I live in the hometown of the Fresh Prince of Belair: West Philadelphia. But unlike Will Smith, I wasn’t born and raised here. Yet like Will Smith, the playground IS where I spend most of my days — mainly because I have two little boys. Many young married couples leave the inner city when they start a family, but we did not.
Most parents are rightly concerned with sheltering their children. (Even though we need to be wary of over-sheltering.) But growing up in the city my sons will be exposed to things on a regular basis that a child living in the suburbs might never encounter. I view this as a positive thing and a tool I can use in my mothering. I’m determined to show my sons the Gospel in our city living. Here is how:
Our row home is between a halfway house and a convent. To my left the street numbers get higher and go deeper into West Philly. When I push the double stroller with my shining white children to this side of the neighborhood, we are the white dots amidst a dark sea of black faces. If I push my double stroller to the right of our row home the street numbers get lower and the face coloring changes. On this side of my neighborhood is a large Muslim population, complete with a mosque. Walking this way it’s not uncommon to see women shrouded in black fabric — even at times only revealing their eyes. There are many Indian and Asian eateries on this side, representing those cultural populations as well. Around the corner from my house is a Spanish owned “corner store” where my 3 year old dances to salsa music.
As I walk further down this side of my neighborhood it turns into University City. This part of West Philadelphia is more affluent, since it is the home of Drexel University and the Ivy League UPenn. In this area of the intellectual elite there are rows of sororities and fraternities. University City is also home to many hippies and hipsters, many of whom frequent our local Co-op — the place where I can’t determine the gender of the individual bagging my groceries.
We live in a small area of racial, religious, cultural, sub-cultural, and economic diversity. What can I possibly teach my sons about the Gospel here? Namely, that the Gospel is not just for American middle to upper class white people. The Gospel is no longer restricted to one ethnic community (the Jews), but through Christ’s death and resurrection it’s available to a wide range of people (the Gentiles). Heaven will be a co-mingling of races and cultures. The Gospel makes no room for racism or partiality to economic status; before the cross the ground is leveled for us all. Through Christ’s atoning blood the barrier between us all is broken, because when we are at peace with God we can be at peace with others.
As I walk my sons on either side of our neighborhood I can teach them about the Gospel: how God loves to redeem a diverse group of people to himself. He desires that none should perish, not even the androgynous person bagging our groceries who can receive a new identity in Christ.
The city can make people uncomfortable. Who hasn’t experienced a struggling conscience when passing by a smelly man in dirt-smudged baggy clothes holding a cardboard sign asking for money? The subway can be a place of strong discomfort when you’re packed in tightly in the heat of summer — holding on with one arm up. We try not to look each other in the eyes too closely, because God forbid we have to say hello.
When I first moved here I was uncomfortable with parallel parking, laundry mats, and the plethora of one way streets. My first year of city living was paid for in parking tickets. I had no idea what all the parking signs meant. Where do I pay for my parking spot? How long can my car sit in this space until I see that white paper on my windshield?
Sometimes my boys and I walk by people who scream at each other or a car zooms past blaring rap music laced with obscenities. Often times we run into the crazy man from the halfway house who mumbles under his breath as he shuffles by on the sidewalk. Talk about feeling uncomfortable.
And yet the Gospel is never about personal comfort. Jesus left his heavenly comforts to make a home in uncomfortable surroundings. His entrance into this world began cramped inside a womb, and he was laid in a wooden manger among the filth and foul odors of barnyard animals. We can tell Jesus felt uncomfortable in the Garden of Gethsemane as he wrestled with the most uncomfortable decision of all: dying on a Roman crucifix. And yet Jesus put all his comfort aside to literally take up his cross and die. I can remind my children of these truths on our next subway ride, because we must also be like Jesus and sometimes sacrifice comfort for the sake of the Gospel.
Many women ask me if I feel safe here. Our family asks why we don’t move to the suburbs with our boys. At our previous residency our next door neighbor had a break in — encountering the robber face to face. Our current home was previously inhabited by a sexual predator who stole the house from its rightful owners. The bank put the house up for sale when the man was arrested and charged with fifty felonies. Recently a young woman was murdered in her apartment a few blocks from us, and there was a shooting on our Pastor’s street.
My family and I are never truly safe, and yet we are ultimately safe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The stories I see on the news show me that no matter the place of residency none of us are safe from physical harm or death. But we can be confident that in Christ our souls are eternally safe. Though we turn on our security system every night, I can teach my sons about the true security found in the Gospel. If they believe by faith in Christ crucified and risen from the dead they will be saved from the reign of their sin and the flames of hell.
By raising my children in the city I can teach them that the Gospel shines brightly in diversity, it is no respecter of personal comforts, and that our ultimate safety is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is good news to share on either side of the neighborhood.