It has been about a year since we moved out of the “inner city.” It’s an experience we are still processing with many mixed feelings, among them relief, disappointment, and shame. It is a relief to be able to walk around the block without fear of hearing gunshots, to sleep at night with working heat and running water in the winter (since the pipes don’t freeze here), to not wake to banging noises wondering if we are being broken into. It is disappointing to feel isolated in our rented apartment, that even though our neighbors are friendly and engaging, our interactions tend to be brief and largely disconnected. And shame… I am still not sure why we feel that but we do.
[Part 9 in Liz’s story of God’s calling her into inner city behavioral health care]
For my undergraduate graduation, my college ministry group gave me a copy of When People are Big, and God is Small by Ed Welch. I took a look at the description on the back cover, which talks about people-pleasing and living for the approval of others, and tucked the book away on my book shelf with the thought that it may be a helpful book for me to pass on to someone else someday.
I still chuckle when I think about my self-delusional, optimistic evaluation of my own heart’s motives! Big transitions or decisions points often bring my people-idolizing tendencies to the surface of my free thoughts. So after setting a date to visit the health center, I was not surprised by the sudden onset of anxious and hopeful future fantasies that focused on me earning the approval of key leaders during my visit there. Nor was I caught off guard by the see-saw of emotions from excitement over what God seemed to be unfolding to fear of rejection or disappointment.
I am very thankful for the patience of many friends, who handled my anxious questions about typical medical interviews with grace and tact. “Just be yourself,” one laughed at me, “and they’ll love you.” “Don’t worry,” counseled another, “but everyone you talk to will likely evaluate you.”
Ugh. Here I needed a different flavor of daily grace: the grace to forget myself and focus on loving the people I met. Or maybe this is just another variation on the prayer to not try to figure out the infinite (number of possible conversations I could have with all the different key players) but to spend myself in love.
Again, God provided this daily grace in an unusual way—I never had an interview during my trip in March. I participated in interviewing two other candidates, discussed ministry and counseling models, ate barbecue, shadowed Tim, started working through various counseling interventions, attended a small group Bible study potluck, participated in neighborhood girls’ night, played with Tim’s children and pets, drank coffee and talked with his wife, and never interviewed.
Remembering the trip still makes me laugh. I was anticipating pulling out my references in defense of my character, education, and practice. I had been coached in how to answer potentially tricky questions. I had reviewed data on the health center, including memorizing the names of residents so that I could talk with them.
And instead of life unfolding according to my plans and preparations, God’s sovereign grace leveled those. Ephesians 2:10, which I had been sharing with one of my counselees, spoke to me in fresh ways: I was created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand for me to walk in them. Duh! My life is about God’s grace to us in Christ, not my own merit! So any answers to my prayers for clarity regarding the puzzle pieces of my life will also be a gift of his grace, to be received with thankful joy and firm resolve to walk in the path he lays out for me.
And this path would involve more waiting, since Tim could not hire people for another estimated 4–6 weeks, which would be the middle-end of April. And I was working three jobs, including two counseling jobs that required 6–8 weeks of notice before leaving.
How do I faithfully fulfill my commitments to my current counselees and agencies and be free to move when a position opens up? Like a trapeze flyer, could I let go of current jobs before having a firm offer?
(photo found on this website: http://theremedy4u.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/being-caught/)
[Part 8 of Liz’s story of God’s calling into healthcare in an inner city setting.]
Waiting can be challenging. Whether you have been waiting for the next post in this series or waiting for these posts to end, waiting involves patiently holding out hope in the midst of uncertainty, perplexity, and anxiety.
Yet more than waiting for Love’s wise answers, I have been learning more about waiting for Love Himself. In mid-January, I prayed:
“On the way home, as I was thanking You for Your steadfast love,
I realized what You’re calling me to in this season of waiting.
Waiting on You is like pulling out my snuggle blanket
and nestling close to Your heart while listening to the pounding rain.
