, encourages us to uncover the hidden corners of our cities and neighborhoods and invest deeply in the lives of people around us. Also, this week continues a special series of shows where Jessica takes us through the themes of her brand new book, Imperfect Courage, one chapter at a time!



Jessica: Hey, everyone. This is Jessica Honegger, founder of the socially conscious fashion brand Noonday Collection. And this is The Going Scared Podcast, where we cover all things social impact, entrepreneurship, and courage. Today’s interview is with my really good friend, Shannan Martin. The interview actually takes place in her home, sitting on her living room couch in Goshen, Indiana.

And I wanted to have her on this show in particular because we’re continuing our conversation of Chapter 8 from my book, Imperfect Courage, on how we can “widen our circles of compassion” to encompass the people around us whose lives may look very different from our own. It’s easy for our circles to become more like walls, keeping people out of our little comfortable sphere. But to live a life of impact and meaning, we’ve got to widen those circles to embrace people that are different than us. And Shannan has done that in a very real and practical way.

You’ll hear that Shannan says that growing up, she always dreamed of living in a beautiful farmhouse with her family in the country. She describes it as the American dream with a sight of Jesus. And that’s what she got until she felt called to leave it all behind, sell the farmhouse, and move into a low-income neighborhood in Goshen to grow roots among a diverse group of neighbors.

Her husband is now the jail chaplain. Her kids go to the local public school, and she’s passionate about helping all of us widen our circles too, to embrace people who are different from us, who we might normally never cross paths with. Her new book, The Ministry of Ordinary Places, is all about how we can live with more intention and meaning by widening our circles to embrace the transformative beauty hiding in our cities and neighborhoods. Give it a listen.

So this is my first live in-person. I’m actually sitting in Shannan’s living room in Goshen, Indiana, because my in-laws have a lake house about half an hour away, and I seriously feel like an NPR journalist. I want to go record the sounds because you even talk about in your book the sounds of the summer, the ice cream truck, train…

Shannan: I know.

Jessica: We might go next-level on today’s episode.

Shannan: We should.

Jessica: I know that my producer will have a lot of fun with this one. OK. So, as I’m driving over here, I’m telling my mother-in-law, "Here’s where I’m going, here’s what I’m doing." And she says, "Yes, Shannan. Shannan’s husband, Corey and I used to work together back in the day," when my mother-in-law used to work for her congressman. She was the deputy chief of staff for years and years, and I am just so fascinated. I need to know your journey because I’ve only gotten to know you as this new justice-oriented, adoptive jail ministry person, but apparently this was not always your path. And so, I want you to take us from the journey from flower-patch farm girl to Shannan Brights. I mean, I think we need to change your Instagram handle. It’s like a real identity shift, isn’t it?

Shannan: It’s a signal to the world, for sure. Yeah, I mean I can give you…

Jessica: Not the short version.

Shannan: Not the short version.

Jessica: I mean, we don’t need this short version.

Shannan: You’re the deep dip.

Jessica: I’m here to stay. I mean, I’ve made it to Goshen, Indiana.

Shannan: Right. What more do you want?

Jessica: We’re going to make an evening of this.

Shannan: Well, then you interrupt me at any time if you want more detail, or questions, or whatever. Because there’s a lot, it’s a lot of backstory. It’s a lot of important backstory.

Jessica: I’m so excited because I love the backstory, because…

Shannan: You do.

Jessica: …oftentimes you don’t see the backstory, and there’s always a story behind the story, and everyone’s living. We’re living one story before the next story that we’re going to be living into. So I’m excited to hear.


Shannan Martin: The Backstory

Shannan: Well, and it’s interesting for us because our backstory, and it doesn’t happen this way with everybody, but our backstory was so different than the life that we’re living now. So, I’ll start kind of at the beginning.

So I grew up in Ohio. Corey grew up kind of in this area. We met at…well, let me back up and say, we were both raised in blissful evangelical Christian homes. So, we would say now that we had…you know, we didn’t know each other, obviously, but we had very similar upbringings: small town, rural, you know, this is lower-middle class, pretty simple people.

Jessica: Where did you grow up?

Shannan: I grew up in Pleasant Hill, Ohio, a tiny, tiny town. And so, then we both ended up at Bethel College and up this way in Mishawaka, and that’s where we met. So we got married coming out of… you know, he was a couple of years younger than me, so I was done with college. He still had a year left, and we got married. I graduated with a degree in psychology. Corey graduated with a degree in theology.

But the interesting thing is that the year after I was done with college—so I was back in Ohio for a year—he started becoming interested in politics. And so, he volunteered on a local political campaign, which, so that would be kind of…you know, that would have been the congressman, I’m pretty sure where he would have met your mother-in-law. So he became more and more interested in politics. But meanwhile, I’m in Ohio working as a social worker. You know, I feel like I don’t even really remember him doing that. This was a different time. We had our landline phone, and that was it. So we were communicating, but I feel like there were parts of our lives that we were missing. We end up getting married, and he worked on some smaller campaigns.

So he worked on a Secretary of State campaign. He went and did an internship in Indianapolis. And so, then it becomes obvious he’s really interested in politics. One of the Congressmen, who he had volunteered on their campaign, ended up running again, I think. And that race, he won the election, so became United States Congressman for the state of Indiana and invited Corey and I to move to Washington D.C. to staff his congressional or his congressional office in D.C. And so, we, at that point, you know, we’d been married for maybe two years, no kids, we’re still living in a crappy apartment, and it was exciting and all of these things. And so, we packed up and moved to Washington D.C., which was a huge shock to us because neither of us had ever been in a big city at all.

Jessica: Wow. Yeah. You were from south to the earth, tiny Midwestern towns.

