Living in the Inner City

Living in the inner city is strangely similar to a carnival ride.

I can remember the feeling today, though it is now twenty-five years later. Being hurled across a cement plain, the centrifugal forces straining my neck, coming perilously close to the people standing at the gate - so close I could almost kiss them. But the ride known as 'The Scrambler" would snatch me away with a jolt of acceleration, drag me through the pungent fragrance of Hot Links cooking nearby, and in seconds push me up against another face at another fence on another side.

Aside from the sheer fun of the speed, what made the ride so great was the organized chaos, in which all the pods of riders careened. It indeed scrambled us, but safely, and for just long enough to feel we had gotten our money's worth without throwing up.

Something akin to that is what it has been like for my family to relocate to a huge, 90-year-old house in what is known as a "very poor" and "dangerous" section of inner-city Fresno, California, to live with college students and engage in inner-city ministry. But strictly speaking, I can't press the metaphor too far. In most (not all) respects, it's no carnival.

This square-mile piece of turf known as the Belmont Triangle, or the Lowell neighborhood (after the Lowell School) is a neighborhood of pain. The last census [1990] shows that 99.4% of all children under 18 in Lowell live under the poverty level. (City-wide, the number is one in three.) Only three of ten adults have gone to high school. In the last ten years the population there has increased by 38% but available housing has decreased by 12%, artificially squeezing at least five different ethnic groups together in a forced community - a 1990s kind of concentration camp. People want to leave but can't. Some can't leave because they are too poor. Others, the few elderly whites remaining from the time this was a "nice" neighborhood, actually own their homes but have given up on trying to sell them. No one's buying in Lowell, except absentee landlords who want to acquire these homes for less than a song - one line of a song - and rent them out to those who by virtue of their social class find themselves there.

It's a place in which swirl all the typical "inner-city" images we're so sick of on the news: Cyclone fences, broken glass, graffiti, unswept streets, chaotic youth. There are 61 empty lots or condemned homes in a square mile of land. Last month a twelve-year-old boy who had a pet possum and loved computers - a boy we had met - found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as he engaged in the dangerous activity of walking home from school, and died of a stray bullet from rival gangs. Last week a fifteen-year-old boy was shot as he walked home late at night.

But ironically, in this same place, a place that some would describe as a wasteland, there is open demonstration of the values of community, of caring, and of responsibility. It's a place where many people who happen to be poor exercise a daily faith more profound and tangible than my own. And it's become a place where the values, priorities, and assumptions about life that we unthinkingly acquired along the way in our growing up are being challenged and reorganized - scrambled - with a force that strains existing muscles and creates new ones. And what's so crazy about it is, for the most part, we're having a good time.

Why We Wanted to Do This

If being there has been an urban "Scrambler," getting there was a decade-long ride on "It's a Small World." The story is too long to tell in these pages, but the track of this gentle ride wound through the streets of Oxford where we met urban missionaries on sabbatical. It took us to the great cities of Pasadena, Chicago, and San Francisco, where we saw students making a difference in urban America. It sloped us vicariously down the alleys of squatters' settlements in Manila where we saw a family (looking much like ours) building the kingdom amongst the poorest of the poor. It led us through years of Urbana Student Mission conferences, IVP books and speakers, where at every twist of the track we silently, even unwittingly, grew to embrace the message that God loves the city.

City Song

Once we got a due about what was happening, all sorts of themes began to jump out of the Bible at us. And just as it's impossible to get the song "It's a Small World After All" out of your mind even days after you are home from Disneyland, so the "song of the city" that the Bible sings so powerfully, has woven itself into the fabric of our hearts. Over a period of several years, lines were added to this chorus, and we're learning new ones all the time.

Line one came from Isaiah 58. We saw that God was fed up with people who spiritualized their faith so much that they found no problem having quiet time and prayer meetings while ignoring or even mistreating people in need. God defined for them what the evidence of true piety or devotion would be: compassionate action on behalf of the poor.

