Urban

StartUp Church Planting

Since its first season, I’ve been a listener of StartUp podcast. As an entrepreneurial type, I’m always fascinated with the why and how of starting new projects. What began as an insider view of Cincinnati native Alex Blumbergs quest to start his own podcast company has expanded to a nontraditional media empire. ABC even tried to make a sitcom out of the story.

So when they announced that this season’s edition of StartUp would focus on church planting, I was pleasantly surprised—especially since they were covering an urban church plant by one of our Movement's organizations. I was curious how this would be portrayed; StartUp is not a religious podcast, so their observations of church planting from an outside (and even skeptical) perspective could have been awkward. Ultimately, I commend producers and journalists for a fair look at the modern state of church planting through the origins of Restoration Church. AJ, the lead minister at Restoration, reflected on the entire podcast experience in a two-part blog post at Christianity Today.

Since I helped start an urban church thirteen years ago, and since I think the content of this series has broader interest, I want to highlight three things I’m still chewing on from the podcast:

1. Identity
AJ was one of those guys who fell into church planting. He didn’t necessarily pursue it but took the mantle when the previous church planter left. What he soon discovered was something that all church planters (and nearly all lead ministers) realize: the lead person becomes the visible identity of the whole church. Even though newer church plants tend to emphasize the team approach to ministry (I find this much healthier), it doesn’t eliminate this identity issue.

While listening to the podcast, I empathized with AJ as he expressed this. It definitely gets in your head, as you feel compelled to “always be on.” Even though I’m an extrovert, there are times when I need to recharge; oftentimes there isn’t space for church leaders to do so without being perceived as being unwelcoming. Now that I am a church elder leading from the pews, I feel that one of my shepherding obligations is to create opportunities for our staff to breathe and be themselves. Ministers need to believe that the entire organization won’t collapse if they’re not superhuman.

2. Finance
Since I advise churches on financial strategy, I was keenly interested in the podcast’s revealing discussion concerning Restoration Church’s cash flow. StartUp used the church’s need for growth as a plot point in their storytelling—they explained that the church needed to grow in attendance in order to get enough offering to stay in business. This is perhaps the greatest source of discomfort for church planters: their desire to create new styles of ministry is directly connected to their ability to structure a fiscally sound organization. My impression is—the vast majority of new churches that fail do so because they never reach financial viability.

We started Echo Church on a shoestring budget; we were self-supporting week one, but we used a credit card to get there. Ours was a low-overhead approach that required my family to take responsibility for covering salary expenses. While I thrived in a bi-vocational setting, I can see, years later, that it was likely a hindrance to our church’s growth. While Echo still has bi-vocational ministers, we’re in a multi-year process of shifting our model. It will force us to talk about money more than many people will be comfortable, but I’ve grown to see this topic interlinked with discipleship. I’ve been processing this for years now and hope to formulate a more complete overview of discipleship and ministry finance in 2019.
 
3. Tension
The reason I resonated so much with AJ and Restoration Church is because urban church planting is a much different animal than suburban or rural planting. An entire episode of the podcast covered theology, and I’m sure it was the most controversial installment of the entire series. Generally churches in the city are the object of critique from those nestled on both sides of the theological spectrum. One of the most difficult things I’ve done pastorally is to maintain relationships with people on both sides of the spectrum while continuing to cling to a biblical theology.

Even though I’m a quasi-theologian, I don’t think I’m biased when I suggest that theology will become the most important issue in new church work in the decades to come. Our church planting organizations have done an excellent job of understanding entrepreneurialism and organizational growth, but this has often relied on marketing techniques. As culture continues to become more progressive, marketing efforts will be perceived with skepticism until “consumers” can determine exactly what a church believes. It’s a minefield, and the church is wading into it. This is another topic I’ve been thinking about that I’ll likely expound upon later.

Suffice to say, this past season of StartUp is compelling. Whether or not you’re a person of faith, I highly recommend giving this a listen.

Compassion Fatigue

There are times I get frustrated with our local newspaper, but every once in awhile they get something right. As much as we lament the heroin epidemic, my heart goes out to those whose very professions make it impossible to escape. Here's the link to the Enquirer article about first responders and heroin.

I want to offer a few thoughts on what the article terms "compassion fatigue," as it’s very real. We’ve nearly completed 12 years living in the urban core, in addition to the first 22 years of my life spent in an urban church. With every passing year, my heart unfortunately hardens. I’ve neither lost faith in the gospel, nor have I abandoned the mission. Still, I’m increasingly disillusioned when ministering to the down-and-out (this applies to the up-and-out as well, but that’s a different topic altogether). 

Even the best among us can become jaded when constantly exposed to exaggeration and half-truths. 

  • I’ve witnessed a man briskly scale two flights of stairs, only to be leaning on crutches while panhandling just hours later.
  • I interacted with a woman who invented a dead child in an attempt to scam our church for funeral expenses.
  • I had to kick a guy out of church who created a diversion and stole money from the offering plate. 

Ask urban workers about the lies they’ve been told and story-time will go on for hours. I’ve known dozens of vibrant servants who fully invested time to city ministry, only to burn out years later. When you’re viewed for your provision, it’s natural insulate yourself from that exposure.

Dwelling among those in need has the potential to negatively impact one’s walk in faith. When my Christian friend joined the Peace Corps, I encouraged him to use the opportunity to focus on spiritual growth. In the third world country where he worked, however, he was unable to connect with any indigenous church there; whenever he visited a new church, they saw he was American and treated him less as a brother and more as a financial resource.

I struggle to bring up these negative issues, as they can be used to defend our disconnect. Instead, we must view our compassion fatigue as yet another spiritual hurdle to be cleared. It's happened to me, friends. And if I don’t overcome it, it has the potential to lead me to sin.