It’s like taking a rambling hike with You, through the woods,
without a thought to the time or where the path may lead,
because You are holding my hand,
setting the pace,
leading me in Your wisdom, lovingkindness, sovereign power (over all predators!)
with me, intimately, by Your indwelling Spirit.
In this way,
waiting is not about efficiency,
but about intimacy!
I’m not waiting for You to do certain things,
answer particular prayers by a given time;
I’m reveling in the relationship we have right now,
by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’m waiting—walking with You, at Your pace, enjoying Your presence, content with Your promises and provision….”
The image of Jesus, fast asleep on a cushion in a violently pitching ship, in the midst of pouring rain had been marinating in my mind. And as I played that scenario over and over, I realized that I react similarly to the disciples who scream at Jesus in their anxiety, “Don’t you care that we’re dying?!?” At the same time, I long for growing faith that enables me to curl up on the cushion next to him, finding comfort and rest in his presence.
And the image of hiking so vividly captured my experience of not knowing where I was going, finding the path filled with unexpected switchbacks, recognizing my own limitations in packing or preparing, and enjoying the journey instead of fretfully rushing ahead to the destination.
Waiting, as challenging as it is, doesn’t have to feel like you’re sitting outside the principal’s office. It can be a leisurely hike with your most trusted, intimate, powerful, loving, wise Friend (who also happens to be the Creator, Savior, and Ruler of the world).
In the midst of waiting and entrusting God with my impossibly confusing mess of puzzle pieces, I started noticing what God had been up from June 2011 through October 2012. During these 15 months, He had opened up a close friendship with a medical ministry area director and his wife, which naturally led to me attending their Bible study for healthcare students who taught Bible studies on their campuses. He had also given me a few good experiences meeting med students through cooking for the Summer Medical Institute, which eventually resulted in an administrative job with Medical Campus Outreach. Suddenly, I was immersed in the world of healthcare ministry, including outreach to the underserved. Additionally, during this time, God gave me the joy of teaching two classes on mental health issues to community health promoters at a local Christian health center. I found interdisciplinary conversations on patients and health outcomes fascinating and eventually acclimated to the different social rules for dinner conversations.
Due to constantly fluctuating income that bordered on insufficient, I decided to move back in with my parents and reassess how to responsibly pursue my calling. While this meant that my commute instantly doubled, it also meant that with my belongings mostly packed in storage, I was much more available to move quickly on any opportunity that God brought my way. This was not exactly what I had anticipated when I prayed about being “on call” for Christ and his kingdom! But God’s answers are often so mundane that we can easily overlook them.
Moving home also opened my heart to finally attending and quickly joining this church plant in Camden, NJ. Through this multicultural, inner city church, God challenged me to start to face, examine, and work through my own cultural assumptions in light of the gospel. My small group has been family for each other, throughout various difficulties. What beautiful answers to prayer for community!
Another answer to prayer came in the form of financial assistance to attend the Global Missions Health Conference in November 2012. After spending some time coördinating transportation and housing for 22 students and young professionals from the greater Philadelphia region, I looked forward to learning about God’s work in the world and wondered if there may be a space for me on a medically oriented team. I also hoped for many good conversations with folks in our group who were wrestling with a sense of calling and next steps. And I anticipated returning back to the Philadelphia area with encouragement to persevere in my current jobs (now down to three) and ideas about how to start something in Camden, in a couple years.
But I had no idea what God had in store…
Lest I veer towards an overly rosy view of my growth in Christ over the past couple years of journeying towards healthcare in an inner city context, I have visual reminders of my wilderness experience, including this picture.
It was early April 2012, and I was down to five part-time jobs—two counseling-related and three administrative jobs. I was approaching a difficult decision about moving out of my Center City neighborhood and moving home because of financial pressures. After listing all the responsibilities I was juggling, I drew a picture of how I was feeling and added descriptive words or phrases that came to mind.