Line two came from Isaiah 61. These were the words Jesus chose as his introductory sermon, defining his call to the poor, to prisoners, to the blind, to the oppressed - in effect, all those who have been cut out of society. How could we as his followers choose to ignore his example?

Line three saw the writer of Psalm 122 giving voice to our own undefined longing that our city become a place of peace, of secure and stable lives, so unlike the current reality of crime and poverty.

Line four of this song reminded us that, like exiles in Babylon, we are citizens of heaven assigned to live for a while on this earth. And just as the Lord commanded them through Jeremiah to seek the prosperity of the city, to settle down and invest in it, to pray for it, he was calling us to do the same in Fresno.

If the previous line was challenging, the next was comforting. In Psalm 55 David looked at the violence and evil, the "destructive forces at work in the city" and wanted to take the red-eye to Las Vegas, which is of course very human, and descriptive of what most people of means have done when they have seen the earliest signs of urban disintegration. Here was someone in scripture who understood our fear. But David, true king that he was, laid his fear before the Lord - called on him, cast his cares upon him, and found a new security, strong enough to keep him where he was.

Psalm 90 reminds us that God himself would be our habitation - our house. This was a good thing too, because the deal nearly fell apart, the day we were to close escrow, the buyers of our old house moving in the next day. We thought we were going to be homeless and wondered what "moving into God" would look like.

Acts 17:26-27 claimed that God is in the real estate business, helping to determine the times and places of people's habitation. Acts 2:42-47 and 18:9 gave us a vision for the power of Christian community in the city. (This become real to us when we thought we were going to be homeless. Two other families who had recently moved into this neighborhood with the same intent as us, offered to let us move in with them if we lost the house. A third offered to store all our furniture with them. It was our first lesson in biblical community, and we wept with joy over it.)

I've taken the time to "sing" for a minute because these passages are so instrumental (no pun intended) in shaping a few clear values in us, including:

  • risk-taking for the community,
  • Jesus-centered decision making,
  • an action-oriented spirituality,
  • mirroring God's compassionate action on behalf of the poor,
  • and attempting to live a radical form of Christian community.

Now these values were fine on paper, but until we moved we didn't know if they would work in urban Fresno. That, of course, is the occupational hazard for people in ministry. We mouth these values so often we think we believe them. Now came the real test. We had several questions about the idea of inner-city life. Interestingly, we could still only answer these questions in principle before making our final decision.

Big Questions

For example, we had what was probably a normal fear of the unknown. We didn't know what the "evil inner-city" would hold for us. And we had all the common stereotypes of "downtown" hanging around our neck to threaten our resolve. The graffiti, the chaos, the gangs, the drug culture, the gunfire created a huge and seemingly demonic cloud that hung menacingly over the city. I laugh at it now, but the first time I watered my lawn in my front yard at night in our new neighborhood, I fancied that I was taking my life in my hands.

What we actually found when we had been there a few weeks was startlingly different. We woke to peaceful mornings. We found caring neighbors. We began to understand that the crime scene revolved around the areas of inter-gang violence, the drug culture, and domestic abuse.

Since we were not in a gang, not doing drugs, and not physically abusing husband or wife, we were no more likely to be the victim of violent crime than anybody else. And as far as burglary goes, the thieves all go to North Fresno where there's actually some stuff worth stealing, rather than our neighborhood. Many of our fears were unfounded, and embarrassingly, were more the product of Media hype than actual fact. To be certain, there are evil forces at work in our neighborhood. But they weren't all focused on us.

We also worried how we would deal with the issue of Biblical community. Since it was our vision to have some of the college students from our InterVarsity ministry live with us, and attempt to mentor them in ministering in the city, we were going to be instantly, by default, expanding our definition of family. As people raised with fairly standard, middle-class notions of what a family was, we didn't know if we had what it was going to take, either the physical time or the emotional energy to both respond to and cultivate what they would bring to the mix. And like many things in life, it's been a mixed bag.

