Cover Story

City tales

"City tales" Continued...

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

New York City is a never-run-dry source of stories: We have articles about Christian ministries in Queens and Brighton Beach and about a civil turnaround in midtown Manhattan. Florida and the Pacific Northwest also provide tales of renewal.

Those who minister in large cities are following the example set by our forebears in Rome during the early centuries of the Christian era. There they showed respect for God's human creations by burying bodies that officials threw onto garbage heaps. They showed their respect for life by rescuing newborn babies abandoned through the Roman practice called "exposure." Others in the Roman Empire acted similarly: Christian women in Alexandria saved lives and did in-your-face evangelism by nursing babies in front of a statue of Zeus.

Chapter 5 of the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, a second-century a.d. apologetic, shows how Christians twisted "fate" into a brighter future. Mathetes wrote that "Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. They dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. . . . They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives."

The goal of Christians today should be what Mathetes outlined: "They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives."

None of this is easy: "They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect."

Two-plus centuries later, Augustine of Hippo watched from Africa as Rome fell to barbarians. In The City of God he distinguished God's eternal city from man's temporary constructions, but he noted that the command to love God and to love our neighbors pushes us to strive for the common good of the City of Man: We proclaim the gospel to our neighbors in the hope that they will become our brothers.

Today's burgeoning cities desperately need the Christian willingness to bless and respect despite insult. In 1950, 29 percent of the world's population lived in urban environments. By 1965 that figure had risen to 36 percent. Now the total has passed 50 percent and will likely be about 66 percent by 2025. The Latin word for city is civitas, and it's not clear whether the two-thirds of mankind that will soon be urban will also be civilized. If they are not, what's left of civilization will soon vanish.

Are Christians up to the difficulties of working in cities? Not all are called to that, but for an increasing number the words of Mathetes at the end of his chapter 6 are deeply meaningful: "To no less a post than this hath God ordered them, and they dare not try to evade it."

City tales

Eight examples of how individuals are making a difference

Phoenix, Ariz.: The fight against child prostitution | Lynn Vincent

New London, Conn.: Eminent domain leaves scars | Alisa Harris

Washington, D.C.: Philip Mangano is out to end homelessness | Mark Bergin

Miami, Fla.: Good news for uninsured workers | Jamie Dean

Bryant Park, N.Y.: Turnaround for a crime-ridden park | Kiley Humphries

Vancouver, B.C.: Bringing back a storm-damaged park | Mark Bergin

Queens, N.Y.: Reaching immigrants through English classes | Hope Hodge

Brighton Beach, N.Y.: Ministering to Jews in "Little Russia" | Kiley Humphries

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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