What do you wish for the City of God? : Old First E-pistle 10.14.2010

Such a city aficionado, I believe God means for us all to live in an urban paradise. (Ah, the all-too-common, dangerous mistake of over-valuing one’s own druthers as God’s will!) If Isaiah prophesied the peaceable kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb, my vision– idiomatically more akin to Augustine’s– is a big city running smoothly; mixing and matching and meeting the needs of diverse people; organized ecologically for the smallest possible carbon footprint.

In his book, Mandate to Difference, Walter Brueggemann, the UCC Old Testament scholar, insists “the city” is central to biblical faith. The holy story moves, over and over again, from rustic, tribal, rural origins towards greater cosmopolitan civilization. We end up in Jerusalem and Rome or at Revelation’s holy new City. Perhaps population growth and migratory patterns inevitably lead God down the road “into town.”

Emmanuel, God with us, goes where the people are. The past five to six millennia portray human history marching, alas too often as an army, through cities. Until, by the year 2000 C.E– earlier than the projected  2007-8 arrival date, and for the first time in recorded history– most of the world’s population, instead of country folk, were urban dwellers. By 2030, roughly 60% of our global neighbors will reside in cities.

Urbanization presents specific problems– city populations consume more food, energy and durable goods than rural counterparts. Cities create environmental stresses: greater pollution, higher energy usage and weather-changing “heat islands.” Nonetheless, with world population growing by 82 million people a year, density may be our lifeboat. If the challenges of urban living could be mastered, population concentration makes sustainability more likely.

Brueggemann suggests the Protestant tradition (as opposed to Roman Catholic or Orthodox tradition) is ambivalent, even suspicious or resistant to the city. Rejecting the institutional developments, precedents, accommodations and contradictions of first 1500 years of church history as imperfectly human rather than divinely ordained, Luther founded Protestantism as a “back to basics” faith. He went looking for fundamentals (not fundamentalism– but not completely unrelated) in the primitive practices of the early church, before it had aggregated power or taken up positions of influence in major capitals.

In North America, churches over the last century and a half have lived out similar ambivalent responses to the city. Most of this discomfort with urbanity is about American history and the sociology of the American church rather than anything endemic to faith. Organized to serve narrow demographic stripes, churches have not fared well in the dynamic, diverse and class-stratifying composition of industrializing and, later, rusting cities.

During the tense and turbulent socio-political upheavals of the 60’s, culture battles fought in our cities and the uncertainty of urban futures caused many Protestant congregations to sell their property and follow their constituencies into the segregated safety and stability of spreading suburbs.

Old First, one of the only churches I know to have moved back downtown in the late 60‘s, is, in this sense, an unusual and decidedly city church. Our ethic, mission, fellowship and vibe reflect the environs we call home. Of course, we also serve people who, living in the suburbs, travel distances to participate here, but, I suspect, Old First’s suburbanites share a cosmopolitan spirit common in the city. Likewise, any number of far-flung congregations visit us: we are their portal to the urban experience.

Suburbanization that intentionally distances, even tries to cut off from the urban center it surrounds, and the automobile-miles it requires can bleed cities to death. In the tight economies and racial pressure cookers of metropolitan areas, rings of suburbs too often depend on a city without readily contributing to supporting it. Bedroom suburbs unwilling to participate in the health of the whole region often feel to me like “having my cake and eating it too” or “taking my marbles and going home.”

Brueggeman argues that neither can the church afford to divorce itself from the city because it’s the great crossroads where people and cultures rub up against each other, where ideas and movements come from the heat, where we find the cross-fertilization, tension and energy that diversity and even conflict produce. Cities exercise enormous control over nations and our world. The are the locus of jobs, as well as cultural, educational and health facilities. They act as hubs for communication and transport.

On Wednesday, Wes Lathrop, the lead organizer for new city-wide, faith-based community organization called P.O.W.E.R. (Philadelphians Organized for Witness, Empowerment and Rebuilding), asked me: “If as many as 40 congregations pool their power and work together on common concerns, what would you wish for that could make the most difference for people in Philadelphia?

My first answer was about attracting new business and industry, for more jobs, particularly for our most vulnerable neighbors who need work. Secondarily, I wish our public education would better prepare our younger neighbors for their working and adult lives.

If together– through this new organization P.O.W.E.R.– faith communities could make more of a difference in this city, what would you wish for?

Faithfully yours,

Michael