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The Possibilities of Place

In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.
—Saint Anthony of the Desert, Egypt1

About 15 years ago, in a seminary class about the spirituality of monasticism, I really had no idea what this seemingly obscure, third-century “Desert Father” meant by the quotation above. As a transient American living in an international city on a student visa, I was already living lightly in a place that I would end up leaving after just a couple of years of graduate study. Commitment to a place was an abstract idea, perhaps because of my geographic résumé.

With home addresses across seven cities in four US states before I turned 18, for me the concept of “place” was flexible throughout much of my younger years. As geographies shifted like the seasons, I grew accustomed to adapting for the sake of social survival. But what I now realize as an adult is that one cost of all that moving was how it prevented me from being able to participate in the universal human behavior of putting down roots.

Rooting in a place—the attachment of meaning and memories to geographic space for mutual flourishing—is an essential human practice deeply connected to our creaturely nature. In other words, cultivating the places in our lives for the shaping of our identities and the wholeness of our communities is a habit that reflects God’s divine nature in us. Placemaking is a part of what it means to be human in the fullest sense.

But committing to a place, and all the cultivating work that commitment requires, is never a simple task for several reasons. First, it never occurs in a vacuum; geography is not a blank canvas on which we individually create whatever we imagine a flourishing place to be. Rather, the stories of those around us are inscribed on the landscape and built environment. Other people were working the land, building a boundary, or making a home before you happened to arrive. Honoring that existing narrative requires humility and sensitivity. Second, as places are inhabited over time, they take shape in particular patterns; these patterns can move communities toward or away from human flourishing. Understanding how to read, interpret, and engage these patterns of justice and injustice takes significant time and attention. Third, at a time when attention to place is especially needed, many of us are as disconnected from places as we have ever been.

Displacement and Locale 

In a variety of ways, we are living in a time of profound displacement. Displacement has many dimensions: empire and diaspora, rootlessness and virtuality, gentrification and the erasure of indigenous cultures. The phenomenon of displacement itself presumes a kind of natural human attachment to place, and for much of human history, the nature of that attachment was clear. To be human was to be placed; it meant being born in and shaped by a particular locale. The humanness of geography lies not only in the myriad ways that land and environment shape society and culture; on a deeper level, to be from a place means that who we are—on some fundamental level—can never be separated from where we are.

This placed aspect of our identities has not eroded completely in an era of globalization and pluralism, but the modern myth of autonomous individuality and the postmodern reality of fragmented identification have both problematized notions of place in different ways. If the former has attempted to divorce humans from geography in the name of rationality and “progress,” the latter has scattered identities across collapsed time and space, assisted of course by the ubiquity of technology and information. To add yet another layer of complexity to our displacement, the ways in which modern colonialism depends on the displacement of people from land is perhaps the most important phenomenon to understand in our postcolonial world.

What does it mean, then, to recover a sense of place, to be truly from somewhere and authentically present to that place in a deep and meaningful way? The Nigerian-
Ghanaian-British-American author Taiye Selasi reminds us that our globalized world is always experienced at the local level; that to be human is to be local.2 In much of my research, I focus on cities as the convergence of locales, and I have consistently found that “the very fabric of our most deeply held beliefs and values, including our cultural identities themselves, are intimately shaped by cul-de-
sacs and grocery stores, parking lots and freeway overpasses, and the lives of others we encounter there.”3 Place is never a neutral abstraction; it is always a concrete reality in which we participate together toward either flourishing and interrelatedness, or brokenness and injustice. 

In the spirit of that sentiment, I want to share a few snapshots of my human locale, also known as my neighborhood. What a wonderful and theologically rich way to describe a place—not only by its geography or history, but a place named and defined by its most important aspect: neighbors. A neighborhood is the natural context where we practice love of neighbor in ways that reflect and point others toward God’s kingdom. These local snapshots are as diverse and eclectic as my community, and in the same way that true diversity creates both possibility and conflict, they represent how varied human experiences can create patterns of both belonging and exclusion.

But before the neighborhood stories, a little context about how I got there might be helpful. If there’s anything I learned in seminary, it’s that communal praxis is a necessary antidote to disembodied theology. And what better place to work that out than in the neighborhood?

