In my Introduction to Urban Ministry class a standard assignment is to develop a map of a neighborhood in Chicago. Students can draw their maps, which is an option that seems terrifying to most theological students. They can use Google Maps or another internet program, although the students and I have discovered that Google and other mapping sites can be pretty tempermental. They can download a map and use this already developed map as their starting point. Or, they can think of some other way to accomplish this. I’m open to alternatives. I’ve suggested the alternative of people making a Monopoly board out of their neighborhood, but no one has yet taken me up on it.
Anyway, we make maps that are focused on helping people see the organizational infrastructure of a neighborhood.
I came across a story about kids in India making maps of the slums in which they live. Organizations are using the maps to help push for changes and improvements in urban infrastructure, and the kids are getting some good lessons in how to get things done in their neighborhood. Some of them have been pretty effective.
I find this story an encouraging one, because it tells about kids discovering agency and learning how to get involved in changing the world around them.
I also find this story provocative. Maybe we should be getting the kids we know to make maps. What maps would our kids draw? Of our congregations (it’s interesting to “map” a building), our neighborhoods, our cities? What do they see that is invisible to us? What concerns do they bring to analyzing the world around them? I think I have a new project.
I tripped across this interesting article about a poverty simulation exercise that brought home how stressful and frustrating it can be to be impoverished and be trying to figure your way out of it. Like many of my recommendations, it’s from CityLabs.
I found the bridge metaphor in a second place, in one of my favorite books on ministry: Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community by Walter Fluker (Fortress, 2009). Fluker talks about African American women being “bridge leaders” in their community. The term is not original with him; he borrows it from Belinda Robnett, who uses it to talk about how women like Fanny Lou Hamer (pictured left) and Ella Josephine Baker made connections and operated in spaces that were often overlooked by their male counterparts.
Fluker focuses on the bridge leadership of Hamer and Baker as he reflects on the importance of civility as a practice of leadership.
At first I didn’t quite understand what Fluker was getting at, because I was defining “civility” in a Webster’s Dictionary kind of way, meaning “politeness.” Fluker, however, wants to define “civility” much more broadly, inclusive of values and practices that honor and respect the fundamental dignity of all human beings. Civility is the term he uses to talk about constructing healthy social capital, building connections between people that are grounded in self-respect, respect for others, and reverence for life. For Fluker, civility is a practice that is fundamental to building faithful communities and a “strong democratic culture.” He thinks the practice of civility is important not only for the church, but also for the world.
I think Fluker would recognize the practice of civility in the interviews that I am analyzing, in which women talk about the work of building community. As they build bridges between people in different social locations – theological, cultural, and/or economic – each of the women I interviewed recognizes and honors the fundamental dignity of the people with whom she works. And each one fights for that dignity and all the hope and potential it holds for individuals and their communities. These women practice civility as Fluker defines it.
Are these three women whom I interviewed bridge leaders like Fanny Lou Hamer and Ella Josephine Baker? I don’t yet know, but I can promise you that I am going to track down more information and figure out the answer to this question, because it’s really interesting. I suspect that because women pastors have more official authority than did Hamer and Baker, there may not be an exact correlation, but there’s probably at least some similarity. I’ll let you know what I find out. In the meantime, if you have any ideas about this, let me know.
 Belinda Robnett, How Long? How Long? African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 17-18, cited in Walter Fluker, Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 109.
 Fluker, Ethical Leadership, Chapter 4. In this chapter Fluker makes clear that he is building on Robert Putnam’s work on the construction and importance of social capital.
 Ibid., 87.
What do urban ministers actually do? What is the work of ministry, beyond the standard understandings of preaching, teaching, caring, administering? These are the sorts of questions that led me to embark on a research interview project with ten women who are engaged full time in urban ministry. I used an interview process called “photo elicitation interviewing.” Each woman took a few dozen pictures of her work over a week or so, and then in the interview we talked through the photos and what they represented about ministry. I am finally getting around to analyzing the interviews, and am currently concentrating on three that focus on the work of building community.
One of the advantages of actually writing a longer article is that one discovers how much thinking is required to articulate something clearly, and I realize that I need to think a good deal more about the dynamics of community building. To help me do that, I’m going to focus on that for my next few blog posts.
My first set of musings concerns the metaphor of the bridge. One of my respondents described her work as building bridges between the distinct communities among which she ministers, and she used this photo to illustrate it:
As I was trying to make sense of her interview and this metaphor, I heard someone else talk about Georg Simmel’s article “The Bridge and the Door,” which sounded helpful, so I tracked it down. Simmel makes the point that relatedness and separateness are always intertwined. A bridge needs two disconnected points to span, or it won’t be a bridge. The two disconnected points are perceived as being separate because in our mind we can imagine them being connected. Or, as Kaern translates Simmel as saying, “By selecting things. . . in order to call them >separate<, we have already related them to one another in our consciousness. . . . We [humans] are at any moment – in the immediate or symbolic, in the physical or mental sense – beings who separate what is related and who relate what is separate.”
So what do Simmel’s century old abstractions have to do with twenty-first century community building? Maybe nothing, but I’m going to use Simmel for a while because he helps me to see more clearly some of the nuances in the conversations I’m analyzing.
Real bridges are not abstractions. They are concrete, steel, wooden, or other material structures that make a connection between separate places. The Brooklyn Bridge connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. It creates a path across which people travel regularly and makes it easier for people from both boroughs to interact with each other. What is more,as Simmel points out, a bridge visualizes and symbolizes the togetherness that spans distinctiveness. Yet, the bridge does not blur uniqueness: Manhattan and Brooklyn are clearly different places.
As everybody knows, the Brooklyn Bridge is not the Triborough Bridge, nor is it the George Washington Bridge. Each of those bridges does different work, because each brings together different pieces of the community that is New York. Each bridge is made unique not only by its architecture and engineering, but also by the particular places that it connects.
At the local organizational levels at which I study the work of ministry, practices of community building look as different from each other as do the bridges in New York. Many factors shape the uniqueness of each ministry. One factor that seems determinative (at least in this moment of my analysis) is how difference is conceived in these ministries. Differences in theological perspective and spiritual practice shape one ministry, while another responds to differences between immigrant populations, and a third works with populations that have differing economic opportunities.
This brings me back to Simmel – I think. An understanding of being connected presupposes an understanding of separateness. But not every separateness is the same separateness, so not every connectedness is the same, either. The conclusion I draw is that how we conceive of difference influences the kinds of bridging work that we try to do.
 Michael Kaern, “Georg Simmel’s The Bridge and the Door,” Qualitative Sociology 17: 4 (1994): 397-413. The article includes both Kaern’s translation of the original essay and his interpretation of Simmel’s approach.
 Ibid, 407-408.
In this case, “graphic” is a double-entendre. The story to which I refer you, “Compartment 13,” is told in comic book/graphic form, and it also relates with some graphic detail the challenges that many homeless persons in Chicago face as they try to find safe places to sleep. To no one’s surprise, they are often moved out of places that they are trying to make habitable.
The author of the piece is Darryl Holliday. The artist is Jamie Hibdon. Stumbling across this piece on CityLab introduced me to their work, which is interesting not only for its content but also for its visual vibrancy. I plan to read more of their collaborations.
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.