Cover Story

Bottom feeders

What's so great about life in Money magazine's "best places to live"? In the four worst cities of the list, WORLD finds folks working to bring the best out of the worst

Issue: "Finding the Best in the Worst," Dec. 15, 2001

Money magazine recently unveiled its new list of "best places to live," a ranking of 328 cities using measuring rods such as job availability, crime, and so on. A few years ago at WORLD we looked at one of the Money lists and started thinking that we should publish a "best places" story from a biblical perspective: We would add to the standard criteria a look at the number of churches, abortion businesses, porn stores, etc. It doesn't take a theologian, however, to point out the error of that concept. Jonah wanted to go anywhere but to Nineveh, a city that in his day was probably the worst in the world from Israel's perspective-but God called him to that post. At Christmas two millennia ago God became flesh, with all the indignities of being a baby; that's at least like a human choosing to be a cockroach. The adult Christ, instead of going where the living was easy, ate with and confronted notorious sinners. Might it be that the best city for a follower of Jesus to live in is the worst city by standards of "personal peace and affluence," to use Francis Schaeffer's term? Might the best city be one in which people realize that to make it they need God's grace and not merely more of man's wisdom? Might the experience of living without Santa Claus help people more readily to understand our need for Christ? Money's website notes many factors that contribute to making a city a pleasant place to live. Selecting four of them-low crime rate, affordable housing, strong education opportunities, low cost of living/good job market-led to a Money ranking of the 328 cities with a top 10 made up of smaller cities away from the coastlines: Steubenville, Ohio; Scranton, Pa.; Grand Junction, Colo.; Springfield, Mo.; Wheeling, W. Va; Johnstown, Pa.; St. Joseph, Mo.; Joplin, Mo.; Bismarck, N.D.; and Florence, Ala. But, with the thought of Jesus' birth before us, look at the list's bottom four: Memphis; Albuquerque, N.M.; San Francisco; and, in 328th place, Miami. Most Americans are familiar with those last two cities through television shows (The Streets of San Francisco and Miami Vice) or song ("I Left My Heart in San Francisco"). All four of these metropolitan areas have many lovely neighborhoods, but what's it like to work every day in those cities with many who are unloved? Memphis
In No. 325 Memphis, 69-year-old Jo Walt is a southern gentlelady who once "lived a very sheltered life." When she set up a school in a middle-class black area, some of her friends said, "I just don't do that part of the city." They were even more surprised in 1993 when she founded The Neighborhood School (see WORLD, Sept. 23, 2000) in the very poor Binghampton neighborhood. The school now gives 110 kindergarten through 8th-grade students-including 17 Sudanese refugee children-a Christian education. The generally absent dads of students often have drug and criminal backgrounds, and the moms are often very depressed. Is core Memphis a good or bad place in which to live and work? "It's not a safe city," Mrs. Walt said. "It has an incredible number of homicides. You do have to be careful. We've personally had a number of robberies-but everyone has to be careful nowadays," she added, referring to the events of Sept. 11. So moving from No. 325 or restricting herself to the "safe" parts of it is not an option for her: "This is just where I am. I can't imagine being anywhere else. I know what the problems are. I can't solve them all. I can [help] two or three children." Albuquerque
In No. 326 Albuquerque, Jeremy Reynalds has run Joy Junction since 1986, when he founded what has become New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter. More than 6,000 people, mostly homeless women and children, have stayed this year in the 150-bed building, located immediately south of the city's sewage treatment plant. Critics call the shelter a place merely for human sewage treatment, but Joy's "Christ in Power" program, a life-skills training course, has had 107 participants this year. Sewage does not soar, as some formerly despondent humans have. Mr. Reynalds, who emigrated to the United States in 1978 from England, is not surprised by the No. 326 ranking, since Albuquerque's crime rate is high and its unemployment above average. But he remembers a husband and wife with two small children who ended up at Joy Junction when the husband lost the job that had brought him to Albuquerque. The shelter helped husband and wife to move from spiritual hopelessness to Christianity, and soon leave behind material hopelessness as well. Recently, their daughter made her first mission trip. Multiply that story many times, and Jeremy Reynalds considers Albuquerque to be a great place to live. San Francisco
