Josh McGrew lifts his arms in praise as he proclaims his love for Jesus Christ in song.
18-year-old McGrew has only been coming here to The Inn at University Presbyterian Church to worship for a few months — but that’s not because he’s new to Christian ministry.
Shortly after he finished eighth grade, McGrew and his family relocated from Edmonds, Washington to the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua, where he lived until returning last June to prepare for his freshman year at the University of Washington.
So why would a family of five move to the poorest country in Central America, you might ask? The answer is simple: Jesus Christ.
After traveling several times to Nicaragua on mission trips, the McGrew family decided to pursue mission work full time to establish a ministry of their own there.
You might assume that spending his formative years in a foreign country serving the poor would have been the most emotionally shocking part of his last four years. But the real culture shock, McGrew says, came with his re-immersion into the Seattle milieu.
He had to get used to the changes in slang, technology, and style, of course. But adapting to the religious (or anti-religious) environment here has been the most difficult part, he says.
“It’s been kind of hard just because you have to be careful about what you say sometimes which I’m not used to,” McGrew said. “I’m used to being able to talk freely about [my religion].”
In King County, just 37.3 percent of people are affiliated with a religious group. In Nicaragua, however, over 80 percent of the population belongs to a Christian denomination of some sort. The contrast between how religion is perceived in both places is easy to see for McGrew.
“[In Nicaragua] they were fine with you talking about it. You didn’t have to worry about offending anybody by bringing it up because everybody kind of knew about and talked about it and it was fine,” McGrew said, “whereas here you have to be really careful about talking about your religion.”
Becca Rennaker, youth pastor at The Inn at University Presbyterian Church, attributes the apathy towards religion in Seattle to our city’s affluence and intellect.
“Because we’re in an educated place, people just don’t think that they need something more. They’re very comfortable,” Rennaker said.
Payton Young, a local student who is also a Christian, has noticed that her comfortable lifestyle in Seattle has an affect on her faith.
“When I’m here, I feel my faith in what God can do shrink because I have dependence on so many other things,” Young said.
As a Seattle Christian, Young feels distracted from her faith. She says independence and drive for success is paramount to her life in the city.
“It’s shifted from persistence in God to persistence in ourselves and our own ambition and it distracts or even blinds us from seeing the miracles that God is doing around us,” Young said. “I really do believe that God is doing miracles here all the time, but I think sometimes we keep ourselves from seeing it with all the distractions.”
What McGrew experienced in Nicaragua differs quite profoundly. The lack of comfort and need for self-reliance in Nicaragua is something that McGrew witnessed firsthand while living there and serving impoverished people as a Christian missionary.
“We live in Seattle and we see homeless people all the time, but you have no idea what it’s like until you go and you’re walking through a garbage dump and you see people with a dirt floor and their house made out of corrugated metal that someone threw away,” McGrew said. “And they’re digging through garbage cans to eat rotten food that somebody threw away like four weeks ago because nobody will give them anything.”
Experiences like this have not only changed McGrew’s perspectives on poverty and humanity, but also on what religion means to him. Religion was somehow involved in every aspect of McGrew’s life in Nicaragua — from being involved in his home church, to accompanying mission trips as their Spanish translator, to helping his parents with their mission to serve others and spread the Gospel.
Although he is now involved with his church here and lives in Christian housing at UW, his experience as a Christian in Seattle has felt like much more of a risk to McGrew than it was in Nicaragua.
“I’m glad that I was in that Christian community though because I feel like it’s given me the ability to talk about it,” McGrew said. “I have the confidence to be able to share what I believe with people who may not believe the same thing and discuss with them why I believe that.”
Culture impacts people’s systems of belief. In Nicaragua, where 42.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, more people believe in a higher power than in Seattle. Does Seattle’s prosperity make it less spiritual? Does Nicaragua’s poverty make it more spiritual?
Both may be true — but in either world, McGrew says he’ll stay committed to sharing his belief in Jesus.