It has often been noted that although the Bible begins with a garden it ends with a city. The eschatological vision of the heavenly city, as Augustine well demonstrated, does its best theological work when contrasted with the struggles and failures of earthly cities. At funerals we find comfort in images of the departed loved one dwelling in the New Jerusalem with the risen Christ and all the saints, having finally escaped the contingencies and failures of life that appear so amplified in cities. We trust that the most painful attributes of city life — the vast and obvious inequalities in wealth and privilege, the chaotic streets where the action of one person might inordinately influence others, the noise and the violence and the pollution — drift away as the heavenly city approaches with its promised redemption and peace.
But living in the city, doing ministry in the city, finding grace in the city, is a worthy and necessary vocation. Just moments after Jonah’s deliverance from the belly of the whale, God commands him to return to the city and proclaim to it.1 And at the end of Luke’s gospel, following his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus commissions his disciples to stay in the city until they have been clothed with the power from on high.2 What does it mean to be church in an urban context, already clothed with the power of our baptism and yet so starkly vulnerable to the complex ethics of life together in close proximity? How are we to respond to the cries that emerge from the cracks in city life — cries of the homeless, the victims of systemic injustice, the exhausted? What opportunities for deeper engagement with the gospel lie in the unique diversity offered by city life? This issue of Let’s Talk engages these questions by seeking glimpses of God’s grace in all of the ambiguity of city life.
Two of our authors examine what it means for the church to be a refuge from the city. David Brondos addresses the biblical narrative of Jesus’ relationship to cities in relation to his own experience as a missionary in Mexico City. “Cities tend to be places where . . . everyone wants a piece of you ” a piece of your time, a piece of your ear, a piece of your income.” But urban churches can provide a space for people to live and breathe God’s grace, building up a new kind of city marked by compassion, accompaniment, and generosity. Tim Brown envisions the urban church as a haven from the chaos of city life, particularly in contrast to the suburban churches that some of his young adult parishioners encounter after leaving the city. Marking space more than time, city churches call attention to the ministry that God intends for us: “attending to the feet of the stranger, attending to the voice of the Spirit, and attending to the call of the Redeemer who can make all things new.”
Two of our authors present firsthand accounts of particular congregations in order to address the larger question of how the church is to engage with the rest of the city. Phil Blackwell, writing as Senior Minister of one of the only churches located within the Loop, asks what it means to lead prophetically from the middle of the city. “Where is the moral voice in Chicago?,” he asks, “Who is speaking out to make the city a more graceful place to live?” If the church is to act as Prophet, then many of us who participate in urban church life are called to action and reflection on social ethics, and Blackwell offers a concrete invitation for those who wish to participate in such reflection. Phil Hefner examines the concept of the church as Chaplain, and more broadly, as Good Citizen, through a narrative of Lutheranism in Hyde Park over the past decades. When the neighborhood is viewed through the story of urban renewal with particular attention to social class and displacement, important questions arise that the church cannot ignore. “Does the Good Citizen try to change its society and the structures that wound?” And how does one construe the history of a community when its current residents are those who have benefited most from that history?
Bishop Wayne Miller provides a new, bold vision for the shape that mission outside of traditional church walls might take in the coming years in our synod. Miller envisions a vibrant assortment of Affiliated Mission Communities (AMCs) that emerge from traditional congregations but find their life in spaces that would otherwise be untouched by the church. These spaces of proclamation, service, and justice would create new leaders in the spaces between congregations and within deep pockets of poverty. In this strategic vision, “new communities can be sustained and grown indefinitely with a financial load structure approximately 20% that of a conventional congregation.” It’s a bold vision, and it speaks to many of the issues that urban churches (and those outside of them) currently face.
Our next two authors write about specific ongoing efforts that churches and people of faith have taken up in order to raise the visibility of violence in the city. Joel Harter tells the story of Urban Dolorosa, which makes visible the astoundingly pervasive, and yet strangely invisible, problem of children killed by violence in Chicago. Reflecting theologically on our vision problem, Harter challenges the church to be prophetic and visionary and “to connect such public acts of sacred remembrance to ongoing partnerships, relationship-building, and social action.” Jacqueline Clark, reflecting on the story of CROSSwalk, demonstrates how vision can become transformed into relationship and advocacy. What began as a Holy Week procession of scripture, stories, song, and prayer in the midst of the city has emerged as “a relational bridge connecting devastated, violence-plagued communities with more affluent ones” and transforming cries of lament into testimonies of redemption.
This issue ends with our two regular columnists and two reviews. Ben Dueholm, in “On the Way,” writes of the gifts and inevitability of city life, where the bonds of infrastructure and culture have the beautiful potential to thicken into bonds of love. Frank Senn, in “As I See It,” shares his recent experiences in the city-state of Singapore as a liturgical consultant called to address the problems associated with contemporary worship music. Michael Fick reviews the BBC series “Rev.”, which focuses on the struggles and joys of an urban clergyman. Mark Williamson reviews Lillian Daniel’s “When Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough, noting the author’s acute and humorous awareness of the gulf that sometimes exists between suburban life and Scripture, but more importantly, the grace of God that comes to us anyway.
We hope that you will find yourself edified and challenged by this issue of Let’s Talk, whether you are a city dweller or not. In any case, we thank you for reading and we welcome your responses. Let’s talk!