10.28.2007

How to Really Serve in the City

Recently, I was asked by a friend of mine to share with her church's
college group about being a Christian in a big city. I think she and
others were expecting me to sound the usual themes of volunteering in
a soup kitchen or serving among the homeless or working with the
addicted.

But I didn't go that route. After all, not many of those I spoke to
are going to work full-time in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter or
a substance abuse clinic. Encouraging them in those directions might
make for an eye-opening night of service, but likely not much more.
Even worse, it might reinforce peoples' stereotypes of urban folks, or
make people feel like they could check "did my urban thing" off their
Christian checklist and go on with their lives.

But even for those whom God has not called to live, work, and play in
urban settings, there's more that can be experienced. Free-market
capitalist that I am, I still understand that there are inefficiencies
in the economic system, not to mention the residue of countless cycles
of personal and systemic evil, that have led to pockets of misery,
injustice, and ruin in our cities. Misery, injustice, and ruin that
God surprisingly has a lot to say about in the Bible, to the point
where if you read it enough, you begin to realize that maybe it
matters a great deal to Him.

And so it should for us too, urban Christian or not. And so I held
court on tax policy and transportation funding and economic
development. Because I wanted my listeners to understand how cities
work, how decisions that you read about in the paper have consequences
for the least among us, and what tangible things we as Christians - if
in fact we care about what and who God cares about - can do to get
involved and to do right.

So let people serve in soup kitchens and homeless shelters and
substance abuse clinics. I don't downplay such opportunities; in
fact, they are an important part of putting a human face to the
misery, injustice, and ruin that result from broader forces. But if
you ask me to share about what it looks like to be an urban Christian,
I have to start by telling you about those broader forces.

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