When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson is one of the most satisfying books I have read in the last several years. This collection of essays is full of intelligent discussions about American life and values. It is infused with Robinson’s faith, her deep reading of Christian theology and informed appreciation of Calvin, a fierce commitment to liberal education, and her broad-minded understanding of American history. Reading it awakened my gratitude for my religious tradition and the positive impact it has had on American public life.
When I Was a Child I Read Books has little to do with urban life and ministry. It has a great deal to do with how religious ideas shape public consciousness and national values, however, and for that reason I recommend it. Robinson’s book exemplifies the sort of public discourse I would like to hear more often. She engages big ideas of civility and community, and she locates these ideas in the provocative intellectual traditions that many of us share but rarely consider. Her essays engage the public square theologically. I commend them to you, especially “Who Was Oberlin?” which is my favorite of the collection.
What sort of public space is a church? My congregation has a grand space that sits right on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. During the day, from 9am to 6pm or thereabouts, the sanctuary is open to anyone who would like to come in and sit for a while. A cloistered area that abuts the sanctuary often hosts an art exhibit that is open to the public. Nestled in the u-shaped building is a perfectly lovely garden that was designed by one of my best church friends, who is also a master gardener (and a musician). In it sits a bench we just dedicated in memory of another friend, who served the church as an associate pastor for over 35 years. Whenever the weather is nice people visit the garden, sit around and maybe have lunch, and enjoy this lovely green space in the middle of a bustling commercial section of the city.
What sort of public space is my church? It makes a space for passers-by who seek spots of peace and quiet in the city. So, it’s a physical public space. But, through ministries of every description, it also engages the public in many other significant ways that are less visible to Michigan Avenue walkers. It’s a vibrant and expansive church that ministers 7 days a week in dozens of different ways, with social service, issue advocacy, fellowship, and education for diverse groups of people. It is also, then, a social public space. Kevin Lynch might have called it a “node,” a site where people converge, where their paths cross like intersections, a central junction on their journeys.
A church can also be a public space that promotes the common good. Believe it or not in the late 1950s the church to which I then belonged sponsored sex education for our entire community in the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Sex education. In a church. When I was in fifth grade there was a big meeting for mothers and their daughters, held in the fellowship hall of our church. The speakers were two women, our Christian Educator and a local woman physician. They presented information about menstruation, showed slides with diagrams and pictures, and explained what was going to be happening to our young bodies. They encouraged our moms to go home and talk with us about this. They took questions (of course, I don’t think any of us were bold enough to raise our hands, but maybe our moms did). They told us that we could come and talk with them any time about this. It was pretty amazing. It was even more amazing in sixth grade when they held a similar meeting, at which they told us all about what men and women did together in order to make babies. My mother had already imparted this information to me, I’m happy to say, so the facts were not as shocking as they might have been. We were pretty protected, back in those days.
The church had similar meetings and information sessions for boys and their dads. I am confident they made arrangements for kids who lived in single parent families, of whom there were very few.
That they had these meetings at all is astonishing to me, especially given all the “Christian” objections that are raised when people try to do sex education in public schools. But, I have to say, this was such a significant public service. Despite the wooden presentations and the palpable embarrassment in those rooms—I mean, we couldn’t even look at each other we were so embarrassed—the church’s willingness to educate young people and talk with us openly about real life, our bodies, and our futures was wonderful. It provided an important service, and it also made clear that the church was invested in the well being of kids and their community. I’m convinced that having formative, open minded, and nurturing experiences like these sex education meetings are why I have stayed in the progressive Presbyterian wing of my denomination.
Churches can and should be public spaces that serve the common good. So often we resist that impulse, because following through on serving the public good usually means taking some kind of stand, even if it is just a common sense one like educating kids about their bodies and human relationships. Our cities need more from their religious institutions than providing pretty spaces and Sunday morning sanctuary. Our cities need us to step up to the plate and make meaningful contributions to human well being. I am proud when the churches to which I belong can do that.
A few weeks ago there was an article in The New York Times that suggests that a refugee camp in Jordan is becoming a city. The author raises some provocative questions for me: what is the difference between a really crowded, densely populated refugee camp and a city? What makes a city a city? The article suggests that urban life is defined, in part, not just by size or density but also by the presence of economic activity and social organization. What do you think? Is urban life defined not just by how densely we are housed together, but also how we organize ourselves?
Here’s another question: so what? What difference does it make how we define “urban?”
After seeing Amanda Burden’s Ted Talk about public space, to which I linked on this blog last week, I took closer notice of this article about the proliferation of vacant land in American cities. Who would have thought that such a large percentage of urban land –often as much as 12% –lies vacant most of the time? What a great opportunity that land might create to make the sort of public spaces that Burden talks about. It makes a person think.
I was also happy to discover what is for me a new website about cities: The Nature of Cities. I will be following its stories in the months to come, and I will let you know when I see something interesting. In the meantime, check it out. I found this, by the way, through the City Lab emailings that I regularly receive.
