A couple of weeks ago, Christianity Today posted an interview with Eric Jacobson, author of The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment.

He spoke in the interview (which is definitely worth a read) about what we’ve lost in the Church by suburbanizing ourselves. He spoke about the power of the parish and the idea that when a church is woven into the life of a neighborhood, it helps create shared living, true fellowship, in the same way that living in a place where homes, shops and offices all exist in a communal space encourages neighbors who encounter each other and know each other.

When your kids need a snack and you can walk down the street to grab a couple of bananas at the corner shop, or stop by the local café for an afternoon hot chocolate on a cold day, or when you can perform your daily tasks without needing the separation of enclosed vehicles; you are forced to participate with your world. If you have to walk city streets to get to Walgreen’s, it’s often impossible to shield your kids from the reality of homelessness. You are forced to confront its ugly existence with your kids beside you. You’re forced to not only talk about compassion but allow your children to witness your own response to the broken lives in front of you. Walking on the sidewalk demands community.

We moved back to San Francisco two weeks ago after being away for a little over a year. And there’s something I have been noticing in these short weeks back in urban living: This overwhelming city is beginning to feel small.

There’s something about being forced outside—outside the house, outside the (now nonexistent) backyard, outside the car—with your kids, that makes you talk to people. When there is no yard, you go to the neighborhood park and you interact with kids and parents and caregivers you never would have met otherwise. When your kids are going crazy in the afternoon and there’s nowhere for them to play, you head out for a walk in the neighborhood and see what you can find. You talk to the old lady with the cute white dog that she has crowned, “Princess of the Castro!”

And, here’s the thing. When you’re forced to get out of your house with your kids, you might as well be with other people. And that is why, amazingly, I’ve already had six (six!) play-dates with old friends these past two weeks.

I understand the attraction to suburban living. I loved having a backyard in our last house. I loved the ease of sending my four-year-old out to play by himself, fenced in and safe, while I actually accomplished something in my kitchen and peeked out the window every once in a while.

Sometimes, though, I spent more time accomplishing tasks than looking at roly-polies with my little boys. Sometimes, I missed the chance to be quiet and still and watch them pick up rocks and roll them in their hands. I forgot to be awed by their discovery of wind in the trees. Walking moments are holy. And sometimes, I simply need to be forced outside, away from the dishes and the papers and the crumbs on the floor.

These past two weeks have been re-teaching me how to move slower. It’s hard to walk anywhere with a four-year-old and a 19-month-old and be in a rush. I’m being reminded that there is time, time to not only pay attention to each other, but to pay attention to the strangers around us.

It’s hard to live in a city with kids. When I found out we were moving back to San Francisco this past summer, all I could think was: I can’t do this again. I need a yard. I need a garage. I need affordable housing.

But here’s what I’m remembering: Sometimes the hard thing is the richest and fullest and most satisfying. Sometimes the easy thing feels nice for a while, but it lacks depth. I’ve lived here before. I know that right now it’s sunny and 70 degrees everyday. But, come next July, when San Francisco is 55 and overcast, I’m going to be grouch. Right now, I’m giddy about our city sidewalk strolls. Soon I’ll be complaining about how dirty it is and how much I wish my kids could go explore in the woods and how terrible I feel for doing this to them and ruining them for life by making them afraid of bugs. Cities aren’t perfect. City living isn’t for every one.

The hard thing and the easy thing battle it out every day in my head.

* * *

That same battle exists in our churches. And so I’ve been thinking: What if the Church began to take Eric Jacobsen’s advice and began to think of place and space as sacred? Would the richer, deeper work would begin to emerge? If neighborhood and community began to inform how churches reach cities and towns and suburbs, perhaps every kind of person in a community would begin to be cared for and welcomed and offered the gospel.

It’s difficult to find the people in need across the street. It’s difficult to create a church culture that embraces the impoverished, the life-wrecked, the person struggling with his or her sexual identity, the unimpressive.

But I can’t stop thinking how in nature, the hard thing is always the force that shapes the beauty.

 

Photo Credit: OmiB91 at Flickr

14 comments

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. You have my mind spinning now, Micha. Those are excellent questions.

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  2. Love this, Micha (as I love everything you write). I agree intellectually with everything you said, but I also live in the burbs. I also wonder, every day, how to engage with the world when I live on the northern-most edge of it, separated, as you said, by cars and yards and big box stores.

    We’ve started going to a new church. The one I think that my soul would do the best at is a big church that embraces art but is easily 30 minutes away. We chose, instead, a small neighborhood church. In many ways, it’s not what I would choose, but it’s also walking distance. A two minute drive.

