Monday, September 30, 2013

Urban Ministry Faces a De Blasio Paradigm

Who ever said urban ministry is easy?

Certainly not the Rev. Tim Keller, founder of both Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and a whole new emphasis on "reclaiming" urban America.

For over twenty years, the perceived success of Keller's Manhattan church has helped attract evangelicals of diverse affiliations to not only the skinny sliver of land between the Hudson and East rivers, but city centers across North America.  In New York City, however, an upcoming election for mayor may indicate that, for all of Redeemer Presbyterian's success, a lot of work remains.

Conventional conservative theology holds that the more Bible-believing people there are in a city, the more righteous and morally-focused it becomes.  And generally, according to not only logic, but the Bible itself, the corollary should work.  Although salvation and sanctification are not dependent upon any sort of democratic majority to be effectual, God promises to honor the prayers of His people for the communities in which they live, and prayers can have a cumulative effect.

In New York City's case, the push for change has been a heady ride, with Keller and Redeemer becoming for evangelicalism in the post-seeker era what Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church were to the seeker movement:  A prodigious network of relatively new urban congregations has sprung up across urban America's inner cities that Willow Creek's suburban matrix effectively marginalized.

Instead of Willow Creek's boomer families, Redeemer's target audience is young urban professionals:  generally affluent, career-driven, and if married, usually with few or no kids.  Some are black, but most congregants in Redeemer's model are white or, increasingly, Asian.  They're the kids of boomers, which means they've grown up in suburbia, and see a return to urban America as a fresh new social and economic opportunity.

Nevertheless, on November 5, a political landscape that helped re-shape New York City into a desirable place for affluent ex-suburbanites to live, work, and worship may be upended.  The larger community in which Redeemer's urban ministry model flourished appears to be tiring of fiscal restraint at the hands of mayors who welcomed construction activity at the expense of traditional welfare programming.  In other words, Gotham's old-fashioned social liberalism may be gearing up for a comeback.

At first, it appeared that Christine Quinn, a lesbian, was going to walk away with the Democratic nomination for this fall's contest to replace billionaire Michael Bloomberg.  Some conservatives were worried about the precedent her win would set, having a gay married woman at the helm of America's largest city.

Now, they wish that was all they had to worry about!

A Liberal's Liberal

This past summer, as the Democratic primary unfolded, Quinn's campaign unexpectedly began to flatline, and a heterosexual white male named Bill de Blasio came from behind to win.  And not only did de Blasio win the primary, but he appears to be rolling inexorably towards a decisive win in November's general election, creating a scenario New Yorkers haven't seen in almost a generation.

You see, de Blasio isn't just a Democrat.  Quinn is a Democrat, too, but she's considered more of a conventional party operative, willing to balance the needs of the city's profit-focused business elite against those of average voters.  As a city councilwoman, she and Bloomberg developed an unexpectedly cordial working relationship.  De Blasio, on the other hand, sits way over on the far outer edge of the Democrats' left-wing platform.  He's as liberal as a liberal can get, which, among other things, means he believes the only way people get rich is by taking advantage of the poor.

The prospect of a de Blasio win has the city's fiscal conservatives wringing their hands in apoplexy.  For twenty years, New York's business community has enjoyed mayoral administrations that, despite all of their social liberalism, have been as fiercely pro-capitalism as New York's union-dominated, bureaucracy-choked municipal government would allow.  With de Blasio as mayor, the happy days could fizzle back into the city's more traditional tax-and-spend gloom, because even though plenty of rich people have flowed into New York during its recent boom years, even more New Yorkers are poorer today.

A couple of reasons exist for this income disparity, such as the city never having been able to staunch the exodus of middle-income earners that began after World War II.  Sure, it's a more livable city today, but it's an even more frightfully expensive livability.

In addition, many middle-income blacks whose parents had moved up to New York from the South a generation or two ago for the city's once-robust manufacturing industry are moving back to their extended families in the South.  They're frustrated with the cost-of-living disparity between New York and warmer places like Georgia and North Carolina, and encouraged by advances in civil rights in the birthplace of the struggle for racial equality.

Another reason for New York's economic disparity is the blatant wealth that a relative few are building for themselves on Wall Street.  It doesn't take a lot of people pulling down $500 million or more to skew the data wildly against the city's welfare recipients.  But it makes for great political theater, even if it is inaccurate to pit economic classes against each other without taking into account other variables like education, family dynamics, and personal responsibility.

One of the ways de Blasio wants to wage a new type of class warfare is by taxing wealthy New Yorkers - which to him, means anybody earning over half a million a year - even more than they're already taxed by the city's punitive municipal income tax code.  He wants those extra taxes to fund a city-wide pre-kindergarten program and after-school activities for disadvantaged children, without encouraging the people having those children to wait until they're married before being sexually active, or completing their education so they can get jobs to pay for those glorified babysitting programs themselves.