In No. 327 San Francisco, crisis pregnancy center director Donna McIlhenny encounters a city that calls itself tolerant but "is meanly intolerant of biblical Christianity." She says, "A mega Bible-believing congregation here would be about 200 members, unlike places like Franklin, Tenn., where my sister lives and there's a megachurch on every corner." But Mrs. McIlhenny touts a San Francisco advantage: "The line of demarcation between righteousness and unrighteousness is so clear that there's no gray area. In San Francisco, an evangelical Christian is either made to put up or shut up! It's a marvelous thing, even though intimidating and at times terrifying, to be able, by God's grace alone, to stand for the faith." Mrs. McIlhenny's Alpha Pregnancy Center has been defamed often in the press and spray-painted many times with slogans such as "Get your Bible off my body" (plus others that are more vulgar). "We have no political support here in the city," she says, so pro-abortion forces "can do whatever they want to us with impunity." But she remembers a Chinese couple that planned abortion but ended up giving birth to twins, and a Moroccan Muslim couple that spoke virtually no English: "Our counselor told them about trusting in Jesus. A couple of days later the husband came in and wanted more information. Their primary languages are Arabic and French, so we downloaded the Gospel of John in French for them." The story continued: "A week later he came back wanting more and we ordered an Arabic Bible for them. They needed a church; so the staff researched and found the only Arabic-speaking, Bible-believing church in northern California. We sent them to the pastor. The first Bible study he had with them he taught them about the deity of Christ. They came back the next night for another Bible study and brought their sister with them. He taught again about the deity of Christ. All three became believers that night. Five family members have since become Christians and 12 family members are attending church with them." Mrs. McIlhenny notes that in San Francisco the "cost of living is one of the highest in the nation, jobs are few, and the city is crowded, making it a hotbed for homelessness and crime." But she adds that in biblical times God placed His followers in a land flowing with milk, honey, and debauchery, so this is nothing new: "Where's the best city for the witness of Christ? The one that's least anxious for it, but most in need." Miami
The worst city according to the Money list, No. 328 Miami, is now the poorest U.S. city with a population of at least 250,000. The University of Miami is the No. 1 college football team in the country, but that doesn't do much for the one of every three Miami children who is raised in poverty. Of Miami's 362,000 residents, three out of five are foreign-born, and while those fleeing Cuba a generation ago brought professional and entrepreneurial skills with them, every hurricane, earthquake, economic or political crisis now brings more unskilled people from the Caribbean basin (and other points south) to what The Miami Herald calls "the capital of Latin America." Since Sept. 11 the travel and tourism on which many Miami jobs depend have sharply decreased. Two-thirds of Miami's businesses have fewer than five employees; few of these moms-and-pops have any financial reserve. Nor can state government readily prime the pump, wisely or unwisely, because agencies in Tallahassee face budget shortfalls. Local government is known largely for political corruption and battles for control between blacks and Latinos. Partly out of desperation, Miami leaders are pleading for help from religious groups. That's where the Family & Children Faith Coalition (FCFC), a gathering of 300 Miami churches and faith-based ministries, may make a difference. In a big city, as people perceive problems and want to volunteer their time to work on them, lots of little groups spring up with enthusiasm but little communication among them or coordination of efforts. (Government organizations have the opposite problem: high coordination, low enthusiasm.) FCFC is trying to bring groups together through the establishment of faith-based Neighborhood Resource Centers. At one, in the Little Havana section of Miami (no longer a Cuban neighborhood, but home for new immigrants from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Argentina, and other countries), a Center houses English-language classes, employment and food services, a pre-school, and other programs that include presentations about Christ and attempts to connect newcomers with local churches. FCFC's main job here is to train leaders, gather demographics, and find funding and potential partners. Part of the training comes at monthly gatherings focused on specific issues such as youth mentoring, addiction recovery, foster care, and domestic violence. FCFC's initiatives also include setting up a jobs partnership between businesses and religious groups, increasing the reach of Christian daycare centers and the number of foster/adopting parents in churches, increasing the access of poor children to medical care, and compiling a comprehensive website directory of churches and faith-based programs. Those and other infrastructure tasks are not glamorous, but CFCF program director Yvonne Sawyer talks of the "incredible opportunity" churches have as they offer both spiritual and material help, due to the "desperate openness" of both new immigrants and government officials. The immigrants, she says, are "displaced from everything they know" and are eager to learn how biblical understanding can help them make sense of their experience. Those in government, realizing the ineffectiveness of many programs, are far more eager to rely on church leaders than are some of their cocksure counterparts in affluent suburbs. For Mrs. Sawyer and for others who will celebrate Christmas in the bottom four cities, finding the best in the worst is not just a job and not just an adventure, but a calling.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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