on god and the inner city

I just read an article called “Finding God in the Inner City.” Of course, I was very drawn to it – I love the idea of the grace of God peeking through the cracks of community gardens, teetering old buildings, cobbled-together community kitchens and the strange and wonderful friendships that can develop so easily across lines of privilege, culture and generations in the inner city.

Indeed, there is something about “the inner city” that has pulled at my heartstrings ever since I started learning and thinking about the obvious call to the poor that displays itself throughout Scripture. I think of the inner city as a place where beauty easily develops out of chaos. Friends and families come together in ways that just do not seem to present themselves in the suburbs, where we insulate ourselves in our expensive houses, stressing about what to make for dinner when people come over, and wondering which television set to buy … there is something about the lifestyle of resourcefulness and simplicity and running into people and the sunlight slanting off old brick buildings that just makes me feel that it is so right.

This author, Paula, wrote:

Living in close proximity to people on the margins keeps me grounded in my faith. I am certain that if I lived elsewhere, I would find it very easy to give in to skepticism of the Gospel and become fixated on a capitalistic pursuit of happiness, the pseudo-American dream. Quite simply, living in the ’hood keeps me real. The poverty I’m surrounded by, combined with the resilience my neighbours demonstrate in the face of struggle, forces me to practice self-awareness, confront my privilege, and teaches me that I have enough.

It’s counter to what society constantly tells me: that I’m not enough, that I don’t have enough. My neighbourhood brings me back to the reality that my worth and purpose in life are not defined by owning many nice things.

… God is working here. I see it in the way people from diverse backgrounds are striving to take a community saturated with brokenness, exploitation, violence, and addiction, and make it a better place for all of us to live.”

She goes on:

“Every day when I walk past a woman selling her body on the corner, or an addict picking up his next fix, or a person pushing a cart with all her belongings stuffed inside, I am unavoidably faced with the tangible reality that my community is still very much a part of a world full of suffering, pain, and injustice. This sobering realization is really what keeps my faith alive, despite my doubts. I am reminded not only of the poverty of my neighbour, but of my own poverty too, and for my need for God’s grace and redemption.”

And this is the point where, as my heart thrills with longing and appreciation and deep excitement, I then pause and consider and little longer, and wonder: does this mean that I am supposed to move into the downtown Eastside? Is that the place where God chooses to display himself primarily? 

Paula does make a good point about how our surroundings influence us, and I think that that is what gets me. For so long, before the point when I started learning about God’s heart for the marginalized, I was content. Nothing interrupted my comfort, or caused me to think about the lens I was wearing as I was concerned about what I wore and how smart I was and what I was going to endeavour to be when I grew up. Then, as I took a job working with marginalized populations, I was challenged to grow my lens – to deposit myself among “the least of these” and experience a different life. And I was struck with the realization of what was driving my life and my priorities. I too experienced what she experienced – “The poverty I’m surrounded by, combined with the resilience my neighbours demonstrate in the face of struggle, forces me to practice self-awareness, confront my privilege, and teaches me that I have enough.”

But, why can’t the suburbs confront us in the same way? Living in the city, is it not possible to be practically be confronted with my poverty, and my need for God’s grace and redemption? I think it’s possible, and actually needs to be possible. We can’t all move into urban centres. I want to think creatively about city living, where privilege is the norm, and where there is no opportunity to flee to the inner city to see God’s justice and generosity. I think it’s important to know that God’s justice and goodness is not constrained to inner city populations, and that we need to be able to see Him everywhere.

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