Another of his admittedly bleeding-heart aspirations is for the city to provide lawyers for tenants when they face their landlord in Housing Court.  In other words, he wants taxpayers to defend renters regardless of whether they're being abused by an unscrupulous landlord.  Not that the city doesn't have a bad history with slumlords, but conservatives validly question whether taxpayer-funded legal representation is a right the city's apartment renters should expect.

The New New York

Keller started Redeemer back during the weak, racially-divisive administration of David Dinkins, an elegant scion of Harlem's civil rights movement who's been the city's only black mayor.  Yet Keller's timing was extraordinary; we evangelicals would call it divinely appointed.

For five mayoral terms after Dinkins, fiscal conservatives have been in control of Gracie Mansion, the city's official mayoral residence.  First came two terms with Rudy Giulianni, and then three with Bloomberg.  During these twenty years, the city underwent profound changes in the way basic quality-of-life issues were addressed, from crime to graffiti to transportation issues.

Perhaps most important has been what some statistics indicate has been a whopping seventy percent drop in the city's violent crime rate.  First Giulianni and then Bloomberg embraced a tough new form of policing that has helped make both residents and visitors safer than those in some smaller cities.  Some of this new crime-fighting came in the form of a racist tactic called "stop-and-frisk" that was recently ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.  Nevertheless, some of the other components to this crime reduction strategy, most falling under the "broken window theory," have been unqualified successes, making the New York its new residents know today markedly different than the one Dinkins left behind.

Both Giulianni and Bloomberg courted the business community aggressively, redrawing zoning maps and encouraging high-density development to attract new companies and residents.  Scores of glassy new apartment and office buildings stand as testament to this market-driven real estate boom not just in Manhattan, but Brooklyn and Queens as well. 

In the initial aftermath of 9-11, the city bent over backwards, spending tax dollars like a drunken sailor to keep its financial industry from leaving.  While those efforts have produced mixed results, that's partly due to unprecedented consolidation within the industry itself, plus the stunning implosion of some key companies at the height of the mortgage meltdown, both of which wiped out thousands of mostly mid-level and low-level jobs.  New York's prestigious law firms, too, have taken a beating from not only the Great Recession, but advancements in technology that have created a new off-shoring trend in the legal industry.

So far, nothing in de Blasio's campaign for mayor suggests he's terribly concerned about the troubles New York's businesspeople are facing, or the factors that continue to exacerbate the city's ability to wage even a modest campaign to woo new businesses in our fiercely competitive global marketplace.  Like all of the fiscal liberals who've come before him, and who've contributed to the city's once-abysmal finances, de Blasio assumes that New York itself is a self-sustaining money machine; a never-run-dry well from which taxpayer money can be pumped for whatever needs the disenfranchised poor may have.  It's a narrative older generations of voters in the Big Apple used to hear constantly, and appears quite comforting as they've seen all of the new construction being erected around them at rents only the city's rich new residents from suburbia - and increasingly, Russia, China, and South America - can afford.  Now, new generations of New Yorkers born into the vast underclass of mostly minority, mostly outer-borough ghettos that never went away during all of this economic prosperity are joining with their elders in deciding enough is enough.  Twenty years of supposedly trickle-down economics seems to have trickled down to the folks who can only afford a $1 million condo, instead of an $80 million penthouse.  This is the resentment and frustration de Blasio has been able to exploit in his improbable trek towards Gracie Mansion.

By now, you might be wondering who de Blasio's main challenger is.  And he does have a good challenger; a man who'd likely make a far more balanced and adept mayor.  Republican Joe Lhota most recently ran the city's transportation network, and while he's just about as socially liberal as de Blasio is on things like gay marriage and abortion, Lhota is quite conservative when it comes to money and how governments are to raise and spend it.  Alas, Lhota has the same Achilles heel as Quinn, and that is a tie to one of the two former conservative mayoral administrations.  You see, Lhota served in a high-ranking position under Giulianni, which has turned out to be not quite the qualification for which New York's fickle voters are looking this year.

Remember, this election would never have been about such suburban hot-button topics as gay marriage or abortion.  Those issues were decided long ago in the overwhelmingly "progressive" city, even if they're not widely embraced by many immigrants and ethnic subcultures in the outer boroughs.  What it's about today is whether or not New Yorkers want to return to a political environment in which old-time social welfare programming takes center stage, instead of the past twenty years of economic development that is widely perceived as having been unevenly distributed.

Money is Power

If you've visited the city recently, or even lived there temporarily, you may not have been struck by the searing poverty that continues to plague New York.  Twenty years ago, poverty could strike you in the face no matter the neighborhood, but it doesn't do so today, even though it still exists.

Generational poverty remains the biggest problem, since virtually all welfare programs have built-in mechanisms to perpetuate, instead of eliminate, dependence upon them.  Manufacturing jobs that require minimal education yet pay relatively well have virtually vanished from the city, and while new employment sectors have been created in the meantime, they've mostly been in technology and financial sectors, which require a different skills set. 

