A Path Towards Urban Renewal: Simplicity

Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) is usually known for being one of the most powerful and influential Pope’s in Catholic church history, known for promoting and organizing crusades against Muslim rulers in Spain and in the Holy Land, and against heretics in southern France. This is not a great feat to be known for, but something about this Pope goes mostly unspoken of, is that he once had a vision.

During a meeting Pope Innocent III had with John Bernadone, he recounted this vision where the Lateran basilica (a basilica dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) was almost ready to fall down. It is then that he saw this little poor man, small and scorned, who was holding up the church with his own back bent underneath it, so that it would not fall. “I’m sure,” said Pope Innocent III, “he is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches.”

This little man, dressed in rags, who lived a simple life, was the model of reform Christ had for His church in the 13th century, who was also known as St. Francis of Assisi. This simple man who lived a very simple and unassuming life style, established the Order of Friar’s Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the 3rd Order of Saint Francis for men and women who weren’t able to live lives of being itinerant preachers, which was later followed by the Poor Clares. All of these orders serve Christ’s body in simple ways, devoting their lives to serving the poor, the sick, and the dying.

Now fast forward with me over 700 years, and meet a women named Agnes Bojaxhiu, who joined a Catholic order for women that was birthed because of the simple work St. Francis committed himself to. In 1928 Agnes left her home at the age of 18, and joined the Sisters of Loreto, never again to see her mother or sisters.

Agnes was a teacher, and a good one at that, but she became more and more disturbed by the poverty that surrounded her in new home town. When a famine came to her city, death and misery ensued, and violence broke out between Hindu’s and Muslim’s, leaving her city destitute, along with the people who lived there. This was the beginning of her next “calling within a call” to live simply, care for the sick, feed the poor, and befriend the dying as they await their last breath. All this was done in the name of Christ.

Years later, and throughout more than 120 countries, her work is living and active, and lives beyond her life. Agnes is also known as Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, and leaves a legacy of simplicity, with a passion to be Christ to the vulnerable, the sick, and the marginalized. Mother Teresa inspires us all to find a way to translate our spiritual beliefs into action in the world. How has one woman accomplished so much?

The Christian answer is “the power of God,” of course, but God’s power allowed this woman to live a simple, unassuming life, stripped of ego and desire for worldly gain, with a posture of humility and listening as she serve the poor, the sick, and the dying.

Simplicity. Through a very brief observation of two very popular Catholic saints whose legacy’s go far beyond their lives lived on earth, we learn that simplicity of life is a powerful tool in the hand of God to bring about great change in any generation. Names of men and women who had great power but used it for sordid gain, are men and women who you and I have likely never heard of. But saints who have lived simple lives, serving others and caring not about material gain, are known and spoken of worldwide as a model of Christ-likeness.

In this post, I am not advocating a movement towards poverty, and I know some will only see that in this post. What I am advocating is a life that is committed to living simply in the midst of some much ‘stuff’. The age of global advancement is among us with opportunities of great wealth and power, as well as the technology age that gives us access to so much information and opportunities to fill your time in front of a cyber-world-lit-screen.

Consumption is over the top in the West. The good economics of Capitalism has been exploited and used for selfish and evil purposes with seemingly no boundaries. In this unchecked system, life has become complicated and the power and wealth that was given to bless, has been turned inward. I see the simple life as a means for Christ to be truly seen and known in an increasingly complex life.

For urban renewal to be a reality in the midst of out-of-control globalization, lives of simplicity must rise up all over the world. In our cities, there must be those who commit to living simply; those who are committed to slow and patient discipleship that helps lead and develop men and women to be a holistically alternative community; those who are stepping out of the mainstream view of success, advancement, consumption, and individuality; those who take seriously Jesus’ call to follow him.

We must challenge our Western notion of what it looks like to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. To follow Jesus in a culture committed to over-consumption, individualism, financial success, and fast-paced everything, I believe it’s imperative for the simple life to be mainstream again, as people begin planting roots in particular neighborhoods, living radically different lives that are alternative to the Western story, and more in line with God’s story.

Renewing Urban Renewal

Urban Renewal is a phrase that, for the last 50-60 years or so, has referred to the government program that wanted to revitalize urban slums. The renewal process included demolishing old or run-down buildings, constructing newer housing, or adding in features like a theater or stadium. Urban renewal is usually undergone for the purposes of persuading wealthier individuals to come live in a particular area where land owners, years earlier, left the neighborhood but held on to their property.

In the 1940’s this government program became a nationwide push to clear, rebuild, and redevelop slums. Although there has been good things that have come out of this program, critics of the urban renewal project have contended that although they bulldoze slums, urban renewal programs often have led to their replacement by office buildings and apartment homes for the well-to-do. The critique with hindsight has seen that “renewal” was seen through the lens of a Westerner Capitalistic mindset that paid little attention to culture, personal needs, and aesthetic beauty.

For instance, you may have heard of the phrase, “the projects” when referring to government housing in a “rough” neighborhood. These are apartment buildings intentionally built to be simple, same, and lacking any character at all. The plan was to demolish old buildings and houses, move out the poor, and build them new buildings without the frills. In some cities, you can see “the projects” built in rows, almost like corn fields, where all the people who were part of the crime and poverty of one neighborhood, were relocated to “the projects” (lower income housing) to start a new community.

The idea was that a new place with a new building was going to stimulate the neighborhood’s poor to live differently. This has not been the case. The projects, in many ways, have been a terrible project that have not only uglified neighborhoods, but has destroyed cultures of so many diverse groups. This is because when renewal is understood to be brought about by new physical buildings, we have terribly misunderstood the heart of what renewal is. It was also a bad project because no matter who the people are, when any neighborhood is made for only those who have little to no resources, you will always end up with a “ghetto”.