Students bring all the good, the bad, and the ugly of their culture and background. Their love for the Lord is
contagious to our children. But so are all their dysfunctionalities and sins. It was with a sense of failure but also relief that one student moved out after about five months with us. Living in community is hard, and doing it successfully means everyone must be much more deliberate in their choices. Even so, it would be hard to give it up now.

And then there were the inevitable questions from family and friends. Some extended family members looked at us as if we had said we were moving to Mars to reach out to little green men. Some church people bristled at the thought that we should "risk our children" to reach out to the poor. Others questioned whether our move to the inner-city was compatible with our IVCF ministry vision. After all, weren't we supposed to be reaching college students?

Over time, it's been amazing to see people's growing acceptance of our mission. Family came to our house and heard our stories of life in the city, and in the process saw some of their stereotypes begin to crumble.

The Lord has allowed us, and some of our friends, to see how beneficial city life is for our children. For example, our boys see the effects of drug abuse up close as we drive the streets. That's a much more effective strategy than "just say no." And because our house is a center of ministry activity; they are becoming more outward-oriented, almost by default. There's a celebratory feel about the place that makes life fun. They are becoming creatures with a conscience and a sense of moral and civic commitment because of the models that surround them and the snippets of conversation they pick up in the cracks and spaces of the day. And because they think college students are cool, and these college students think Jesus is cool, they have concluded that following Jesus is cool.

Some of the people who questioned the compatibility of our ministry vision with our move to the inner-city are seeing the ways that inner-city ministry is training up a more gifted student leader back on campus, and equipping them for a lifetime of radical discipleship far beyond the campus.

But perhaps the most searching questions were the ones we asked about ourselves. Were we right for this kind of lifestyle? Were our personalities such that God could use in an environment that seemed so foreign to us? Again, we did not have the luxury of answering this question prior to moving. What we found when we got there was a totally unexpected, God-given ability to adapt. If we were not normally ready for a house full of people, it amazed us that we weren't as bothered by it as we thought we might be, If we worried that we didn't know how to relate to poor people who didn't speak much English, we were delighted to discover that love and respect are universally understood. If we worried that we wouldn't have the smarts to deal with the curve-balls the city regularly throws our way, whether people in need coming to our door, or fear-producing stuff going on in the neighborhood, or the hardships presented by the house itself or the people in the house, we in fact are finding the grace to make mistakes, laugh, cry, pray, and believe that a good God is in control.

In fact, our mistakes have been the most fruitful part of our experience here. For example, shortly after we had moved in, I was holding a meeting in our living room for students who were going to tutor some refugee children from my neighborhood. We were studying Isaiah 58, which defines true spirituality, true piety in terms of compassionate action on behalf of the poor. There came a knock on my door and I stopped the meeting to answer it. The man who appeared there handed me a note that said that he was deaf, that his car had broken down a few blocks away, and could I give him three dollars for some gas, and for food for his baby.

Now, we were by this time fairly used to getting transient people, men and women, by our house asking for things. I didn't sense his information was genuine, though I didn't spend time to see if it was. I simply said, "sorry, not today," and closed the door in his bewildered face. I then returned to our Bible study and taught on compassionate action on behalf of the poor. The irony was not lost on me or the students, and like most goofs, it became a point for teaching. But we have a lot to learn.

As a kid at the city carnival, I didn't care about the cotton candy or the dime-toss or the mirror-maze. I wanted to go for the rides. But carnivals were also places where the hucksters lurked, the pickpockets, the bullies who roamed in groups. They were almost always at night, were always loud, chaotic, and the air was thick with smoke. They seemed threatening and dangerous, and that put me off. The city is a lot like that. It's a place of joy and a place of fear. But we're here. And life is looking different - more interesting, more meaningful - from the audacious heights of this urban double Ferris wheel. It may never be as peaceful as a country fair, but you can't get Hot-Links there either.

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These blogs are the words of the writers and do not represent InterVarsity or Urbana. The same is true of any comments which may be posted about any blog entries. Submitted comments may or may not be posted within the blog, at the blogger's discretion.