Living Faithfully in the Industrial Town
Living Faithfully in the Industrial Town

Living Faithfully in the Industrial Town

Our task is not only to see the industrial town as it "is," in all its brokenness and fragmentation, but also to see it as it "could be," to imagine a different town in light of God's redemptive work and purpose. Unfortunately, too many of us live in the world as "is" and haven't developed the imagination to see God's hand at work in shaping what "could be." Frontiers need people who have the eyes to see and ears to hear a new reality of a Kingdom that is "already, but not yet."

December 1 st 2010
Appears in Winter 2010

Maybe you've seen this advertisement for Levi's recently: First light. A man and his dog by the make-shift fire, watching the locomotive track by. Boarded-up homes and broken-down cars scatter the landscape. A town sits in ruin. Men, women, and children are stirred from their slumber as dawn turns to day. A child's still, small voice begins:

We were taught how the pioneers went into the West. They opened their eyes and made up what things could be. A long time ago, things got broken here. People got sad and left. Maybe the world breaks on purpose, so we can have work to do. People think there aren't frontiers anymore. They can't see how frontiers are all around us.

This is the start of the Levi's "Ready to Work" campaign, which highlights the city of Braddock, a borough just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Braddock was founded around Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill, the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, in 1873. It was a flourishing town of twenty thousand residents, more densely populated than Brooklyn in the 1920s. Built around the mill, the town was vibrant, full of life.

But, as you may know, the steel industry in Pittsburgh began to fall apart in the 1970s. Over 200,000 people lost their jobs in a span of a few years. Braddock lost 90% of its population. A few years ago, the average value of a house in Braddock was $6,200. Three hundred homes were vacant. The town had just two stores. The old industrial town had crumbled and become a "frontier."

Frontiers are regions at the edge of a settled area. In the American consciousness, they are almost directly tied to westward expansion. Frederick Jackson Turner drew attention to "the significance of the frontier" by arguing in the late 19th century that unlimited free land offered the psychological sense of unlimited opportunity, promoting optimism, future orientation, and the shedding of restraints.

The "frontier" movement and mentality in America has moved from the West to the world (in the form of globalization) and now into the city, particularly into blighted areas, in the form of urbanization. Towns like Braddock have become the new "frontiers": neglected, abandoned, and marginalized spaces at the edge of a settled area.

So if, in fact, industrial towns like Braddock are the new frontiers, the real question for the follower of Christ is this: How might we best engage these marginalized places?

We might begin by developing what Walter Brueggemann termed a "prophetic imagination." Brueggemann says that "the task of prophetic ministry [of developing a prophetic imagination] is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us."

Let me ask you a question that gets at the prophetic imagination at work: When you drive by a neighbourhood and see an old, abandoned house, what do you see? Do you see a home— not a house—with a family inside sitting down for dinner, flowers in the front yard, a garden growing vegetables in the back? Or do you see a house with broken windows, cracks in the brick, weeds in the front yard, and a pile of trash in the back? The dominant culture sees the latter; do you see potential? Our task as Christians is to see both and "nurture, nourish, and evoke" an alternative consciousness to the dominant culture.

That is to say that our task is not only to see the industrial town as it "is," in all its brokenness and fragmentation, but also to see it as it "could be," to imagine a different town in light of God's redemptive work and purpose. Unfortunately, too many of us live in the world as "is" and haven't developed the imagination to see God's hand at work in shaping what "could be." Frontiers need people who have the eyes to see and ears to hear a new reality of a Kingdom that is "already, but not yet."

Jeremiah, in a letter sent from Jerusalem to those in exile, tells us to "build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."

The second step to engaging "frontiers" like the old industrial town is to "settle down" in Christ-centered community. The average U.S. resident will move a total of 16 times. Every year, one in six people move (one in three 20-to-29 year olds). Obviously, something is going on here. A restlessness and discontentment pervades the dominant culture.

So the call to "settle down" in Christ-centered community is radical for us to hear—even more so in the frontiers of our society. For starters, "settling down" is a form of nonviolent resistance against the dominant culture (made obvious by the statistics above). Marrying, raising a family, building houses: these are all subversive acts in a culture becoming more and more transient, mobile, and restless.

In addition, the dominant culture adheres to such a rugged individualism that to "settle down" in Christ-centered community, where actual "life" is shared, is entirely counter-cultural. Sure, people regularly live their "lives" with each other, but rarely share "life": living as one, unified Body. The old industrial town needs a tribe of Christ-followers beaded together as one. You won't make it in Braddock, or anywhere else for that matter, alone.

Tim Keller says that initially God spoke to the exiles about their actions toward the city (in other words, to settle down). Now, he speaks to them of their attitude toward the city. And this really is the last way in which we engage our frontiers: to seek their peace and prosperity. Peace—shalom—means "right relationship," and so we are commanded by God to seek right relationship in the "frontier," in the industrial town: between God and ourselves, between one another, between God and his creation, and within ourselves.

It is this attitude, this calling to live in and love the frontier, the industrial town, to work for its health and prosperity, that holds our prophetic imagination and actions toward the city together. Love has a way of bringing the margin to the centre. Christ "reconciles all things by making peace through the blood of the cross." His love moves those things—old industrial towns, abandoned homes, neglected children, and the rest on the margins—back to himself. What has once been marginalized is now brought to the centre.

So whether you are called to engage the frontier of Braddock or the frontiers of your own life, remember that these marginalized, abandoned, and neglected places will brought to the centre— Jesus Christ. And he will make all of these things new, reconciling, redeeming, and smoothing out all the rough edges. For it is in the frontier, in the old industrial towns like Braddock, in our exile where "he will bring us back from our captivity; he will gather us from all the nations and from all the places where he has driven us and he will bring us to the place from which he caused us to be carried away captive."

Topics: Cities Vocation
Chris Cooke
 
Chris Cooke

Chris Cooke is the Executive Director of PULSE, the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience, an organization that cultivates a community of young servant leaders to transform Pittsburgh. He also works for the CCO campus ministry with his wife Kelly, working with student athletes at the University of Pittsburgh. A California native, Chris enjoys the beach, the mountains, a good game of basketball and reading Wendell Berry.

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