In the last post I explored the Biblical call for people of faith to seek "The End of Poverty." There are all kind of practical questions that arise with that vision, and those need to be addressed. But for people of faith, there are all kinds of theological issues too. Biblical concepts like "shalom" and "justice" are what undergird the vision of ending poverty. One of the passages that has had a significant impact on River City's understanding of this comes from Jeremiah 29.4-8:
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace [the Hebrew word shalom] and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
One of the most important and intriguing words in this passage is shalom (often translated in English as ‘peace’). Shalom is a multi-layered, justice-oriented word. It was the Hebrew way to describe what the world would look if it accurately reflected the design of God. It is a picture of holistic and comprehensive peace. It represents the world at One – with God, with each other, and with creation. It represents harmony – economic peace, social peace, racial peace, environmentally, gender, and family peace. It is a flourishing in every dimension of society. God tells the Israelites that they are to seek the shalom of the city that God has "carried them" into.
There is a lot more than can be said about the context of this passage, but in the interest of time I am going to jump right to some of the application points we found here.
First, we see how the call of God on the Israelites required an intertwining of both reconciliation and shalom (or what we might refer to at River City as "neighborhood development"). There were a thousand reasons why the Israelites and Babylonians shouldn't and wouldn't get along. There was a bitter history between the two, and at the time of this command the Babylonians were holding the Israelites in captivity against their will.
Not exactly the recipe for high trust, reciprocal relationships, right?
And yet, despite recognizing the human instinct to remain angry and divided, God told the Israelites to resist that instinct. Instead of lashing out, or separating themselves, they were instead called to become reconcilers. They were to interweave their lives with the lives of the Babylonians.
And more than that, they were called to seek the shalom of the city together.
I could do a whole new post on why pursuing justice/shalom together is one of the best ways to advance the ministry of reconciliation, but I'll hold off on that for now. The important principle I want to draw out is that God's plan for renewing the city, renewing the Israelites, and renewing the Babylonians all met at the same point: they were to pursue reconciliation, and reconciliation meant seeking the shalom of the city together.
And just to make sure this command was clear, God gave some very clear descriptors of how that reconciliation and shalom were to be measured:
> They were to build homes together.
> They were to plant gardens together.
> They were to share in the local economy together.
> They were to date each other, to build families together, and to raise their children together.
The whole thing is pretty profound.
To tie it back to our topic, I don't think a community can seriously think about something like the "end of poverty" without first diving deep into these theological concepts like reconciliation, justice, and shalom. There are just too many dynamics that are left unaddressed if the movement is not first grounded in these.
Here's just one example of that, applied to the journey of River City. We knew that our situation was not exactly the same as the context of Jeremiah 29, but we could see a lot of similarities. We believed that God was calling onus to seek the shalom of our neighborhood together, but also realized that to do so would require the uniting of heart and vision across an incredibly broad spectrum of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.
Within the River City community, you could take a first pass and divide us into "insiders" and "outsiders," at least as it relates to the history of our specific neighborhood. And while that would be fair to do, it would still be too broad of a snapshot.
Who are the "insiders" in our neighborhood? They come from a lot of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds themselves. Historically a European immigrant community, Humboldt Park began to change quickly in the 50's and 60's. It became the cultural heart of the Puerto Rican community, and that is still quite evident on the east side of the neighborhood. The west side of the neighborhood also has a large African American community though, and as recently as 2003 census data pointed to that being the largest constituent in the neighborhood. There is also a rapidly growing Latino/a American immigrant community, and that too informs the "insider" culture of the neighborhood.
This diversity makes our neighborhood both beautiful and complex. Within each of those cultural canopies lie different constituencies, stakeholders and activities, each with a broad array of cultural and economic diversity themselves. There are different gatekeepers, different political alliances, and different churches and organizations serving each of them. There is no one or two voices that could possibly speak for all the "insiders" of our neighborhood.
In the same way, those of us at River City who are "outsiders" to the neighborhood also come from an incredibly vast array of backgrounds. Our community is a mosaic of Euro-American, Asian-American, Latino/a-American, African-American, and blended heritage folks. We come from all different levels of education and economic background. Some River City people live outside of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, yet identify with the themes and stories of our neighborhood so closely it could be their own. Some River City people live inside the neighborhood, and yet feel completely foreign to the local culture.
When someone looks at the incredible amount of difference that exists between all these different communities, it would be easy to give in to the instinct to just let everyone do their own thing in their own way. And left to human instinct, that is what usually happens.
What is it that could possibly unite such a broad array of people? What could possibly provide a common platform that not only allows for such diverse voices to come to the table, but actually insists that they must?
I believe that passages like Jeremiah 29 give us an answer to those questions… perhaps the only answer. When we seek the shalom of the city together, and pray for the shalom of the city together, we are united around the best version of our selves. Seeking the shalom of the city appeals to that divine part of us that is built to serve and sacrifice - built to lay down our own lives for the establishment of God's loving and flourishing reality. Seeking and praying for the shalom of the city together requires that we bring the best of who we are - our personality, our culture, our intelligence, our experiences - and put it in the mix with our brothers and sisters who are doing the same.
When that happens it creates a dynamic, Spirit-filled, life-giving, transformational environment.