Like musical motives that provide coherence to a composition through their frequent returns and variations, these descriptions summarize much of my spiritual-existential experience through November 2012. As I tell the story now in June 2013, I can see how a very minor theme (“only hope: steadfast love of Yahweh never ceases”) written near the center of the page, at the bottom, has taken over the whole symphony, even though none of my uncertain pieces of life have settled. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Back to the story: a few days later, I prayerfully listed current and desired “life targets”—a way of organizing where I sensed God calling me to grow personally, while I continued to wait for the pieces of my callings to come together. One interesting little piece that found its way into my “primary” life target circle was “on call”—this desire that I would be ready and willing to go wherever, whenever God calls me with no turning back (and that I would be actively practicing this now in my current relationships and job responsibilities).
Holistic healthcare. Underserved people. Perplexity. Daily mercies. God’s steadfast love in Christ. On call. These themes intertwined to form cacophonous racket, haunting melodies, and stirring passages at various times and in different ways. Added to this mix were metaphors from a poem I wrote, roughly based on Jesus’ pointed observations that unless a seed falls down to the ground and dies, it remains alone:
“… unwasted pain
by faith embraced
now blooms to delight God and man.
buried deep within God’s hesed
grow by faith
hope and hurt
wait for Love’s wise answers.
for Love Himself. …”
Perhaps my dreams, my unfulfilled visions for service and ministry were seeds that needed to be planted in God’s hesed, his steadfast love for us in Christ. Maybe my calling was not only to spend my strength in love but also to wait for Love himself, not just for his blessings.
[Part 3 in Liz’s story…]
Elucidating the pieces to my calling left me feeling like someone had dumped three or four puzzles together, shaken the box, and removed pieces, leaving 500 unrelated pieces with no picture to guide me. I puzzled over the infinite combinations and variations until, like the Grinch, my “puzzler was sore.”
Or, on more discouraging days, I resonated with the title character in the children’s book All Wrong, Mrs. Bear, who was unhappy because she believed that God had made her all wrong. I just didn’t quite fit in any clear categories that offered remuneration: inner city secular mental health counseling centers, Christian social work agencies, fee-for-service biblical counseling centers, care team for overseas workers, or overseas trauma work.
Why couldn’t I be satisfied in one of the occupational groupings? Was I seeking satisfaction in a particular job and place of ministry, forgetting that all work is subject to vanity and frustration? Was I seeking solace for unanswered prayers in finding some all-encompassing vocation that trumped my desires for marriage and family? Was I seeking the approval of my most recent boyfriend, who had helped me clarify and verbalize my desires for holistic, inner city ministry? Was I hoping to bribe God into giving me the kind of life I wanted through my overtures of sacrifice? Was I seeking some achievement or compelling passion to boast in? Or, since our hearts are always a mixed bag of godly, ungodly, and inordinate desires, where was I seeking these things in ways that undermined the gospel?
The answer to all the “Was I” questions was “Yes,” at various points and to differing degrees. Disappointments, silence, and ongoing sorrow over the next eight months revealed more and more of my leaky cisterns that could never hold my hope or give fresh grace for daily needs.
Fresh grace for daily needs, while walking down a path of constant confusion and perplexity, became a frequent prayer. I often returned to this quote from Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening that summarized my daily call:
“Let me not strive to understand the infinite, but spend my strength in love.”
The pieces to my calling seemed infinite. The labyrinth depths of my heart plummeted beyond my sight. Financial and logistical calculations while working 7 part-time jobs proved to be quite complex. My life was beyond figuring out.
Yet I was still called by God to spend my strength, to pour out my life in love for my family, housemates, friends, coworkers, and counselees. To spend and be spent, while waiting for God to act, continually revealed the paucity of my own resources and my absolute dependence on God for fresh mercies, including forgiveness for all the ways I brought dishonor to his name through my anxious unbelief and self-protective figuring-out.