Rather than offering three solutions to combating our cynicism (be slow to judge, be honest in your conversations with those in need, pray more), I want to lean into one that has helped me the most: surround yourselves with the hopeful. 

Right now, I’m incredibly thankful that our church has young leaders who are passionate about serving the least of these. Even though I want to gently dampen their passion with a dose of reality, I try to shut my mouth. I’m giving them space to try things that turned out poorly for me. I don’t want them to experience pain (although she is a good teacher), but I’m reminding myself that every situation is different. Just because someone I attempted to help lied to me doesn’t mean that everyone in need is pushing a scam. I’m letting this generation chart their own path while soaking up their enthusiasm. And then, years down the road, when they experience the fatigue I now feel, I’ll trust that the Lord provides them with the inspiration to persevere.

The apostle Paul advised us, "as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12). He added no caveat here. I’m trying to live up to this.

Be compassionate. Encourage others to persevere as well.


Photo by Roland Denes on Unsplash

Longing for Affirmation

All the buzz around the Queen City this week has been a New York Times article praising the city's commitment to revitalization. My Facebook and Twitter feed blow'd up with links from my urban dwelling brethren, excited about the national recognition. As much as I'm the city's biggest cheerleader, I'm left wanting. A few observations:

1. There was no mention of our current struggles. You always give both sides of the situation to keep grounded in reality. Although I'm loving what's happening in the lower bowl, our city's finances are jacked up and there are about 45 other neighborhoods where the outlook isn't quite as rosy. Although things are looking good, there are systemic issues that must be dealt with. Using the Banks as a barometer of the city's progress is no different than using plastic surgery to assess one's health.

2. We really aren't that bad anyway. My thesis work will be centered on Cincinnati. When I was at school in Boston, I was asked by classmates to describe the city. One thing I shared is that people from our city generally have a poor outlook of it. We're haters. That's why some of us latch on so tightly when a paper like the Times publishes something positive about Cincinnati. Our town isn't utopia, but it's surely much better than many realize. I'm still uncertain as to why locals are so skeptical of this being a great place to live. I think we have father issues.

3. Why can't we aim for more? The most laughable reaction is that our local paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, actually published a link to the NYT article as news. I'm sure the reason that they did was to try to catch some search engine pull as it was moving through the local news cycle. It's sad, really. Instead of relying on a reputable East Coast paper to offer quality reporting,we don't we strive to create our own form of excellence? With technology, the ability for us to have more/better is accessible.

4. If you're from the Cincy 'burbs and angry about this, just stop throwing stones. You can complain about the city all day long but the reality is that, without it, you'd have nothing. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

About Boston

I've spent three weeks in this town, enough that I think I can offer the following observations. There is some decent public transportation here, but isn't New York City, so you'll likely need a car.

If you're driving, you need to grow thick skin. Drivers here are merciless. Just assume that someone wants to cut you off. And you have to cut people off yourself, otherwise you'll never get anywhere.

And speaking of the roads, pay no attention to the painted lines between lanes. Those are optional.

The cost of living, in comparison to Cincinnati, is ridiculous. Almost everything is more expensive here.

That said, proximity to beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean have to come at some cost.

That said, I'm here in May. If I had to endure to weather between November and March, I'd change move south.

The architecture is pretty rad. The school is out on the North Shore of Boston, all of which looks like it's out of a movie. Absolutely gorgeous.

The accents are precious. I lingered a couple of days ago to hear a typical Boston conversation just because it sounded awesome.

If I were a seafood guy (which I'm not), I'd love this place. I paid homage, though, and sampled the fare.

The roast beef is the big local food. I get it, and it's tasty, but it doesn't pull me in.

I find the downtown area irresistible. The mixture of water and hills reminds me of Cincinnati.

Cannot get a fountain Coke here unless you go to a fast food joint and pay out the yin yang. I've abstained, missing my UDF.

Once you're out of the car, the people are incredibly friendly. Nice folk.

It's such a cool place, but an annoying place at the same time. But I guess all big cities are like that. If I'm gonna be away from home, might as well be in a place like this.

Our Little (Town)House

Just a few months in to her public school education, we encountered our first parental objection to part of Kaelyn's curriculum. Kindergartners at Fairview-Clifton German Language School take part in a book reading program. Every day, Kaelyn brings home a library book that we are supposed to read together. Mostly, this has been an enjoyable endeavor; sure, there have been a few lackluster selections, but there's only so much you can do with a kids book. I'm starting to think that writing stories for children could be a great income source.

Last night, Kelly told me that she had previewed the book of the day and didn't want Kaelyn to read it. Curious of what kind of pagan ideology found in a kid's book could push my wife to advocating censorship, I took a look at it myself.

The selection was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. It was published in 1942 (though I'm assuming it was actually written in 1941, before the start of the Second War World), but I can remember it reading it when I was a child. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Disney Corporation made it into a cartoon in 1952 [accessible by clicking here]. Although the cartoon isn't totally faithful to the text, the concept remains the same: it's the tale of a small house on a hill in a rural area where life is great. The house secretly wishes it could partake of city life, but little does the little house know, the city would soon come to her. As roads come her way, an imposing society builds up around her, leaving her cold and lonely. All seems lost until the house is relocated back to the country. The concluding page of the book reveals the house's lessons learned:

Never again would she be curious about the city . . .

Never again would she want to live there . . .

The stars twinkled above her . . .

A new moon was coming up . . .

It was spring . . .

and all was quiet and peaceful in the country.

And this is why my wife did not want my daughter to read this book.

Now I've got to give it up to Kelly. I absolutely love that she's so passionate about our family's urban lifestyle that her visceral reaction was to protect our daughter from views that could disappoint her. But Kelly's not really the censoring type, and I figured if Kaelyn's urban school offered it, it couldn't be that bad. One of the things about city living is that you can't really cover-up the real world, so I went ahead and read the book with her this morning. After we finished, I eagerly awaited her response.