    The people who go there will be my neighbors. I might see them at Target; it would be easy to schedule a playdate. I guess this is my attempt to live as much in this place as I can. As completely HERE as it is possible to be in the wide-spread suburbs. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

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    • Thanks Addie. I really wish there was a clear answer. Until two weeks ago, I was driving 20 minutes to church in Austin. And it was absolutely the right place to be. A few months ago, our closest friends left their neighborhood church and began driving 30 minutes to be part of a church plant. The change in them is palpable. That church community is profoundly affecting their lives.

      So I don’t know what I think about it. I just long for the church to love its neighbors. And I like the idea of community in every part of our lives. Is it possible?

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  3. I so grope with these questions as well. Thank you for pushing buttons and making me feel the discomfront with what is – for me – anew. I need to do so.

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  4. I love this, Micha. Walking is one of my favourite things ways to get to know a place, and the thing I missed most my year living in the US. It’s rarely quick or convenient (especially not with the Luxembourg weather) but I start to notice things, recognise things, and feel like I belong in a way that’s much harder from inside a car.

    In the village I grew up in there was one church in the heart of the village, it’s tall steeple seen from pretty much everywhere. I loved the metaphor that old building provided for the role of the church in the community (not one it necessarily had), at the heart of community life. It starts from knowledge, and that can very easily start with walking…

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  5. Thank you, Micha…we’ve heard the ‘church is people, not a place’ nonsense for far-too long now…its both, and your words speak to that clearly.

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  6. Erika

    YES!!! YES!!! YES!!!

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  7. I’m not really a suburban dweller, per se. I am certainly a main street, small town dweller, though. I feel the tension here, how easy it is to be a recluse, to hole up in a house. It’s comfortable.

    Love your words here. As always.

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  8. So grateful for your words here, Micha. Yes, the hard things shape beautiful, and it’s easy to get comfortable in my home, our church, our community. We didn’t expect to love village life so much, but being near the center of our town – where all the neighborhood kids whip past on bikes and bagpipes across the street signal a funeral and drunk people yell to each other down the street late at night, it has it’s pros and cons. I’m learning to open up to the place we’re planted, and this is a good word for me today. Thank you.

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  9. Micha,
    So glad that you shared Eric’s book. I love Sidewalks in the Kingdom, too, his prior book. I love that his research and writing for both of these books took place in two locations—a reminder that these concepts and ideas are timeless and not only applicable to one city/location. Thank you for sharing your journey back into the city. My boys are 5 and 2 (as of a week ago). MANY days I see the basic list of to do’s and have a hard time getting grumpy when exploration and “life” of my boys encroaches. Thanks for the reminders to slow down, take things in through their eyes and be present.
    Much Love as you transition to SF! Writing from the South Bay today, I am READY for the Indian summer to end! :)
    Christine

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  10. Emily

    Micha,

    Thank you for sharing. There have been many times I feel like I’m reading my heart when reading your blog. It has been such a blessing to me. This one couldn’t be closer to my situation. My husband and two kids (2.5 yo and 5 mo) just moved to NYC to live and breath the Church. To be the body of Christ on the streets of NYC. And we are experiencing (for the first time) what you’ve described above.

    I can’t wait to follow this journey with you and be encouraged by your words!

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  11. These are good, hard questions you raise here, Micha, and I think that church happens wherever Christians are found, whether in suburb or city. Our church is deep in suburbia and a very wealthy one at that. But we’re down the hill from a Christian college and up the hill from a public elementary school and the local firehouse. So we open our kitchen very Thursday night to college students who are committed to cooking and carrying and eating with about 75 homeless friends in a park across town. And we open our gym to the guys at the firehouse who play basketball every week with the local sheriff’s unit. And we also open our gym to that school down the street whenever their sports teams need an indoor facility AND they loan us their lovely, large grassy field for our annual summer VBS. We try to be good neighbors and we encourage one another to be involved with those who live around us, wherever in the larger community we reside. It’s not easy, as you so wonderfully note. But it is good.

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  12. We recently moved back to the US after several years of living in a big city in China. We walked or rode our bikes everywhere there. We knew our butcher, our vegetable lady, our apartment guards, our neighbors. The limited transportation limited our neighborhood somewhat and there was a sense of community. The noise and the constant knowing people could be tiresome in some ways. There was no quick in and out of the market..ever!
    Now we are back in a quiet suburb in a quiet city in the US. While the peace and quiet is something I longed for in China, I sometimes look at our streets and wonder where everybody is. Your words resonate with me a lot.

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