Monday, April 16, 2012

Why I'm More Afraid of White Picket Fences Than Gangs

I live in a modest apartment in a modest apartment complex in a modest American town. That's one way to say it. Others might say that we live on a rough block in a rough American town. But when they say that, I laugh and judge them. That might sound harsh, but it's the truth. My husband and I have both seen rough neighborhoods, domestic and abroad, and ours is not one of them.

The local park in our "dangerous" neighborhood. Yeah, it's terrifying!

Admittedly, our neighborhood is low on the socio-economic ladder. We do have poverty, single- or absent-parent homes, and some recorded gang activity. Occasionally we see a smash and grab. I'm sure quite a few of my neighbors are illegal immigrants because the police are avoided like the plague. And probably more to the point for many people who make negative observations about our neighborhood, most people who live here are nonWhite and don't speak English at home. 

We love it. Truly. I could list the reasons why I think my neighbors rock and why this is a home I am proud of, but that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how Christians decide where they should and shouldn't live.

In my experience, Christians often make decisions about where they'll reside in the same way nonChristians do. They think about their finances, their desire for space or land or artistry or community, the quality of the education system, their reputation, and their health and safety. I understand this. I've now made five major moves in my life and I see why all of these things are important; these are the natural concerns a person would have when deciding where to live (if they get to decide). 

But I'm sad that Christians don't often consider more.

My husband and I are both in grad school at a Christian university just across the street from where we live. It would make sense that we live where we live. But unfortunately, revelations of our neighborhood of choice have not always been met with, "Oh, why yes, of course you live there." Even from Christians, we often get more of an incredulous response, implicitly and sometimes explicitly saying, "Really? You know how dangerous it is, right?" 

To be blunt, this makes me irate. On one hand, I become irate because the danger of my neighborhood is so incredibly blown-out-of-proportion that it is comical. But on a deeper level, I become irate because Christians seem to have welcomed the human tendency to flee from discomfort and danger. What if my neighborhood was actually a dangerous place? Should we go somewhere safer?

I've written before about The Rise of Christianity and the impact it had on me in college. Perhaps the most vivid image that book left me with had to do with towns that were stricken by the plague during early Christianity. Apparently, once the plague hit a town, healthy residents fled for safety and the towns were left with only the ill and the dead. However, while everyone else was fleeing these plague-stricken towns, Christians were the ones who went toward the danger instead of away from it. They seemed stupid and reckless, but they moved against the flow to care for the sick. 

To me, the image of Christians moving toward a probable death-sentence while nonChristians fled those towns is one of the single most moving images from my faith. We are people of courage, people who have no fear in sickness or death, people who have hope and want to share it at all costs with the world.  

Or, we're supposed to be.

Even if my neighborhood was truly dangerous, I would hope that my Christian brothers and sisters would be the first to understand my place of residence, or better yet, to move in next to me. 

Instead, I fear we've decided that where we live should be safe and that we'll only visit rough neighborhoods in groups on service projects or missions trips. We've decided that fleeing from danger is sensible and natural; we've let self-preservation determine our values. We've decided that our children shouldn't ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable, but we've failed to think of the millions of children around the world who know no other alternative. Maybe we sponsor one or two of those children (and that's good!), but we are thankful that we don't have to put ourselves in danger to help them. Our safety is found in our white picket fences and our retirement accounts rather than in the promises of the Maker of the universe. 

The Maker of the universe, people! Why are we so blind to the influence of our fear?

Repeatedly throughout Scripture, God tells his people, "Do not fear... do not fear." But when we sit in a realtor's office to talk about the zip codes we'll look for housing in, are we moving forward in courage or are we shrinking back in fear?

As Christians, we should have more than Darwinian survival instincts guiding our decisions about which neighborhood we will be investing our time, money, and resources into. We should be people whose values are shaped by our faith in the Creator God who sent His Son toward the danger instead of away from it. We should be people who move into the neighborhood when everyone else is moving out. 


There are so many additional things to say about this topic. It begs for discussion about the false sense of safety found in many affluent American towns. It begs for discussion about what it means to move into a neighborhood in need without trying to play the savior. It begs for discussion about physical poverty versus spiritual poverty, which is found aplenty in Stepford, USA. It begs for discussion about responsible parenthood and love of our children. I get it, but for now I'm stopping here.

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