June 15, 2009
Urban Exile: Gran Torino
The unexpected blessings of staying put.
Clint Eastwood taught me something the other day. The veteran actor and director's latest film sheds light on the tendency by many of us to seek the cultural values of homogeneity, stability, and comfort rather than finding God in the midst of our confusing, painful, and volatile circumstances.
In Gran Torino the 79-year-old actor and director plays a newly widowed retiree. A veteran of the Korean War, Walt Kowalski has spent his life in the same Michigan town, raising a family and working for the Ford plant. Surveying the neighborhood from his front porch, it's clear that much in Kowalski's life has changed. His neighbors are recent Hmong immigrants, people whose language and customs incur Kowalski's derision. Crime has become commonplace and rival gangs cruise the streets staring menacingly at Walt who, while drinking beers from his front porch, is all too happy to glare right back. The neighborhood is not what it used to be and the old man's sons repeatedly try to convince their father to leave it behind and join them in the suburbs.
Gran Torino is set in Highland Park, just outside of Detroit, but the dynamics of evolving neighborhoods can be found around the country. As new immigrants move in, previous residents find comfort outside the city limits. Those of the majority culture are made nervous by the arrival of ethnic minorities and eventually move to neighborhoods and suburbs that reflect their culture and skin color. Walt Kowalski is the anomaly; his obstinate decision to remain in the old neighborhood utterly confuses his comfortably suburban family. The world has changed too quickly for Kowalski leaving him bitter, racist, and cynical.
Eastwood's character is no role model, but his story represents the demographic and cultural shifts that characterize America's cities. One of the most significant such changes in my city of Chicago took place in the early 20th century. The period of time when African Americans moved to northern cities, hoping to leave Jim Crow behind, became known as the Great Migration. This development precipitated another vast people movement: white folks who left their urban neighborhoods and newly arrived neighbors for the suburbs. Like Walt Kowalski, many urban churches found themselves in unfamiliar territory as everything around them drastically changed.
It has been many years since the Great Migration and subsequent white flight, but the ghosts of this era can be seen in shuttered cathedrals and abandoned chapels throughout the city. At one time these buildings were lively gathering places for the neighborhood faithful but their decline became inevitable when these churches no longer related to their neighbors. Some congregations decided that survival meant moving the entire operation to the suburbs where their people now resided. Capitalizing on the powerful desire for homogeneity, many of these churches thrived in suburbia with no shortage of land, modern facilities, and plenty of parking for their mobile congregations.
And what of those congregations who stayed, those who expected mission and ministry to continue despite unpredictable and difficult conditions? Last fall I attended a friend's ordination service at a Baptist church on Chicago's South Side. As the only white person at the service, I wondered about the church's history. Afterwards, during the requisite basement potluck, an older woman proudly told me, "We were the first black family to attend this church." She went on to describe how the demographic changes in the church mirrored what happened in the neighborhood: from all white, to integrated, to its current predominately-black status.
Over dinner this woman talked at length about her church, but nothing seemed as significant as the white pastor who first welcomed her family into the congregation. As the neighborhood changed many of the established members challenged the pastor to move the church to the suburbs. After all, many had already moved and now had to drive into the city for Sunday services. "But he wouldn't do it," this woman fondly recalled. She went on to describe how, upon his retirement, the pastor turned over the pulpit to a black minister from the neighborhood.
Admittedly, this church isn't much to look at. Its building and programs pale when compared to its suburban kin. The pastor's decision could not have been easy as he watched other churches move to greener pastures, their members and budgets increasing as a result. And yet, because of his refusal to move, today a faithful and vibrant community of Christians exists in that neighborhood.
A powerful and redemptive life change awaits Walt Kowalski at the end of Grand Torino. His bitterness and racism are subverted by the kindness and affection of the neighbors he once distrusted. While his suburban family enjoys their life of relative comfort and stability, Kowalski's existence is transformed in part because those very things have been taken from him. His redemption is found in the distress and pain that comes from staying put. Surely this is the untold story of many faithful congregations around the country who, despite unpredictable and difficult changes, have ignored the siren calls of stability and measurable growth.
A congregation's decision to remain loyal to its neighborhood despite social upheaval is not limited to urban churches of a bygone era. Sociologists continue to point out the increasingly large movements of people from city to suburb and vice versa. As the cost of living skyrockets in many cities, suburban churches are faced with neighborhoods made up of new ethnic and class diversity. Additionally, the landscape of suburbia has changed - land is no longer plentiful or cheap - and the greener pastures are now to be found even further from the city.
The temptation to leave the old neighborhood is powerful when we mistake Kingdom values with the cultural standards of homogeneity, comfort, and stability. But surely the Body of Christ is to be known for its more satisfying fruit. Our decision to stay - to seek the will of God despite the confusion and anxiety that comes with significant change - is witness to our radically alternative life in Christ. As we reject consumer comfort and choose to love our neighbors - new and old, well known and unfamiliar - we demonstrate the scope of the Gospel for all people. And like Walt Kowalski, our decision to stubbornly and faithfully remain could result in redeeming work of God, in our neighborhoods and our lives.