Urban Life

City Lights

The 20th century has been a time of epic violence—more than 125 million people died violently in the past 100 years. Perhaps it is out of this terrible carnage and suffering that a new level of deep prayer has welled up in ordinary people.

Traditionally, spirituality and contemplation have been for monasteries and convents, for monks and nuns. Yet Jesus was not a monk. He never lived in a monastery. He chose to live in the midst of people. He wept over his city. He wept with those who grieved. Jesus was a contemplative in the midst of the poor. He dared invite us, "Follow me."

Does a Statue Carve Itself?
We do not make contemplatives of ourselves any more than a statue carves itself out of stone. We are drawn into contemplation little by little as we learn to listen more deeply, become more attentive, and grow more sensitive to the Spirit's prayer abiding and moving within us. Contemplation is not just a way of praying but a way of being. It is a way of seeing, touching, hoping, believing, responding, living.

A contemplative believes that eternal life is to know the one true God. A contemplative knows the Beatitudes are the path of contemplation and is ready to be counted among the poor, the crippled, the lame, and all the discards of society. The contemplative asks, "Do I welcome each person as God would welcome this one?"

The presence of Jesus in us is a compelling force and power. This is the ultimate God-shock—that we are in Christ, that he is in us. Paul, in his letters, uses this expression more than 100 times. He is not speaking figuratively but declaring a mystical contact and identification with Christ. There abounds an awareness, an experience in faith of Jesus' words—even in our own time.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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It Was the City that Healed Me

To be a woman of faith in the midst of the city, I was forced to develop a contemplative stance. I am naturally pulled toward God in the midst of nature. The wonder of a sunrise, silent stars filling the night, trees dancing to the wind’s rhythm, majestic mountains—all these seem to sing my soul toward God. The city—with its rush and fury, noisy clamor, rage and anger, violence and tragic poverty—seems to thwart God’s pull upon me.

Yet it is in the midst of all this I most deeply experience Jesus’ words, "It is not the healthy who need a physician but those who are sick." In the broken faces and bodies that I pass on the streets, I see again and again the image of the suffering Christ.

I was born and raised in the city. I came back to the city as a minister with illusions of making it better. Rather it was the city that healed me. I discovered the wounds of the city reflected in myself. African-American women, who had so little materially but were rich and powerful in faith, in their prayer, taught me how little I knew about prayer or God. They revealed to me the God of the Beatitudes.

I came to understand it is the little, humble, hidden people—not the efforts of the powerful and educated—whose prayer holds the city together, holds the world together. I knew that to have any positive effect, I had to become as little, as humble, as hidden as these.

I have stayed in the city because the city keeps me real. It is so seductive, so tempting to believe that I am what I wear or what I own, I am my education or my intelligence. The people of the city taught me ‘My life is hidden with Christ in God.’ I stay in the city because I yearn to be among those women who through the ages have stood faithfully at the foot of his cross.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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The Daily Grace of Give and Take

The final column of a six-year run gives the author permission to write in the first person, wouldn't you say? So as we bring "Life in Community" to a close, allow me to offer personal thoughts on the major inspiration for these lines over the past half-decade—my own Assisi Community.

The inimitable Ed Spivey Jr. once wrote in "H'rumphs" that I actually live as a recluse in Newark, venturing forth occasionally to buy People magazine as source material for this column. The reality of my life in the Assisi Community is much more fun—as well as real, varied, faith-filled, changeable, and always challenging.

We've lived all our 12 years in a gritty neighborhood of inner-city Washington, D.C., minorities in a predominantly African-American area. We chose the location purposely, not because of some messianic illusion, but to share the city's uncertainties, fears, and noise, as well as the neighborliness, occasional heroism, and respect that most people here exhibit.

The numbers in our community have fluctuated over the years, as have our demographics. When we reached 23 members inhabiting our two row houses awhile back, we knew that communal physical and psychic limits had been surpassed. We've always accepted the inevitability of younger members' moving on after a couple of years, and the older ones staying. That way change and vitality have combined with stability and serenity among us. The formula has worked well.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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The Paradox of City Life

When I tell people I live in Washington, D.C., a common reply is, "I'm sorry to hear that." When a former D.C. paramedic discovered which neighborhood I live in, he didn't bother with condolences, he just told me I was "crazy." Friends responding to my Christmas letter about my experiences in the city wrote back words of comfort. All this has me wondering: Is a decision to live in the city cause for sympathy these days?

Indeed, violence rears its ugly head often on these streets, usually under cover of darkness, and that's what people hear about. And yet neighbors persist in greeting one another, quietly fighting back the fear behind the headlines. Vulnerability and grace walk hand in hand.

Why do I live in the city? Am I just "asking for trouble," as some say? Can I talk about my everyday experiences without promoting the very fear and judgment I seek to dispel?

I live in the city to be a witness against violence and injustice, and to experience firsthand its human and structural dynamics. As a result, diminished dignity and the pressures of poverty are not merely concepts to me. When I stand in long lines at the few grocery stores, where prices are higher than in the suburbs and the food is lower quality, I understand demoralization; when I allow encounters with human tragedy to become part of my prayer life, rather than denying they exist, I understand the paradox of faith as my trust in God deepens. Meanwhile, I have the opportunity to share the satisfaction of organized neighbors who finally closed the crack house around the corner, and I am challenged when one of them offers assistance to those displaced-the same people who had kept him up nights for so long.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1995
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