An older mentor of mine who has lived in the “ghetto” most of his life shared with me a dream he had one night. He said that he was speaking at a large church in a wealthy part of town, and he asked every one who has a broken family to stand up (divorce, abuse in the family, chemical addiction, porn addiction, addiction to needing material things to feel happy, homelessness, etc.). The whole church in all of it’s courage rose to their feet, and then he declared, “The ghetto is everywhere my friends!”, then he walked off the stage and sat down. Sounds like a profound dream to me; the ghettos is indeed everywhere.

The motivation behind this post is a desire to share my heart for true urban renewal, which has some to do with material things eventually, but has more to do with learning to address the issues of the ghetto, the issues that find their origins within all of us: namely, issues of prejudice (racial, social, cultural, political, spiritual, etc). Renewal begins with us; renewing what we think, desire, and believe in.

I believe urban renewal must address the whole person, the whole neighborhood, and the whole city, and all the issues that come with people, neighborhoods, and cities. But the starting place is confronting within ourselves the presuppositions (our worldviews, what we think and believe), the lenses that we interpret life through. No one has a neutral lens. So renewal begins with us, asking ourselves, what kind of people do we need to be in order to resist the destruction that our prejudices create? What are the virtues of true renewal?

In the series of posts to come, I want to make a case for the kind of thinking/believing/desiring that I think must take place in our minds and hearts if we are to ever experience the renewal in our lives and cities that we are longing for. I will spend more in-depth time talking about the virtues of peaceableness, justice, compassion, hospitality, simplicity, community, and wisdom. Here’s to renewing what urban renewal was always meant to be.

Weekly @Switchfoot Song: Chem 6a

Here’s the next song on Switchfoot’s first album The Legend of Chin: “Chem 6a”. Apparently, Chem 6A is the intro chemistry class at University of California, San Diego. This is one of the classes Jon (the lead singer) took while he was in college, before he dropped out to pursue his dream of playing music full-time. Here’s the lyrics:

Nothing but a chemical in my head
It’s nothing but laziness
Cause I don’t wanna read the book
I’ll watch the movie
Cause it’s not me
I’m just like everybody else my age

I think I’d rather play around
And I think I’d rather watch TV
Cause I don’t wanna face my fears
I’ll watch the movie
Cause it’s not me
I’m just like everybody else
I’m just like everybody else

Because I don’t wanna be here
I don’t wanna see this now
It’s all wrong but it’s alright
And I don’t wanna be here
And I don’t wanna study now
It’s all wrong but it’s alright

I don’t know what love is
I don’t know who I am
And if I ever want to find out
I’ll watch the movie
Cause it’s not me
I’m just like everybody else my age

I don’t wanna change the world
And I don’t wanna be someone
I don’t wanna write the book
I’ll make the movie
Cause it’s not me
I’m just like everybody else
I’m just like everybody else

I don’t wanna be here
I don’t wanna see this now
It’s all wrong but it’s alright
And I don’t wanna be here
And I don’t wanna study now
It’s all wrong but it’s alright

I must say this again, as I have said it before, and will likely say it many more times, music (and the arts) are universal and powerful precisely because, unlike many other pieces of literature, most forms of the arts leave open-ended meanings to the work that is enjoyed (not all, but most). So allow me indulge on what this song has meant to me. This song speaks to the reality of having to conform to what the world around me says I need to be, or to do, to be successful, to be somebody, or to fit in. It speaks to the person who isn’t motivated to work at a fortune 500 business, start an online business, or just work a 9-5 job sitting in a cubicle. This speaks of the person who is tired of living in the rat race just to keep up with all the things that will give you a “good, steady job” so you can keep up with all the bills that have been acquired in the name of having a good time, and living the American dream.

It also speaks to the person who has lost themselves in this life, and don’t want to open that door to find out who they really are. The person who knows something’s wrong with the status quo, but they don’t want to know, so they just stay like everybody else, watch the same movies, believe the same news reels, and never find who they truly are. We live in a fast paced culture that has made consumption “king”, which has caused a sickening system that has allowed capitalism to be the new religion, and has allowed it to be almost completely unaccountable.

This unchecked capitalism has conformed many of us “Christians” to it’s image more than we are being conformed to the image of Christ. We say this is not so, but our lifestyles betrays us. Us ‘Westerners’ are the all-consuming-mouth-of-the-world, consuming products and people. This unchecked, unaccountable capitalism has created a way of life that has made the bottom line (financially) the most important discussion. This has turned creative citizens, into crazy consumers. We are told to keep consuming, or our way of life will not be sustainable. So we strive to keep up, lest we be forgotten… and the result is that we lose ourselves. We become one with the people, or the systems, that we never believed in, but we’re like everybody else, so that makes us feel okay.

For Christians, or may I say “holy ones” (fun fact side note: the Greek word hagios often translated ‘holy ones’ or saints’ is used over 60 times in the New Testament, compared to the Greek word Christianós or ‘Christian’, only being used three times), this unchecked capitalism has been detrimental to the identity of the ‘holy ones’. Instead of living as citizens of heaven, we have become consumers of heavenly feelings.

Consumerism has become such a way of life because of unchecked capitalism, that even the church now is addicted to consuming religious goods, services, and leaders. We consume worship. We consume entertaining preachers/leaders. We continue to consume more and more, but feel better about it because we have put “Jesus” on the product, or have deemed it a “Christian” product. But in the midst of this rat race, we have forgotten that over-consumption in the problem, so we keep consuming “Christian” things. And while we do it, we long for more comfortable, trendy venues to do our consuming.

I think all of this sets us up for a big let down in life; we lose who we are, life becomes disappointing, everything’s wrong, but we say, “It’s alright, because I’m like everybody else.” The American way of life has become a chemical in our heads. We were created for so much more.