She asked for breakfast.

It might seem like much ado about nothing, but we get paranoid about raising our kid in the city. Kelly's upbringing was suburban, and mine was practical rural, with some 'burbs and city on the side. Since we both cherished our childhood experiences, we want to make sure she's not shortchanged. And for the past sixty years, the American dream has been contextualized as a suburban abode. Burton wasn't starting a movement with her kid's book, but was reflecting a reality that took off after World War II. So it really feels like we're swimming upstream here.

But the beautiful thing is that Kaelyn knows nothing different. She's been a city girl her whole life— always surrounded by people and noise, her only yard a public park. But the benefits have been innumerable. She absolutely loves the city; she tells us all the time.

So our little townhouse might be crammed in the little of the city, but I don't think she's sad. And unlike that weepy home, our family's urban curiosity is far from being satisfied.

By the way: here's the shirt that Kaelyn wore to school this morning:

I think that settles it.

p.s. A kid's book that I loved about the city was one that Kelly found. It's called Rose's Garden, and was inspired by the life of Rose Kennedy. A little video introduction to the book can be found here.

Urban Perception (Part Three)

"Hey! The newspaper!" I yelled loud enough down the street so he could easily hear me. "Oh, sorry 'bout that," he responded as he turned around. "I thought it was one of those free ones."

Um, yeah, it WAS one of those free ones. Someone else paid for it. He stole my neighbor's paper.

Staring out the front window of our house, stretching before my morning run, I witnessed this little theft. The funny thing is, I wasn't going to say anything at all. My neighbor continually leaves her papers out on the front lawn. Almost daily I throw it on her doorstep and they sometimes collect there for days. So why bother yelling at the man? I mean, if she's not really interested in it, why not let another guy read the paper?

I knew I had to say something, at least for the principle of it.

You see, just the day before, I wrote that letter to the editor of the Enquirer about the state of my community. I took offense to the fact that a reporter made Walnut Hills sound like Snake Plissken's New York City. But I'm pretty sure that newspaper theft is the least of people's concerns about Walnut Hills. But in some way, it too contributes to the safety complex. When people feel unsafe, they're unwilling to speak up. They will easily overlook obvious transgressions of others because they're afraid of what could happen.

So how do you make a community a safer, more livable place? The culmination of my urban perception series is to urge something that transcends the urban context. It's something that you can do anywhere that would assist in making all the world (city, suburban, or rural) even better.

Move.

I'm not suggesting that you sell your home and relocate. I'm saying that you need to do something. You need to stop standing on the sideline in fear. You need to be engaged. If you see something, say something. If action is necessary, you be the one to do it; if you don't, no one else will. You need to vanquish your fears and do what's best for those who cannot speak. You have the potential to redefine personal safety. And it's done by moving.

My challenging the guy who stole the newspaper is not the first time I've said something. Over the past six years, I've spoken to total strangers concerning their transgressions. For example: if I witness someone litter, I'll let them know I saw it. And if it's a child, I will make them pick it up. And they always do. They've probably never been confronted about it. You need to move, because inaction permits fear to set up shop. Could something happen to me? Of course, but I'd rather go out while moving than in a state of compliance.

You don't have to live where I do. You don't have to see the world the way that I do. But if you're going to complain about safety while cowering, then you've already lost.

Do something already. Stake claim to your own safety.

Urban Perception (Part Two)

"So how do you live down there?" I'm never sure how to answer that question. Just the other night another suburbanite posed the question to me, thoroughly amazed by our urban lifestyle. It's always difficult for me to articulate the appropriate response. Snarkiness would be the most fun way to reply, but it wouldn't be useful. Or I could respond with a guilt inducing statement, such as, "At least I GOT TO CHOOSE to live down here." But my standard response is to merely reveal to them that I feel safe living here.

As a resident, I can attest that it's just not that bad living in the city; as long as you and the people in your household are not engaged in illegal drug trafficking, then you're going to be relatively fine. But, unfortunately, crime does take place here. And it's that crime that causes people to perceive entire communities like ours as dangerous.

So if people avoid Walnut Hills because it's unsafe, what exactly IS safe?

Is it an absence of crime? Is it the ability to leave my front door unlocked over night? Is it the removal of blight from my eyesight? I'd suggest that, for most people, it's an inexplicable state. It's a simple feeling that puts you at ease. An example of this: I spent a few days in downtown Indianapolis last summer for a convention and quite a few people commented to me how they felt safer there than in downtown Cincinnati. I tried to get an explanation as to why, and they couldn't cite any discernible fact. It was just a feeling. Personally, as I've only been urinated upon in one of these areas, I continue to view my town as safer. Still, it is this perceived safety that determines whether or not we will tolerate an area.

It's the perception of safety is the main reason that people prefer the suburbs; when I am safe, the thinking goes, I can let my guard down and feel comfortable. When I lived in a suburban context, many of my daily actions were on autopilot. I wouldn't think twice whether or not I was in a bad part of the 'burbs. The ability to function without thought towards safety allowed me to live life differently. I was, in essence, freer.

But safety is a fleeting concept and must be maintained through effort; there are always threats. In a suburban mindset, maintenance of safety is mostly spatial: if I can keep a buffer zone between myself and what I perceive to be dangerous, I am safe. And this is why the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) reaction is so prevalent in suburban communities.

A local example: recently, the conversation about public housing in Cincinnati has increased. Some suburban communities that accepted federal funds are going to be forced to increase their number of public housing options, including the Section 8 voucher program. These suburbs are vowing to fight this expansion (even though they have no legal recourse) because they see it as an affront to their way of life. Understand the thinking behind this: increased poverty nearby brings increased crime and a loss of safety. One of these communities is Green Township, the suburb in which I grew up, and a community already losing the safety buffer. Suburban sprawl, which resulted in the net-growth of these community, continues to lead people to resettle further and further from the city core, maintaining this spatial separation of safety.

