Transformation. Our guest speaker, a cross-culture worker in Asia, opened his message yesterday at Rainier Avenue Church by illustrating this theme in the form of photos from Hong Kong. He told us that years ago, the Walled City was the densest place on earth and averaged over 100,000 people per square kilometer; he contrasted that to Manhattan’s 27,000 people per square kilometer density today. The Walled City’s cramped, unsanitary quarters attracted people who were involved in crime, prostitution and drug dealing.
“Now however,” the speaker proudly declared, “that area has been transformed into a beautiful park.”
He pointed to a photo of a lush green space featuring structures replicating historic architecture.
“This is an example of how Christ can transform our lives,” the speaker concluded.
As much as I’m a fan of urban parks, my biggest question was, “Where did all the people go?”
I kept waiting for the speaker to explain this, or to provide examples of how individuals who lived in this walled community had experienced personal transformation that lead to outward changes-they started fighting crime and stopped using opium. But he shared no stories about the residents.
Afterwards, I found the speaker in the lobby and asked him my lingering question.
“I don’t know where they all went,” he admitted.
“I’m wondering if the city just pushed them out,” I said. “But Jesus calls us to people in places like that. Replacing people with a nice park is a terrible example of transformation.”
“It was just an example of what God can do in our hearts,” he replied.
Although I understood his analogy, the reality of removing thousands of residents and calling that “transformation” continued to disturb me. Later, the topic came up with a few other people who attend my church and said they were wondering the same thing: where did all the people go? We began researching and found that the city evicted them, offering various token amounts of compensation to the residents and businesses located there.
The conversation reminded me of when I was in the Midwest last year, in a town where scripture verses are plastered in public and 90% of the population attends church on Sunday mornings. My parents and I had just gone out for a nice dinner and were carrying our leftovers back to the hotel.
“We could give these leftovers to someone who’s homeless,” I suggested.
“This town doesn’t really have homeless people,” my dad explained. “The mayor has kept it clean-cut and family-friendly so they got rid of all the homeless population.”
That made me sick to my gut. I was reading the book of Amos, and as I did words poured forth in prose form that I titled “Ode to a Midwest Town.”
Clean Streets, Missing Christ
Whether in Hong Kong or Seattle, a Midwest town or metropolis city, in our attempts to rid ourselves of “rift-raft”, are we eliminating the people Jesus would have intentionally spent time with? We may have clean streets-and that can be great-but are they missing Christ? Transformation can also have an ugly side; it’s called displacement. Before we celebrate our clean look, we need to ask what it is that the pretty parks replaced?