Place and Community

When I had the opportunity to really put down roots of my own choosing, I was still relatively fresh out of seminary, full of enthusiasm and idealism (some of it naive, but genuine nonetheless). With visions of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had once called the possibility of “a new monasticism,”4 I was enamored with the idea of an intentional spiritual community in a neighborhood where we could practice hospitality with the poor and open our lives to people on the margins of mainstream social mobility. (If I had read Life Together more closely, I could have paid more attention to Bonhoeffer’s cautionary notes about overidealizing “community.”)

My wife and I did what we thought we were supposed to do based on John Perkins’s Christian community development philosophy,5 which I’d learned in a course on urban anthropology: we relocated. More specifically, with a small group of like-minded friends, we moved into Southeast Seattle’s Rainier Valley, a vibrant but historically underresourced community that is proudly one of the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods in the nation.

The specific street we chose was a block off of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and in the heart of a newly redeveloped mixed-use and mixed-income public housing project called Rainier Vista. For a little while, we were living my post-seminary dream: I was serving as a pastor of community groups at a diverse, fast-growing church plant in the city, and each week we met with local friends and neighbors to eat, laugh, pray, and occasionally organize, protest, or work on community development grants. We even spent time reading and discussing Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth to contemplate what it all meant. It was wonderful! Until it wasn’t.

It’s not that things took a turn for the worse in some dramatic fashion; the challenges we faced were mostly the everyday growing pains of life in community. Life happens. There were promotions at work, but also unemployment. Children were born, but there was also infertility or marital stress. Block parties came together, but so did “not in my backyard” neighbors. What took some of the shine off my idealistic intentional community was really just the result of learning together more deeply about a place and realizing how complicated it all was.

For example, in my immediate community, Rainier Vista’s redevelopment was quite controversial in the fast-changing neighborhood. Formerly an exclusively low-income public housing project, the new model welcomed people of all incomes, including wealthier gentrifiers who were displacing poorer residents (mostly unintentionally). Was my family’s relocation working against this process, or helping it? Things were—and still remain—unclear. As gentrification gathered more momentum, there was an unquestionable racial dynamic at play in the power structures of the neighborhood. Was our mostly white and Asian American group able to truly identify with communities of color facing historic disenfranchisement? It was hard to say. In the midst of these ambiguities, our group itself also had different practical understandings and spiritual expectations of what it meant to be intentional, root in the neighborhood, or commit to a place. Like I said, things got complicated.

But many years later, after about a decade of figuring things out on the same block, I can say with confidence that the messiness we experienced was exactly what I needed, and what I once saw as ambiguity requiring resolution I have now come to appreciate as a generative tension. Rooting in a place—especially a diverse place where cultural change is always in motion—requires some level of comfort with the kinds of challenges and liminality our community group faced. And what I found over time was that the more I worked to be fully present to those tensions, the more possibilities I saw for new kinds of communities to take shape.

Egg Rolls, White Nationalism, and Backyards

What do potlucks, white supremacy, and yard space have in common? Usually not much, but in this case, they each remind me of teachable moments in my neighborhood over the past few years where paying attention to my neighbors helped me to see God at work in the community. I have been continually surprised at where I miss and where I notice the Spirit’s activity in my neighborhood; typically, the surprise is at myself for not remembering the creativity of a God who is so often found in unexpected places.

For several years in Rainier Vista, I helped to organize a monthly multicultural gathering, and the highlight each quarter was a big potluck where all the different groups—immigrants young and old, recently resettled refugees, kids from the local Boys & Girls Club, and practically anyone walking by—would share a meal together. Coordinating the logistics of this potluck was sometimes a challenge, but on one particular occasion two prominent groups got into an interesting conversation. A number of older, Vietnamese grandmothers were eager to prepare their signature dish: delicious, handmade egg rolls with an essential ingredient—ground pork. A similar number of younger, Muslim, Somali mothers were also excited to plan their contribution: injera with stewed goat. This lovely menu generated a few questions about food preparation, labeling ingredients, and the acceptable proximity of pork egg rolls to halal foods. But my favorite moment of the planning meeting was when a nominally Buddhist grandmother from Vietnam asked—through a translator—her conservative, Muslim, Somali neighbor what would happen if she accidentally consumed pork. Awkward laughter turned into a conversation about the relative similarities and differences between pigs and goats, and more significantly, the cultural and religious meaning of something being designated “unclean.”