It's not just happening in Cincinnati; it's an American phenomenon, assisted by the vast amount of land in our nation. With few natural borders to stop it, people can (and will) keep sprawling.

But, eventually, something is going to give.

We've seen it happen in the American southwest, where McMansions sit vacant (and some are subdivided for government housing). Maybe it will be the long commutes, or the flooded housing market, or the revival of the inner-city, or the escalating price of petroleum—whatever the case, people will no longer be able to keep their safety buffer zone. They will be forced to come face-to-face with the very thing they tried to escape.

So if this perception of safety is fleeting, how, then, do we live? More on that soon.

Urban Perception (Part One)

Some things set me off more quickly than others. This past weekend, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an article concerning the merging of municipal services of some of our region's smaller towns and villages. No big deal, really; it's an economic reality in this day and age. But while the article was mediocre, the introductory paragraph that caught my eye. It read:

"After enduring the frequent Bang! Bang! Bang! of gunshots while living in Walnut Hills, Phillip and Erin Smith wanted to move to a safer but affordable community."

And there you go.

It might not seem like much to you, but it was a very big deal to me. That opinion statement about my neighborhood, delivered as fact, continues to mesh into our metropolitan's psyche. I know that the vast majority of Greater Cincinnatians have never ventured into Walnut Hills out of fear. They somehow think it's godless Gotham in need of a Dark Knight. But I know dozens of people in this neighborhood who absolutely love living here and wouldn't think of living anyplace else. So I shot off this letter to the editor:

The Enquirer's stereotypical opinion of our region's urban communities is tiring. In a recent article about the merging of municipal services, reporter Steve Kemme utilizes his opening paragraph to continue this negative polemic. By describing Philip and Erin Smith's move to "a safer but affordable community," and by using the onomatopoetic, "Bang! Bang! Bang!" he likens my neighborhood of Walnut Hills to the lawless Wild West. It could not be further from the truth.

I have lived in Walnut Hills for six years now and have rarely heard actual gunshots. In the summer months, you might hear children setting off fireworks that, to the untrained ear, can be confused as gunfire. I heard guns discharged much more frequently when we lived in Cincinnati's northern suburbs than I have living in the inner-city. And our dropping crime statistics attest that Walnut Hills is much safer than local media would ever care to report.

My wife and I are excited to be raising our five-year-old daughter in Walnut Hills. While some may not view it as attractive as a secluded suburban enclave, it is our paradise. Living among a socio-economically, racially, and ideologically diverse people presents us with unique opportunities that cannot be quantified. Throwaway insults, which denigrate neighborhoods like ours, continue to prove that this newspaper is out of touch.

Steve Carr, Walnut Hills

They posted my letter in their online edition and it elicited several responses. Nearly all of them were typical for when such an opinion is stated.

"Walk down the sidewalk outside Walnut Hills Kroger along MacMillan then get back to me."

Good suggestion. Actually, I do walk there very much. I've never had any problems with anyone.

"Maybe there's a lot of background noise by Steve's residence or possible he has his house for sale. What ever it is, his reason for living there smacks of balderdash."

No background noise that I'm aware of. Now we did have the house for sale last year. We were trying to exchange the house for a condo, staying in Walnut Hills. But I still don't fully understand the rationale behind that comment. Still, kudos for using the word, "balderdash."

And, finally, my personal favorite: "Well Stevie, I live in New Haven and NEVER hear gunshots. You only hear them 'rarely'/ Isn't that still too much????"

I love how he calls me "Stevie." We must be friends. But let's focus in on this response.

I have been to New Haven. It's a blip of a town outside Harrison, Ohio. You're a good ten minutes drive into civilization (if you consider Harrison as such), but you're basically living rurally. Chances are, this anonymous commenter was reared in a rural/suburban environment and moved out to New Haven to get the best of both worlds: living secluded but within distance of amenities. The commenter preferred to live in a safe place, removed from the possibility of harm. This is his (making the assumption that the commenter is male) paradise.

To him, Walnut Hills is the antithesis of this dream. So not only does he choose his lifestyle, but he feels obligated to take pot shots at communities like mine because it affirms the decision he made. This New Havenite is not alone in this position. Read the forums on local media websites and you will observe all sorts of vitriol against urban areas. And, in my opinion, the Cincinnati Enquirer panders towards this position. It is people like this commenter who consume their product. And, in an anemic newspaper market, sales takes precedent over objectivity. If you were to spend a week trolling Cincinnati media, you would find numerous examples of this perspective interwoven in news stories, painting the inner-city in a negative light.

"But the inner-city is where the crime is taking place," the cynic responds.

I will agree, to a point. While violent crime obviously occurs in urban areas, it does not discriminate by context; for example, just weeks after we moved to Walnut Hills, a young girl was murdered within half-a-mile of our former suburban abode. While these stories are reported, the media tends to paint stronger connections between crime and community in the inner-city than it does elsewhere. And even though it's subtle, it's a subliminal message that will entrench itself into viewers' minds. Don't believe me? Watch your local news and be on the look out for the easiest sound byte a reporter can get is, "I can't believe it could happen here."

Of course they can't. Because they've become inclined to believe that crime can only happen where it's supposed to: in "those bad neighborhoods." And that's why they chose instead to live in their safe community. So when crime comes to their front yard, they're shocked. This reality on which they've based their life now has gaping holes. Paradise lost.

All of this gets me to the issue I want to wrestle with: how does our perception of safety affect our lives?

More on this soon.

