I’ve been doing some thinking about the city, since that is where I live and minister. I shared some of these thought with our staff in our Monday morning devotions a couple of weeks ago. Tim Keller and the Redeemer City to City website were very helpful, so I can’t take all the credit.
It’s natural that I would be working in the city, since the city has been on my heart for about 20 years when I started volunteering in the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, first with Sandtown Habitat for Humanity and then at the New Song Family Health Center. Those experiences were formative for me when it came to buy a house and I bought in Baltimore City.
So when it came time to come overseas for longer than 2 weeks, it was obvious that after my first visit here to Addis in 2005, that this was the place. I think of the Lideta area where I live and work as my neighborhood and the Bole area where we also work as my second neighborhood.
When I was going to language school, I would walk about 20 minutes to and from home to public transport. That was along main streets where people were busily going to work or elsewhere. When I was on break from language school and after it finished, I realized how much I missed the 7 minute walk to the office. As I go to the office, I walk into a neighborhood where people are shopping, going to church, selling vegetables, kids are going to school, people are stopping to greet one another. There is a real sense of community not seen on the main street and one I’ve not seen in my Baltimore neighborhood for a long time.
In our project we have formed communities within communities. Our beneficiaries are part of the compound community where they live, the Kebele (local government) community, the ACT project community, their support group community, orphan community and community Bible study group. And our staff, both Ethiopian and American forms yet another community of co-laborers for the Gospel, in caring “for the least of these.” Sometime in the future, we will be forming another community, as we plant our first church.
But the communities that we work in are undergoing lots of change and at some point in the future will be the victim of a wrecking ball in the name of urban renewal. Because of that we are looking at different sites for ministry, still within the city but in a different area. Teddy took me to one of these areas a few weeks ago–it is very different, new high rise apartment buildings, with not a lot of character or life. And in our discussions with community leaders, there are few city services there–no health center, no hospital, no banks, no grocery stores, no coffee shops, no little souks (shops) where you can buy most anything, no vegetable sellers on the side of the road, and no churches.
People live in cities either by choice or necessity. One third of the world’s population lives in the cities of the developing world and ~40% of them are poor. Cities generally grow faster than the rate of national growth in a country. You go to cities to reach a culture–there are more of any kind of group of people in a city than elsewhere. Someone has said that there is more “image of God” per square meter in the city than anywhere else in the world.
In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah chapter 29, there is a letter from Jeremiah the prophet to the Israelites who were sent to exile in Babylon. God, through Jeremiah, tells them to live in the city as if it were their home–because for 70 years it would be, until He brought them back to Jerusalem. The Babylonians were strangers, Babylon was thought to be an evil, sinful place by the Israelites, but God called them to make the best use of their time there.
In Jeremiah 29:7, Jeremiah the prophet writes “… seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Sort of an Old Testament version of “bloom where you are planted.” Keller says “your community will prosper if you pour yourself out in deeds of service and seek the peace and prosperity of the city where you are.” So that is what we are doing in Lideta and Bole as we care for our beneficiaries.
In the New Testament book of Acts, there is a story about how the early church was persecuted and people scattered. A man named Philip went to a city in Samaria and proclaimed Christ there. This passage shows how urban ministry combines word and deed ministry, as well as racial reconciliation. Acts 8:6 says “when the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said” (emphasis mine). His deeds made the people of this Samaritan city more open to his words. And the fact that he, a Jew, was in a Samaritan city, speaks to racial reconciliation, since the Jews and Samaritans intensely hated each other.
There is a verse in the Jeremiah passage which says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I have always liked this verse, but never really knew the context. The context, as it always should, helps me to see that God’s plans for me are His plans, no matter the circumstances of where I am and that He has my best in mind, even though it may not seem like it to me at the time–just as the Israelites thought that exile in Babylon was not a good thing.
I wanted to link to a song by Chris Tomlin, God of the City, that speaks of God’s heart for the city, but the file is too big, so here are the words:
You’re the God of this City, you’re the King of these people
You’re the Lord of this nation, you are
You’re the Light in this darkness, you’re the Hope to the hopeless
You’re the Peace to the restless, you are.
There is no one like our God, there is no one like our God,
For greater things have yet to come and greater things are still to be done in this City…….