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PERCEPTIONS ABOUT CITIES

Recently I went to visit a couple of church start ups in the cities of Grand Rapids, MI and Detroit, MI. I imagine most people have heard of those cities. Grand Rapids is associated with Dutch people, Reformed people, and lots of churches. Did anyone know that black people live there, or Hispanics? Did anyone know they have poor people, did anyone know there are a lot of people in that city? Then we have Detroit. We all know there must be nothing left of Detroit except black people, and they are all poor, and they don’t pay their water bills, and pretty soon the Federal Government will just come and repossess everything and sell it for scrap metal, and send all the municipal government officials to jail. I think of the perceptions of the city I grew up in, Newark, New Jersey. Most of the country just thinks of the airport, but those who know about it don’t think of great cities, they think of crime, and poverty, and corruption, . I imagine folks think the same way about Camden, NJ. Recently, while on the way to Camden, someone asked us if we knew what we were doing, what we were getting into. I think of the perceptions about the city where I presently live, Chattanooga, TN. An outdoor city, an environmental city, the city with the fastest internet speeds, one of the fastest gentrifying zip codes in the nation, the most Biblical knowledge in the country, one of the most generous. I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that every city has sinful, broken, and hurting people in it. The bad news is that the cities that seem great also have a side to them that is not just a shame, but shameful. Poverty, violence, bad schools, racial bitterness, and despair right in the face of urban prosperity and progress. The bad news is that some churches in some of these “great” cities talk about “transforming the city,” and “loving the city,” have almost no contact with the poor and no real impact (spiritually, socially, economically, educationally, etc.) on the actual lives of the city’s most desperate people. Ah, but the good news. This is something to which I bear witness and experience it on my visits. In the worst of cities, as far as the public and the media are concerned, the Church of Jesus Christ, in some of its best representatives not only survives but thrives. There is actual racial reconciliation happening, there is mercy in both relief and development happening, there is justice happening, there is a coalition and determination for progress in even the poorest of districts. Love is going on, worship is going on, and joy is a reality. Maybe one of the advantages churches and Christians have in places which so many have written off is that they know the challenge, they know their backs are against the wall, and they rise to meet that challenge. Maybe the disadvantage in places that seem to have all the advantages is that misery is missed right in our midst. As long as the curse from the Fall of man persists the challenge and opportunity of mercy, justice, love, rescue, restoration, rehabilitation, and reconciliation will persist. I think this will be true in all our cities, no matter what they look like on the surface. I am thankful for cities of beauty, I am thankful for art, for green spaces, and play places, for the availability of good, nutritious, and plentiful food in accessible markets, for culture, and pleasing architecture, for jobs and employment for both the skilled and unskilled, the over educated and the illiterate. I am thankful for growing churches and powerful preachers. I am thankful for governments that work, and utilities that deliver, and municipal employees who actually give good and honest service. I am thankful that in cities where many of these wonderful amenities and blessings don’t exist that there are still wonderful, intelligent, creative, loving, determined, and committed followers of Jesus who love each other, love those around them, and love the place where they are planted. I praise God for the salt of the earth, that hasn’t lost it’s savor.

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