Understanding the infinite—impossible. Spending our strength in love—difficult, but not impossible, given the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in us.
Hi! Fellow urban dweller here, guest blogging for the DISPLACEMENT series. In light of the Prez’s upcoming re-inauguration, here is a reflection on my first voting experience in North Philly, originally written this past election.
I received invites from two bloggers named Dave (one in Delaware, one in California) to write about the location where I live. I’ve been meaning to sit and write, since it’s good therapy. Therefore, I figured this would be an opportunity to kill multiple birds with one stone.
Today, I voted for the first time in my neighbourhood. I walked 6 blocks, about half a mile, at a dimly lamplit 6 p.m. to get to my polling place.
People tell me I shouldn’t walk by myself in the dark in the city, let alone the inner city. People often express concern for my safety, and occasionally express anger about my decision to move to North Philadelphia. One of my rebuttals would be, “Well, it’s not like I’m walking around by myself at night.” Oops.
I walked toward the entrance and was handed a flyer that said, “HOW TO VOTE DEMOCRAT: PUSH #2 STRAIGHT TICKET,” or something like that.
Flashback to 2008 — my family’s first time voting as U.S. citizens. I went to vote with my mom. She was peeved by my Obama t-shirt. At the front of the line, I gave her a hug and said, “Do the right thing, Mama!” She pushed me away and responded with a shameless, “Aiya! Stop campaining in my face! That’s illegal!”
I looked at the flyer, then looked at the woman. SMH. She asked, “Do you know how to vote? I can tell you if you don’t.” It wasn’t clear if she wanted to tell me how to vote (Democrat) or how to use the electronic voting machines (read the instructions on the machine and follow them).
For a moment I forgot my purpose for living in the community and thought, “Whyyyyeee would I choose to live here if I weren’t a Democrat?!?!” Though my Republican friends get on my nerves sometimes, I was indignant, wondering how someone from their party might feel alienated if they were registered at this election site. I also felt defensive towards her hypothetical assumption that I wouldn’t be able to read how to use the machines, perhaps because I’m Asian.
So, I didn’t end up voting straight ticket, partially out of spite at the flyer, partially because the electronic machine was so easy. T’was definitely less labourious than the bubble sheet I filled out 4 years ago in Michigan, while living the dental school life of constantly filling out bubble sheets to the point of tears.
A few hours later, as I write this, I am annoyed at myself: for being inconsistent between what I say and what I do, for not wanting to be labelled or typecast based on my life decisions or group identities… yet wanting to label myself, and for letting go of my primary identity and prioritizing an identity that I normally don’t prioritize. I think this is what makes it difficult to live in and write about my experience in ‘da hood. I want to discover and articulate generalities about cultural behaviour, because maybe understanding will make me feel more in control. But, I can’t even predict my own thoughts and reactions half the time.
As mentioned above, therapy is needed. Hopefully, if I can keep this writing up, I will be more sane, though perhaps appearing more insane to you, poor reader.
This author is DM, a nurse practitioner living in North Philadelphia, and one of the sources of living inspiration for what I am doing now. This is part of our Displacement series. If you would like to contribute a story of your own, send an e-mail to [email protected].
Whenever people who know Philadelphia’s neighborhoods find out where I live, and that I walk or bike to work most days, they either look at me with concern for my sanity, or with admiration for my bravery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “Is it safe there?”, and I never know how to answer. Is it safe? No, not really. There have been several shootings on the block or near the block where I live within the past year. There are guys who stand on the street corners at all hours of the day and night, conducting shady “business” deals. It is common for a guy on a dirt bike or ATV to ride up the street popping a wheelie the whole way, shattering the normal neighborhood sounds with their loud engines. My heart still breaks over the story in the newspaper about a 10-month old who lived within a block of me who died with track marks — track marks! — on his body. This is not a “safe” neighborhood.
