Tuesday, November 3, 2015

From other steps: Chicago, reflections in urban ministry


Our task force

From other steps: Chicago
Reflections on Urban Ministry

From around the country we have gathered at McCormick Seminary on the campus of the University of Chicago in the tawny Hyde Park neighborhood of the city's  southside.  It was the the apocalyptic situation in  Detroit that had inspired the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to call for a new study. (
committee begins its work, Ruth explains the church

The last one was in 1995. Our chair, Phil, just having left the Obama administration, and myself are the only people left from that ’95 group. And I may be the he only one who goes back to 1980,(though I was not actually a member  of the task force, I contributed…) I’ve been thinking about urban ministry for a long time.

First, to talk about urban, what is that? Phil’s preferred definition is if it feels urban, it is urban. It’s not about geography or political boundaries, it’s about an ethos, a way of understanding oneself in the world.

There is, of course, a long anti-urban bias in the church. It was Cain, after all, who built the first city.  Perhaps the most challenging Bible scholar out there today may be Wes Howard-Brook who basically sees the city as hubris and rebellion against God.  Cities lead to walls to protect an empire. It is in the open and vulnerable where we experience ourselves as  completely dependent upon God. On the other hand, as someone else said, the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.
Kevin makes a pont

So looking back, what do I see? When we first started, the basic issue was white flight and would the cities survive. New York City had the feeling of a dystopian sci- fi movie. And as Howard Cosell informed us, ladies and gentlemen , the Bronx is burning. The high minded experiments of the Model Cities  Program  had resulted in rebellion and smoldering fires.

In Tulsa when  I arrived there in 1976, the south and eastern boundaries of the  city kept expanding. To be supportive of downtown development was to be a liberal and  anyone white living in the once grand north Tulsa neighborhoods was considered eccentric or hopelessly romantic.

By the time we wrote our 1995 report, a paradigm shift had occurred. In a rust belt city like Pittsburgh, the industrial core which fed a solid organized middle working class. was gone forever.  My best friend went from organizing steel workers to organizing unemployed.  And a diaspora spread across the US.

Urban/suburban splits became more meaningless as near in suburbs began to change and most of the southern suburban coast of Long Island began  to undergo dramatic shifts in population.  A town like Freeport went from the home of Guy Lombardo’s boat to a place that would produce Lou Reed and Public Enemy. Meanwhile the beginning s of gentrification and yuppifcation had begun.

Gentrification has become rampant as expanding  white protected communities shove the working class further out. Latino members  of my church,who grew up in NYC’s successful projects, head to Jersey and even the Poconos to own property. Bloomberg’s luxury city expands daily while the income disparity hits new heights.  I like the  Yankee Stadium analogy: when I attended a game in 1973 the ratio from most expensive to bleacher seats was 4 to 1. When the new stadium opened in April 2009, the ratio had expanded to 500 to 1. And now a moat around the most expensive boxes ensured the rich that no commoner would ever get too close to them by moving down.

Meanwhile the slaughter of black men and women by an occupying army and  mass incarceration has grown at shocking levels and homelessness has hit an all time high under progressive mayor Di Blasio. 

As barriers fall for the lgbtq community, the lingering challenge of race and class will be more visible. Those who got their liberal bona fides by supporting gays will face a new set of realities and many lgbtq folk will be all too happy to join the  empire.

Occupy Wall Street comes and goes and Black Lives Matter hits the streets, some of the same people staying, continuing  the fight. Queer kids right up front with the New York Justice League in leading the charge.   For the first time in a long time, the whole system itself is being questioned.  Occupy changed the public discourse on disparity with the  idea of the 1%.  Marchers chant indict, convict send those killer cops to jail, the whole damned system is guilty as hell. And more and more realize that stop n frisk, mass incarceration and gentrification are all tied together.

Meanwhile, the church as a structure and institution continues into the postlude. Our new urban ministry efforts will have to begin with networks created at the grassroots level. That’s part of why we’ve come together, to plan regional consultations to hear each others’ stories and make the connections at the grassroots level.

Presidential candidates range from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders who is making the word socialist acceptable in public discourse  at long last. 

Looking back, I’ll say this as well…when we began, urban ministry, to be honest, was largely (not exclusively) a white man’s project.  Equal parts  selfless giving of oneself for the city and its people and unrealized paternalism.  We drank too much, smoked too much and unless our wives were committed to our ministry as their ministry, got divorced all too often, like our comrades the community organizers. This time around, the leaders are women …and men…of color.  They are taking needs  like sabbath and self care seriously. Luckily Phil has located some  younger leaders as well, though they’re hard to find, we have not been as good as those who found and encouraged us to find and engage the net generation.  We’ll be looking at expressions of church we haven’t even  imagined yet.

On the flight home, I read the Church & Society Magazine I edited for the November/December 1995 issue.( ). Exactly 20 years ago, I was fresh and new at West-Park.  It’s interesting…and sad…to see what I wrote then. The hope that was  there.  I was actually pretty prescient. But knowing what was coning down didn't mean I was ready or able to deal with it.  There’s a lot of sadness in that awareness, of the losses of those years.
wrapping it up.....

Phil and I realize that we went from being young turks to graybeards as our mentor Warren Dennis described it. It's strange having others look to us as we looked to who  inspired us, the Ray Swartzbachs and  Clarence Mc Crackens. (And for me, George Todd, Philip Newell, Rodney Martin..that’s why we still do this…we owe it to them….) God bless this work,  May we be faithful still.

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