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2008-10-07 issue:

A Mennonite in the city

Five steps of faithful living in the city

by Anita Hooley

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My parents, grandparents (both sides) great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents all grew up on farms. But I grew up in an urban area of a small city, and today I live in Pittsburgh, Pa., part of the 20th largest metropolitan area in the United States.

The profile of Mennonite Church USA in Road Signs for the Journey by Conrad L. Kanagy shows that in the last few decades Mennonites have been relocating from the agrarian dwelling places of their ancestors.

In 1972, 36 percent of Mennonites lived on farms, while 26 percent did in 1989 and just 12 percent today. Twice as many Mennonites live in large cities (of 250,000-plus) as did in 1989.

However, that number still accounts for only 10 percent of members of Mennonite Church USA. Being a Mennonite in a large city is still a fairly unique experience.

These numbers and my own interest led me to some questions: Is being a Mennonite (or a Christian) in the city different from being a Mennonite anywhere else? What unique things do Mennonites bring to the city, and what unique things does the city bring to us? How do we live most faithfully in urban areas?

I am far from an expert on this subject, and I do not have easy answers, but I suggest five steps of faithful living. These could be applicable anywhere, but I focus on the city, especially areas with people whose needs are ignored.

1. Be there.
I don’t necessarily advocate that all Christians move to the most poverty-stricken, crime-filled parts of their cities (though I wonder what would happen if we did). I have been too challenged by spiritually focused friends to think everyone who is a “good Christian” is explicitly concerned with city issues.

In his book Encounter God in the City, Randy White explores the importance of locating yourself among the people to whom you are trying to minister so that you can perform the ministry of “suffering with” them. When you’re fighting for social improvement in a poor neighborhood, living there means you’re fighting for your neighborhood. When your garbage isn’t picked up or your electricity isn’t turned on, you notice and care, because it’s happening to you. This adds empathy, reality and passion to one’s call for improvement in the city.

2. Be there and see.
We’ve all heard the phrase “seeing is believing.” Unless I see (and interact with) urban people on a daily basis, it becomes easy to forget about their suffering, rationalize their poverty and ignore my and my culture’s part in shaping their versions of society. It is also easy to dismiss thoughts of how their ways of life and belief systems might (and should) challenge my theology.

In a novel by Salman Rushdie, a character offers an expanded version of this axiom: “What you believe depends on what you’ve seen—not only what is visible but what you are prepared to look in the face.”

My beliefs about the city are not only influenced by what I see but by the perspective I bring. Being in a city with an understanding of God’s concern for the city prepares me to look the suffering, oppression and hope of the city in the face.

3. Be there and know.
You can be somewhere, even see things there, but not really know much about the situation. Consider an example cited by Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution.
He and some friends had moved into an abandoned cathedral with some homeless locals in Philadelphia. A church in the area heard about the situation and donated a box of microwave popcorn to their cause. As they had no electricity or microwaves, the gift was useless.

When the local mafia heard of the situation, however, they sent over a bunch of bikes. The bikes proved invaluable for job transportation for the adults and recreation for the kids. Knowing the needs, the people and the culture in the place where you are is important. There is something wrong with the church if the mafia is doing a better job at serving the poor in our communities.

The apostle Paul provides an example of using situational and cultural knowledge for God’s purposes. In Acts 17, Paul addresses people in Athens, one of the most highly-cultured cities of his day.

Paul shows knowledge of Athenian art and literature. He talks about touring the city and finding an altar with the inscription “to an unknown god.” He then claims that his God, the one true God, is this unknown God the Athenians have been worshiping, and he quotes one of their own poets to support his point. Paul uses the high culture of this urban area to point its residents toward Christ.

4. Be there and choose.

In The Secret Life of Bees, a novel by Sue Monk Kidd, a precocious white teenager named Lily goes to live with three strong and intelligent black women. One of the women reflects on “the real problem with people.” Lily characteristically interrupts and says the problem is that people “don’t know what matters and what doesn’t.” The wise woman responds: “I was gonna say, The problem is they know what matters, but they don’t choose it. You know how hard that is, Lily? … The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.”

The Bible is filled with examples of people who chose what mattered, such as Daniel and Esther. Both were engaged in the urban culture where they lived in the time of Jewish exile (Daniel under Babylonian rule and Esther under Persian). Both had high positions in the foreign government.

But when it came down to it, they were not afraid to choose what mattered. Daniel refused to worship the Babylonian king and was thrown into the lion’s den. Esther entered the king’s chamber without being summoned and risked her life to reverse the order for the extermination of the Jews.

Both Daniel and Esther had great gifts and knowledge and had fully entered urban life. But what sets them apart is not their cultural or theological knowledge. Rather, they are honored for the strength of their choices to follow God’s way in the midst of a city culture trying to force them in the opposite direction.

5. Be there and be transformed.

The final step of living faithfully in the city is working for the transformation of the city and letting yourself be transformed in that process.

Transformation best happens through relationships. I have witnessed the power and the struggle of transformative urban relationships modeled by my parents in my growing-up years in Canton, Ohio.

I have memories of my mother going for runs with the tall basketball player from down the street, doing jigsaw puzzles with the man from around the corner who suffered from schizophrenia or playing piano to accompany the former opera singer who was living at the YMCA. I remember my father having what seemed like daily phone conversations with various people who would call just because they had no one else to listen to them, or attending Cleveland Indians baseball games with a working-class couple and a recovering alcoholic.

I discovered later that my parents did not come to Canton out of any deliberate social or spiritual decision to minister in “the city.” When I think about how focused on urban ministry I consider their lives, I realize they have not only transformed but have been transformed by the people and experiences there.

Even brief encounters with people different from us can transform our understanding. In Matthew 15, Jesus runs into a Canaanite woman who begs him to heal her daughter. Jesus tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman pleads and argues with him, and Jesus changes his mind, blesses the woman and heals her daughter. It seems an encounter with someone of a different culture and gender transformed even Jesus’ thinking about his own ministry.

Opportunities to have relationships and encounters with people from all walks of life are not limited to the city. But urban life provides a ripe abundance of weird, needy, refreshing people, as well as cultural perspectives to challenge and surprise us. And as we are transformed by these people and experiences, we can be engaged in transforming the people and places around us in more faithful ways.

Anita Hooley lives in Cleveland. She wrote this article while a pastoral intern at Pittsburgh Mennonite Church.

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