A Few Who Care Can Transform a City: A theology of cities

11 May

I have been dong workshops for Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) for over 30 years. There I have had the privilege of meeting Jember Tefarra from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where her husband was the mayor. The coup that overthrew the emperor, Haile Salassi, landed her husband in prison where she brought him meals for three years. Then she was put in prison with 150 women-and was hated there for her privilege. Upon release, she got an MA in community development in England and came back and mobilized 40,000 inner city folks to provide housing, schools, jobs, sewers, toilets, and well-baby clinics. She became the conscience of the city.

There have been many Jember’s around the world that God has appointed to transform their cities.

Approx 60% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030.

By 2030, the global share of the urban population is projected to rise further to 60 per cent. The world is moving to cities, so we need to be ready, we need to be welcoming of all kinds of people; and that means not to practice exclusion, as is often the case when people in cities reject affordable housing. We need to be hospitable demonstrating inclusive practices in our cities and in our own congregations.

Over 300 cities and towns are mentioned in the Bible, Jericho the oldest and Nineveh the biggest, but Sodom is perhaps the most famous for its sex and violence.

But can a handful of people save a city? Indeed.

The presence of just a few righteous people like Jember can save a city.

Isaiah 59 says that the Lord looked and there was no one to intervene at that time.

But God had used Abraham to intervene. He negotiated with God to save Sodom, and it was clear that with only a few righteous and faithful people that God would have saved the city.

God called prophets to speak to leaders of nations and cities. These advocates took risks by standing on the side of those most vulnerable. At the center of every prophetic message is the widow and orphan. And Jesus lifts the most vulnerable in the center of every parable. This is where our organization, MHCH, has stood for 23 years as we have been advocating at the city level:

  • We didn’t have a Housing Department, so we asked for one at the City Council and got it in 2009. We now have a department that believes in the Housing First Model which, combined with our collaborative efforts, has resulted in 56% drop in our homeless count. Our housing director is committed to ending homelessness.
  • We discovered that our tenant protection ordinance only protected landlords, so we changed that.
  • We crafted and passed an inclusionary ordinance that has produced 590 affordable apartments embedded into luxury complexes at no cost to the city or to the developer, and has put over $26 million into our city’s affordable housing trust fund. That money has been leveraged to produce over 600 more affordable apartments.
  • Our city opposed allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) so we went to the State. Now we have a national award-winning affordable ADU program that our city take pride in.
  • Churches approaching us for technical support didn’t have the proper zoning, so we had a 2.5-year campaign to rezone religious land with a partial win, so now we have gone to the State and proposed a bill called SB 4. If passed, this bill will expand the opportunity for churches to have affordable housing on their underutilized land, since so few cities were passing such ordinances.

Sometimes our planning meetings for these campaigns have between 3-10 folks, but with hundreds showing up to pray and attend public meetings when needed.

God asked for a few righteous people to save Sodom from the sin of neglecting the poor (Ezekiel 16: 49-50), but not enough were found.  Sometimes it takes only a few.

Jesus also challenged cities. He spoke to cities in Matthew 11 and Luke 21 and said, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Their disbelief prevented the righteous work of God from taking place.

When we do our One-Day Housing Justice Institutes with the faith community within a city, sometimes we have an activity where we all write letters if we were Jesus, writing to our city. Some are open to sharing them, and before long we are in tears.

Jesus cried over Jerusalem. He wanted to gather and unite the city like a mother hen. The prophets and Jesus had expectations for cities.

CCC, the Clergy Community Coalition, a 75-member strong coalition for clergy to come together to pray and seek ways to love our city into doing the right thing. We have been addressing police abuse. With the chief and the superintendent and city manager present, we seek to hold them all accountable. We seek to be the salt and light.

My mentor, Dr. Ray Bakke, authored  Theology as Big as a City a powerful book about  cities in the Bible and how God was seeking to save them.

If you want to have affordable housing on your church property or in your city, you may one day need to show up at a city Planning Commission or the City Council, to get your project passed or you may want to support other projects in your city.  This is one way to practice how to practice loving your city, loving the poor as part of our discipleship.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: