Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
Why You Matter in the Surprising Way God Is Changing the World
By Chris Travis
A Q&A With Chris Travis
What was it like teaching at the most dangerous school in New York City?
It was like living in a made-for-TV movie. I wanted to teach in a rough school, but I had no idea my school would have the highest rate of student-injuries-per-capita in NYC that year. It seemed like every day brought something unexpected. I might wade into a surging crowd of students to help break up a nasty fight on one day, and the next see a huge smile on a little girl's face because something clicked and she understood how to add fractions for the first time. Teaching there was sometimes horrible, or thrilling, or comical, or tragic. But it always mattered.
You haven't always been a teacher. Why did you decide to teach there?
I'm not sure I can explain it. I think it's kind of like how some people are just drawn to the ocean. You know it can be dangerous, but you just have to go. I was a pastor at a great church, and my wife and I felt drawn to New York City for a variety of reasons, among them a desire to plant a new church. But we knew we had to live there first, before we decided what kind of ministry would be appropriate. I really wanted to do something significant. When I heard about the opportunity to teach in academically at-risk schools, something in my heart leapt.
Can you describe a typical day teaching at a school like that?
Not really, because there weren't many typical days! Of course, a lot of days it was just hard work. Teaching and re-teaching, scrubbing graffiti off desks, tracking down whoever took care of my students--parents, grandparents, aunts, older sisters, foster parents, you name it--to enlist their help. Teaching is a very difficult job, and teaching in the inner city is a whole different thing. Sometimes you just had to laugh. I had too many strange experiences to fit into one book. Here's one I didn't include in inSignificant: One day as I was teaching, a milk carton suddenly exploded against the chalkboard and sprayed the first couple of rows of desks. There were several moments of chaos, but for whatever reason, I didn't even flinch. I calmly said, "Whoever threw that, please clean it up. We won't go to lunch until you do." Then I went and stood by the door. I overheard a student say, "Man, he so calm! He must be doin' some mad yoga!" I laughed out loud.
What does teaching at an inner city school have to do with "significance"?
For me, everything. Those two years were the two most difficult years of my life. I found out that I wasn't as good a person as I liked to think. And honestly, I wasn't doing very well at first. My students didn't like me and they weren't learning much. God stripped away all the things I had been relying on to feel significant. What could be more insignificant than a math teacher who was failing to teach students at a tiny, failing middle-school? Feeling insignificant can be very painful, and it was for me. But therein lies the paradox: those two years teaching in Harlem turned out to be the two most significant years of my life.
Explain what you mean by that. How were those years the most significant of your life?
I learned firsthand things the Bible teaches about significance. God doesn't see things the way we do. The small, weak, vulnerable things in this world matter a great deal to him. And the things we think are so significant, often don't matter to him at all. It wasn't easy, but gradually God helped me to see things a little more as he does. And I would never have dared dream the freedom and joy this new perspective would give me. There are a lot of good things in the world, but nothing compares to significance. It's worth way more than gold.
The subtitle of your book, inSignificant, is Why You Matter in the Surprising Way God Is Changing the World. Please explain that.
This book tells the story of what happened to me while I was teaching in Harlem. That's a crazy story in itself, but it's not the real story. The real story is about significance, so this book is for everybody. Everyone wants their lives to matter. We may not realize it, but our souls are hungry for meaning. The Bible has a lot to say about significance. When you begin to grasp the surprising, countercultural way God is changing the world, it's exhilarating to realize how significant we can be.
What's surprising about how God is changing the world?
He isn't working at all how we would, if we were God. I imagine that we'd use a lot more power than he tends to do. He's humble and gentle, usually working quietly behind the scenes. And he uses the tiniest things and seemingly insignificant people to effect massive change in the world. For example, God used a hug from a little girl in