Finding God in the inner city

Though I consider myself a Christian, I am well acquainted with doubt. When I think about “God,” the concept seems so astoundingly ridiculous; I can’t believe anyone in their right mind would believe — let alone submit to — an omnipresent, invisible, supernatural being, who created the entire universe out of nothing. 


During a time in my life when I was able to conquer my doubts, when I felt God’s presence particularly near and real to me, I found myself following a calling from God to not only continue to work in the inner city, but to move there. (Although the doubtful part of me might tell you that I simply took advantage of a privileged opportunity.) 


Whatever the case may be, a month after I turned 23, I moved to the middle of one of my city’s most notoriously impoverished neighbourhoods. (Perhaps this story speaks more to my parents’ faith in God than mine). 


The neighbourhood where I now live has had a long and often troubled history. Many of the homes were developed during the First World War, but over the years, as many inner city neighbourhoods do, it developed a rather sordid reputation that it has struggled to shake ever since. Despite a concerted community effort to re-brand public perception and revitalize the community, the area largely remains known for poverty, drugs, addiction, violence, and perhaps most notably, prostitution.


I certainly have had some interesting reactions from people when they find out that I am a young, single woman living in the inner city by myself. But despite its challenges, there hasn’t been a day yet when I’ve regretted moving here. 


A note of clarification: while I don’t want to minimize the issues in my neighbourhood, I think it’s important to mention that my community deals with only a fraction of the issues that inner city neighbourhoods in major cities deal with. I also need to acknowledge that I am still a benefactor of many privileges (such as choice — I chose to move here) that are not afforded to all residents in low-income areas. Nor does living here make me any better of a Christian than someone who chooses to live in a more suburban setting. The Kingdom is found in many places and neighbours are called to love one another in all kinds of communities, even ones with rows of identical houses and well-manicured lawns.


Living in close proximity to people on the margins keeps me grounded in my faith. I am certain that if I lived elsewhere, I would find it very easy to give in to skepticism of the Gospel and become fixated on a capitalistic pursuit of happiness, the pseudo-American dream. 


Quite simply, living in the ’hood keeps me real. The poverty I’m surrounded by, combined with the resilience my neighbours demonstrate in the face of struggle, forces me to practice self-awareness, confront my privilege, and teaches me that I have enough.


It’s counter to what society constantly tells me: that I’m not enough, that I don’t have enough.My neighbourhood brings me back to the reality that my worth and purpose in life are not defined by owning many nice things.


Living with people from a variety of income levels has also been teaching me about God’s power to redeem. My neighbours have been instruments of restoration in our community at every turn: from our volunteer-run coffee shop (which allows people from all walks of life and ability levels to volunteer), to art projects (by both professional and amateur artists alike, including those with disabilities), to multicultural festivals, block parties, and community gardens. 


God is working here. I see it in the way people from diverse backgrounds are striving to take a community saturated with brokenness, exploitation, violence, and addiction, and make it a better place for all of us to live. Critics might see the revitalization efforts as gentrification, but from my perspective, what stands out is the beauty of Christ’s redeeming power at work.  


But despite the amazing collaborations among our residents, the imperfections in our neighbourhood are still glaring examples of the work yet to be accomplished here. 


Every day when I walk past a woman selling her body on the corner, or an addict picking up his next fix, or a person pushing a cart with all her belongings stuffed inside, I am unavoidably faced with the tangible reality that my community is still very much a part of a world full of suffering, pain, and injustice. This sobering realization is really what keeps my faith alive, despite my doubts. I am reminded not only of the poverty of my neighbour, but of my own poverty too, and for my need for God’s grace and redemption. 


No matter how hard we try to love our neighbours with projects, community barbecues and needle exchange programs, our efforts seem insufficient for the struggles that still exist in our community. In the face of the overwhelming and pervasive problems experienced by not only our neighbourhood, but also the world, having faith in a redemptive and loving Creator has become imperative to maintaining hope. 


Even though the task of ending poverty is enormous, this Kingdom of God that I find so incomprehensible, is so big that even the magnitude of poverty is contained in the hands of our Creator.



Photo (Flickr CC) by green kozi.