To be honest, our conversations around financially solvent cities, walkable urbanism, incremental development, infrastructure planning, etc. are not always a particularly sexy sell. Maybe you already knew that, and I am slow to catch on. After all, what isn’t more desirous than a place that looks like this?
No doubt the final product is attractive, but it turns out that a large majority of people are not instantly excited about the time and commitment it takes to get the approval let alone build something like this in most of our cities. And, those of us who are up to the challenge might be considered outliers or just plain weird. But as we would say in Texas, God bless our hearts!
So when I sit down with a church that is asking me how they can be more involved in the bricks and mortar of their neighborhood, I will admit that I cringe a bit inside. Why? Because the answer I want to give isn’t sexy. Telling pastors that investing in their neighborhood might involve attending years of contentious meetings at city hall is not usually what gets their blood flowing. Asking them to understand curb cuts, turning radii, and crosswalks seems bizarre and removed from their world of mercy ministries. Encouraging them to learn the zoning code feels like telling them to study the topography of Mars. So I try not to start there.
Instead I begin with guiding them on the design and implementation of projects such as gardens, benches, parklets, and painting the pavement. These are small, tangible and easily manageable undertakings that can provide some quick and nimble returns on community investment. In beautiful, simple ways they give people a taste of the better that could be.
In my opinion, this approach is not far removed from the biblical way of the Church. Really the Bible is full of stories about folks who are sort of figuring things out, messing things up, and then trying again, all the while hoping there is something better to come. Isn’t this why we are called to pray for on earth as it is in heaven? This earth is our canvas where we get to try our hand at creating good, beautiful, and true places. And, as with any good art, it turns out this requires many iterations. There are some days the entire canvas may need reworking, and other days the potential masterpiece feels like a distant pipe dream. But we start small, painting simple brushstrokes that hint at a bigger picture. We place benches, plant gardens, and build fourplexes.
This is all well and good; however, here’s the catch: the small steps cannot be divorced from the larger picture. If they are, we will never have the tenacity and vision to pursue the masterpiece. Consequently, I encourage churches to take the long view in the midst of a culture that is predominantly shortsighted. We need more people who are committed to building better cities and relationships for future generations.
R. John Anderson wisely said in a recent post, “If you are committed to working in a specific neighborhood, it may be a place that has a lot of room between what is now and what could be.” This is our chance to create a masterpiece of our neighborhoods, our cities, our world; let us not forget the bigger picture and the longer view! That is why I want to (and oftentimes do) exhort pastors and their congregations to read the zoning code, understand street dimensions for the human scale, and encourage ADUs.
Unfortunately, this approach is not sexy. It requires substantial time and commitment to affect change in these places. It calls for building relationships and staying at the table even when change is slow and uphill. But this is where I believe that churches are some of the best agents for carrying the torch for the long view because the truth is – it’s at the very heart of their teaching and tradition. The Church is founded on a deep understanding of the long view; of faithfully putting down roots and working towards human flourishing in the midst of waiting for the better yet to come. Wilfred McClay likens this vision to planting sequoias. He writes:
And when we build, we should strive to build things meant to last. Things that strive to imitate the permanency of the most lasting traditions, and graft themselves onto their grand trunk. Things that we have the power to set in motion, but whose full meaning is not likely to mature and unfold in our lifetime. We should accept that, exult in it, and approach our task in the same spirit that one sees exemplified in the parable of the sower, a spirit that cheerfully does its appointed share, and accepts that the harvest is for others to witness. When we make a clearing, we should do so not in order to enjoy the pleasure of weedwhacking, or otherwise working our will on the landscape, but in order to plant something. And what we plant should be something substantial. A sequoia, so to speak, and not merely the decorative flowers of a season.
I believe it’s time to plant sequoias. Who’s with me?