Monday, February 25, 2013

Suckers or Succor? Saints, Cities & Home - Part 1

Suckers or Succor? Saints, Cities, and Home
Part One

Big cities can be fun.

And fun is what the Great American Evangelical Experience is supposed to be about, right?  Sunday worship is supposed to be fun.  Our interpersonal relationships are supposed to be fun.  Kids are supposed to have fun as they learn.  Eating out, going to the movies, watching and playing sports, and life in general are all supposed to be fun.

Fun, fun, fun.

Even the stuff in life that isn't fun we're supposed to have fun complaining about.  Rush hour traffic?  Post fun jokes and photos on the Internet (while you're supposed to be driving).  Taxes?  Sensationalize how high they are, even as, ironically, you should be at least partially thankful you have a job and a salary in that tax bracket.

Actually, spending enough time trying to have fun in modern America can be stressful.  So, many evangelical families try to capture fun with fun-filled vacations to places like amusement parks, beaches, or big American cities like Chicago, or Dallas, or New York.

Sometimes, even on a weeknight or a weekend, suburban evangelicals will slip into the closest big city to catch just enough of the urban vibe, but only in fun doses, so it doesn't turn into the drudgery of a midnight traffic jam or the terror of a side-street mugging.

After all, cities are supposed to be fun.  That's why we don't want to live in them!

Indeed, urban living can be costly, frustrating, nerve-racking, loud, annoying, dirty, bureaucratic, smelly, and generally, not fun at all.  Plus, true urban life is rife with poor people and unpleasant encounters with gritty street personalities.  The trick, or so we've been told, is to expose ourselves to just the right mixture of "fun" and "city," and not get stuck doing anything in town that we can't get a good laugh over later.

Taking Seriously Taking Ministry Back to the Cities

In the latest print issue of World Magazine, their headline, "The New Urban Frontier," invites us to adopt a spirit of adventure as we consider how God may be able to use us people of faith in some of the most neglected parts of our country:  America's gaping inner cities.  And describing these rough and disenfranchised neighborhoods as "frontiers" likely represents some intentionally savvy marketing on World's part.  Evoking a quintessential American aptitude helps sell our need to tackle the challenges awaiting communities from which our parents fled a generation or two ago.

Hey, let's face it:  if leaving the comforts and security of suburbia and exurbia for urban core living was really fun, we evangelicals would already be doing it.  Faith is supposed to be fun, right?  And for some, moving to big-city Manhattan, Brooklyn, or San Francisco may genuinely be fun - at least, for a while.  More than likely, however, even for the hardiest new urbanist, inner city living is an adventure in both the positive and negative aspects of the term.

Back in the heady days of our country's westward expansion, when people of all sorts were fleeing congested, squalid cities for the prospect of land and clean-slate opportunity, being a pioneer on the frontier held a lot more promise than returning to the "old country" from which America's newest residents had recently sailed.  In a way, encouraging evangelical Americans to move back to the old cities is like, 150 years ago, asking America's frontiersmen to return to their native Ireland, Italy, or Greece.

"You've got to be kidding me!  You want me to go back?"

After the First World War, a popular song asked, "how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paris?"  In other words, how did America's farming communities, the backbone of a robust and family-centric industry at the time, hope to retain their farm boys when they returned home from fighting in Europe, with its grand and sophisticated cities?  These days, if anybody were to write a song about our predicament, it would probably go something like, "how ya gonna get 'em out of their cul-de-sacs, after they've seen the inner city?"

Downtowns may make for a fun evening or holiday, but they're too burdened with corruption, broken infrastructure, poverty, crime, unsafe schools, and minorities - and liberals! - to serve as legitimate places to raise a respectable family.

Moving Away From Problems Doesn't Solve Them

Most evangelicals are white and middle-to-upper-class, and to our way of thinking, the best way to solve community problems is to simply move to a new subdivision.  Further outside of town.  Urban living may be OK for singles and empty nesters, since they don't have to worry about the school system.  But for us, when the houses around us start looking a bit shabby, or when too many non-white people start moving in, that's the time when we start looking to leave.  Sure, yeah; we move so the bigger house can accommodate our growing family, but also to put us in a better neighborhood where we can hope to be surrounded by people like us.  Where the schools are immaculate, the English language predominates, and the local grocery stores are new and offer an in-house Starbucks.