Church Struggle

Things have been going well at Echo. I feel like we're in a much better place than we've every been. This church is growing up, and it's going to last. That's about all I can ask for. Still, I'm continually anxious to see what we're becoming. But there's always a fire to put out. Currently, it's the status of our rental facility. While the relationship with our lessor hasn't necessarily deteriorated, they are becoming less logical. We're almost left to wonder if we'll suddenly be forced to find a new facility. Being the Boy Scout that I was/am, always anticipating possible scenarios, I'm pushing for preparedness in case it happens. I've kept a list of alternate meeting sites for awhile and, recently, I've been going through the list—exploring other possible meeting spaces within our neighborhood.

I visited one such space last Sunday morning. It is an aging church in midst of our inner-city community with a pretty large facility. It's indicative of many churches in today's cities: they were a good size church in the 1940's and 1950's but they were unable to adjust to the cultural changes that accompanied urban renewal. As a result, many of its congregants fled to the suburbs and the church began to decline. Left behind was a group of locals (unable to sprawl) and church devotees—themselves no longer in the community, but harboring an obligation to the urban church. These churches are struggling to stay in business. And when the fire is finally extinguished they close their doors and the building is razed or becomes an Urban Outfitters.

What's interesting as that the base experience does not necessarily differ from a thriving congregation. As I walked in the church this morning, I was greeted warmly. You could tell that the people love their church, while wanted things to go better. The worship wasn't professional quality, but it was sincere. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the ladies performed a song that she had written herself. And the message the pastor preached was as passionate as those in churches I had seen at much larger congregations.

But there were twenty people in the pews—average age 68. In a few years, they'll shut the doors. It's a very typical story in the city, highlighting the importance of churches like Echo to engage these communities. These communities will last but the churches will not. So we need to continually focus on adding new churches to the landscape.

But in my discussion with this church, I was pleasantly surprised. Even though they're struggling financially, they've recognized that their building is an incredible asset. They are currently renting it out to five different organizations throughout the week. Not only have they sought the additional revenue, but they're renting to groups that are positively impacting the community. They admitted, "we might not be here much longer, but we're trying to do what we can now to make our community a better place while we can."

I'm always thankful for people who see the big picture. Nothing's going to last forever, so you have to think beyond yourself. It's the mindset I'm trying to think of when working with our young congregation. I'm sure we can build something that will last forty years, but I'd prefer something that could last for forty generations. For this vision to become a reality, we need to make sure we're wise enough to adapt to the changing culture around us.

It's a struggle, but the stakes are too high to ignore.

Finding Your Way

Semi's aren't supposed to go that slow. Then again, semi's don't usually traverse through Eden Park either.

And rarely do semi's stop in the middle of Eden Park Drive and never does the driver hop out.

But as I continued my morning run, I saw the truck driver walking towards me and I realized he was lost.

"Where are you headed?" I huff, catching my breath.

"I was headed to Playhouse in the Park, but can't find it on Gilbert Avenue. I think these directions are wrong"

Rookie mistake. Even though Playhouse sits in Eden Park, their props garage is on Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills. It took me a few seconds to redirect him and he was on his way.

This has happened many times before, especially over the past couple of years since I've done marathon training. Drivers will see me jogging through Walnut Hills, Hyde Park, or Downtown, pull over, and ask me directions. I am the remedy for the locationally challenged.

I've been asked directions to the Art Museum. I've been asked directions to Krohn Conservatory. I've been asked directions to Xavier. I've been asked directions to Blue Ash (yeah, they were way off target). While in Newport, I've been asked directions to downtown (cross the river).

I must emit some sort of approachable vibe. Or it could also be that I'm a middle-class white dude running through predominantly black neighborhoods (nearly 100% of the people who stop me are white). Regardless of why they approach me, I attempt to give them thorough directions. It's the least I can do as friendly representative of our fair city.

The only issue I have is that stopping me is not entirely helpful to my cardio. I have to stop, catch my breath long enough to formulate some sentences, and then try to get back in rhythm. And it ruins my time. But I kinda like it. I love for people to get the sense that the city is a safe, friendly place. Maybe seeing that people are out on the streets, embracing urban living, will slowly change perceptions.

So next time you get lost, check out your GPS: your Global Positioning Steve.

See what I did there?

Food Inc.

The majority of people who read my blog have no need to worry about food. If you're hungry, and there's nothing in the refrigerator, then you hop in the car and go to the store. Usually, the only concern we have is value and nutrition. And, because of our mobility, we can always find another store the suits our needs. One of the issues in urban communities is the vast amount of people who do not have automobile access but rely on public transportation. When they need food, it's an entirely different endeavor. If they're fortunate, there's a grocery store within walking distance. Otherwise, they're forced to get on a bus and haul groceries in a most uncomfortable way. Because of that hassel, many impoverished urbanites are less inclined to make regular trips to the grocery store and, instead, rely on local neighborhood convenience stores for their food needs. These corner stores tend to 1) charge more for food and 2) predominantly offer junk food. As a result, the people in these communities eat less nutritiously, which negatively affects their quality of life. In order to assist these urban residents they need access to healthy foods, access that could come in the form of a local farmers market or (for an option not affected by the seasons) a local grocery store.

If you live in Cincinnati, perhaps you heard the fervor concerning the Roselawn Kroger Store closing. The announcement caught the communities of Roselawn and Bond Hill by surprise. The corporation cited a significant loss in income last year as the reason for the closing. The communities were given no advance notice that profits must increase or the store would close. They're organizing to try to combat this, but it's too late. The community will lose their grocery store and, most likely, will never get it back.

