I had a great lunch meeting with some people from the Northwest Leadership Foundation yesterday. Duncan Wilson, Kris Rocke, and Ron Vignec joined me at this Thai restaurant on the MLK in the Hill-Top area of Tacoma to talk about ways that Believers Fellowship can develop a relationship with the city of Tacoma. What a conversation! Duncan is the director of Sound Youth Counseling, a ministry that offers masters-level counseling to the youth of Tacoma for sliding-scale fees so that no one is turned away. Ron is a Lurtheran pastor at a sweet inner-city church in East Tacoma and he also works to raise awareness about the different "associations" within the city of Tacoma. Kris works for NLF, specializing in urban youth ministry. He trains leaders in the city to better understand the urban context both in America and worldwide.
Our conversation revolved around how suburbanites can get involved in the city without doing more harm than good. We all recognized a couple of things about our world. First, we agreed that something is wrong with our socio-economic system in which people in Gig Harbor and East Tacoma can live so close to each other and yet live such radically different lives. He agreed that the Gospel compels us to right what is wrong in our system. Second, we agreed that building real, meaningful relationships is the best way to "help" the city. For instance, Ron mentioned that food is always a need in the city. It's one thing to set up a food bank where people can come and get groceries. It's another thing to have food available and then bring it to people's homes and share their lives. While the former might provide some temporary relief, the latter is working toward a solution to the problem. As long as the suburbanites continue to view city folk as charity cases or problems-to-be-solved, they will make the situation worse rather than better. Only where there is a give-and-take in a relationship can there be meaningful growth.
I appreciated what Ron and Kris were getting at, but I had to ask them their thoughts on this issue from my perspective. I said:
"What does all of this mean for me? I live in Port Orchard. I work in Gig Harbor. I get up every morning, drive to Gig Harbor, work my job, and then return home. I rarely go to Tacoma, even though my job is only 11 miles from downtown. I recognize a disparity in the living conditions between the communities in which I live and work, and in the inner-city community, but I don't have any meaningful contact with inner-city folks on a daily or weekly basis. How, then, do I try to be a part of the solution rather than the problem? Do I just focus on Port Orchard, since that is my community? Do I try to build relationships in the city with people whom I otherwise wouldn't see? (That seems a little artificial to me.) What do I do?"
Everyone recognized the problem, and we dialogued to come up with a solution. The following conversation is paraphrased:
Kris: "Everyone whom I've ever met that moved from the suburbs to the city said that the move was healing for them. There is something about living in the city that is therapeutic. Suburbanites need to discover how the city can help them, not just how they can help the city."
Ron: "In the city, you can't hide your problems. If you have a drug problem, you might have to rob/shoot someone to pay for your habit. Then the story goes all over the news and everyone knows about it. You can't hide your problem. In the suburbs, you can hide your problems. The problems in the city and in the suburbs are the same, they are just easier to hide in the suburbs."
Matt: "There is a real problem in our suburban culture with people learning to be real with each other. I've heard suburbanites described as 'strangers living hospitably amongst one another.' We've created this system where failure is not an option. Sure, people work hard and they succeed, but they are also pressured to conform to a culture of success. Every now and then, someone snaps, and everyone wonders, 'How could that have happened in our community? Why didn't anyone see this coming?' In reality, there are hundreds of people an inch away from snapping, but you wouldn't know it by looking at them because they have learned to play the game."
Kris: "Maybe the city can help the suburbs by teaching people how to grieve. Maybe when suburbanites are confronted with people who can't hide their problems, they will be more willing to own up to their own shortcomings."
Matt: "Wow. Sounds like the church."
We need to build relationships between the city and the suburbs, but these relationships need to be give-and-take, not just us going dowtown to solve poverty.
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