What makes a city work? What makes a city worth living in, worth staying in? In this TED Talk, Amanda Burden makes a strong case for the importance of good, usable public spaces that are green, user friendly, and fun to visit.
Her insights are reminiscent of that great section in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which Jane Jacobs talks about urban parks, and what makes some safer and more usable than others.
As Burden observes, public spaces are often overlooked and they are always contested. It is hard work to create and maintain healthy public space in a city, especially one like Manhattan in which the price of land is so sky-high. But, Burden makes a compelling case that the effort is well worth it.
Every weekday I get an email from a website connected to The Atlantic, called Atlantic Cities, which provides links to about five or six articles about all things urban. It’s really interesting, and it is the source for some of the trends, ideas, and developments that I share with you on this blog.
Recently Atlantic Cities announced a new title and a new look to this site: CityLab. I encourage you to take a look at the site. Its goal is to serve people interested in urban living, urban problem solving, and effective urban development. It’s a great resource.
What makes for a flourishing city and flourishing citizens? There are hundreds of ways to answer this question, of course, but I am reminded by Ian Frazier’s “Talk of the Town” piece in the June 2 New Yorker that a significant answer to this question is “public libraries.” Frazier concludes with this statement:
“New York City has created visionary civic projects in the past; its public library is chief among them. America now has the highest level of income inequality in the developed world, and New York’s is among the worst in America. The public library has always been a great democratizer and creator of citizens, and a powerful force against inequality; it must not retrench, especially now.”
You may wonder why a shout out to public libraries appears in a blog about urban ministry. Two reasons: (1) I have a broad understanding of ministry, and believe that our public library system is to some degree the fruits of Andrew Carnegie’s religious vocation and the vocations of others less well known. The impulse to make ideas and resources available to the public resonates with open minded Protestantism at its best. (2) In these days of diminishing public resources and deepening inequality, the church should exercise its voice about issues like the allocation of resources to libraries, because the church has a role to play in promoting open and broad access to intellectual resources and in cultivating civil and informed dialogue about what makes cities flourish.
 Ian Frazier. “Buildings and Books.” The New Yorker (June 2, 2014).
In my Introduction to Urban Ministry class, the primary project that students do is making a map of a Chicago neighborhood. Mostly what I ask them to do is to produce an organizational map that identifies the institutions that exist in the neighborhood: other religious entities, schools and libraries, museums, health clinics, businesses, food pantries and homeless shelters, etc., etc. It’s a great project, if I do say so myself, and even people who have lived for years in a particular neighborhood learn something new about the place they call home.
This is a sort of long introduction that explains why I’m interested in mapping, thinking geographically, understanding how institutions inhabit their space, and how these same institutions might influence and be influenced by the world around them.
Last week, at a meeting of the International Visual Sociology Association, someone mentioned the Stanford Spatial History project, so I looked it up in the hopes that I can learn something new about mapping from them. Suffice it to say that these folks are light years ahead of me, and the work they are doing is really interesting, so I thought I would tell you about it.
The project explores how space is constructed, understood, transformed, and practiced. I think these issues are important for urban ministers to understand, because we make our own spaces, and many of us commit significant energy to transforming the spaces around us. As people invested in this sort of work, we need to understand its subtleties and dynamics.
If a church hangs around long enough, sometimes it rubs up against cultures that trumpet different values than it cherishes. In the Netherlands the Old Churches in Amsterdam and Delft, which I visited a few weeks ago, exemplify this reality.
The Old Church in Amsterdam is the city’s oldest building, and dates from the early C13. It’s a beautiful old building, filled with idiosyncratic expressions of spiritual life and artifacts from the Protestant takeover of a building built for Catholics. For a church geek like me, it was a wonderful place to visit and in which to sit for a while and meditate. It is also plunk in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district (prostitution is legal there), and one cannot get to the church without passing by windows in which live, generously endowed women are offering themselves for pleasure and sex. The juxtaposition is jarring.
At the Old Church in Delft, which also dates from the C13, we attended a vespers service that featured a performance of a Bach requiem. We looked forward to ending our day with the soothing sounds of voices ringing in a cathedral, and were nearly as dismayed as the pastor was when the service opened. The bar next door had a live band outside, and the band was loud, the patrons were enthused, and the pastor indicated that the most polite requests to tone it down had been repulsed. He shrugged as he talked about it, and the worship leaders did their best with rock music in the background, Reformed liturgy and Bach in the foreground. We in the congregation had to pay closer attention than usual to block out what seemed like noise.
Europe is secularizing, as we all know, and so is the United States. Lots of our churches express values or offer programs that juxtapose awkwardly with the world around us. That reality is part of what makes ministry so interesting. What about church and church life are important to preserve, as we rub up against cultures that increasingly view us as irrelevant? How do we need to adapt and change and embrace the world as it is evolving? Who are we? Who is our neighbor? And, so what? What do you think?