“From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.” -Psalm 50:2
Colin Powell recently said on CNN, “We must stop the bleeding in Haiti and bring immediate relief to the region, but who is going to invest into and develop Haiti over the course of our lifetime?” But whether suburban, rural or city, U.S. or Haiti, the urgent need for Christian community development is core to being the church in a desperate world over a long haul.
Here in Atlanta, carte blanche zoning permissions have allowed many industrial businesses to congregate in our inner-city neighborhood over the years. As we steward our homes and lives, somehow the collective side effect of our personal recycling still means that citywide recyclables and trash end up in our little neighborhood of 531 homes. Among many businesses, we have two recycling plants. And, in an adjacent community just beyond a U.S Penitentiary, is a giant city landfill. The largest impound towing yards are here, too. (Just catch a taxi to my house if your car gets towed in Atlanta. We’ll grab a Coke and I’ll walk you to your car!) For many complicated reasons, some people seem to think that our beautiful, historic neighborhood is a dumping ground as the marginalized carry the brunt of our waste. As trucks zoom past bus stops and children walk the streets, human health and quality of life remain at stake, affecting our environmental and spiritual sustainability.
However, in the midst of global crises and the pain of broken systems, there is a joy-filled, more hopeful picture that the Spirit is painting. Sometimes those who visit our neighborhood, or even those of us who live here, have a similar muddled perspective about our community. We speak about all of the broken pieces we see—the crime, the trash, the neglect. The temptation is to view our community only through a lens of challenge. To be real, we speak the truth about the hard knocks our community endures. But to keep it real, we must speak the truth about the beauty and wonder of our community. God’s beautiful plan is still in process. Student leaders are rising up, the church is alive, foreclosed homes are being restored, seniors are sharing their wisdom, artists are creating and new visions are in the pipeline.
In the likeness of Jesus–Immanuel, God with us–we are called to join with those who are at the fringe of society. I am learning that Christ is inviting us into a way of life, saying, “Follow Me.” The convenient, optional buffets of our 21st century volunteerism are dangerous grounds. Church is a movement of relationships, where carrying the name of Jesus means living and working with a tenacious hope in the face of strife and struggle.
And in our brokenness, as God changes us, we’re learning that beauty stands out when we honor the dignity of all people. We experience the beauty of God in the context of mutual relationships, and by celebrating the image of God we find in each other. Beauty is external in things we can see with our physical eyes, but it is also found where we can only see through the eyes of our hearts, where we can see that God is still on the move in our streets, around our dinner tables and front porches.
Somehow the struggle is a catalyst to reveal and refine the beauty that already surrounds us. Some of my mistreated, dismissed neighbors are the friends teaching me most about life and generosity, faith and forgiveness. In this way, whether in South Atlanta or Haiti, Detroit or Chile, the Spirit is regenerating life in small places, in hidden, devastated corners of our global cities. And so we press on.
It’s a beautiful thing.
“…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” Isaiah 61
Questions for Dialogue
Where does beauty come from? Where do you find beauty? How do you define beauty? How does God define beauty? What challenges are you facing that might call for a lens of beauty in the struggle? What am I learning from those facing struggles different than my own? What is the relationship between beauty and the dignity of all people?
©2008 Christy Norwood Photography