I find all of this very disappointing. As a city resident, I ask, "What is Kroger's obligation to service these communities?" Your response might be that Kroger is a company beholden only to their shareholders; they are in business to turn a profit and do not need to care for the interests of the community. While this seems to be a logical answer, it ignores the relationship between the Kroger Company and the city of Cincinnati. Our city, through generations of loyal consumership, made the Kroger company what it is today. Yet as the company has grown to become a national business, it has continued to reap the tax breaks and benefits from this storied relationship while ignoring it's responsibility to our municipality. These communities that are losing Kroger stores have shown immense loyalty to the company for decades. But now, as the bottom line becomes the most important thing, they are turning their backs on these customers. But Kroger is OK. Because they can replace that customer base exponentially by opening up suburban megastores. In short, they piss on urban communities.

You might object to my harsh statement, but hear me out on this point. How does Kroger justify these closings? Base economics. "The stores are losing money," they cry. I contend that they want these stores to lose money. These urban grocers were established before the company went national. No longer do they fit the mission of the corporation. To avoid charges of racism (as most of these stores are located in predominantly African American communities) they cite falling numbers, making it an economic decision. But do not be deceived, friends: data can be manipulated. If they can ensure that they break even, the can make the store a hell-hole and keep operating. They difference of overall presentation between a suburban store and an urban store is stark. The product on the shelves at the urban stores are inferior. The selection is sparse. Again, naysayers will suggest that it's because the community won't support it, but it isn't the tail that wags the dog. Kroger is giving up on the inner-city. I fully anticipate a location on the Banks downtown, but this will cater to a higher-income urban-dweller and not the people that need it the most.

Even worse than this is the way that my community, Walnut Hills, will soon be treated. Our local Kroger was recently revamped because the Corryville (UC campus location) will soon be torn down and remodeled; when I say "revamped" I mean they basically repainted. The company will need the Walnut Hills location when Corryville closes, so they can retain some local business. But make no mistake: once the Corryville location is completed, they will close our local Kroger. They will say, as they have cried for years, that the store was not profitable—that people choose to shop in other locations. The truth is, they want this store to fail. And when they do, they'll hold the community hostage.

You see, Kroger has a unique rental agreement in their Walnut Hills facility. When they close up, they'll retain rights to the property and no other grocer will be able to open up shop there for years. Yes, they're preparing to hijack a community's access to food. You see, Kroger knows that our community is rebounding economically, and that new, higher-earning customers are moving into the area. Rather than investing in the community, they're going to try to eliminate it's grocery options, so that people will drive to Corryville and Hyde Park to do their shopping.

And who loses: our neighborhood's elderly and impoverished who do not have automobile transportation. Kroger doesn't give a rip about them, only about maximizing profits.

I spent time tonight writing this because I want you to seriously think about these issues. The next time you're watching the local news and seeing citizens complaining that their grocery is closing, at least try to empathize. For many in our population, this is practically a life or death issue. Where will they get healthy food with which to feed their family? Instead of treating massive profits as the goal, Kroger would do better to invest in these communities and in the lives of the people who remained loyal to their company throughout generations.

Get Immersed in Walnut Hills

There's a lot that Cincinnatians don't know about the neighborhood in which we live and minister. If you're one of those who'd like to know more, here's your chance. For the past few weeks I've been working with a local group of young professionals who have selected Walnut Hills as a location for a community immersion event. Give Back Cincinnati is an organization that allows people to connect and serve at the same time. This event is designed to inform people about our neighborhood as well as to help give back in a short service project. Activities will start at the Parkside Cafe on East McMillan, head up to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, and make its way back to the Parkside. Food is provided. I'm going to be one of the tour leaders of the event, so I thought I'd send out an open invitation to anyone interested. As long as the weather holds, it should be a good day.

The date is next Saturday April 10th from about 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.. You need to register if you want to attend. Click here to get more information and register.

7 July

Wha . . . ? Back to back days of posting? What is this, 2005?

Anyway, I had a few more things that I felt like sharing today.

1. Sunday night I preached about people who tend to over-spiritualize their decisions, constantly stating things like "God opened this door for me." I suggested that we should be incredibly careful of trying to force God's hand, giving His endorsements to our decision. Anyway, I came across this cartoon that doesn't exactly speak to my point, but it's hilarious nonetheless.

2. Our city is facing a huge budget crisis. Just this past week two people were killed in a drug deal gone bad in my neighborhood. I'm thinking that honoring MJ is the last thing that our city council needs to do right now.

3. Kaelyn is taking swimming lessons right now. No, she's not really learning to swim, but she's inherited her mother's love of the pool and we're making good use of the benefit of having a community one nearby. Kaelyn, however, is afraid of the boy lifeguards, crying whenever they teach. While this is disappointing, I'd say it'll bode well that she's not yet enamored with boys.

4. Another huge problem in our community, as is all over our country, is absentee fatherism. It was definitely tragic that former NFL quarterback Steve McNair was killed this past week, but sports writer Jason Whitlock says the thing that most of us our afraid to say: the true victims were McNair's sons.

5. Reciprocating the blog love, my friend Dan and I are working on developing a new Architreks tour for Walnut Hills. Who am I kidding? He's developing it, doing all the deep research, and I'm just a sidekick. Still, he's done a great job lately advocating my 'hood, and you should check out some of his latest posts.

6. The Reds lost 22-1 last night. Yes, this is depressing, but this is also baseball not the BCS; there are no weighted victories. The team went out there tonight, broke a tie in the 8th inning, and picked up the 4-3 win. At the end of the year, losing a game by 21 runs is no different than losing by 1.

7. So I've been reading this blog for a few months now. This guy is doing a rehab of an old house off Harrison Avenue on the westside of town. He makes some incredibly persuasive points about Cincinnati's lack of vision concerning abandoned houses; they usually bulldoze them, leaving empty lots. It is pretty ridiculous considering . . .

8. . . . this article and these pictures about the abandoning of the suburban landscape. No, this isn't the end of the 'burbs, but it will be amazing to see what our country's definition of housing is in another ten years.