But I have never felt at all threatened in living here. In fact, I feel like an impostor when people suggest I’m courageous for living here. Indeed, making my home in _______ ____ gives me a sense of integrity and wholeness in my life as it allows my work, church, and everyday life to be lived out in the same neighborhood. I have been graciously welcomed here by many people, and I get to be just one part of a whole group of Jesus-followers who are living in this neighborhood, being the church here. Plus, whenever I feel scared and alone and single and weak and vulnerable in my house alone at night, which has been often over the past year, I get the incredible privilege of leaning on Jesus.
From my journal, I’ve copied out a short list of blessings I received within weeks of moving into the house I bought last October:
Since moving in, I’ve had neighbors
- come and introduce themselves and welcome me to the block
— help me break into my own house when the lock was stuck, then
— scold me for not asking for help moving a shelf
— give me a hand-crayoned ‘welcome to our block’ card,
— feed me dinner, several times
— knock on my door at midnight to let me know a light was on in my car
— salt my top step and shovel my walkway and sidewalk
— put out my trash for me and bring my trash can back in from the sidewalk too.
With this list (and many more I could write since then) I cannot escape the thought that I am receiving much more than I’m giving here.
I’m not saying that living here is all enjoyable. I am not a city girl. I crave open spaces and silence and firelight and home-grown vegetables and long walks away from the sound of rushing traffic. I don’t know the first thing about urban life, music or culture, and don’t really have any interest in learning about them for their own sake. One of my favorite dreams involves living in a small village in a rural area, preferably somewhere really far out, like Sudan, where running water and electricity are unknown. That, I used to tell myself, is what I’m wired for. I’ve told this to God too, and even went to live in S. Sudan to prove it to Him and the world. And then it all fell apart as my team was evacuated and my imaginary future life crumbled. And God brought me instead to North Philadelphia, the last place on earth I really thought He’d wired me for.
I have given up some dreams to live here. But when I moved here, I asked God how I should live, and it seemed clear that He gave me Jeremiah 29.4−7 (and also 8–11) in response:
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
So I knew that I wasn’t supposed to live here with an eye to returning to where I think my gifts and desires would lead me (Sudan again? North Africa?). Instead I was to literally and figuratively follow these instructions. So I planted a garden. And bought a house. And I pray constantly for this neighborhood because it is my home. I have also stopped thinking and planning about where else I might live in the future. Living here has been one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve done in my life. Not because the neighborhood is “unsafe”, but because it’s just not what I would have chosen for myself. But God has asked me to put down roots here.
The process of putting down roots hasn’t come naturally. I felt incredible angst as I bought the house where I now live (angst: not unusual for me – it’s like a signpost that God is at work in my life). Some other day I’ll tell the story of that, but suffice it to say that buying this house on ____________ St was like entering into a deep covenant with this neighborhood. I have cast in my lot with this neighborhood and it has made a huge difference in the depth of my commitment to the welfare of _______ ____.
So I am learning to love the city and being a homeowner. I am grateful for the freedom to make a home and offer hospitality to others here. God has given me neighbors who watch out for me (my car, my trash can, my house…), and living in the midst of some urban chaos has given me just an inkling of what my patients live through each day. But life here is undeniably good — I walk to work, I tend 2 different community gardens, I live 2 blocks from a great big green, tree-filled park, and I have become part of a house church that is like an urban family. Sometimes neighbor kids come and knock on my door (when least expected) and another neighbor who is also a patient of mine gives me food and shares “Spanish conversation dinners” with myself and several coworkers.
I’m not sure exactly what impact I’m making in this neighborhood, but I know what impact it’s making on me: I’ve become more confident, more likely to reach out, better at making decisions, and am learning about how to be friends with people who are vastly different than I am. But most of all I am learning to daily surrender to Jesus and His plan for my life instead of carving my own path.
So when people ask me if my neighborhood is safe, I think they’re asking the wrong question. A better question would be, “is it a good place to live?” and for me, the answer is an unhesitating “yes!”