Shannan: Yeah. And it was interesting. So we got there, I mean, the cost of living is sky high. We were both in entry-level jobs that paid almost nothing, and it was a really…You know, I look back on it now and it’s like we’re working in these really interesting atmospheres. Really, there’s a lot going on, hustle and bustle. It’s a non-crowd…

Jessica: D.C. is intense.

Shannan: Nobody understood why we were married already. We were so young and everybody there is less career-driven. You wait until way later for that. So everybody thought, you know, we’re kind of an anomaly in that way. I ended up getting a job at the Heritage Foundation, which is a super conservative political think tank. So anybody interested or related to conservative politics would very much know the Heritage Foundation.

So I ended up working there as a research assistant for the man who drafted the welfare reform legislation in 1996. So it was a huge deal. My boss was a very, very well-known, in some circles, very hated, in some circles, very revered man. And he was kind of like a nutty professor type, and everything was weird. I ended up being his research assistant. And yeah, that was the life we lived. We thought we’d be there for two years. We were there for only about a year, and just working a lot, making hardly any money in a really materialistic environment. I just remember, we lived in Arlington, so just five miles away from [Capitol] Hill, but it would take us like 45 minutes to commute in and out every day. And I remember sometimes taking the metro, and just everybody around me had these Louis Vuitton bags and, you know, there were certain things that were like “in” right then.

And I just remember thinking, all of a sudden, we’re in this kind of metropolis. I remember it was such a big deal that there was a Sephora right near where we lived, and that was the kind of stuff I always loved. And now it was nearby, but we had no money. We couldn’t afford anything.

Jessica: Barely afford your metro ticket…

Shannan: Right. Like we’re working all the time and we have no money because we’re paying triple what we had paid for our apartment. I mean, it was a good learning experience, very eye-opening. But what was happening was we were digging deeper into conservative politics. Like that was just becoming more and more our home.

It was an interesting time because when we were there in D.C., it was soon after the war in Iraq had begun, you know, we were kind of in those early days. And so, it’s interesting to think back now on what the atmosphere was like and particularly, in the arm of politics that we were kind of involved in. So my husband was promoted to a higher position back in the district office. We moved back to Indiana, bought our first home. And at that point, we were ready to start our family. So I was still working from home remotely.


Shifting into a New Story

Jessica: And at this point, you’re feeling like you’re both committed to this political path.

Shannan: Yeah.

Jessica: You both are thinking, "This is our career path."

Shannan: This is our career. You know, we both sort of felt like we had fallen into it, especially me, I had never had…and I still didn’t have political aspirations, but I thought I was going to be a social worker. And now, I’m doing research and writing on these political, domestic policy issues. But they hooked us because, especially by the time we moved back to where cost of living was a lot lower, we were both getting raises. We were both being paid pretty well at that point. We had excellent insurance. And at that point, you realize, we’re not getting out of this. And we didn’t want to necessarily at the time. We had a really good gig. Everything was going better than we could’ve expected.

We got involved in a local church. We started doing Dave Ramsey. We started saving up all of our money, and we were ready to start our family and had no…you know, we couldn’t have imagined that we would face infertility.

And so, around that time, it’s like we had waited a bit. We were still pretty young, but we had waited a bit longer. I think, at this point, we had been married…I mean, I don’t know how many years, five or six years, when a lot of the people that we grew up with were pretty like, you get married and you start your family. So we were kind of seeing…

Jessica: You had already taken a bit of a detour by moving to D.C.

Shannan: Right. We were seen as a little bit of like, you know, maybe a little too career-oriented. But I had the mentality of, when we’re ready, then it will happen. And we were young. I mean, I wasn’t 30 yet. I was in my late twenties. And what I would say now is, for us, the gift of infertility, it was very unexpected. But Corey and I just pretty quickly…and I know this isn’t everybody’s story, so I always want to be sensitive to this, it was a really hard year. It wasn’t fun at all, but there was a distinct point where we were just like, we’re going to adapt. We just want a family.

We didn’t suffer through maybe the grief that a lot of people do. We just were like…and that’s kind of our personalities. Like, "OK, this didn’t work."

Jessica: We’re going to go do this.

Shannan: "We’re going to find something that works. It’s going to look a little different than we thought that it might," but we just jumped into adoption. And so, this would have been 13, 14 years ago. It was very different than it is now. I mean, we didn’t know really anybody close to us who had adopted. People weren’t writing about it online. The whole online situation was very different then. And so, we were jumping in pretty blind. So we did bring Calvin home from South Korea, and 364 days later, Ruby was born. And she was born in a nearby city, a domestic adoption.

We’re just building this life, right? We’re just doing the thing that’s in front of us. I was still working part-time. Corey’s still working for the Congressman, and we ended up finding this beautiful…Our dream was to live out in the country because that was our roots, both of us. And, you know, I had this vision of where I wanted my forever home to be. And I knew I wanted a white farmhouse back in Long Lane with a big front porch and no shutters. We have a lot of Amish-influenced architecture around here, and that’s what I wanted. And we found that, and we bought it. We moved out to our dream home with these two precious little babies. I think Ruby had just turned a year old when we moved there, so Calvin would have been two, and just continued on.

So at a certain point in time, when you receive everything that you’ve wanted, you know, it’s like we had these sort of mental checklists. I don’t think it was anything that we even talked about, but there were certain things that we wanted our life to look like. And at the point that you’re holding all of those things, you’re forced to take stock of the fact that there is still something missing. You know, it’s like you can be handed everything that you’ve wanted and still feel that little bit of emptiness, and that’s the situation that we found ourselves in, sort of feeling around in the dark. Like why is this not adding up?

“When you receive everything that you’ve wanted…you’re forced to take stock of the fact that there is still something missing…You can be handed everything that you’ve wanted and still feel that little bit of emptiness, and that’s the situation that we found ourselves in.” Shannan Martin

Jessica: Well, it’s almost like the wanting behind the wanting.

Shannan: Yeah.

Jessica: Because you wanted these things and you’ve got them, but then what’s the deeper wants of your soul?

