It was just a few days before my son’s seventh birthday. One set of family had just been in town to celebrate Thanksgiving with us (and an early birthday); the other set was due to arrive in a few days. I was a tiny bit stressed and overwhelmed, which happens when there is too much activity and not enough solitude.
But it was Tuesday, so I made my weekly trek to the historic church on a city corner, rang the bell and waited to be let in for the cultural orientation class I sit in on most weeks. I don’t remember now if this was a health week or a finance week, but it was my second time sitting with a Congolese family who had arrived here from Uganda, maybe. They spoke Swahili and French and English, if we talked slow. During a break, I was chatting with the mother. We almost always talk about our children.
“I have one daughter,” I say, “she is 8. And a son. He will be 7 on Friday.”
She didn’t hesitate. She smiled wide.
“Oh! Be sure to invite us for cake.”
I almost couldn’t believe my ears. This woman I barely knew, who barely knew me, had just invited herself to my house to eat cake with us during a family birthday!
Maybe I should have been more surprised than I was. It only lasted a moment.
We sort of laughed it off. Class continued and we parted ways.
As I thought about it later in the day, what surprised me most was not her request but how much I wished I could make it happen.
If you know me at all, you know my house is seldom “visitor ready.” We have two kids and a lot of extraneous stuff and not a lot of room (also not a ton of energy to devote to organizing and cleaning, though we do a little of each now and then).
But this wasn’t the reason I couldn’t invite this woman and her family to my house. It wasn’t even that we had family coming to stay with us because I think they know us well enough by now to know that “weird” and “unexpected” are just part of the package.
No, it was the distance. We live a few miles outside of the city, a 10-or-so minute drive from downtown, depending on traffic, more like a 45-minute walk with unreliable sidewalk access. This has been a problem for me since my first day of volunteering with a refugee resettlement organization. These friendly, enthusiastic, hopeful new residents always want to know where I live. And I regretfully tell them it is too far and not safe to walk there.
I die a little on the inside every time.
So, here’s a not-so secret secret: For a little while now, Phil and I have been talking about moving into the city. We technically live within walking distance of the city limit line but we are officially in what I would call the suburbs. It’s been three-and-a-half years since we felt the tug to move to Lancaster. You can read that story here.
We are grateful for the way God moved us into this half-house, for the way He orchestrated events and how He has provided since then, through job changes and life struggles. But we always knew it was temporary. We have two bedrooms and two kids who need their own space. We have one bathroom. (One bathroom x four people = a whole lot of wailing.) We just need a little more room. But even that “little more” we need is out of our price range in this school district.
This is how we’ve presented it to the kids: do you want to stay in this school district and continue to share a bedroom, or do you want to have your own bedrooms and move to another school district? They are logical kids, and the bedrooms have won out.
In the past few weeks, Phil and I have talked with friends who live in the city, or who live in other cities, or who have lived in the city or who have done wild and unusual things with their life (which they would say is only following God’s leading but it is the same). We have told them what is on our hearts.
How I want to spend more time with the refugees moving into our community through volunteering and yes, even spending time at their house or mine. I have no illusions that it will be one big happy refugee party all the time, but the potential to deepen connections will be there.
How we need to live in a neighborhood with people we can share a little bit of life with. We get just a tiny bit of this with the few neighbors we currently have, but we do not have a true sense of belonging to a place.
How all of our favorite things to do and eat are in the city. How we miss being able to walk places. How we need to be face-to-face with people on the margins. How we feel like people on the margins anyway and we just don’t belong in the suburbs.
How the city makes us feel alive.
On Christmas Eve, we attended our church’s candlelight service for the first time since we’ve lived here. Usually we are traveling or already in Illinois for the holiday, but this year, Phil had to work before and after Christmas, so we had our own family gathering before the kids and I flew to Illinois.
We left church depressed. Christmas Eve services are not exactly church, I forget. Because everyone has family there who aren’t normally at church, and because we hadn’t been super vocal about our holiday plans, some people were surprised to see us there. We had nowhere to go or be afterwards, and we were still processing the news of Phil losing his job at the end of the year, and I have no shame in telling you that the celebration of light coming into the world did nothing to lift our spirits.
So, we went looking for light. We hadn’t done a Christmas lights drive yet, so we found our one favorite house and searched for a few others. Then we found ourselves in the city and we just drove around. There weren’t a lot of people out but it wasn’t vacant either. The moment we crossed into the heart of the city, my spirit lifted.
This was where I wanted to be.
And that’s how I know this is a God-nudge. I grew up in a smallish Midwestern town. I have always loved visiting cities (especially Chicago!) but I never saw myself living there. I’m too scared, I would tell myself. Too naive. Too whatever. I have zero street smarts.
But more and more the city is where I feel most like me. No pretending. No striving. Just me being me. Sure, the city has its faults, and I’m bound to be disappointed or disillusioned, but I’m already some of those things.
More than that, though, the city is where I need to be. Because of my love for refugees; because I have friends and family on society’s margins; because I know what it is to be poor, on welfare, struggling to get by; because the current political climate is against people such as these, then I want to be closer to them. Even if it’s hard. Even if it’s exhausting.
I have never participated in a protest. I’m still cautious about certain social media activism, not because I don’t care but sometimes because I care too much (about causing conflict with people I love, even if I’m speaking for what is right). I don’t have much in the way of influence. I can do what any citizen can do and make calls and send e-mails and letters or Tweet my representatives.
But when that doesn’t feel like enough, all I have left is my life.
My life can speak my values more loudly than anything I say. And so when I say I stand with refugees and the marginalized and those living in poverty, I want to literally stand with them. To live where they live. To meet their kids through my kids. To experience life with them in all of its beauty and pain.
Make no mistake, I have no plan to move to the city to save it. We are not bringing God to the city. (Spoiler alert: He is already there.) I just want to love the city and its people. The only person I’ll really be saving is myself.
When Phil lost his job at the end of the year, and then our van broke down, we thought maybe our plans would have to wait. We don’t want to move in the middle of a school year, and rebounding from two major hits like job loss and expensive vehicle repair aren’t easy when you have a steady income much less when you’re unemployed.
But God hasn’t given us an out yet. Phil has a new job in the city, of all places. We are back on sort of steady ground. Our sights are still set on the city, and we are casually (not-so-casually) starting to look at houses. There could still be any number of setbacks. This could still be a very bad idea. We still might have to wait.
But just like my refugee friend invited herself to our party for cake, we are inviting ourselves to be part of God’s work in the city. I believe He will make room for us.
This is a developing part of our story. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. All I know is we’ve seen God do impossible things when we say “yes” to Him. If you want to stay connected as we pursue the next step in our journey, consider signing up for e-mail delivery of blog posts (on the right hand side of this blog, near the top). Thanks for reading!