As a listening neighbor around the table, I immediately thought of Peter’s vision in the tenth chapter of Acts where he sees a sheet lowered from heaven, full of unclean animals, that he is supposed to eat. And just as this vision prepared him to receive and eventually embrace an “unclean” person by reframing his cultural categories, so did it seem to me in the moment that our amusing mistranslations and attempts to break bread together were helping us to reimagine the boundaries of friendship. We did end up figuring out the potluck, and no pork was accidentally eaten. But more important than an incident-free evening was the act of patient listening, honoring each other’s cultural identities, and seeing strangers-turned-neighbors more fully. We all left the potluck nourished not only by delicious foods that brought distant homelands a little closer, but also by relationships strengthened through the kindness of hospitality.

At the same time, hospitality does not always go as planned, and diversity is not always welcomed as a gift. My kids’ local elementary school largely reflects the demographics of the neighborhood: three-quarters students of color, a majority on free or reduced lunch due to economic need, one-third English language learners, and so on. While the school has faced real challenges, we have always been encouraged by the resilience and resourcefulness of the school and the many diverse families they serve. Many of these families have intentionally invested in the school and have deep ties to the local community. This reality is what made last year’s discovery of prominent white nationalist organizers in the neighborhood so shocking.

Apparently, for several years, a local family at our school had infiltrated our neighborhood and had been living double lives as friendly neighbors by day, but with secret online personas providing critical leadership for the Pacific Northwest region’s various white nationalist groups. These two parents were essentially participating in the life of the community, earning trust and making friends, all while fanning the flames of racial hatred and building the social architecture of white supremacy throughout the city and state. Naturally, many in the neighborhood were quite shaken when their online identities were exposed. How could this happen in our beautifully diverse community? How could people seemingly committed to their neighbors commit such an act of deception and betrayal?

When people ask me about my decade in Rainier Vista, I typically share that I learned two things about people. First, there’s no community without proximity, and a shared commitment to a diverse place makes certain kinds of boundary-crossing relationships possible that might not be possible elsewhere. However, I also learned that despite proximity to all kinds of cultural difference, people can still remain strikingly isolated from each other. Sharing space does not always mean that a shared commitment to place develops. What prompts some neighbors to take the step of intentionality across those boundaries while other residents remain in isolation is at times still a mystery to me, but what’s clear is that Christian love of neighbor must embrace the former.

Christian discipleship in contexts like these requires a commitment to bridge-building and reconciliation—a ministry entrusted to a people who have been transformed by a boundary-crossing God who is making all things new. It’s not a thin or cheap notion of reconciliation that is mostly sentimental and momentary; rather, it’s the kind of rooting that costs years of investment to see small gains across the table of fellowship, even when those fragile ties seem threatened by one family’s twisted ideologies of exclusion.

While opposition to this kind of boundary-crossing, place-making ministry is inevitable, there are many signs of hope if we have eyes to see. The last community snapshot I want to share is a small movement of neighbors who decided to face the crisis of homelessness and housing affordability with a little creativity and innovation. In a fast-growing city like Seattle where the booming technology sector has fueled vast economic polarization, the numbers and visibility of homelessness have increased dramatically in recent years. In 2018, Seattle had the third-largest homeless population in the nation, trailing only the much larger cities of New York and Los Angeles. With the need for shelter space and affordable housing so great, many people have circled their wagons and doubled down on a “not in my backyard” mentality.

But thankfully, in 2017, a local organization called Facing Homelessness partnered with two architects to create The Block Project, a new effort to develop sustainable, affordable microhousing in the residential backyards of households who volunteer to be matched with an individual experiencing homelessness.6 Rather than rely on public land or church parking lots for temporary housing, they are inviting concerned, private citizens to share in a more permanent solution. Their mantra is appropriately “yes, in my backyard,” and the families who have generously opened their homes and lives to fellow neighbors in need are helping to eliminate homelessness, one backyard at a time. I was proud and unsurprised to learn that multiple families in my neighborhood were the first to sign up for the program and volunteer their yard space to house a new neighbor. In a community where compassionate hospitality has been a vital thread of our social fabric for so long, it was a beautiful reminder of who we are and where we’re from.