Shannan: Right. I don’t know that we even knew that there was a deeper want of our soul. You know, it was just a very, I want to be kind to myself during that time of my life and I wanna have compassion for myself, and I do. But there was just a lot that we…you know, we weren’t question-askers, and we very much just had this one idea. And it was easy because we were both raised with the same picture of what life should look like. For a good Christian couple, life should be safe, and secure, and comfortable, and peaceful.

And so, whatever that looks like, as long as you’re going to church and you’re tithing, which of course we were doing those things, then beyond that, it’s just…We very much believed that that’s what it was about. That was the goal, was for our lives and for the lives of our children to be as safe and comfortable as possible.

And so, we started to just have a little bit of this internal angst. You know, just kind of this quiet “something might be missing,” but I don’t know that we could have even articulated that. We ended up through…sort of a friend of a friend said, "There’s this sermon series, and you guys should listen to it." Well, let me just say we had never in our lives…like we’re not the kind of people who are like, "Let’s get the kids to bed and then listen to a sermon series." Never. And this is before podcasts, this is before…this is like old school.

Jessica: These were like DVDs someone mailed you in the real mail.

Shannan: Yeah. It was on the computer, but it was very, very strange and new. And I can’t believe that we did it. Like we should have been watching The Bachelor once the kids were in bed. What were we doing? So we ended up listening to the sermon series that became the book Radical by David Platt.

Jessica: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, that’ll kick you in the behind.

Shannan: It did. I just remember Corey and I sitting there…

Jessica: And you are his target audience.


Answering When Purpose Calls

Shannan: Oh, man. He saw us coming. We were sitting there, I just remember thinking, "Who is this guy?" I mean, nobody outside of his area. You know, I’m sure he was well-known within his area. He pastored a large church, but we certainly had never heard of him. And we didn’t know…He sounded really emotional. We just were like, "Who is this guy? What is going on?" And I remember that first night when that first sermon was done, we just turned off the computer and silently trudged into bed.

I mean, it was immediate. And we were immediately even talking about it, but it kind of shut us down. It was percolating already. And so, it felt like it had 72 parts. Like it was the longest sermon series on the face of the earth. It never ended, and we kept going back for more. I really recommend the book. But he was really just opening the Bible and saying, "So Jesus really cares about us defending the oppressed and caring for the poor, that matters deeply to Jesus." And Corey and I were just looking at each other like, you know, we had that feeling of like, "Well, OK, then we’ll do it." We were very much like, just tell us what to do. That’s how we lived our whole lives.

So OK, we’ll care for the poor then. But the only problem is, who are the poor? We don’t know the poor. And I started having these conversation…because he talks a lot about just financial stewardship and these kinds of things. So all of a sudden I’m, for the first time in my whole life, questioning: "Should we be saving up all our money? Should we be supporting more people globally?" It was uncharted territory for us. We had, outside of just sort of the evangelical model of churches giving to missions, we just didn’t know much at all. We didn’t know what this was going to look like. We lived in this blissful homogenous community where everybody really lived, and looked, and believed the same. I mean, we couldn’t conceive of what this was gonna look like.

And then right in the midst of that, like on part 118 of this never-ending sermon series, we got on an airplane and flew to Korea and brought back our third little guy, Silas. So right smack dab in the middle. And he came home just leveled.

Jessica: Wow.

Shannan: And so, at this point, this is our third adoption, we kind of thought we knew how to do this, you know, and it was a very different experience. He was a little older than the other two had been, and he was just wrecked. And so, we immediately were like, you know, all hands on deck, what is happening? Meanwhile, we’ve got a five-year-old and three-year-old. I’m still working part-time. Corey is still working.

And a month after Silas came home…keep in mind, we’re still plugging away at the sermon series, still going on. A month after Silas came home, my job unexpectedly ended. So I was working under a government contract at that time. And the administrations had changed not long before, so we kind of knew it was coming, but we didn’t know when. And I was exactly half of our income, like to the dollar, half of our income there. So it was a big deal to like, “OK, we just brought home our third child and now half of our income has gone, but it’s fine.” And it felt really kind of like a good thing. Like we knew Silas was just going to take over for a while in every way.

But then a month after that, my husband was working for a different Congressman at this point. And his boss, the Congressman came on national TV and resigned from office in the midst of a scandal. And so, then we weren’t so sure that we were going to be fine. You know, now we’ve brought our third child home. We’ve both lost our jobs within a month of each other. And at the same time, God has been like, not just stirring our hearts, like that’s too precious for what was happening.

I was weeping in the shower. I just remember just feeling like I was sick to my stomach all the time. I was crying all the time. Calvin had…our oldest child at the time, he had to have really dramatic oral surgery, and so, it cost a ton of money. And I just remember like, "What is God doing?" Like here we are, for the first time, we’re ready to start giving more generously and living a bit differently, and now we have to pay $8,000 for a surgery. Like that’s terrible use of God’s money. I was still like, "What in the world is he thinking?" But I believe, and I really, really, truly believe that we were in this weird process of learning to let go. And it wasn’t about us, and it wasn’t about what we thought was best, and it wasn’t about…It was like, "Just hand it over, and I will decide the parameters of doing that."

“I was weeping in the shower. I just remember just feeling like I was sick to my stomach all the time…But I believe, and I really, really, truly believe that we were in this weird process of learning to let go.” Shannan Martin

Jessica: Well, there was really no choice, right?

Shannan: No. There was no choice. It wounded my pride. I mean, there was a lot of stripping away. And so, throughout this time of this whole kind of inner turmoil, I just remember, you know, and this is very much how I was wired then and probably still am in some ways, but I remember being like, "OK. You know, what can we do?" And then there were people around us that, a little bit, or we knew of people who were going through a similar journey.

