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.

An Invitation to Suffering

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“An Invitation to Suffering” is a short essay by Bob Lupton from his book, Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America. Bob has had a profound impact on my life as he freely shares his woes and joys of inner-city life and ministry for over 40 years in a very challenging and transparent way:

I do not like pain. Not in any form. Loneliness, sickness (my own or another’s), anxiety, frustration, disappointment, hurt–these are not the companions with which I choose to share my life. I actively avoid them. I buy drugs from the pharmacist to shield me from physical pain. I surround myself with people like myself who dispel my loneliness and reassure me that I am OK. I control my contacts with people who take more than they can give. I schedule my days to eliminate disruptions and to accomplish the things I think significant or pleasurable. A theology of abundance,  peace, and health has enormous appeal for me.

Recently, I witnessed a small act in the drama of city live that both moved and troubled me deeply. It was a familiar situation. A family with three small children was evicted again for nonpayment of rent.  Their ritual “put me up for just tonight” had been used too often. With no money for bargaining, the only place they could find to stay was a front porch. The father slept under a bush. Although I was quite unwilling to give them any more, I wondered what would become of them

Then an unbelievable but predictable event occurred. An unemployed brother whose own family was barely surviving took his evicted relatives in. Once again, it was those who could least afford extra mouths to feed and were already crowded to the point of eviction who found it in their hearts to help. Even more disturbing to me was the cost of caring: increased hunger; hot sleepless nights made even more uncomfortable by crying babies and wall-to-wall bodies; the stench of inadequate sanitation; short tempers; constant confusion.

This picture still burns in my mind. It is a haunting reminder of the energy I spend avoiding the cost of loving others. I establish an emergency fund instead of inviting hungry families to eat at my table.  I develop a housing program to avoid the turmoil of displaced families living in my home. I create employment projects that distance me from the aggravation of working with undisciplined people. As a counselor, I maintain detachment with a fifty-minute hour and an emphasis on client self-responsibility. And even as I share the gospel with the needy, I secretly hope that God will handle their problems.

Of course I don’t allow myself to think this way very often. I choose rather to concentrate on the positive things I am doing for people, the helpful things, right things. But when I am honest with myself, I must admit that I cannot fully care for one who is suffering without entering into his pain. The sick must be touched if they are to be healed. The weak myst be nourished, the wounded embraced. Care is the bigger part of the cure.

Yet I fear contagion. I fear my life will get out of control and I will be overshadowed by the urgent affairs of others. I fear for my family. I resist the Christ who beckons His followers to lay down their lives for each other. His talk of a yoke, a cross, of bearing one another’s burdens and giving one’s self away is not attractive to me. The implications of entering the world of suffering as a “Christ-one”, as yeast absorbed into the loaf of human need, are as terrifying as death itself. Yet this is the only way to life. The question is, will I choose life?”