Actually, this is the same mentality that helped destroy the inner city by giving rise to suburbs in the first place - and now, the exurbs.  Except that, these days, we're more politically correct about it.  While most suburbanization was created by white flight, which was little more than racism in disguise, and today's demographic shift from urban centers still involves people leaving established and rapidly-aging suburbs for exurbs, it's not just white people on the move these days.  Now, there are upwardly-mobile blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in the mix, marching outwards towards the exurbs in what I call "ecru flight."

If there's anything good about this newest twist, it's that the impetus for exurbanization isn't about the color of one's skin as much as it is a desire to congregate with one's socioeconomic soulmates.  In other words, as long as you can afford the McMansion perched on a newly de-forested sliver of land, we can work out the racial differences after we see how well your kids are doing in school and whether you can keep current on your mortgage.

Meanwhile, the people who either didn't have the political or financial means to "escape" the problems inherent in aging and increasingly irrelevant urban cores stayed behind.  Now, we have a highly-stratified country, proof of which emerged profoundly in November.

And you thought this past election was all about abortion and gay marriage?

Suckers For America's Subdivision Contractors or Succors of Christ?

In a way, we suburban evangelicals have been suckers.  We've bought-in to the illusion of the good life outside of the city's walls, where the grass is green, our kids can play safely in the streets, and the air is clean.  We've been told we owe it to our families - and ourselves - to buy the biggest homes we can possibly afford so that we can provide an appropriately spacious environment in which we can flourish.  We've come to look upon the people languishing in the inner city as hapless victims of their own politically liberal foolishness.  And we insist that giving up all that we enjoy in our more prosperous suburbs to go slog it out in the urban core is unfair to ourselves and anathema to our country's credo of self-sufficiency and personal attainment.

But might we be wrong?  Might we be the suckers; the ones who have bought into the lie about greed and hoarding being not only personally rewarding, but beneficial for our country?

Rediscovering Christ's love for urban America's disenfranchised is not a new objective for evangelical ministries.  For more than a decade, churches across the country have been encouraged by Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City to become more intentional in their inner-city outreach.  And World Magazine is not the first evangelical periodical to feature city-centric reporting.  It's become obvious to more and more Christian strategists that America's current model of suburban and exurban expansion is not sustainable economically, socially, environmentally, politically, and morally.  Suburban sprawl is one thing, but social sprawl is quite another.  And to the extent that suburbanization and exurbanization represent America's attempts at running away from problems, we evangelicals - who alone have the One Answer to all problems - need to shift our own thinking on these issues.

This is not a rant against wealth and money, since it will take considerable amounts of both to re-evangelize America's inner cities.  However, we may need to re-think why God gives us the wealth He does, and what He expects us to use it for.  Here's a hint:  we're probably "entitled" to far less than we assume.  And, alas, speaking of entitlements, a lot of our re-thinking will involve the amount of leisure and fun to which we consider ourselves entitled in this life.  Or, at least, those things we think are "fun."

Indeed, there are real reasons why evangelicals are not already flocking with their families to America's urban cores, eager to undertake a discipleship lifestyle on our country's newest frontier.  These aging, socially complex, dilapidated, and often politically-corrupt communities hold some attraction when they're located in "fun" places like New York and Los Angeles, but America's newest frontier - the urban core - can be found almost precisely in the dead center of every swath of suburban sprawl dotting the nation from coast to coast.  Redeemer Presbyterian has been able to generate some discipleship excitement in the Big Apple, but as tough a sell as that has been, it's even tougher in places like Utica, New York, East St. Louis, Illinois, and Oakland, California.

Maybe you want to ignore the question, but it's being answered right now, whether you want to realize it or not:  are we suckers, or succors?  Are we going to continue running from our urban problems, or is there enough pioneer spirit left in us American evangelicals to minister Christ's love to our "old country" - the inner city?

For Part 2, please click here.

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