The common thing was like, "We’re going to sell our nice cars and buy, you know, crappier cars, or we’re going to cancel cable." But we were like, "OK. We don’t have cable and we already drive crappy cars. So what are we going to do?"

And I kept coming back to Corey and saying like, "I think we’re supposed to sell this house." And every time I brought it up, Corey was like, "No, we don’t have to sell the house. We don’t have to sell the house." Meanwhile, we’re losing our jobs, you know, everything is unraveling. And on one of those, you know, the fateful night, I remember being in bed and just looking up at the ceiling and saying, "I think God wants us to sell our house." And Corey said, "I think you’re right." And I just remember I burst into tears. I was mad at Corey because he had missed his line. He was supposed to reassure me that everything was fine. That was kind of the pivotal moment of putting that “For Sale” sign out at the end of the lane. It was just tremendously…

Jessica: Because it represented everything that you thought you had wanted.

Shannan: Right. It was symbolic. It was deeply symbolic, and there was this pride issue for me of like, “people think we’re doing this because we can’t afford it because we’ve lost our jobs. And that’s not true.” I remember having this real weird pride reaction of, “we’re doing this because God wants us to, not because we have to.” Which is just…you know, everything gets kind of muddled together and it ultimately didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what people thought, and it didn’t even matter that a year after selling it, we were like, "Oh, we definitely couldn’t have afforded that. And, you know, God had our back in that."

I mean, for all…we were very much still caught in this life of keeping up appearances and being prepared for hardship. And in a lot of ways, I guess we were, but this is a real moment of us understanding that God could have his way and that we were really not in control. So the house was on the market for 18 months, which I thought was ridiculous.

Jessica: And you’re like, this is a dream home.


Shifting Proximity to Widen Circles of Compassion

Shannan: Right. Well, and I was also like, "OK, God. You wanted us to do this and then you’re going to take 18 months." I’m sorry if I sound like I’m really bossy to God a lot of times, you know, I kind of am. I have this idea that God was going to swoop in and make it clear to everyone. Like, make it obvious to everyone around us that was so skeptical of what we were doing that this was clearly his will. And it didn’t help, our first house that we sold, sold in two days. And so, I thought, "OK, this one, maybe a week." But this house, this beautiful home is going to sell and then everybody that doesn’t understand what we’re doing is going to have to recognize that, well, obviously, this was God’s plan. And that’s not what happened.

So for 18 months, we got to hear all kinds of ideas that basically boiled down to we were getting it wrong. We were hearing God wrong. God would never, never want us to sell that house. I mean, it was interesting to see how so many people were connected to us, you know, maintaining this American dream life that we were living. I think sometimes when we do things that are sort of outside of the box, it rattles people even beyond ourselves. It causes their ground to shake a little bit. And so, there were people around us feeling that. So we did end up moving to Goshen at the end of that 18 months. We spent a little bit of time in a rental and then we moved into this neighborhood and just kind of plopped ourselves down here and not knowing anybody.

“It was interesting to see how so many people were connected to us, you know, maintaining this American-Dream life that we were living. I think sometimes when we do things that are sort of outside of the box, it rattles people even beyond ourselves. It causes their ground to shake a little bit. And so, there were people around us feeling that.” Shannan Martin

Jessica: OK. We focused on what you’re giving up, sort of that thing that represented moving into a new season, a new life, not just a season, but an actual like, "I’m awake now. There are poor people in this world, and my life is not all about my comfort." What did you feel like you were walking towards?

Shannan: That’s a great question because I would say we, at that time…And you know, after being here for six years, I see things differently than I did six years ago because we’re always growing, right?

Jessica: Thankfully.

Shannan: Thank goodness. I think, to be honest, at the time, we just felt like we were walking towards the poor, like we knew. And so, part of me, like cringes a little bit. I think we didn’t know. We didn’t know what we were in for, but we knew, and I think there is truth to this and I believe this. We knew that, in order to love the poor, we had to know the poor, and we didn’t. And it’s not to say that there couldn’t have been other ways for us to bridge that in our old community. All I know is that God was calling us into really immediate proximity with the poor.

“We didn’t know what we were in for…We knew that, in order to love the poor, we had to know the poor, and we didn’t. And it’s not to say that there couldn’t have been other ways for us to bridge that in our old community. All I know is that God was calling us into really immediate proximity with the poor.” Shannan Martin

After Corey’s political job ended pretty unexpectedly, while we were still on the farm, he took a job at this alternative high school where he suddenly…that was kind of our entry point into these teenagers whose lives were really different than ours. And so, there was a little bit of tension at that point. Like, "Well, OK, we could just stay here." And that’s what a lot of people were telling us." You could just stay in your beautiful home and then right then…

Jessica: Like he is involved with the poor now.

Shannan: Yeah. It could have been tempting. And there were a lot of people around us who wanted us to just like, "OK, do what you got to do, but you don’t have to move." You know, now we had this sort of interesting entry point into suffering and into injustice. And I don’t know that we fully had eyes to see it yet at that point. But when we moved into the neighborhood, and really, you’re seeing the neighborhood today, it looked very different six years ago.

Jessica: So how did you go, I mean, Goshen, Indiana? Like were you just…did you just look at stats around where lower-income people were hanging out or?

Shannan: Yeah. It’s a good question. Corey’s office was in Goshen, so we were 20 minutes away. We didn’t move far. In my mind, Goshen was where we went to Target and where I got groceries because we lived in a little teeny tiny town that didn’t have stores and things like that in it. I remember Corey saying that he really loved Goshen and could see us living in Goshen. And I was like, "Nope, I don’t think so."

And for no other reason than the fact that it was…You know, I’m so interested in the way our views of Goshen have been reshaped because we are obsessed with our city, and anybody that knows us or follows me online knows this about me. But the real bare-naked truth is Goshen did represent poverty. It represented a more liberal political landscape that we were still far from at that time.

