When we said goodbye to the suburbs a few years ago and bought a house east of Troost in KC the irony was not lost on me. We might have looked like one of those families that was sloughing off the confines of suburbia with its immaculate lawns, cul de sacs, and conformity. People may have thought we were on a mission to snatch up an old home for a steal and buy into the increasingly popular urban lifestyle.
This resurgence of city living is very much fixed on the place, the location, the older homes, and interesting architecture in the city scape, or even nearby pubs and artsy shops.
But my family—my husband, three young boys and myself—didn’t move to Hyde Park or Westport where the cool factor is significantly greater. We chose east of Troost, what seemed to many like an identity-less, rougher part of town that was more of a passageway to other places rather than a desirable destination in its own right.
We moved because we wanted to be close to our church and the community we had been growing to love through ministry work at Reconciliation Services at 31st and Troost. It wasn’t about the place or the location. It was about entering into a community where our hearts were called to struggle and to love others.
I didn’t want to be some outsider family that was moving east of Troost to fix things, fix people. I wanted to blend in, to really enter in and to be a part, to be authentic. This is where I wanted to build community afterall.
The fact is however, that I don’t blend in very well. I’m a middle-class, white woman who moved to a predominantly African American community that is economically stressed. I am like the poster woman for gentrification. I move to a depressed part of town and I bring my ideas of community—what that looks like and who belongs there—with me. I want to restore my old house and beautify my garden. I also want safer streets and better quality shops nearby. I want a place that feels good, beautiful and safe.
In the midst of this struggle and tension I have this little mantra: People over place. When I am daydreaming about the mountains or the ocean, when I fantasize about some beautiful paradise or an amazing new house, I remind myself that my deepest desire is always to put people over place. It has so little to do with me impacting someone else and so much more to do with me striving to see beauty and truth in others, in myself even.
The core mission of Reconciliation Services is to reveal the strengths of those we serve, to restore dignity. This mission can bring the kind of development and restoration that really offers lasting change - it is the development and restoration of people. It isn’t some underground initiative to fix or change people but rather a sincere working together to bring to light what is good and true and beautiful - what is already there waiting to be revealed.
Restoration can’t help but alter things. When you move into an old house and labor over renovating and restoring it, you alter it. When we move to a different part of town, where people have different backgrounds and different struggles to us, when we get to know the people around us—us sharing with them and them sharing with us—we alter one another.
I’ve decided that this idea of blending into my neighborhood is not really possible for me. I want to be light, to love. Light and love alter things. They spill over onto the people around them and they permeate the places they inhabit. But I also want to find ways to see light and love in my neighbor, understand better who they are and what makes them precious.
These connections are so much easier to make with people who are like me. There are some neighbors around me with similar values and backgrounds who have proven to be easy company. But what about the man named John who walks down my street daily to the gas station to get a beer? What about Tamika, who lost her dog recently and lives alone? What about Charles who seems to drink the day away on his front porch? What about the older ladies in the nice house that rarely come outside? What about the family that rents “that” house at the end of the block?
These folks are every bit a part of my community yet so unknown to me. They are more important than the old houses and the latest city plan to better the neighborhood. But man, it sure is easier to hone in on those measurable initiatives, to change the look and feel of the neighborhood than it is to discover the inherent beauty of the people who occupy the neighborhood and to honor their history and struggle.
It doesn’t really matter if our heart’s path leads us through the wilderness or the urban landscape. The place is just the place. But the people, the people are everything.
Article by Jodi Mathews