9. It's been too long since I've linked to this. Trust me, turn down your volume if you're at work.

10. Tomorrow we'll hit the once a century moment where the clock/calendar will hit 12:34:56 on 07/08/09. Go ahead and live that second up.

Don't P*** On the 'Nati

I know quite a few people that read the blog live here in Cincinnati, many in the suburban parts of town. Still, you've tolerated the past four years of my pro-city polemic, listening to me laud the benefits of Cincinnati on a constant basis. So as not to disappoint, I felt it was necessary for me to at least use this space to comment on the recent study naming OTR [a nearby Cincinnati community] the most dangerous neighborhood in America.

My verdict: this is the dumbest thing I have perhaps ever read.

I wish I had more time to deconstruct this article [although you can find some good efforts here, here, and here], but it is flawed beyond belief. All over talk radio and local media people are relying on the claim that "the numbers don't lie." But it is not the numbers lying, rather that the math is an absolute failure. A study is only as good as the academic integrity upon which it stands. There is an inconsistency in number crunching here that should be criticized and yet the media here in Cincinnati is too lazy to do that work.

Why wouldn't the local media try to refute this? Because it enables the stereotyping and demonization of the city that many in the suburbs eat for breakfast— feeding the "thank God I don't live there" mentality. This bad news is what sells, so the local press will avert their eyes to the truth and whore themselves out for the money. It's truly sad that many residents of the Greater Cincinnati area, those who would have nothing apart from the past 200+ years of our city's existence, choose to ABUSE IT and PILLAGE ITS ASSETS rather than acknowledge it as a blessing. Is this city perfect? By no means. But are there people here worth fighting for? Without a doubt.

If you care to disagree with me and are falling for this "study" hook, line, and sinker, I would suggest a wager: I will stand out on a street corner in Over-the-Rhine at night and you can stand out on a corner of my choosing in another major metropolitan area [currently, I'm leaning towards some neighborhoods in urban Detroit]. We'll see who fares better. I suspect I'd live to tell about it.

Look, I'm not saying OTR is the safest place to be, but it is improving. Over the past four years I've met scores of people in tough neighborhoods throughout our city who are trying to make their communities safer. It does a major disservice to their commitment to allow a ridiculous statement like this to stand unprotested.

Finally, if you can't stomach my rhetoric, let me give a personal example. Numerous times this past year my wife and daughter have ventured into this "worst neighborhood" without me. In the midst of this "warzone" is Findlay Market, one of our city's best treasures. As they were there, I did not fear for their safety but was grateful to live in a city where they could have such a unique experience. And I'm sure they'll go back again soon. I wouldn't put my family in harm's way. I wouldn't let my family venture into the worst neighborhood in America without me.

Just because you don't live here doesn't mean you have to hate it.

If You Want To . . .

I have all these dreams about ministry in Walnut Hills. Since we're on a thirty year plan, I don't get "over-visionary" about things we HAVE TO do right now. I like to think that God provides in response to our faithfulness— so our job is to be patient and trust that God will give us what we need. The timing thing shouldn't be rushed.

One of those dreams I have is for a permanent facility to call our own. I know it'll eventually happen, so I try not to worry about it.

That said, perhaps God will use someone else to assist us on this journey. For example (off the top of my head), in the second week of June, Cincinnati Public Schools is auctioning off the old Windsor School* in our neighborhood. It's a gorgeous structure that needs to be used for something positive— why not a church/community outreach center?

So if you're feeling a little generous (perhaps even a tad guilty— with the kind of guilt only a significant financial donation could resolve), you could go ahead and buy the building and gift it to Echo Church. I'm sure it'll cost less than $500,000. And I bet they'll even take a personal check. We'd gladly name one of the bathrooms after you.

I'll clear all lines waiting for a response . . .

. . . waiting VERY patiently, that is.

UPDATE: I recently learned that the roof of the older part of the school is in horrible shape. The cost of repair would be so ridiculously high that you'd have to raze the whole complex. Too sad that such a beautiful structure wasn't properly maintained.

___________

*Dan has some brief information on the facility at the bottom of this page if you're interested.

Staking Ground

I never wrote much about Richard.

Sure, I mentioned a little about him during those early days of Echo Church, but didn't see fit to tell much more after that. Richard died a couple of weeks ago. It's difficult to determine the background of his life, because he could never tell the truth. For example, reading that old blog post when he told me his age, he should've been 50 when he passed. His obituary stated that he was 53.

Richard was a guy from the neighborhood, known to every church and business establishment throughout the area. Although he was harmless, he had a drug problem which caused him to do whatever he could to get his next fix. He would beg. And he would steal. I visited Richard in jail once. He had stolen some CD's to sell them to buy crack. Most of the time I knew him he was in and out of jail for petty theft. Still, we tried to love Richard. Refusing to give him cash, we'd buy him meals.* One time he urged me to get him winter clothes because he didn't have any. I scrounged around for stuff to give him, trying to meet his need. I never saw him wear the clothes I gave him. Those too were most likely sold for drugs.

We still maintained a good relationship with him until one Sunday night Kelly saw him breaking into a car in the church parking lot [someone had left their doors unlocked]. I told him to go home and that if we found anything missing, I'd call the cops. He didn't get enough time to take anything from the car.

A few months later, Richard seemed hopped up and was desperate for some cash. I told him we had nothing for him. At the end of the worship service that Sunday night, he created a diversion and stole money from the offering plate. Ironically, since our offering was collected after the service at the front of the sanctuary [and because our church is small], we knew the only money that had been given was from a newer couple who had been attending. That night I had to call them to see how much money they had given to decide whether or not to call the police. It was a small amount, so I didn't think it the best investment of my tax dollars to have the cops pick him up. By the way, this is why we now have an offering box with a lid instead of a plate.

