God and city in context?

god and the cityWhen journalists write stories about people doing good things with seemingly pure hearts, it’s not unusual that the reporting ends up being a bit on the soft side. There is nothing particularly flagrant about this offense. I confess to being guilty of it on occasion. However, failing to be skeptical, provide the needed context and ask tough questions leads to stories that leave readers with questions.

David Gonzalez, an award-winning reporter and metro columnist for The New York Times, wrote Monday, about 35 volunteers in that “young adult” category from groups around the country defined as “faith-based” to meet with people defined as “clergy” who are in several ministries defined as “urban.” I’m not sure exactly what those terms mean, but the article’s context provides some clues.

The story does a great job of evoking images of well intentioned religious people who want to work toward ridding large cities of poverty and suffering:

Angie Hummel craned her neck and beheld a glass-sheathed Upper West Side tower where luxurious studios sell for more than a million dollars. She shifted her gaze ever so slightly downward to the brick building where Mexican immigrant families cram four people into a single room barely big enough for a bed.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “Nothing like a stark comparison.”

It was that kind of day. Even where she stood — in front of a century-old brick church that was among the few structures not being demolished for new housing on West 100th Street — was a reminder of the price of progress in urban America. Smack dab in the middle of plenty, if not excess, people scrape by anonymously. For a religious person like Ms. Hummel, faith is found while navigating gently between those extremes.

“I have my own struggle of what I am called to do in this world,” she said. “What’s the point if there is still going to be devastation and brokenness, even despite good works? Is God really there?”

I think it is tremendous how the article highlights the fact that churches are often the last things of meaning standing among fancy developments in many American cities. Hopefully the city’s regulations keep churches like this from being turned into condo buildings, but that’s another story for another day.

This story is about these “crazy” young adults right out of college putting off the goal of riches for something more spiritually fulfilling. The sponsoring organization, Fund for Theological Education, is described in a fairly vague manner, but as long as they’re pursuing the wholesome goodness of helping people in big cities everything else should be OK, right?

She sat before the visitors, recounting her decision to be ordained. It was a roundabout process, considering that she was not especially drawn to organized religion. She had worked with the poor in her 20s. She had entered the seminary, thanks to a scholarship from the fund that paid for a year of seminary, no strings attached, for young people considering ordination.

“The church needs to be in those places where people feel outside the church,” she said. “For many of you, the important question is, how dissatisfied are you with the church? The church needs people like you.”

She explained to them how she spent 18 years in the South Bronx, a period she chronicled in her well-received memoir, “Breathing Space,” working and living in a community where death and disease struck early and often. Yet she spoke of those years in tender terms, recalling the strength of her neighbors.

Read between the lines if you like, but the lack of theological content in the story is, let’s say, interesting. Should it matter what a religious group believes about the deity of Christ or the meaning of the Bible? Perhaps not if that group is just focused on helping people.

Or maybe there is more to the story. Perhaps we could learn about how many people are helped through this program, how people attend the congregation and where its funding comes from. The article generically mentions Presbyterians, Lutherans, the Episcopal Church, some Catholics and an interchurch center, but those are fairly broad labels for organizations that should be more specifically defined.

There is an important story going on in religiously oriented aid work in American cities with groups like the Fund for Theological Education. This is a good start, but more context and details are needed.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    The Fund’s Web site is pretty vague, probably deliberately vague, about the beliefs of the organization.


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