This issue’s theme is “Gun Violence and the Urban Church.” Sometime in November this year, the number of murders committed in the city of Philadelphia surpassed 500, setting a new grim record for the city. In the wake of the pandemic, lockdowns, and social upheavals, the rate of violent incidents across American cities skyrocketed. For many urban residents, new memorials marking young lives cut short by gun violence, like the one pictured above in my neighborhood, became an all too common sight.
It has been a goal of this Journal to shed light on the city for the sake of spurring informed witness of God’s people in the city. So we have been dismayed to note a resurgent antiurban bias among many in the American church in response to rising levels of gun violence in cities like Chicago–a bias which has deep historical roots in the American church, and which has contributed in no small way to the urban crises that we face today. Authors in this issue show us a better way, and we want to amplify their voices. Together, the authors call us to at least three actionable items.
One, go deeper than the usual easy answers, such as demonizing the very urban communities most directly suffering the effects of rising levels of violence, or throwing light on the problem through protests and rallies without further action. Instead, seek to more deeply understand the systemic and historic reasons certain urban neighborhoods have suffered an undue concentration of violence. This process can be hard, for it often involves facing up to the antiurban bias that resides in our own hearts. And it is deeply challenging, for it leads to hearing the Lord’s call on his people to a path of discipleship.
Two, incarnational ministry, or practice of presence in troubled communities, has long been recognized among urban practitioners as the path that will end up making a true difference. Indeed, discipleship demands of all Jesus’ followers this path of downward mobility and solidarity with those who suffer–the path of the cross. We see once again that God’s people are called to love the city, not from afar, from spaces created to exclude troubles of humanity and promise personal safety (but how can we truly be safe when so many of our neighbors are not?), but in embodied solidarity, especially in these days when urban communities are undergoing such sorrow.
Three, the church in the city is not simply to be guardians of religious traditions, shut away from the troubles outside, but an emissary of peace from God to join other peace seekers in the neighborhood in building community, in creating new spaces of shalom, marked by a resistance against the status quo, and prefiguring the healing in God’s kingdom. Young people caught up in the violent ways of the streets find new community and identity in such spaces. More than ever, we see the urgency in the need for the church answering the call to the city.
Damone B. Jones, Sr. shares his story in “Pastoring Youth Behind Bars.” His pastoral ministry does not stay within the walls of his West Philadelphia church, but stretches to the community outside, and extends into the cells of prisons. His testimony demonstrates that ministry of presence is irreplaceable in any anti-violence effort.
Drick Boyd’s article, “The Role of Faith in Addressing Gun Violence: A Change of Perspective,” also arises from the author’s personal experience of protests against the gun industry and subsequent realization that more than passing laws regulating gun sales was required. Traumatized communities and societies caught up in a culture of violence need healing in a holistic way, and faith communities have a pivotal part to play in that healing.
In “Creating Thirdspaces in the Time of COVID,” Joel Aguilar Ramírez presents a critical analysis of urban spaces where violence has been concentrated, and calls on theologians and urban practitioners to see imagination for and creation of new kinds of urban spaces–thirdspaces–as a vital part of their vocation.
Leo Mota, in “A Life Redeemed: From Chaos to Peace,” tells his story of how his own life underwent a transformation from the street to faith in one such space, a sports league and a mentoring ministry in Kensington, which is a neighborhood in Philadelphia notoriously beset by urban crises, but which nevertheless yields stories of hope and redemption like his.
Gino Curcuruto’s “A Cultural Exegesis of a South Philadelphia Neighborhood” isn’t directly related to this issue’s theme–nevertheless, he shows the importance of intimate analysis of an urban neighborhood as a vital part of creating contextually appropriate healing spaces, a “radical model” of effecting social change, as opposed to a programmatic approach. The creation of such spaces in the neighborhoods, we argue, are vital to any meaningful attempts to respond to violence in the city.
Also not directly related, but addressing an aspect of leadership that often exacerbate urban crises rather than helping–the paternalism of Christians on mission to the city–Reginald Smith reflects on his ministry and John the Baptist in “Opening Up the Gift of the City.”
Finally, we round out this issue with a review by Carolyn Custis James of Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith, by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr.
As always, we welcome your responses and comments even as you wrestle with the material presented. Our prayer is that through these conversations, we may see God’s people become a more integral part of peacemaking and building communities of hope in urban neighborhoods beset by much trouble, but not forgotten by the Lord of the city.
Kyuboem Lee (with Susan S. Baker and Kimberlee Johnson)