In a lot of people’s minds, we associate poverty with like, "Well, there are drugs there and there are gangs there." Those were the narratives that we were being given or the narratives we were absorbing because there’s some truth to that, quite honestly. It’s just a bigger city. And the neighborhood that we moved into was a vastly low-income neighborhood. We moved in knowing that all three of our little kids would attend the public school at the end of our street.

We did not know…and how we didn’t know this, I can’t say, we did not know it was a failing school. So we were suddenly taking them out of this really esteemed public school system and placing them into a Title 1 failing public school. I mean, it was like full immersion. But, you know, that’s not to say that it’s, you know…I don’t know. It’s all about perspective. So, you know, this is still pretty small-town life. But we were just simply…we were now in a neighborhood environment where the people around us looked, and lived, and believed in many ways pretty differently than anything we had ever been exposed to. Our next door neighbor, they were…some of my neighbors weren’t even here yet at that time, but the people that we share a property line with, they’re a Spanish speaking family.

And so, we arrived with little kids. They have kids our kids’ ages, but there was a massive language barrier. And so, it’s like all of this new experience. And they are, our neighbors, those particular neighbors are not the poor. They’re just an amazing family, middle-class family like us. But it was just a different thing. It was like now we have these neighbors, and now we want to get to know our neighbors and we can’t communicate with them. I mean, every step of the way, it was just encountering things that really challenged our old ideas.

Jessica: So, let’s talk about this. Because I think when we have our awakening, you know, mine came actually in the 8th grade, I went and worked in Washington D.C. and volunteered in inner-city D.C., and that’s where I was awakened to the poverty that exists in America. And then I went back in college and I interned in this home for women recovering from drug addiction in Washington D.C., a very liberal church called Church of the Savior, where the founder had marched in Selma and they founded this coffee shop called Potter’s House on Harvard and 16th. I don’t know if you ever went there, but it was run by homeless people. But I can look back and see that, after this awakening of waking up to the injustices in the world, there is a sense of identifying with the poor as projects, and I definitely messed that up.


Creating Space to Simply Be a Neighbor

And I think that is a pretty normal…in your journey towards waking up, that can be a pretty normal response. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey? Because I feel like your newest book, which I’m completely obsessed with, it is like feasting on the most gourmet meal. I mean, it is so well-written. It is just beautiful. And as I’m digesting it, I am seeing that there’s been this process, and you’re talking about paying attention. And so, you move here, and tell me what your process of paying attention has been?

Shannan: I think for the first year in our neighborhood, I found myself constantly feeling like, "OK, here we are. Here we are, God. What do you want me to do?" And we knew really clearly…and this is God’s grace to us, and to the world, and to our neighbors because we’ve messed up plenty of things, but we would have really, really gotten this wrong. I think I very much had the mentality of, you know, whether I would have said it or even recognized it or not, I’m not sure, but we’re here to save the day. I know there was some truth to that somewhere in my heart. And so, when we got here, I just remember, you know, we knew we weren’t here to plant a church. We knew we weren’t here to start a neighborhood Bible study or a food pantry. We knew that there wasn’t…I mean, I’m sure, in a lot of ways, we would have loved if God would have, you know, given us something big and interesting like that.

And so, I remember looking around and just being like, it’s just like regular people. Now, we’ve uprooted our lives, a lot of people are mad at us and don’t understand, and now it’s just kind of a quiet, quirky little neighborhood. So what in the world are we supposed to do? And time, and time, and time again, I just remember God saying, "Just be a neighbor. Just figure out what it means to be a neighbor." And so, for the first year, it was honestly just getting used to people coming to our door. It was used to having people…

Jessica: But how do people know to come to your door?

Shannan: Well, they didn’t. They weren’t coming for any particular reason, but there’s just…

Jessica: I mean, you obviously created a space that has this open-door policy.

Shannan: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think a lot of it was just people…when you live crammed in next to people, there’s just going to be more interaction. I’m amazed by, you know, the solidarity of a neighborhood, what it can look like. Now, I will also say, I was on the hunt. I was scoping things out. You know, a year or so after we moved into this house, we adopted Robert, which is just a whole different other rabbit trail. But he at the time was 19 and was in prison.

Jessica: You legally adopted him?

Shannan: No.

Jessica: OK.

Shannan: But we adopted him. He was an adult at the time, with kids of his own. So, we knew that there was not going to be like a, you know…And then he changed his name to Martin. I mean, no, he was a grown man with boys.

Jessica: But had never, I mean, his parents were long out of the picture.

Shannan: Yes. There was no family for him. And we had a really beautiful and meaningful Gotcha Day moment with him, you know, to speak that adoption language, like a really clear, clear moment where it was like, whoa. You know, everything just changed in a big way. When he was released from prison, he moved into our house here. And I have to say, even him becoming part of our family and becoming part of our regular life, I mean, his friends were vastly people who lived in poverty, struggled with addiction, were in and out of jail. And not to mention the fact that that was the demographic, not of all of our neighbors but a lot of them. So it really did come down to starting to be aware of the people that were walking up and down the sidewalks.

I tell a really ridiculous story in my first book Falling Free . You know, you’re in my living room right now and I was sitting here one day during the day, the kids were at school, my windows were open, and I heard this family, like this caravan of, you know, a man, a woman, and several small children, like four, four kids maybe. And it was chaotic. There was a lot going on. And I heard one of them right outside the window say that he had to pee. And, you know, there was all this parental-like, "Are you kidding me?" They were trying to get where they were going. And so, I saw an opportunity…

Jessica: To be like, "I have a bathroom."

Shannan: That’s exactly what I did. I fling open my door and say, "Hey, I’m sorry, I overheard. Do you need to use the bathroom?" They came in and used the bathroom. And then from that point, I stuck my foot in my mouth a little bit and went from there. But it’s interesting now. So now, jump ahead, four years or whatever it’s been, they were here for just a minute. I mean, we have so many rental properties in this neighborhood that people come and go and come and go all the time. So they’re here for a minute and they moved away. Well, they are back now in a huge way in our life. And I didn’t know that. So the first time I met…her name is Heather. The first time I met Heather again was at my church. And she said, "Do you remember me? I used your bathroom."

