This spring and summer, I dated a guy who I liked quite a bit, who also happened to have his heart set on leaving the city of Philadelphia for greener pastures. This naturally led me to start asking questions about the future that I had not asked since moving here to this neighborhood. Questions like —
“why am I here?”
“does this neighborhood need me?”
“why am I paying this personal cost to live here?”
“Is it worth it?”
“what if I left the city?”
All these questions led me to paint a picture of another kind of life that I would have gladly welcomed — a life less pinched by noise and concrete, with more wide-open spaces and green growing things. I thought of having patients who mostly had their lives “together”, whose first request would never be for narcotics or disability, whose stories would leave me with less secondary trauma and pain. I thought of what it would be like to raise children in the city (should God be so kind as to give me the gift of children) and compared that with raising children in a place where they could run safely in the woods like I did as a child.
As I thought of these things, I put off repairs on my house as I began to long for another community, a new place to live and work. I looked looked upon the sweltering heat and noise of summer in the city and my reaction to them as clear evidence that this is not what I was made to do, and despised this life here, even as I feared the possibility that God might want me here, while I want to be not-here.
As I went door-to-door with the students of the Summer Medical Institute (SMI) for a week in July, I felt all the while like a traitor — how could I teach and mentor about urban medical ministry while I am longing for something else? Not only that, but the lesson I learned during SMI was mainly that God and this community don’t need me. In several encounters, it was crystal-clear to me that God was already at work before we arrived, and would continue to be at work long after we left. We were just there for a moment to witness what God was doing. In that case, I thought, why am I here, anyway?
Likewise I had several conversations with people about the early days of the health center where I work and thought of the few people who have actually stayed here for a lifetime of service. Rather, most have spent a season of their lives serving and giving of themselves and their talents here, and then moved on. So I wondered if my season of serving here would come to an end sooner or later, and hoped it might be sooner.
Then a devotional in which one of my coworkers challenged his brothers and sisters who are “born and raised” in N. Philly that the mission of ____ should not be reserved for “outsiders”, but that ideally the future clinicians and administrative staff of the clinic will be men and women who are “native” to the community where our clinics are located. I had the distinct thought that I might be a sort of place-holder here, holding this place until a nurse practitioner from this community is ready to take the place. and I welcomed this idea.
And, oh that fear! the fear that after all of this questioning, after turning a critical eye on my life here, after realizing this city does not need me and reminding myself how much I love green, open spaces — the fear that I might lose my heart to live in the city but God might still keep me here. This fear kept me from actually looking at the choice with clear eyes, because the result of such scrutiny might be unbearably painful.
Then something happened. In conversations with the guy I had been dating as well as others, I realized that what I have here is no insignificant thing: I have a deeply loving community at work, a job that is meaningful and challenging, am part of a tight-knit community of believers here, with friends who hail me joyfully every time I walk around the block. I am connected to others who are living out the Gospel here in both word and deed. In a 5-block radius from my home there are community gardens, community centers with after-school art and dance programs, a bike shop, a legal clinic, a Christian school, a crossing guard who daily demonstrates love for Jesus and each child who crosses the street, and probably many more things that are clear images of God’s kingdom here on earth.
I also experienced some things which highlighted the brokenness in me, and in all the over-achievers of my ilk. My educated, have-it-all-together self, with my good income and stable life, is also broken and in desperate need of the Saviour. And who is to say that people in middle and upper class communities don’t wrestle with chronic disease, drug addiction and brokenness of many kinds? Before the Lord, I am no better or worse than North Philadelphia, and that is the only place that really matters.
So, in short, I looked at the possibility of leaving here, and I chose not to. I chose to stay. I could have chosen to leave, but didn’t want to. I realized that if I left here, I’d be trying to get away from some things I don’t like, but what would I be going to? Indeed, I have a precious community here, a sense of purpose and joy in life, and I didn’t see anything on the horizon that rivals that. It was in the laying out of options, and the choosing, that I realized a greater sense of commitment and joy in what I do have.
This is not to say that I will be here forever. I don’t doubt that God may lead me to another place at some point in the unknown future. But for now, I am here, in North Philadelphia, and I will stay here with a renewed sense of my smallness in the Kingdom God is bringing forth here, yet an equally renewed sense of awe at that very same Kingdom He is bringing forth here. That guy I was dating broke up with me in part because of this decision and I’m ok with that. And I’m going to renovate my kitchen and fix the drainpipe. In fact, the plumbers are here to work on the drainpipe right now.