As he returned the next week, I sat Richard down and forced him to admit his theft; he did and apologized. I informed him that he had broken trust with our church and before we let him back in, he'd have to pay God the money back and apologize to the church. After that, he was gone for almost a year; yet another theft charge kept him in jail until this past January.

Richard came into the church service early a few weeks ago. He shook many a hand throughout the church and sat silently through our service. He spent my sermon time drawing me a picture of a flower. Afterward, our leaders sat down with him and informed him that the terms of his reconciliation still existed— he needed to repay the money he stole and apologize to our church [many of whom had started attending since Richard was last incarcerated and had no idea who he was]. It was the most peaceful I'd ever seen him. He never even asked for anything. He said he wanted to right his wrongs, and he was ready to get his life in order.

The next week, I was at a meeting and not at our service, so I might not get all these facts straight. From what I understand, Richard was once again seen attempting to break into a car. He fled inside the church and hid under a table in a darkened room. He was confronted, told to leave, and still asked for money before being kicked out. I knew that he would be back, and I'd have to deal with him myself.

The week after that, right before the beginning of our service, our worship leader Tye alerted me to some snow tracks heading back to the minister's office. I knocked on the door, heard nothing, so I entered to check things out. I didn't see anyone and was ready to leave when I thought should glance into the private bathroom there. There was Richard, sitting in the dark on the toilet, claiming that he really had to go. I was irate. I had him come out and frisked him to make sure he hadn't taken anything. I kicked him out and told him that he had completely broken his trust with us. We are renting our space and are responsible for taking care of it and we couldn't babysit him throughout the building. I was so angry, I told him that I would need some time before my anger subsided and I would seek him out.

But within a couple of weeks, Richard was back in jail. There the years of drug abuse finally caught up with his heart. He died in prison.

This, friends, is a very depressing story. For over three years, we tried to infiltrate this man's life and were unsuccessful. We never got through to him— addiction won out. What good could come of this?

But even though experiences like this could reinforce the idea that there is no hope for the city, I am not dismayed. The culmination of the Scriptures in the book of Revelation is the city. And throughout the Bible, we are given a vision where the city is redeemed. We might not win every battle, but the war will not be lost.

One last story. Richard had roommates in a recovery home in the neighborhood. He lived with them for quite a few years. As I understand, not one of them will miss him. They described him as a "pain in the ass" whom they always watched out for, fearing he would take their stuff. Walnut Hills will soon forget Richard. We won't.

There will always be Richard's in this neighborhood. They will come to us wanting to find a path to their fix, but we will give them Jesus. We're continuing to stake our ground. Our community needs our church. And we're not going anywhere.

____________

*While our church doesn't give out money to people, I will occasionally. I make sure that the recipients know that it's coming out of my pocket. I will usually only give a couple of bucks and will tell them that they'd had better not buy booze or drugs with the preacher's money. I doubt that my warning is ever observed.

Rethinking the 'Burbs

For almost three years now I've been trying to convince some of you that the city is the place to be. For the most part, my words have fallen on deaf years, but maybe the cries from the pocketbook will be the sounds the bring about change.

The writing's on the wall: from the mortgage crisis to yesterday's prediction of SEVEN DOLLAR/GALLON GAS, people are going to have to seriously contemplate moving closer to town. An article in Wednesday's New York Times confirms that the American trend of sprawl might finally have met its match, and mass transit might be the only thing that saves the suburbs as we know them. While we've spend almost two generations trying to figure out how to solve America's inner city problem, we might be in the midst of a generational shift that will have us posing the same question about America's suburbs. I guess I'm saying if you're even remotely thinking about going urban, now is the time before the market goes crazy.

I fully understand that [especially with the housing market] it's impossible for some people to even consider such a move. But I would challenge all of us to start to rethink the way the we are living life. I'm not Chicken Little, but I'm not sure we've hit bottom of this roller-coaster economy. Unless you have money in the bank, now is not the time to be spending money. If you haven't already, start working down your debt. Even though people are complaining now about these economic indicators, most of us haven't actually felt the pinch. But I say it's coming.

Didn't think this would turn into a Dave Ramsey session, but there's an interconnection between these thoughts. Take care of those you love and start tightening the belt now.

More Crazy City Livin'

Went to bed late on Friday night, woke up for a 9am soccer game, and the returned to notice my neighbor's car was rear ended. Then I realized from the car parts strewn along the street that something bigger happened. Apparently at 3am early Saturday morning, a Nissan Maxima was flying up the street and rear ended a truck parked in front of our condos. It started a chain reaction, hitting the car of a guy from Saint Louis, which in turn hit the car of one of my neighbors. The driver of the car was able to continue going up the street before leaving the car and running away. That leads us to believe that the car was stolen and as of 4pm today, the perp has yet to be caught.

Kelly and I were surprised that even with Kaelyn's baby monitor on, we slept through a huge collision and the arrival of police/fire department folk immediately in front of our condo. Only one of our neighbors woke up to witness it in action. I guess we're heavy sleepers.

My neighbor has a little more of the story with a picture [plus a little college basketball talk] but the thing that left my grateful is that I was parked immediately in front of the three-cars that were damaged. And the two cars behind me [thankfully] had their emergency brakes on. Otherwise the Exploder would've been hit for sure.

Just another thing that keeps us connected to our neighbors.

Yikes! [monetarily speaking]

I had a meeting down at the Convention Center, parking in the nearby garage. Normally, I would find a meter on the street, but since my time down there was going to exceed two hours, I didn't want to have to keep running out to fill up the meter. So that's why I sucked it up and used the garage which I knew would be more expensive than it's worth. I neglected to check my wallet before I was leaving, as I didn't have enough cash-on-hand to pay my way out. Fortunately I had some change in the car but I literally used all the coinage I had [including a dime under my seat] to pay it off. I was sure I'd be five-cents short and the lady wouldn't let me out.

Parking garages: a definite negative of city living.