Urban Exile: Following Jesus in the Face of Fear
Former suburbanite David Swanson reflects on ministry in the big city.

Pulling up to a busy intersection recently, my wife and I were startled to see a car with its rear windshield shattered. Out of the damaged car leaped a man with a baseball bat, yelling and chasing the two apparent perpetrators. As we slowly drove by, my wife reaching for her phone to call the police, we saw into the back seat where a young girl sat trying to make sense of the chaos that had erupted around her. Arriving at our apartment three blocks away I became aware of an emotion I hadn't felt in a long time: fear.

Three months after moving into Chicago from one of its affluent suburbs, we are still getting our bearings. Is it the Mexican or Polish market that has the better produce? What time is too late for my wife to take a walk by herself? How long will it take to get from the church office to my lunch meeting via the Blue Line? We expected these kinds of questions. Unanticipated, however, was the proper response to shattered windshields and guys with baseball bats. I knew the transition to life and ministry in the city might be tough, but this tangible sense of fear came out of left field.

Our eight years of suburban life and ministry were not without fear, albeit of a different kind. I oftentimes worried about the effect of affluence on our congregation. Anxiety about spiritual formation in a landscape of individualism and crass consumption is enough to keep any pastor awake at night. Conversations with friends and suburban colleagues often centered on pursuing the way of Jesus while being surrounded by the deep-seated values of safety and comfort. You could say my fear was of a spiritual nature: I was anxious about how suburbia affected our souls.

Guys with baseball bats? Never crossed my mind.

Of course it's fair to neither city nor suburb to make such generalizations. Violent acts take place in suburbia just as consumer culture affects many in our new urban congregation. In some ways, my wife and I actually feel safer in our new urban environs. She is more comfortable being home alone at night; the voices of our neighbors provide a friendly soundtrack. I worry less about my numbed soul as the exposed beauty and evil of the city invite increased awareness and dependence on the Holy Spirit.

And yet this newfound fear can't be ignored. A woman in our neighborhood was recently attacked with sulfuric acid. It was less than assuring when her assailants turned out to be a couple of high school girls. Occasionally I'll check an online map for the location of each of Chicago's summer shootings, hoping the latest fatalities weren't in our neighborhood. Do I sound paranoid? Maybe, but after eight years of placid suburban life, shattered windshields, sulfuric acid attacks, and daily fatalities are taking some getting used to.

September 09, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 12 comments

Matthew laker

January 15, 2013  9:28am

Thanks for the thoughts. Speaking on fear and following Jesus this coming Sunday. I have been reflecting recently on how fear paralyses us from embracing God's call in our life. For that matter paralyses both the follower of Jesus and non.

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December 22, 2010  5:50am

"When do I shoot?" "When is too many shots-too many?" It was this new direction in American Law Enforcement that has seem to hinder our social structure in the urban sector to reach its cultural positional. It has been this new tool added to the workmen's belt and it's a tool without clear instructions.

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Adam S

September 11, 2008  9:05am

For all of the people that are moving from the Suburbs to the city, Chicago has still lost 100,000 white residents since 2000. So white flight is still going on. For many people I know it is about children. They move to the city when they don't have them or after they are gone and move to the suburbs once their children are born or at the lastest, when they are ready to start school.

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September 10, 2008  2:26pm

It's interesting to read people talking about the "flight" to the suburbs. Is it still 1950? It seems to me that more middle-class people are leaving the suburbs and moving to the city. I've seen both in the DFW area and in the SEA/TAC area that the slums are getting bulldozed and high-end condos are going up. Poor people are actually being forced to move to the suburbs to find affordable housing. Sure, suburbia has its vices–consumerism, rampart individualism, etc. But is the answer to flee the suburbs or to redeem the suburbs? In my opinion, movement from the suburbs to the city to escape an unhealthy spiritual environment is a lot like moving to the country and hanging out with the animals to escape the problems associated with spending time with people. Further, let's not forget that the city has spiritual vices of its own. I'm all for having a presence in the city. The Gospel is needed there every bit as much as anywhere else. But I think we need to be careful about romanticizing the city. Let's not give up on the suburbs just yet. Living for Christ in the suburbs is challenging, but no one ever said following Jesus was easy.

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September 09, 2008  11:34pm

wow. anybody remember a 'Christian' radio giant with the tagline, "Safe for the whole family"? i've always thought that was un-Christlike. but, now, with my own one year old, i'm starting to see the allure in suburban/small-town safety. i don't want anything to ever happen to my little princess. but then again, maybe that should make me work harder to help provide a safer (and not so homogenous or sheltered) place in my own neighborhood (incidentally, the same area David is talking about) for not just her but countless others like her. doesn't God's heart break for those who commit those acts of seemingly random violence as well as those on to whom they fall?

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Gerald Liu

September 09, 2008  3:33pm

Nicely written. Living in Chicago for the past 6 years has exposed me to many urban issues (immigration, socioeconomic, political) issues that would have excaped my conciousness had I lived in the suburbs. Often times I have felt overwhelmed by the sick, poor, and downtrodden people that I come across and how I should respond to their needs. I remember how as a child, I came across the first homeless person who asked for money for food. I remember feeling like I should give him all the money in my pocket for this poor unfortunate person or maybe give him my new jacket to replace the tattered one he had on. I remember the anxiety I felt when my parents shuttled me away from him and how I couldn't stop thinking about how long he has gone hungry. Nowadays, I try to remind myself of those feelings when I encounter some of the needy people I encounter but the callousness and cynical heart of mine often overpowers my instincts to do what Christ would have done. Lately this truth has allowed God to change my heart that would have been difficult to relate to in the "safe" suburbs. And I thank him for that.

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September 09, 2008  3:21pm

"I much prefer animals . . . Good luck in the concrete jungle there David because your in amongst the worst, and most vicious of predators, man." And thank you for this inclusion of ignorance. This is precisely the kind of thinking that has contributed to the decline of most of our urban areas. Instead of facing the changing urban landscape with the grace of Christ, most American Christians have chosen to fled to the comforts of suburbia. Yes, the chaos of the urban context can be maddening, but no more so than the facade a suburban lifestyle offers.

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scott in vegas

September 09, 2008  1:11pm

It's wild how things get really real, really fast when we get outside of our physical comfort zone or go into a new community with different "rules" that we haven't fully defined yet. Somedays I wish God would have let me stay in Mayberry, but for some of us, it's not meant to be. Good on ya' mate!

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September 09, 2008  11:24am

There's nothing quite like adventure while holding Jesus' hand. God bless. See you there.

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September 09, 2008  11:15am

good stuff, to know and to do can be two very different things.

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