Meanwhile, New York's high cost of living means that the less money you make, the greater the need for both spouses to work.  Unfortunately, low-wage jobs are truly low-wage, while welfare payments are notorious for actually providing a combined value greater than a low-wage job.  Then there's the city's deep-rooted enabler complex, in which its wealthier residents encourage the city's spending in welfare programs to assuage their own guilt over how much money they make, and how they make it.

Ironically, as the city has become a more popular place to live, more and more people who can't afford to live there move there anyway, paying increasingly outrageous rents because their parents back in suburbia are helping them out financially.  This false impetus behind the strong demand for housing pushes rents for even decrepit housing out of the reach of New York's poor residents who genuinely need the lower rents to survive.

It's been interesting to watch, over the past couple of decades, how the evangelical population at Redeemer and it's assorted copy-cat congregations has exploded, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn's chic brownstone districts.  Relatively affluent churchgoers have rediscovered New York, enthralled with the excitement of its urban pulse, and affirmed by finding churches specifically designed for their tastes in worship and socializing.  These new arrivals to the city consider themselves socially aware, and dive into their church's welfare initiatives, volunteering in homeless shelters and food pantries.  They like to think they're helping combat New York's incessant poverty, when in fact, one of the most tangible ways they could help the city's poor would be to leave, decreasing the demand on housing, so rents could dip down a bit.

As long as these strivers from suburbia insist on crowding into the city, infiltrating even its working-class neighborhoods with gentrification, there's going to be an economic disparity in its demographics.  Politicians like de Blasio look at that disparity and presume they can rig the tax code to pay for entitlement programs to try and balance things out, which is what many of the city's wealthy power brokers are afraid of.  After all, New York voters aren't the most discerning group of people.  If they were, do you think Antony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer would have bothered running for elected office there after their public foibles?  Sometimes, you can think you're part of the solution without realizing you're also part of the problem.

All Things Being Equal

So, what does all of this have to do with evangelicals and the model of urban ministry popularized by Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian?

For one thing, Keller focused his church plant on the city's urban professionals, a class of people who, by definition, don't necessarily mesh well with either the city's dwindling stock of middle-class earners, or its increasing number of people of even lowlier social standing.  If de Blasio is going to start playing class warfare, Redeemer's target demographic may tire of being perceived as an economic liability.

For another, ministry in urban markets already struggles with the intense impermanence of career-chasing members who transition into and out of cities at the behest of job opportunities.  Should de Blasio give New York's corporate citizens a cold shoulder, there's little keeping many companies in the city other than the recruiting edge they get from Gotham's hedonistic urban allure.  Such intangibles could become prohibitive quickly if companies are forced to re-evaluate their balance sheets.

Plus, socially liberal urban politicians are not known for embracing quality-of-life issues as much as their suburban counterparts are, or for their crime-fighting discipline, or their concern for traditional, proven educational practices in public schools.  As it is, private schools in New York can cost more than $40,000 per year per pupil, demand is so great.

Indeed, you'd have to be an exceptionally devoted - and brazenly idealistic - New Yorker to not be concerned that the Big Apple's rewards risk renewed marginalization under de Blasio's management.

Although it's not exactly a sin to increase taxes to pay for pre-K programs, or lawyers for renters going to Housing Court, such tactics do not represent a mindset of thrift, expediency, and personal responsibility when a city's budget already requires astoundingly high tax rates.  Such proposals by de Blasio indicate that just as Giulianni and Bloomberg might have given too much leeway to certain business leaders, a renewed emphasis on social liberalism may undermine the city's economic vitality and endorse certain lifestyles that pose an economic liability for taxpayers.

There's little in de Blasio's manifesto that doesn't presume individual citizens to be more righteous than those they may be accusing of wrongdoing.  If equity is something voters thought was missing in the way Giulianni and Bloomberg governed, de Blasio is simply turning the tables towards a different sort of inequity.  An inequity that likely will be much more expensive to maintain.

It's an inequity that could also validate the suspicions that New York's native poor have towards interloping rich whites, the type of people attending Keller's various congregations throughout Manhattan.  It's also an inequity that banks on charity not as an opportunity for advancement, but as simply another enabler for attitudes and lifestyles that perpetuate poverty cycles instead of break them.

For his part, Keller professes to see charity as simply one of many mechanisms the church should provide society, so the Redeemer model probably won't see much to bemoan in a de Blasio victory.  Keller has preached that since Christ says the poor will always be with us, our duty is to hand out aid regardless of the circumstances.  While such an interpretation seems to fly in the face of other Biblical passages talking about sluggards not eating, a de Blasio win could help sustain Redeemer's philosophy, as their new mayor influences public policy.

Meanwhile... the mandate for urban ministry remains the same.  If God is calling you to the central city to serve Him in some capacity, then of course, you need to go.

However, if you're moving to the central city to have fun, profit from a rewarding career, and otherwise experience a challenging new world from the one in which you grew up, and only view your church attendance as simply what you ordinarily do on any given Sunday you're not going to the beach or Vermont, then maybe Mayor de Blasio will help change your mind.

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