I think I’m beginning to understand what St. Anthony of the Desert meant when he suggested remaining in a place so many years ago. At a time when isolation is so tempting and displacement so rampant, I need the reminder to not so easily leave the community where God has placed me. In my neighbors I continue to see possibilities for peculiar friendships and imaginative disruptions to the status quo of remaining closed off from our differences. Sharing this complicated place is not always easy, and we are bound to misunderstand each other from time to time. But in the everyday moments of greeting a neighbor on the sidewalk, sharing a recipe or a seat at the school meeting, or working together to close the gaps of economic opportunity, I sense the Spirit moving. 

Written By

David Leong is an associate professor of missiology at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary. His teaching and research examine the theological meaning of the city and the vocation of the church in urban life. David’s most recent book, Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation, explores themes of exclusion and belonging in our cities and neighborhoods.

In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.
—Saint Anthony of the Desert, Egypt1

About 15 years ago, in a seminary class about the spirituality of monasticism, I really had no idea what this seemingly obscure, third-century “Desert Father” meant by the quotation above. As a transient American living in an international city on a student visa, I was already living lightly in a place that I would end up leaving after just a couple of years of graduate study. Commitment to a place was an abstract idea, perhaps because of my geographic résumé.

With home addresses across seven cities in four US states before I turned 18, for me the concept of “place” was flexible throughout much of my younger years. As geographies shifted like the seasons, I grew accustomed to adapting for the sake of social survival. But what I now realize as an adult is that one cost of all that moving was how it prevented me from being able to participate in the universal human behavior of putting down roots.

Rooting in a place—the attachment of meaning and memories to geographic space for mutual flourishing—is an essential human practice deeply connected to our creaturely nature. In other words, cultivating the places in our lives for the shaping of our identities and the wholeness of our communities is a habit that reflects God’s divine nature in us. Placemaking is a part of what it means to be human in the fullest sense.

But committing to a place, and all the cultivating work that commitment requires, is never a simple task for several reasons. First, it never occurs in a vacuum; geography is not a blank canvas on which we individually create whatever we imagine a flourishing place to be. Rather, the stories of those around us are inscribed on the landscape and built environment. Other people were working the land, building a boundary, or making a home before you happened to arrive. Honoring that existing narrative requires humility and sensitivity. Second, as places are inhabited over time, they take shape in particular patterns; these patterns can move communities toward or away from human flourishing. Understanding how to read, interpret, and engage these patterns of justice and injustice takes significant time and attention. Third, at a time when attention to place is especially needed, many of us are as disconnected from places as we have ever been.

Displacement and Locale 

In a variety of ways, we are living in a time of profound displacement. Displacement has many dimensions: empire and diaspora, rootlessness and virtuality, gentrification and the erasure of indigenous cultures. The phenomenon of displacement itself presumes a kind of natural human attachment to place, and for much of human history, the nature of that attachment was clear. To be human was to be placed; it meant being born in and shaped by a particular locale. The humanness of geography lies not only in the myriad ways that land and environment shape society and culture; on a deeper level, to be from a place means that who we are—on some fundamental level—can never be separated from where we are.

This placed aspect of our identities has not eroded completely in an era of globalization and pluralism, but the modern myth of autonomous individuality and the postmodern reality of fragmented identification have both problematized notions of place in different ways. If the former has attempted to divorce humans from geography in the name of rationality and “progress,” the latter has scattered identities across collapsed time and space, assisted of course by the ubiquity of technology and information. To add yet another layer of complexity to our displacement, the ways in which modern colonialism depends on the displacement of people from land is perhaps the most important phenomenon to understand in our postcolonial world.

What does it mean, then, to recover a sense of place, to be truly from somewhere and authentically present to that place in a deep and meaningful way? The Nigerian-
Ghanaian-British-American author Taiye Selasi reminds us that our globalized world is always experienced at the local level; that to be human is to be local.2 In much of my research, I focus on cities as the convergence of locales, and I have consistently found that “the very fabric of our most deeply held beliefs and values, including our cultural identities themselves, are intimately shaped by cul-de-
sacs and grocery stores, parking lots and freeway overpasses, and the lives of others we encounter there.”3 Place is never a neutral abstraction; it is always a concrete reality in which we participate together toward either flourishing and interrelatedness, or brokenness and injustice. 

