For the first 25ish years of my life, the idea of a large city usually filled me with an ambivalence and annoyance that masked slight terror. On TV, metropolises are made to look like the apex of modern civilization, especially compared to us yokels living in flyover country. And yet large cities are crowded, dirty, and crime-ridden. Growing up in a modest-sized city coupled with spending my first year of adulthood in the automobile purgatory known as Atlanta, I didn’t see what the big fuss was about.
A couple of trips to New York and now a trip to Chicago later and I’ve come to realize something. Not only has my opinion of cities changed, but I have discovered that these trips are good for my soul. I am not simply talking about the importance of taking some sort of Sabbath and getting away; though there is certainly much to be said of that. But what these trips do is that they give me perspective. They jolt me out of my comfort zone and show me a world that is far bigger and far more diverse than I encounter in my day-to-day life.
When I walk through a canyon of glass and steel skyscrapers or find myself as a speck in a jam-packed subway car, I feel smaller. In the city of Chicago, EA and I were a drop in a sea of two and a half million people. No one knew our names or what we did. Some people are so good at tuning out the hustle and bustle that in some places, people didn’t even know we existed. In a world, where we constantly seek to belong, it can be enlightening to be the outsider. Constantly living in that could be crushing, but a week in that environment relayed an important reminder: the world does not revolve around me.
Chicago did not only remind me that the world does not revolve around me, but that the world is far bigger than I typically conceive. At street corners, we found ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with women and men from a vast array of ethnicities. The sound in museums and restaurants was a patchwork of English, Korean, Spanish, Arabic, and a litany of other languages. I regularly overheard conversations that I would not normally hear in my native Bible Belt: like the homosexual guy behind me at Chick-fil-A joking about why he doesn’t support the restaurant as he tried to figure out if he wanted the #1 combo or the #4.
Diversity exists back home, but there is a high level of homogeny as well. The city is not necessarily a better place for its diversity, but it reminds me that there is a wider world out there. I know that in my head, but it is another thing to be immersed in a place where I see and hear that people do not look, talk, or think like I do. That experience puts skin and bones on the everyday head knowledge.
So coming to the city is good for me. I don’t think that I could be an adequate minister if I was not reminded of how small I am, of how the world does not revolve around me, and of how unique the people of this world can be. It’s good to have those moments of feeling like the stranger because most everyone that I have met has felt like an outsider at one time or another. The city grants me a little more clarity with which to see her people.
And in my smallness and my strangeness, I am reminded of how big God is and yet how welcoming God is of strange specks like all of us. Whether it is a large city or somewhere else, we need those places to that immerse us in these ideas. I believe our world and our ministries will be better for it.