September 9, 2008
Urban Exile: Following Jesus in the Face of Fear
Former suburbanite David Swanson reflects on ministry in the big city.
Pulling up to a busy intersection recently, my wife and I were startled to see a car with its rear windshield shattered. Out of the damaged car leaped a man with a baseball bat, yelling and chasing the two apparent perpetrators. As we slowly drove by, my wife reaching for her phone to call the police, we saw into the back seat where a young girl sat trying to make sense of the chaos that had erupted around her. Arriving at our apartment three blocks away I became aware of an emotion I hadn't felt in a long time: fear.
Three months after moving into Chicago from one of its affluent suburbs, we are still getting our bearings. Is it the Mexican or Polish market that has the better produce? What time is too late for my wife to take a walk by herself? How long will it take to get from the church office to my lunch meeting via the Blue Line? We expected these kinds of questions. Unanticipated, however, was the proper response to shattered windshields and guys with baseball bats. I knew the transition to life and ministry in the city might be tough, but this tangible sense of fear came out of left field.
Our eight years of suburban life and ministry were not without fear, albeit of a different kind. I oftentimes worried about the effect of affluence on our congregation. Anxiety about spiritual formation in a landscape of individualism and crass consumption is enough to keep any pastor awake at night. Conversations with friends and suburban colleagues often centered on pursuing the way of Jesus while being surrounded by the deep-seated values of safety and comfort. You could say my fear was of a spiritual nature: I was anxious about how suburbia affected our souls.
Guys with baseball bats? Never crossed my mind.
Of course it's fair to neither city nor suburb to make such generalizations. Violent acts take place in suburbia just as consumer culture affects many in our new urban congregation. In some ways, my wife and I actually feel safer in our new urban environs. She is more comfortable being home alone at night; the voices of our neighbors provide a friendly soundtrack. I worry less about my numbed soul as the exposed beauty and evil of the city invite increased awareness and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
And yet this newfound fear can't be ignored. A woman in our neighborhood was recently attacked with sulfuric acid. It was less than assuring when her assailants turned out to be a couple of high school girls. Occasionally I'll check an online map for the location of each of Chicago's summer shootings, hoping the latest fatalities weren't in our neighborhood. Do I sound paranoid? Maybe, but after eight years of placid suburban life, shattered windshields, sulfuric acid attacks, and daily fatalities are taking some getting used to.
Fear is not the only new reality resulting from our suburban exodus; faith too has taken on increased significance. Prayer has become a regular response throughout the week - for mercy for the homeless men living under the dank overpass and wisdom for our multi-ethnic small groups as they debrief a sermon on racism and reconciliation. The city, with its in-your-face beauty and pain, has renewed my dependence on the God who holds Chicago together. A sign of my spiritual shallowness perhaps, but my former homogenous and safe suburban life didn't regularly provoke this response of prayer.
What if a healthy dose of fear is important for faith? After all, God often acts in the face of our fear-inducing circumstances. Yet many suburban churches simply blend in, patterning buildings, teaching, and programs on the accepted values of safety and comfort. Likewise, an urban tendency has been to maintain a fortress mentality, protecting congregations from the dangers and temptations of city life. Both responses minimize the fear we experience when we encounter the grief and injustice of a dangerous world. Additionally, when such fearful realities are ignored, people are hindered from experiencing a vigorous faith that must depend on God's presence.
As Christians, surely we are meant neither to blend into our surroundings nor be protected from them. Eugene Peterson writes that following Jesus "is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes." The feet of Jesus carried him and his anxious disciples into some nerve-wracking situations. Field trips in the Samaritan countryside, conversations with scary Gentiles, and parties with prostitutes and tax collectors must have been terrifying to those early Jesus followers. During these encounters, their faith was stretched and strained to the breaking point. Shattered windshields are nothing compared with demon-possessed pigs leaping from cliffs.
Should we purposefully lead people into fear-inducing experiences? Of course! Following the feet of Jesus will often lead us to dangerous places, whether in the city, the suburbs, or elsewhere. Peril is not the goal, but it's a result of pursuing Jesus in our world. Are we calling people to this dangerous way of living? Or has the fear-confronting life been substituted for something safer and more comfortable?