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.”
“I hate your religious feast”
God spoke through Amos
“I won’t regard your offerings
“Away with the noise of your songs!”
Words to a religious people
Why was God angry?
“You trample on the poor
And force him to give you grain
You deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”
Martha Stewart-like decor
Southern Living feasts
Have we not done the same?
Pushed away the poor
Excluded all who look different, talk different, worship different from you?
Bar the homeless from your streets
Tell them it’s too bad they have nothing to eat!
They should have worked harder
Though your system denies
The right to function equally
Ability to live and work and thrive!
No gays allowed here
No Muslims, blacks or Hispanics
You want to round up Latinos
Send them back to Mexico
The Klu Klux Klan
Not so long ago
Lynched every black man
Who dared to show his brow
And people who worship Allah
Well they should stay away
In countries where your boys can bomb them
When they go to mosque to pray
Yet you call yourselves Christian
Most devout in the nation
With a church on every corner
Southern Gospel in your parks
Bible verses line your gardens and your walls
“In God we trust” can be spotted
At every turn in town
Your lives look perfect
Your roads and houses clean
You think you are good and humble
Living in your homogeneous bubble
Where is the Christ
Who went to the margins
Tax collectors and harlots?
Where is God
Who opens a temple for all
Welcomes the poor, disabled and foreigner
Gives the prophet this call
“Let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never failing stream!”
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?