Visualizing Urban Change

chicago map2In 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.

old church amsterdamThe 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.

old church delftAt 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?


Planting Seeds

The community garden at Matanzas Seminary in Cuba.

The community garden at Matanzas Seminary in Cuba.

I found my way to Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman quite by accident, while I was looking around for book gifts for my 8 year old nephew, Nathan. After a quick read, I’ve decided to keep this for myself and use it the next time I teach my class “Food: From Table Grace to the Politics of Food Distribution.”

Seedfolks is a book written for young people ages 10 and older. It’s a fictional account of thirteen people who, one person at a time, plant the seeds that become a community garden on a garbage-filled lot in Cleveland, OH. The stories are short, quick accounts of people of different ages, ethnicities, and abilities. It is touching, tender, and also full of insights into the human dynamics of urban loneliness, immigrant dislocation, aging, and the serendipity of community. It’s quite lovely.

Fleischman’s website says that Seedfolks is now also available as a play. Check it out here.

Urban Policies that Work

medellinI read this article about Medellin, Colombia, and thought about neighborhoods in Chicago. This article documents what can happen when politicians, business leaders, civic leaders, and community residents marshal the political will and work together to make a neighborhood better.

At one level this article is very hopeful. People accomplished something. They improved a neighborhood. They made a place more livable and safer for its residents. It’s a wonderful story.

At another level the story is depressing, because with a change in mayoral administrations the political will to promote neighborhood improvement disappeared, or at least it got put on the back burner.

One of the dynamics from which our cities suffer most is the inconsistency of urban vision and determination between one political administration and the next. It is, quite unintentionally, a bipolar approach to urban development, and it occurs at the national as well as at regional levels. It is as destructive of urban life as having a bipolar disorder can be troubling for individuals and their families.

There are two ways of looking at the bipolar nature of urban policy. The upside is, when urban policy leans toward serving the disenfranchised, people like the folks in this Medellin neighborhood are well served. But the downside is more ominous. When urban policy leans in the other direction, serves only the well-heeled, and neglects needier areas of the city, we starve not only our brothers and sisters who live in “poor” neighborhoods. We starve ourselves.

Hope: The Language of Life

boesakAllan Aubrey Boesak has just published a fine book with Eerdmans. Dare We Speak of Hope? Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics grew out of a lecture series that Boesak presented in 2012 at a Council on World Mission conference in Samoa. In the book Boesak explores varied dimensions of hope as a human experience and a theological construct.

Boesak is a wonderful theologian. His work is rooted in a lifetime of faithfulness and thus it is shaped profoundly by his experiences as a South African anti-apartheid activist and a citizen of a country that still struggles to remake itself. Boesak is also very well-educated and very smart, and he draws from varied theological traditions to construct his discussion. In reading this book I was introduced to African theologians of whose work I was unaware; reminded of the wisdom of people like Calvin, Luther, and Augustine; and brought again into conversation with Bonhoeffer. Boesak doesn’t content himself with theological musing alone; he puts his theological understanding into rigorous discourse with contemporary realities like the war on terror, the elections of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, and the continuing struggles around race in the US. In making these kinds of moves, Boesak invites readers to consider our personal responsibilities in the world, and he challenges us to invest ourselves in the work of justice on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Boesak’s discussion of hope is rich and deep and provocative. It is inviting and accessible. I will be using it in one of my classes next spring. For any of you who might be looking for a bit of inspiration, fodder for better sermons, an opportunity to reflect more deeply on your life and faith, or some good reasons to get yourself outside and work for justice, this might be the book for you. I recommend it highly.

A Primer in Community Building

A few years ago my friend Bill Golderer told me that I absolutely had to read Peter Block’s book, Community: A Structure of Belonging (Berrett-Koehler, 2008). As you can tell, it took me a few years, but I’m glad to say that I not only read it, but I also found it to be helpfully provocative.

Spontaneous community at a rest stop in Cuba

Spontaneous community at a rest stop in Cuba

Block believes in the power of community, the value of social capital, and the ability of most people to figure things out for themselves. His book offers basic suggestions for processes that can bring people together and help them take ownership of their lives. Readers who have anything to do with organizing people or empowering community action will find the book engaging. Readers may also, like me, find the book challenging. Community made me think differently about how I organize meetings, classes, and other public gatherings. Basically, it made me think about how controlling I sometimes tend to be, and encouraged me to think differently about group leadership. It has given me lots to consider. And, it’s given me more resources to mine. Block is one of those people who is connected to, and learns from, a whole bunch of smart people. The book’s argument is a bricolage of insights and arguments from other scholars, and he’s clear about how these ideas intersect and inform each other. He includes a great annotated bibliography of thinkers, organizers, and writers who have informed his work. So, Bill Golderer was right again. Thanks to him for this recommendation.

A Good Samaritan Named Beauty

gomezEight churches in Grand Rapids are sponsoring an art exhibit this week, in partnership with several community arts or education organizations. The featured artists work in diverse media. Steve Prince is a print maker. Sergio Gomez, whose painting Figurative Works is copied here, paints with acrylic on paper/canvas. Linda Witte Henke is a textile artist. Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk is a weaver and paper-maker. John August Swanson, whose art was everywhere, is a painter.

The exhibit began with a two-day conference themed “Who is My Neighbor?” that explored the capacity of art to be a bridge between worlds, perspectives, and, most significantly, the human and the divine. The keynote speaker was Cecelia Gonzalez-Andrieu, theologian and author of Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty (Baylor University Press, 2012). She was absolutely wonderful, and I want to emphasize that I really mean this. I do not normally rave about the public presentations of theologians, who often tend, shall we say, toward the dry and the obtuse. Not Cecilia. Her work is fresh, engaged with the world and its beauty, and provocative.

Mark Chaves argued several years ago that churches are primarily involved in community life through culture. He may be right about that, but church involvement in the arts often lacks the intentionality that I saw in Grand Rapids last weekend. These congregations are serious about art and its capacity to express and connect in ways for which we sometimes do not have words—or courage enough to speak them. Art is a bridge to wonder, as Gonzalez-Andrieu says. It is also a bridge to each other and to a glimpse of the life abundant to which Jesus calls us all.

Obviously, this conference got me thinking. I hope that you will explore some of the links in this blog and think along with me. Let me know what you think.