Monday night, I sat transfixed in front of my TV screen. Buildings burning, people in the streets, local leaders urging youth to go home…all of it happening in Baltimore, Maryland as protests turned violent. I grew up in the suburbs outside of the city and it was shocking to see familiar Baltimore streets take center stage on international news.
The sense of loss, anger, and frustration shown by those rioting was heartbreaking. Stories circulated on social media by local friends describing plans to target police, and showing pictures of smashed up police cars and looted businesses.
Meanwhile, the local news in San Salvador highlighted recent violence against police as gangs joined forces to target them. Grenades tossed into police stations, teenage boys killed by police because of suspected gang activity.
I heard sirens blaring on the news, and simultaneously blaring outside of my window. As I listened to their noise I felt a deep sense of grief. There is not pain and suffering only on the streets of Baltimore, or San Salvador. That night, and every night, there is a collective groan rising up from cities around the world.
The truth of it is that cities are made up of broken systems, and broken people. Rioters have deep wounds in their hearts, as do police officers, and gang members, and mothers at home praying that their sons survive the night. The struggles and questions may be different in cities around the world, but the answer remains the same.
He is the only answer because He moves into cities, into the hearts of those who live in them and He changes things. When hope is lost, He is still there. That’s why we see stories of youth cleaning up the streets after the Baltimore riots, that’s why we hear of community leaders here in San Salvador stepping into the violence and extending a hand to the hurting.
When we have the eyes to see it, we see the way that He is working. If we are followers of Christ, we cannot say that it is “their problem,” because it’s our problem too. If God cares about the hurting in these cities we cannot hide out far from them. We must follow Him into the fray and open our hearts and minds to see the frustration, and pain, and hurt that we find among the smoldering buildings, and on the streets long abandoned by any sense of hope and order.
Jeremiah 29:7 speaks powerful words. God’s people were sent into exile, but they weren’t called to simply wait it out. They were called to engage, to build, and to restore the city where they were sent. Read these words:
“And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.”
I’m not trying to simplify the issues here. The issues are deep, historic, and incredibly complex. To go where He calls us to go, hard work and dedication are required. Community development in an urban area is the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I know I couldn’t be doing without the knowledge that God has called me here. We go to the cities because people are there. People who long to hear that there may be a better way, people who long to hear that someone cares about them. It’s easy to turn off the TV and walk away thinking that racial injustice, or wealth disparity, or crumbling communities are not my problem.
But what if I made them my problem? What if I devoted myself to being the answer? What if I could be a bringer of hope and a builder of peace and prosperity? Isn’t it worth the effort?
I feel a sense of solidarity with urban workers who are trying to pick up the pieces of Baltimore this week. I have loved seeing pictures of youth joining hands to clean up their trashed neighborhoods, of people quietly serving each other. It encourages me that hope is never, ever lost even in the bleak moments.
My perception determines which city I will see. I can see the dark, most broken down corners and I can get lost there. Or I can see the opportunity to join with God in His work. We can be part of the restoration, and the rebuilding. We can work to bring peace and prosperity to our cities today, tomorrow, and every day.
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