Jessica: Wow.

Shannan: Oh, my word. So they’re a regular part of our life now, and now we know their story. And now, they know our story. Now, we’re going deeper and deeper into, this is just what it looks like to belong to each other in community. And now, we’re just desperate for them to stay in this neighborhood. So, it’s interesting to see how those really small and insignificant moments… You know, I never thought much of them using our bathroom.

I mean, who cares? Most moms would be happy to let somebody use their bathroom, I think. And nothing seemed to come of it. It wasn’t a big epiphany. It didn’t change anybody’s life. It wasn’t fixing anything. But I just really have become a believer, and those little moments are really meaningful, you know, just recognizing each other. I think it’s really powerful to invite somebody into your home, even if it is just to use the bathroom. And that’s where community grows. So we’ve been on a journey really, of constantly divorcing ourselves or divesting ourselves of this idea that we’re here to save anybody, or to fix anybody, or to make anybody a project. Nobody wants that. I don’t want that. And to just live, to just be normal, to be humans, to be people who do have a pretty open-door policy, but also not all the time.

“I think it’s really powerful to invite somebody into your home, even if it is just to use the bathroom. And that’s where community grows… This idea that we’re here to save anybody, or to fix anybody, or to make anybody a project. Nobody wants that.” Shannan Martin

Jessica: Right.


Proximity as Living in Solidarity

Shannan: You know, there are times that we just hole up in this living room and we pull the shades closed and we watch a movie. And, you know, this is our life. This isn’t our ministry. This is our actual life. And we get to look out our windows and see the world around us every single day and believe that it belongs to us and that we belong to it, like we’re just connected to these people.

And so, it’s fun to see community take root and it’s fascinating how long it can take. So, you know, that’s where… The guy that lives right across the street here, he’s been here all along. He’s lived in that house for 60 years since he was a child. And it wasn’t until this year, his wife passed away very suddenly, and all of a sudden, you know, we’ve known him, we’ve known his name. He’s known our names, you sit and chew the fat, and you know, you do those things. But this year it’s like crisis happens and you just need each other in a way that maybe you didn’t before.

And so, I think of Mike and like, you know, he’s my neighbor, he’s my brother. But it took a long time. It took years of just making eye contact, and waving, and saying hello. And we have to be willing to put in that work. You know, I feel like God, in so many ways, just kind of parked us in our seats and put these big windows right here so we can kind of see the world and just kept urging us to just look around because our story is proof to us constantly. And I think this is true for every person no matter where they’re at. But at the point that we really start paying attention, really start paying attention, particularly to people who might fall outside of the mold that we happen to be under, the bubble that we happen to be in in whatever way. I mean, the more we do that, you see what people need, and what they really need is connection.

“At the point that we really start paying attention, really start paying attention, particularly to people who might fall outside of the mold that we happen to be under…you see what people need, and what they really need is connection.” Shannan Martin

Jessica: Absolutely.

Shannan: And that’s what we need. Like, we found ourselves…you and I talked about this a little bit before we started recording, but we needed to connect with people. We could not sustain our life here if we believed that we were here as like a beacon of hope in some way to this neighborhood. I mean, it can be pretty bleak in a lot of ways to be quite honest, and we need each other. We need each other for when one of us is having a bad day, the other one hopefully is having a good day, and you just keep heaving each other along this sidewalk of life.

Jessica: I love that. The sidewalk of life. So I wanna bring a question. I talk about this in my book. I quote Bryan Stevenson, and he talks about being proximate to the problem. And you approximated yourself. We and Austin have approximated ourselves. But we know not everyone’s going to proximate, but there are so many ways to approximate yourself. And you’re saying pay attention to those that are different than you. So what do we say to the person that looks around and says, "Well, no one is different from me"?

Shannan: Yeah. I mean, that’s a tough question because I’m always aware that I have it easier. In a lot of ways, I might have it a little harder, but in this way, I have it way easier because I have the advantage of being proximate to people really struggling through life. You know, they’ve been dealt some really, really hard cards, and we get to live right in the thick of that. And so, I haven’t lived the life of finding proximity outside of physically planting your home in the midst of that. However, I know people who have. And so, here’s what I’ll say. I think proximity deeply matters in where we choose to send their kids to school.

I think proximity matters with where we choose to attend church. I mean, there are things, regardless of where we live, and I’m a big believer in worshiping nearby where you live, but man, we can choose to attend a church that for whatever reason… I mean, this is going to look different for everybody, but where the crowd might just look a little different, it might stretch you in some ways. It might make you stand out in some ways. It might make you uncomfortable in some ways. I’m such an advocate for the little dying church on the corner because that’s where we found our home, and we did not see that coming. We did not expect that.

We see these churches popping up everywhere and they want to be bigger and better and, you know, be more relevant or whatever the case may be. Meanwhile, there are just tiny congregations dying everywhere because they’re just not cool. So stepping into some of those spaces and kind of jamming your stick in the ground… like what we care about is community. And when we arrived at our church, it was…I mean, 75% of the church population was 75 years and older. And it was a tiny…you know, we were running maybe 60 people on a Sunday. It was a small church, but I was like, OK, our kids…there are no other kids here, really. And there are no kids’ programs. There was no nothing. But my kids had a whole lot of grandparents all of a sudden, you know, the kind of vicariously could grandparent them and love them. We have friends who live in beautiful communities. We have friends who live in gated communities, but who choose to spend their free time volunteering at the jail. You know, they’re retired. They’ve lived their whole lives, and they live to serve the people in that jail. They have found proximity.

Jessica: Wow.

