When I was 13, I spent a week in Detroit with my youth group, and my heart has never stopped falling in love with all things urban. I was fascinated with the culture, the language, the sounds; the city was a new and exciting place. The town where I grew up had a railroad track that intersected the town. When trains came through, they sounded their whistle and the conductor would wave. Milford was not Detroit. As my curiosity for the city grew, my parents reached out to a family friend who suggested I go to Philadelphia for a few weeks.
When I arrived in Philly, I was greeted by Kristin, a young woman from Milford who was committed to social activism in Philly. She was in the first stage of this journey, and with her help and direction I was plunged into a new world. That new world involved non-violent protests, meeting the Berrigan brothers, and learning about a theology that encompassed God’s heart for the poor.
Much of my early theology of the poor was shaped by a small group of radicals—Michelle, Michael, Shane, Brooke, Jamie, Misty and Joe—who lived in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. I spent the warm summer nights on the roof watching the nocturnal neighborhood come to life. I sat on the porch in the heat of the sun blowing bubbles with kids, all the while falling more in love with joys of the city. There were days of sitting with the homeless and learning their stories, afternoons of reading to kids, and nights of talking with prostitutes and handing out food. I learned what the hands and feet of Jesus were capable of. I saw whom Jesus loved and learned what loving Him could look like.
I often romanticize those summers in Kensington, when I was not in charge, when others told me what to do. It was a time when those young radicals poured into me, they taught me that serving Jesus is hard. There was a sign in one of the rooms that read, “The Simple Life is Hard as Crud,” but it was always worth it. They showed me the beautiful chaos of the city. I will always think fondly of my time with them, knowing full well it was not a reality for me. I was playing while they were working, I was visiting while they were living, I was learning while they were still trying to figure it out. They were becoming innovators in urban ministry while I was in high school testing the waters.
Now that I have done urban ministry for over a decade, I am so thankful for the safety of those summers and spring breaks on the streets of Kensington. But, I am even more thankful for that group of young adults who were figuring out life together. I am thankful that they were willing to take in a curious kid. I am thankful they answered my questions. I am thankful they explained drug dealing. I am thankful they pointed out where it was safe. I am thankful that they loved me.
As I continually look back at my life and how this passion for the city came to be, I think of Detroit, Kensington, Chicago, Chester and now Wichita. These cities are filled with energy and people who need to see the Church act like Jesus. I am thankful for that crew in Kensington who showed me how to act like Jesus to the homeless, the prostitute, the kid on the block, the drug dealer and to my fellow community members who are need God’s grace, just like me.