I first got to know Erika through her blogs over at Xanga five years ago. For a brief time we attended the same Bible College, and I now keep tabs on her through her blog, “Married in Mile Square City.” She has contributed to HfG in the past, you can read her posts here and here.
I have come to realize that living an urban life has forever shifted my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.
My faith started to shift when I left college in the Bible belt of East Tennessee and moved into the thick of one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods. My campus was situated in North Philadelphia, an area notorious for its high levels of crime. I quickly learned that those rapid-fire pops that sounded like fireworks weren’t child’s play – they were gunshots echoing through the streets. During this pivotal period in my journey, I attended a justice conference that created an intentional space for me to wrestle with the questions that life in the city was presenting me with. I read Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. I spent time in Kensington, arguably the poorest neighborhood in Philadelphia.
The light bulb started flickering, and the truth of God’s heart for justice began to be illuminated. I couldn’t escape the feeling that although I had been reading the Bible my whole life, I hadn’t understood the full picture. While it isn’t always the case, I began to realize that suburban churches can have a tendency towards individualism, ending up feeling like a country club where you can simply stay within the safe confines of your church building. The more time I spent in the city, the more I realized that I had only been aware of certain aspects of the good news. I hadn’t understood the message of Jesus as a holistic way of living that didn’t just affect me, but shifted the lives of those around me as well.
Living out the gospel looks drastically different here in New York than it did in the suburbs of Philadelphia or Baltimore, where I grew up. I struggled for the past few years trying to figure out what God’s justice and restorative peace, his Shalom, looked like for yuppie Hoboken, where I am now deeply involved in church community. I couldn’t find God’s heart beating within my own for people who seemed to lack nothing. I scoffed at the chosen lifestyle of drinking to oblivion, collecting designer labels, and scrambling to keep up with the Joneses. I didn’t identify with the people of Hoboken at all. In fact, I turned up my nose and judged the Ba-JEEZUS out of them.
My prayer for the past year or more has been that God would change my heart towards Hoboken as a whole, that I would come to love this city and pray wholeheartedly for its best. One of the most powerful scriptures I have held in the forefront of my mind as I have sought to understand my place here is the example Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 9. In verses 22-23 he says: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (NIV).
Whoa. The challenge is actually to become like the people of Hoboken? So that God, through me, might save some? So it is not my job as a Christian to stand on the outside and judge, or try to change the culture of Hoboken. My job is to live amongst the people of Hoboken, hanging out at bars with friends, showing up at community events, and showing through all possible means that I really care. That I’m all in.
I am beginning to understand the reality that God wants all people, from all walks of life to come to him. Even the person who seemingly has it all – the person to whom I can offer nothing materially, but is completely broken or dead spiritually. Church and ministry look different here than they have in Baltimore or Philly or Knoxville. God has a specific plan for Hoboken. I am realizing God planted me here, with an existing heart for urban life, to stand back and learn Hoboken in order to love it well. All my preconceived notions were worthless. Living here and being obedient to God means being willing to scrap everything I thought I knew. It takes massive trust and purposeful listening.
This past week, our “small” Hoboken community of 50,000 was wrecked by Superstorm Sandy. I have been overwhelmed both by the devastation and the incredible ways our town has come together. I am humbled and awed and so grateful for the outpouring of love in our town – from both the residents and people who have gone great lengths to help us. I found myself weeping at our monthly worship night days after the storm hit. My heart was so broken for Hoboken, but so grateful that in the midst of it, our church family was able to provide tangible encouragement and hope – not only to each other, but to those “outside” the church – those who may never step foot through our doors to join us for corporate worship.
We mucked out people’s apartments. We brought them cleaning supplies. We cooked up hot dogs. We showed up with manpower. My husband, who is on volunteer staff for our local church said something to the effect of, “We’ve worked hard for four years to earn the people of Hoboken’s trust and for them to allow us to love and help the community. This storm opened up all those doors because of the years of hard work we put in.” Of course what happened was terrible, but what we are watching come out of it is incredible. We are watching people accept the love of Christ through acts of service all across the city. Doors are being opened to us that never would have been before. God is using his own people to be the active hands and feet of Jesus and that, my friends, is the gospel.