Shannan: I have friends who live in a rural setting out in the country and they have decided to commit to serving at a soup kitchen in a city nearby. And not just, you know, it’s Thanksgiving and we want to go do a service project, but it’s kind of a little humble sort of bare-bones operation. Not the cool homeless shelter, but just kind of this more sort of janky, trying-to-scrape-by operation, they’re going to commit to just… that’s where they go. And so, you endure, right? You find your place of proximity and then you just keep showing up. Because if we’re not building relationships, we are treating people as projects, end of story. End of story.

“If we’re not building relationships, we are treating people as projects, end of story.” Shannan Martin

Jessica: Well, and it’s only in building of the relationships that we really do widen our circle of compassion.

Shannan: Right.

Jessica: You can do that in your heart but you really have to do that by being proximate in relationships because we’re made for connection. We’re designed for that.

Shannan: And if we’re not connecting on a pretty ordinary everyday level, if we’re not sharing our lives together, and I believe a big part of sharing our life is sharing food, sharing space at the table. If we’re not doing that with the people around us, there can so easily be sort of a hierarchy of, you know, we’re the people with the resources and you’re the people who need the resources. And, I mean, it can just be easy to fall into that thinking.

I am abundantly aware, especially five or six years ago when we moved here, I’m abundantly aware that whether I like it or not, whether it causes me tension or not, I live in the prettiest house on my block. You know, like there’s just a lot of tension. And it’s uncomfortable, and I think it has to stay uncomfortable. But it would be possible and plausible for us to sort of position ourselves, if we weren’t careful as the white people in the pretty White House and, you know, that we can be nice and polite to people. People don’t need me to be nice and polite to them. They need me to be friends with them. I need them to be friends with me. I deeply need them to be friends with me.

“People don’t need me to be nice and polite to them. They need me to be friends with them. I need them to be friends with me. I deeply need them to be friends with me.” Shannan Martin

Earlier, today, one of my neighbors that it took me two or three years to get to know her, and I had sort of given up hope. Like, you know, you’re not gonna deeply know every single one of your neighbors. It’s just not gonna happen. But I sort of thought her and I might connect, and then we just never did until we did. And so, we connected, and we were really close for a year or so, and then her life just kind of went a different way. My life went a different way. We kind of lost touch, and I haven’t talked to her in probably a year. And just today, she texted me and said, "Hey, it’s me, and I’ve been thinking about you a lot. The kids are all out for summer break now. Would you want to go take the kids to the pool together sometimes?" She lives a dramatically different life than what I live, but this is what happens. You know, if I wanted to look at her as my project, I would not have let a year go in some ways, like there would have been this urgency of like, "I’ve got to stay right there. I’ve got to make sure that because she might need me or…"

Jessica: So I can like put a star on my chart.

Shannan: Yeah. And so, there have been times over the past year that I felt bad like, "Man, I’ve lost touch with her." You can see her house from where we’re sitting. She lives very close. And I felt kind of guilty and, you know, I didn’t…But today, I just thought, you know what? It is the best thing in the world that she reached out to me after all this time, like this just says 100 different ways like, we’re just neighbors. We’re just friends and now we’re going to connect again. And, you know, some relationships just ebb and flow, but at the end of the day, come what may, she knows I’ve got her back and I know she’s got my back.


Having the Courage to Just Listen

Jessica: I wanted to shift a little bit because, in talking about connection and talking about your neighbors, you do such a beautiful job of talking about listening, being a listener. And I think it’s hilarious because our books are so similar.

Shannan: I know.

Jessica: Our messages, it’s so awesome. It is. Your version is perhaps a bit prettier than mine. So you talk about listening on page 29, and you say, "Only as we engage in the hidden practice of listening, do we learn about the struggles of others, gaining empathy where we once cast judgment." And then, you say that, "Jesus warned us to listen closely to his voice, while actively demonstrating a life of attentively listening to those around him. This is the heart of relationship, though it grows more old fashion with every passing digitized day."

So I would love to hear about your lessons in listening because, let’s face it, that listening is a lost art because it’s only in listening without judgment that we’re able to access empathy. And when we access empathy, we’re able to connect regardless of how different we might be from one another. Give us a little listening lesson.

“Let’s face it…listening is a lost art because it’s only in listening without judgment that we’re able to access empathy. And when we access empathy, we’re able to connect regardless of how different we might be from one another.” Jessica Honegger

Shannan: Oh, boy. I am not naturally a good listener. I’m a big old big mouth who much prefers talking, so we have to drop Enneagram somewhere on this episode. So I am an eight on the Enneagram, and I don’t know a whole lot, but what I do know is the eights like to dominate conversation. We like to run our mouths. And so, this is a hard one lesson that I continue to grow in. But what I can tell you is, when we…and this goes back to connection, you know, maybe even some slightly selfish motives, but when we came to this community, we just knew we needed friends. You know, we were lonely. We were estranged from parts of our own community. We were excited and exhilarated, but there were also some lonely days, and I just knew. It’s like blind dating.

We were just going to have to find a way to make some friends. And so, I became…just like pulling the lady in off the sidewalk and…

Jessica: Say, "Here’s my bathroom."

Shannan: …just calling her to the bathroom. We just started really…me, particularly, started reaching out to people. And what I found was, I was really drawn to people who had different ideas than I had. And this was not something I had ever really experienced. You know, I had lived in my small hometown forever. I went to a small Christian college. I mean, I had always been in spaces where, though I didn’t know this at the time, were very echo chamber-isk. We were all just kind of reinforcing the same thing, beating the same drum, however you want to look at it. And so, suddenly, I was in this community where I was stunned and surprised to hear that there were people who just had very different ideas. And I found myself wanting to learn from them.

