Thursday, February 28, 2013

Suckers or Succor? Saints, Cities & Home - Part 3

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

For Part One, please click here
For Part Two, please click here

Big cities can be fun.

But we've established that, if fun were all that was required to jump-start a sustainable evangelism ministry to America's inner cities, we evangelicals would already be there.

Let's face it:  just parts of big cities are fun.  And those are the parts where clusters of restaurants, bars, and lofts have been carved out of urban decay and rebranded as hip, fashionable outposts in a sea of abandoned buildings, empty lots, Section 8 housing, cheap liquor stores, and tiny mini-marts with "Lotto!" posters covering their windows.

It's one thing for empty-nester and single believers to drive through these decrepit neighborhoods on their way to work, or some other gentrified outpost nearby, or when taking a quick break to catch a breath of sanity back in the suburbs or the country.  The neglected, forgotten, and marginalized are simply there.  We don't have to interact with them, unless we lock eyes with one of them panhandling during red lights.

For evangelical parents with kids, however, it's a much different ballgame.

"What are they doing over there, mommy?"

"Why can't we stop and buy some of whatever they're selling?"

"Was that a gunshot?  Why is everybody just sitting on those stoops?  Don't these people have jobs?  Why is there trash everywhere?  How come you tell us not to wave at those people?"

Actually, some of these are questions we adults ask ourselves subconsciously, but just as we struggle with the answers privately, it's even more difficult explaining to children the way things are for many urban Americans.

It's a valid concern:  Our own children; the little people we're supposed to protect and nurture.  At what age should they be told that some people are simply lazy, or hooked on narcotics, or illiterate, or criminals, or from gravely dysfunctional families, or pawns in a broader political scheme to defraud their humanity because of their skin color and the vote they can be expected to cast?

Back in suburbia, parents have a bit more control over how and when they can have these types of conversations with their kids, although even then, the results of those conversations might simply perpetuate the same bad stereotypes that have helped drive such deep wedges between the haves and have-nots in our country.  But to see the conditions that precipitate these difficult questions on a daily basis - and even at the end of your block?  We Americans have been trained to think that this is not a healthy environment for raising well-balanced kids.

Except... how else are kids going to get a well-balanced view of their America unless we have this dialog?  Unless kids see "how the other half lives?"  Unless kids see how their parents are reaching out in love for God and trusting in His sovereignty, and His protection for their family?

Of course, one reason why I don't hold as much fear about exposing white, middle-class kids to urban poverty is because - duh! - I don't have any kids!  But another reason likely involves the fact that when my parents would drive our family from placid, tranquil Upstate New York down into raucous, gritty, graffiti-covered Brooklyn, and my brother and I asked these types of questions about the conditions we were seeing outside our car's windows, my parents answered us back.

Carefully, and maybe not as compassionately as a social worker, but purposefully, and in a manner so we could understand that life is more complex than it seems from within our white, middle class family, living up in the country.  I've said before that it's to my parents' credit that I didn't harbor any racism against black people until we moved here to Texas, when I was entering junior high school, and I kept hearing other kids saying derogatory things about blacks.  Back in our little village on the north shore of Oneida Lake, there was only one black family in town, and they lived in one of the nicer, bigger homes.  When I heard racist language down here in my Texas school, I thought kids were jealous of how wealthy black people must be.  Wealth was literally my preconceived notion about black people!

Naivete can be so ironic.

Speaking of racism, it's not even like all old cities are created equal.  When we talk about urban America, some urban cores are far worse than others.  Take Detroit's, for example.  The city has lost almost half its population in the past few decades, and is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.  It is such a corrupt and inefficient municipality led by such an incompetent city hall, most of America has written it off for dead.  Scrap.

Sadly, America has plenty of really bad cities.  And while crime rates are high in Detroit, they're higher elsewhere.  But considering how just about every aspect of survival is in such imminent peril in the Motor City, Detroit is probably America's biggest and most graphic urban failure.

And despite some well-meaning efforts at projects like urban gardening, historic preservation, and cultural incubators, it really probably is dead in its roots.  Moreso than probably any northern city, racism and bigotry have corrupted the city's history almost since its inception.  Corruption has likely been just as rampant throughout its history.  In a way, some of Detroit's current problems were inevitable, considering how viciously its residents have despised each other over the generations.

Meanwhile, the automotive industry's own slow, steady slide into decrepitude cost the city tens of thousands of jobs, left behind gaping factories impossibly suited for being retrofitted for modern industrial uses, and created vast stretches of brownfields - environmentally-hazardous sites - that would be too costly to redevelop unless the land could suddenly command ridiculously steep Manhattan prices.  

That's not to say that Detroit is an entirely lost cause - there are still over 700,000 people living in that shell of a city, which is still a sizable number of souls.  But it illustrates the severe end of the scale at which urban challenges require almost impossible strategies.  Perhaps it's small comfort for the rest of urban America that not all cities are as confounding as Detroit, or even that social revitalization and economic reclamation are imperative planks to the urban mission field's platform.  After all, the Gospel of Christ doesn't need economic triggers, does it?  Even if it may take a lot of money to plant the seeds.

The point is that between New York City at the top, and, yes, Detroit at the bottom, America has many other urban centers in various stages of social, political, economic, and moral decay and abandonment.  Places like Buffalo, Utica, and Syracuse, New York.  Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown, Ohio.  Oakland, California.  Memphis, Tennessee.  Allentown, Pennsylvania.  Even some of America's older, aging suburbs, like where I live.  Wherever you can spot suburban sprawl on a map, you'll find a city core somewhere in the middle.  And chances are, that city core is a place where people like you and me would rather not live.  A place with too many disenfranchised people who don't look like us, act like us, or vote like us.

Or worship like us.

Actually, if that's not an accurate description of a mission field, what is?

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