Out of the City

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Out of the City

The notion of home and space has perhaps never been as coveted as it is right now. “Out of the city,” serves as a reminder of the big-picture transformations the housing industry is now experiencing. The reshuffling of people from city centers to suburbs is a pandemic-fueled trend that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon.

I am speaking with you tonight on ZOOM about the uncomfortable process of moving itself and what eventually guided our family to move, “out of the city.”

It was at the Atlanta North SDA Church where I first heard the phrase, “out of the city.” The expression was brought up during Sheryl Bernard’s convincing testimony delivered during church service 15 years ago. She and her family were getting out of Atlanta.

“Out of the city” felt very much like a warning to flee and save yourself. We wanted to be safe and secure from all alarms, but we are NOT saved by living in the city or by living in the country.

At that time, our family was living in a quiet, north Atlanta neighborhood, where we were well anchored in power, property and prestige. Wherever we lived, our family wanted to be intentional and willing to be converted, because our white imagination was killing us. We prayed for God to help us set out on a path of true conversion. The only way to convert — emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and culturally — was to uproot our family and abandon our selfishness and self-absorption. For better and for worse, Jesus was in our blood.

Moving “out of the city,” to the country would not be a big transition for me. I had a different relationship to the country. Country living was in my family’s DNA. I came from a long line of ancestors who saw country living as an opportunity. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was raised in North Carolina understanding that country living was the path to security, self-determination and freedom. On the other hand, moving deeper into the big unknown was my learning curve.

Moving to the “other side of the tracks” felt patronizing, and I found myself asking complex questions, “Who invited us anyway?” But while spending the weekend in Mississippi at the home of Dr. John and Vera Mae Perkins, co-founder of Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), he opened my mind and gave me permission to relocate to his beloved community. This was the first great commission given to Abram.

“Go to the people, live among them, learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, ‘We have done this ourselves.’ ” Perkins said, quoting Lao Tzu.

We were NOT convicted to move “out of the city,” but instead, we launched our family deeper into the city to stand beside our brothers and sisters in need, sharing our spiritual and material goods with them, discovering what church and community looked like in a non-white neighborhood.

The mission was simple and straightforward, although we hit the ground running. It was not easy or glamorous, but uncomfortable and inconvenient. It was sufficiently stressful and scarry. I held no nostalgia for the South.

Dirt has never been easy. The backyard of our apartments opened onto a half-acre-wide easement overgrown with kudzu, dirty diapers and used tires. It was city-owned land, and soon after moving in, we “borrowed” some for gorilla gardening. Having a garden means planting seeds and watching them grow. We gardened to reconcile the tension between black and white and to make a statement of how far we’ve come and where we’re going. The garden gestured to the future.

I felt like the exiled Hebrews in the book of Daniel who faced the pressures of a foreign land, a foreign culture and a foreign religion while fostering connection and bringing the message of God to the nations. I needed a new pair of glasses to look beyond trials, in the midst of trials.

Parker Palmer, a columnist from On Being with Krista Tippett, echoes my experience this way: “Split off from each other, neither darkness nor light is fit for human habitation,” he writes. “The moment we say ‘yes’ to both of them and join their paradoxical dance, the two conspire to make us healthy and whole.”

It was because of intentional living in the city (2007-2014), that we were shifted to live intentionally, “out of the city,” (2014-present). Now it was our turn to experience the wilderness like Moses.

Remember the rainbow, radiating its transforming power to all of creation? Wherever you choose to live — in the city or out of the city — we are the sign people are looking for.

§tacy §weeney