And then meanwhile, Corey became…I don’t know, two years after we moved to Goshen, he became the full-time chaplain of the county jail. And so, that’s just a whole new…you know that has widened our circle in such meaningful ways. I mean, that just permeate every single bit of our life. But when you sit around a table with people who have grown up in generational poverty, people who have suffered the effects of racism, people who have lost custody of their kids and might never get them back, people who are just white-knuckling it against addiction. I mean, if we’re not paying attention and really listening, I don’t have a lot to offer in those conversations.

I just quickly learned that I wanted to hear from them. I wanted to learn from them. I mean, even with our oldest son, Robert, even with our little kids who, as you know, they’re from different countries. They have brown skin. I mean, they live in a different experience than what I lived, and I’m learning from them now when I can shut my mouth and try to trash my easy answers where I just want everybody to be happy. You want the suffering to go away. You want the pain to go away. I mean, that doesn’t work anymore. It doesn’t work when you have people in and out of your life constantly, in and out of your home constantly, who are living painful lives. I remember talking to a really good friend of ours who had joined a gang when he was in prison and now had come to know the Lord and was really wrestling with how to get out of this gang.

And I just remember sitting at my table, at that table, and thinking what does it look like to be his community right now? Like, what does it look like to…I mean, I knew little to nothing about gang involvement, but I quickly learned through that conversation, there are only a couple of ways out of a gang, and none of them are pretty. And so, I’m envisioning, what does it look like to stand in solidarity with…You know, it’s just all of these life experiences that I couldn’t have ever imagined.

Jessica: But that right there is a lesson in listening because you’re asking yourself questions in that moment.

Shannan: Yeah. Yeah.

Jessica: And the question is really an empathetic one.

Shannan: Yeah.

Jessica: Empathic. Make me sound better, buddy. It’s an empathic question that is causing you to consider his position.

Shannan: Yeah. You know, I think, in those situations, I just learned quickly that my easy answer is that I would try it out maybe to gobble up the airwaves to fill the awkward silence, whatever. They weren’t so helpful anymore. These are lives that were being lived just on the cliff edge all the time, every day. And I think listening is just powerful. I think it’s powerful. I think that’s when we learn. I think that is when we develop empathy and compassion. I mean, you listen to somebody’s story and suddenly, and you know this, you write about this all the time, like you hear somebody’s story and your heart breaks whether you want it to or not. If you’re really listening to somebody’s story of suffering, I mean, it will move you on.

Jessica: Well, and here’s the powerful thing. If you are listening, really listening, where you’re able to almost recreate what they’re feeling, what they’ve gone through, and you’ve empathized at that level, it actually creates a disappearance and a clearing. And I share that about Norbert in my book, my attorney, who’s been through the genocide. And when he was able to share his story, and it was received in this place of empathy and recreation, he started to heal. So, the listener actually plays a powerful role in that exchange of storytelling.

Shannan: Yeah. Yes.

Jessica: And don’t you want to be the kind of listener that creates a disappearance for someone in suffering?

Shannan: Absolutely. I mean, there’s a lot that can be said about sharing other people’s stories, and that’s a real tension in my writing. Just navigating, what does it look like to share the stories of people that intersect with my story. OK. It’s a tension that I hold with trembling hands at all times. And I hope that I continue to because it makes me overthink it. However, relationship makes a big difference in that, number one. These are our dearest friends.

But Corey and I are always just amazed by, you know, when he’ll share something from the jail or on his Instagram account, it’s really important for us to get permission from people and all of those things. There is so much power in having your story heard. So, what we find overwhelmingly is that people are desperate. I mean, people are over the moon. They can’t believe that their story is one that somebody wants to hear and then retell. And so, it can be a tricky thing. And I don’t pretend that I always do it perfectly. I try to tread really lightly there, but we see what you’re talking about. Like that healing of sort of you’ve got the floor. And we just want to know, we want to hear. We want to experience like you do the talking. I’m not interested. I’m not as enamored with the sound of my own voice because I don’t grow. I don’t grow as a person. I don’t grow as a neighbor when I’m listening to my own thoughts.

But I could look around to every area of my life and see… And I’m not just talking about the people who are living in poverty, or the people who are living with addiction, our friends that are in some of those may be different areas of life. But in every aspect of my life, I am now really surrounded by people who challenge my thoughts on faith, on politics, on art, on what does it look like to be a neighbor, what does it look like to be you. I found my home outside of this bubble of who I am, and I just want more of it.

Jessica: Life is richer outside the echo chamber.

Shannan: It’s so much better.

Jessica: It is.

Shannan: There’s so much more to talk about. I am not interested in small talk, and I think it can be so easy to default to small talk when we’re all just basically living the same life. You know, then you get together and there’s not so much to say.

Now, we experience the opposite, where there’s just so much to say, brew some more coffee, or tea, or whatever you’re drinking. Like we have a lot to talk about, and I really want it to mostly be you doing the talking or I just want to know. I mean, I just think it’s compelling to think of who Jesus spent his time with when he was on earth, and the mystery, it grows less and less mysterious to me every day because we just find ourselves leaning in and wanting to hear, and laughing our guts out, and crying. It’s just so much more. Like you said, it’s just richer. It just is. It’s layered, it’s complex, it’s messy. Our hearts get broken, and then they heal, and then they get broken. I mean, it’s harder in a lot of ways, but this is abundance. I think this is abundance.

Jessica: We all have opportunities that present themselves every single day. Are we going to choose to look our neighbor in the eyes, choose to know their lives, choose to know their names, choose to know their family and what they’re all about? And it was really special to get to sit in Shannan’s home because her message is so much about just planting roots right where you are and loving those right in your sphere of influence.

Make sure you go check out her new book. It was just released, The Ministry of Ordinary Places. You can find Shannan on Instagram. And don’t forget to join my email list. I send out all kinds of life hacks, behind the scene goodies, and even freebies from podcast guests. You can sign up at Jessicahonegger.com.

Thanks so much for tuning in today. Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend, Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.