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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Church and the City - from garden to city

The Bible starts in a Garden and ends in a city, the city of God. The word city and the word civil have the same root. To be civil is to be human, caring and respecting the will and needs of others. The word city today is a dirty word denoting crime, congestion, pollution, danger and poverty. The cities are becoming places of extremes, the very rich and the very poor. The middle classes have fled to the suburbs where the illusion is “a better place to raise the kids,” not noticing the rising drug use and criminal activity of suburban life.

The cities still are the places of great buildings, grand houses, mansions, opera houses and symphony halls, parks, the best theaters and restaurants, major universities and hospitals, the great museums and the financial centers, churches and cathedrals.

Life is on the sidewalks in the city. One can walk to the grocery store, hardware store and a coffee shop, even many times to work. No car is needed to engage in the life of the city. Streetcars, buses and subways carry citizens all over the place.

“Eyes on the sidewalk” is an expression coined by Jane Jacobs, late critic of urban life. Neighbors may not know each other well but they watch out for each other. When my daughter Jessica was five years old, she was playing on the sidewalk near a tree in front of our house. I parked my car nearby and walked up to her, bent down and began to talk with her. I realized a woman had come up and stood behind us. When she saw I was Jessica’s dad, she said, “Oh, it’s you, that’s OK.” Her eyes were on the sidewalk, she had not recognized this man talking to this little girl and was just checking up. Often there are no sidewalks in the suburbs.

More and more city housing is affordable only to the rich and the poor. Flourishing churches and cathedrals in the city minister well to the affluent with numerous clergy, beautiful well kept church buildings, good church school curricula and teachers, fine organists, organs and choirs.

Most of the other Episcopal churches have one full time cleric, if they can afford it, a part time organist, volunteer choir – not usually very good, part-time secretary and sexton. Sunday church school and youth groups happen from time to time.

These affluent and marginal churches do a fair job of ministering to the existing congregations of Episcopalians. They welcome newcomers, provide religious education, visit the sick and shut-ins, baptize and bury. Sunday services, preaching and programs are usually uninspiring. Parish groups like altar guild, vestry, stewardship committee, worship committee exist and do their work of keeping the parishioners happy and entertained.

Some churches provide social services like soup kitchens, shelter programs, and a variety of good and necessary services to the community. A very small minority of the church members carries out the social services ministries.

When I was rector of Trinity, San Francisco, Marilyn Saner ran a shelter program one month each year for ten years. Seventy-five homeless men came to the parish rooms for a dinner and spent the night on cots. Of the three hundred members of the parish, no more than half a dozen helped feed the breakfasts or dinners. That is typical of the response of most church membership to church- sponsored social services.

The great needs of the city are seldom faced and are not met by parish churches. These are justice issues. The difference between social service and social justice is summed up by Dom Helder Camaro. “When I fed the hungry, I was called a saint. When I asked, “Why are the people hungry?” I was called a communist.”

Church people are willing to feed the hungry. Church people generally are not interested in the question of why people are hungry or homeless, unemployed, or sick, or why children are bitten by rats in their homes, or children graduate from high school and can’t read, or why do we have war?

These are justice issues. The civil rights movement for freedom for African Americans, homosexuals and women involved many church people. The parish churches, urban or suburban, seldom if ever deal with these justice issues.

My daughter attends an affluent small-city church and went to service on the Sunday before Labor Day Monday. After the service she said to the preacher, “You missed a good opportunity to refer to the labor movement, unions or work in the sermon or prayers of the people.”

Jesus’ ministry was to the sick, poor, lame and blind. He gave short shrift to the religious and social leaders of his time. In weakness there is strength, the poor and the humble shall lead the way.

It is by facing and becoming deeply involved in social justice issues that we are truly following Jesus. It is becoming immersed in these issues that we are doing the work of the church and the gospel. I also believe that kind of ministry of intense integrity and real meaning will attract unchurched people to look at the church, find Jesus as the source and energy and basis for a human life that has concrete goals and depth of authenticity.

It was exhilarating and exciting to decide to go public with the slogan, “Gays and Lesbians Welcome in this Church.” It went against the will and desire of many members of Trinity, SF and many Christians in the diocese of California in 1981. It was shocking news to say publiclly that our church would make the church available for funerals of men who died of AIDS in 1983 when the epidemic was given a name. Many parishes and dioceses finally followed suit. By pushing the church through example, the church made institutional changes toward justice for homosexual persons.

It was a challenge to the parish and diocese to perform marriages of same gender couples in 1985. We performed such ceremonies, withstanding threats and criticism from the Bishop and many clergy and laypersons. Now the church on the national and international level is working toward full justice for homosexual couples to have the same rights in church and state as heterosexual couples. Candidates for president of the United Sates today have to wrestle with their stands on homosexual rights.

This is social justice, as opposed to social service. A few other churches, not many, have taken on important social justice issues. All Saints’ Church in Pasadena, California, comes to mind.

Urban churches face many other important social issues. Every major city in the United States has young African-American men killing each other daily, caught up in drug traffic, poverty and glorying imprisonment. The drug traffic itself is a major issue. Many of us feel legalizing marijuana and other soft drugs would not be deleterious to society, would provide tax monies from the sale of the drugs and would get many people out of the trade. No church to my knowledge has dared to become involved in dealing with these two issues – killing of youths and drugs.

A slogan of the present bishop of California is “social justice from a firm base in spirituality.” I see the diocese full of programs promoting spirituality, a few concerned with social service and very few concerned with social justice. Everyone is against the present wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The urban church provides the most exciting arena for ministry. Clergy and lay people can be engaged in the life and stuff of the city - housing, crime, drugs, and discrimination to name a few. The city calls on the church to be innovative and creative in discovering new ways to inspire people to a deeper humanity with the ministry of Jesus as the basis. The city needs ministers, clergy and lay, to help bring about real change in people’s lives. The city needs people who can put their prayer lives into action to bring about peace and justice. The city needs people who know how to meditate, pray, give thanks and teach the poor and oppressed how to pray and then move into justice -seeking.

The Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.

RWC

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