Monday, December 1, 2008

The Importance of Place

Last Wednesday evening I returned to my apartment after a long day of classes and work and was greeted by a host of children from our apartment complex yelling my name and running toward me. The kids fidgeted impatiently while I fumbled with my keys and unlocked my door. They then piled into my small apartment to play with puzzles, read the children’s Bible, get piggy back rides, clean out our pantry (!), and just hang out. Though somewhat re-invigorated by all this new energy, I plopped down on my couch and prayed that one of our neighbors would invite me over for dinner. I really didn’t feel like cooking. Sure enough, in a couple minutes I was invited over to dinner at the home of one our Mexican neighbors. It was a good, though not too unusual, day at Parkside.

An actual update has been long overdue, reflective of the different nature of my life these last two months or so. It’s not that it has been a really busy time (though, it has been at times) but rather it has been marked by unpredictability. Or surprise. This last semester (which is quickly coming to a close) has been a very different and unexpected season of my life.

While I have still been taking a full load of grad school classes (I will be finishing my degree in May) what has really marked my life and been my focus these last months is life at Parkside, the apartment complex where I live. In August I moved in here with Matt (a friend from church) and Teo (a Rwandan friend) expecting some adventures, but not really knowing what was to come. Now, a small community (within the community) has begun to take shape, with two more girls from our church likely moving into an apartment next to us next month. We pray together nightly, take Eucharist once a week, share meals and work at reaching out to our neighbors. We have also, in partnership with a couple local churches, been exploring the idea of a church plant in one of our apartments.

Parkside, where we live, is a low-income apartment complex in the midst of Glen Ellyn, a very affluent suburb of Chicago. About 40% of its residents are refugees who have been resettled here from all over the world. Another, say, 40% are Mexican immigrants and the other 20% are poor African-American and white folks. There are a host of issues that people face here: lack of legal immigration status, lack of English language skills, alcoholism, drug use, and prostitution. At the same time, the community posses many strengths: Neighbors know each other, kids play together in the courtyard, family is highly valued and celebrated, and for many God is their daily bread by which they live.

One of the lessons I am learning by living in Parkside is the centrality of “place” in the Christian way of life.

Eugene Peterson in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places says this:
“Everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything has to do with God is also in place. All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people…cultivating a sense of place as the exclusive and irreplaceable setting for following Jesus is might difficult…What we often consider to be the concerns of the spiritual life—ideas, truths, prayers, promises, beliefs—are never in the Christian gospel permitted to have a life of their own apart from particular persons and places” (pp. 72, 73, 75).

Following Christ, working for peace and justice, always is rooted in a particular place, whether it is in the suburbs of Chicago or Israel/Palestine. For those who go overseas place is usually in the forefront of their minds: missionaries spend years deciding what country and city they want to work in and then they move there and live among the people they want to work with. If they are good missionaries, they will think carefully about their lifestyle and adjust it to match the place where they are. Us here in the US are not usually as conscious of our specific place. We choose a house based on its size and cost. We don’t often know our neighbors. More often than not we live in one place, work in another, go to church somewhere else, and have friends all over.

Those of us living at Parkside have tried, in a similar way to missionaries overseas, to be intentional in choosing our place where we want to be rooted. We have specifically chosen a place on the margins (others have called such spaces “the abandoned places,” abandoned by a society in search of the American dream). Not everyone, however, has to live in a neighborhood like Parkside, though. What is important is being conscious of one’s own place, one’s own context, wherever that may be. Where you are is where God has placed you. You are a minister of the Gospel in your place: usually the main one’s being your workplace and your neighborhood. Do you know your physical neighbors? Are you aware of the poor in your work place (those who are on the outside)?

Al Hsu, in his book The Suburban Christian speaks about this issue in this way: “Lost today is the sense of physical community, in which “community” refers to a specific geographic area or neighborhood that anchors us and defines us.” Quoting Alex Marshal he says that “the biggest change in “community” is that it is less linked to a physical place than ever before” (117,118).
On this issue of place, one of the issues I am wrestling with, is when, how and if to return to the Middle East. I have found myself doing here in the US many of the things I was hoping to do there (living among the poor, working cross-culturally, etc). At the same time I have so much invested there and deeply care about the situation in Israel/Palestine. I appreciate your prayers for direction and wisdom.

Lastly on a side note, if you know anyone who is interested in a trip to Israel and/or the Palestinian territories this summer, please contact me. What I can offer:
-a custom designed and personally led tour or pilgrimage of Israel/Palestine, with all the details arranged from transportation to travel within the country.
-Possibilities for the trip include: a) visits to the holy sites such as the mount of olives and the sea of Galilee b) meeting local believers, both Palestinian and Jewish c) meetings with local organizations working for peace and understanding d) cultural experiences, such as home stays and visits to museums and other historical sites .


Jake and Jess said...


those kids/families really like you guys.

emily said...

Just prayed for direction and wisdom for you!