Monday, July 27, 2015

FAQ: But why do you have to actually live there?

Nearly five years ago, we were in the midst of renovating a house downtown. I was also pregnant with Caden, with Jayci smack-dab in the midst of her terrible twos. And so I decided we desperately needed to sign her up for "preschool” (ok daycare) a few days a week. We didn't know how long the moving process would take, but knew we wouldn't (hopefully) be in Marietta much longer, which is why we decided to find a preschool downtown, closer to our new home. Not knowing the area well yet, we simply found two preschools with good reputations and reviews. One of the two was a well-known Christian preschool, while the other was a secular one in a Montessori-ish style. Both fell inside a “nice” neighborhood about 15 minutes from our new house. We visited both preschools, explaining our situation and what we wanted to do downtown, and asked if they had any openings. The two schools offered us very different responses. At the Christian preschool, we were met with incredulity and alarm that we would be moving our child into such a “terrible” neighborhood. In fact, they asked us why we couldn't just drive in from a nicer area of the city, or perhaps remain in the suburbs. At the secular school, they offered us a full scholarship because they were so inspired and encouraged by the work we were doing. I will let you guess which school we chose.
We get this question surprisingly often, particularly from a certain set who are concerned for our safety:

But why do you have to actually LIVE there?

For about five years of doing ministry, we didn't actually live here. We found ourselves in the city several times a week, every single week during those years. Driving downtown for Bible studies, for “sidewalk Sunday school,” for church, for picking up the boys we mentored, for picnic lunches in the housing projects, and for Saturday afternoon games of kickball. We would spend a few hours a week in the car driving back and forth, and occasionally would bring the boys to our suburban neighborhood for the weekend. But every time we dropped the kiddos back off at their homes, every time we told them “we love you and care about you, and good luck with all this,” before driving back to our sweet little house on a quiet street where we got HOA letters regularly telling us we needed to cut the grass, something niggled at our hearts. We felt less than authentic, a disconnect somehow growing between our words and our actions. We said we cared about their education and their doctor appointments and their housing crisis (Atlanta was tearing down the projects during this time), but it was hard to tell if that was really true. After all, we always had the choice to leave (truthfully, we still have that choice, which of course is another post for another day).

So the annoying niggling at our hearts combined with a voracious appetite for reading all we could about community development and inner-city ministry, and we stumbled onto the work of CCDA (Christian Community Development Association). CCDA builds around the three R's, the first one being relocation (living where you minister). Which meant we were trying to accomplish the subsequent steps of reconciliation and redistribution while skipping the first one, a nearly impossible task.

I've written more about the idea of relocation before in my posts on Intentional Neighboring (part 1 and part 2), but here's a quick recap for anyone who missed it: “Living the gospel means desiring for your neighbor and your neighbor’s family that which you desire for yourself and your family” (Perkins). Only by joining a community do a community’s needs become your own. Living the gospel means sharing the suffering and pain of others, and relocation transforms “you, them, and theirs,” to “we, us, and ours.”

Because we live here, it matters to us that there is no nearby grocery store. The idea of a food desert takes on a whole new meaning when it personally affects shopping for and feeding my own family. It matters to us that the local school system is failing these kids, because it is failing our own kids too. When there are shootings, or gang outbreaks, or teenagers getting pregnant, we have “skin in the game” so-to-speak, and we know from experience that sometimes (unfortunately) we cannot move our hearts fully until we are affected personally. When we are not fighting “for” someone, but instead fighting alongside them, an important and discernible shift happens in both of our hearts. No longer do we have to carry the mantle (which we were never intended to carry) of “white savior” or someone who comes in from outside to fix everything; instead we lay claim to the far more gentle and true titles of neighbors and friends who care about one another in real and lasting ways.

Another facet to our decision to move downtown was rooted in our desire for community. We had simply never seen anyone who lived in community and solidarity the way we experienced among the people in the housing projects in Atlanta. They watched out for each other's kids, they shared meals, shared space, shared everything. If it wasn't for the poverty and violence that lingered as surely as the smell of grease and smoke of various kinds, the whole thing would have been frankly idyllic. When someone got evicted, their neighbor took them in, regardless of how few extra square feet they had to spare. Apartments overflowed as people shared what they had in ways that reminded me of, and pointed me towards Jesus time and time again. Vague embarrassment and unease blossomed in my deepest places when we went home to our two extra empty bedrooms and the formal dining room we ate in perhaps once every two or three weeks. Three bathrooms and four bedrooms suddenly seemed downright wasteful, rather than simply the framework of a starter-house on the stepping stones of the American Dream.

This all leans, of course, more complicated than it sounds. Because no matter how often I check my heart and motivations, and no matter how quickly I repent of my belief that I can fix or save anything, they creep insidiously back in. Cultural barriers stand in opposition to the kind of friendships I dream of, and I will always be the one who chose this life, rather than the one who simply needed a place that accepted my section 8 voucher. We have the resources to drive to the closest grocery store for our food, and to send our kids to a nearby charter school.

And please don't hear me saying that you cannot serve or love folks in the city without living here. We did ministry for years that involved driving downtown weekly, and building very real relationships with people in ways that deepened our faith and stretched us in so many ways. I just think that without finding ourselves smack-dab in the center of a community of people who look nothing like us, we would miss out on so much of the Kingdom. On reciprocal relationships, where our neighbors bring us big boxes of diapers in Walmart bags and snuff out their joints before climbing the front steps to deliver them. On laughing around the table over whether or not we should eat our chickens, and what Adam should garden next. On neighbor after neighbor returning our little runaway dog tucked under an arm with a laugh while I apologize profusely. And every single time that these connections deepen and grow, we find ourselves staring at the Kingdom of God lived out in real life. Because God promises that the Kingdom is for all nations and all tongues, and we will mostly be surrounded by people who don't look exactly like us. Jesus came with a heart tuned to the poor and marginalized, and the longer we stand arm-in-arm with those closest to Jesus' heart, the more we understand the ways of this upside down Kingdom and the servant King who leads it.

More FAQ posts, for anyone who is interested:
-School Choices in an Urban Neighborhood (part 1 and part 2)
-Do you ever just want to move back to the suburbs?
-Aren't you afraid?
-What about adoption?
-How do you budget for food?

3 comments:

  1. You articulated this message so well. Your family is being the hands and feet of Jesus. Thanks for your beautiful example of faith.

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  2. As always, blessed & inspired by your words. Thank You!

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  3. As always, thank you for sharing this piece of your story. I always leave your blog feeling blessed to know you. The way you all allow Jesus to use you inspires me so much.

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