In the spirit of that sentiment, I want to share a few snapshots of my human locale, also known as my neighborhood. What a wonderful and theologically rich way to describe a place—not only by its geography or history, but a place named and defined by its most important aspect: neighbors. A neighborhood is the natural context where we practice love of neighbor in ways that reflect and point others toward God’s kingdom. These local snapshots are as diverse and eclectic as my community, and in the same way that true diversity creates both possibility and conflict, they represent how varied human experiences can create patterns of both belonging and exclusion.

But before the neighborhood stories, a little context about how I got there might be helpful. If there’s anything I learned in seminary, it’s that communal praxis is a necessary antidote to disembodied theology. And what better place to work that out than in the neighborhood?

Place and Community

When I had the opportunity to really put down roots of my own choosing, I was still relatively fresh out of seminary, full of enthusiasm and idealism (some of it naive, but genuine nonetheless). With visions of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had once called the possibility of “a new monasticism,”4 I was enamored with the idea of an intentional spiritual community in a neighborhood where we could practice hospitality with the poor and open our lives to people on the margins of mainstream social mobility. (If I had read Life Together more closely, I could have paid more attention to Bonhoeffer’s cautionary notes about overidealizing “community.”)

My wife and I did what we thought we were supposed to do based on John Perkins’s Christian community development philosophy,5 which I’d learned in a course on urban anthropology: we relocated. More specifically, with a small group of like-minded friends, we moved into Southeast Seattle’s Rainier Valley, a vibrant but historically underresourced community that is proudly one of the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods in the nation.

The specific street we chose was a block off of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and in the heart of a newly redeveloped mixed-use and mixed-income public housing project called Rainier Vista. For a little while, we were living my post-seminary dream: I was serving as a pastor of community groups at a diverse, fast-growing church plant in the city, and each week we met with local friends and neighbors to eat, laugh, pray, and occasionally organize, protest, or work on community development grants. We even spent time reading and discussing Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth to contemplate what it all meant. It was wonderful! Until it wasn’t.

It’s not that things took a turn for the worse in some dramatic fashion; the challenges we faced were mostly the everyday growing pains of life in community. Life happens. There were promotions at work, but also unemployment. Children were born, but there was also infertility or marital stress. Block parties came together, but so did “not in my backyard” neighbors. What took some of the shine off my idealistic intentional community was really just the result of learning together more deeply about a place and realizing how complicated it all was.

For example, in my immediate community, Rainier Vista’s redevelopment was quite controversial in the fast-changing neighborhood. Formerly an exclusively low-income public housing project, the new model welcomed people of all incomes, including wealthier gentrifiers who were displacing poorer residents (mostly unintentionally). Was my family’s relocation working against this process, or helping it? Things were—and still remain—unclear. As gentrification gathered more momentum, there was an unquestionable racial dynamic at play in the power structures of the neighborhood. Was our mostly white and Asian American group able to truly identify with communities of color facing historic disenfranchisement? It was hard to say. In the midst of these ambiguities, our group itself also had different practical understandings and spiritual expectations of what it meant to be intentional, root in the neighborhood, or commit to a place. Like I said, things got complicated.

But many years later, after about a decade of figuring things out on the same block, I can say with confidence that the messiness we experienced was exactly what I needed, and what I once saw as ambiguity requiring resolution I have now come to appreciate as a generative tension. Rooting in a place—especially a diverse place where cultural change is always in motion—requires some level of comfort with the kinds of challenges and liminality our community group faced. And what I found over time was that the more I worked to be fully present to those tensions, the more possibilities I saw for new kinds of communities to take shape.

Egg Rolls, White Nationalism, and Backyards

What do potlucks, white supremacy, and yard space have in common? Usually not much, but in this case, they each remind me of teachable moments in my neighborhood over the past few years where paying attention to my neighbors helped me to see God at work in the community. I have been continually surprised at where I miss and where I notice the Spirit’s activity in my neighborhood; typically, the surprise is at myself for not remembering the creativity of a God who is so often found in unexpected places.

For several years in Rainier Vista, I helped to organize a monthly multicultural gathering, and the highlight each quarter was a big potluck where all the different groups—immigrants young and old, recently resettled refugees, kids from the local Boys & Girls Club, and practically anyone walking by—would share a meal together. Coordinating the logistics of this potluck was sometimes a challenge, but on one particular occasion two prominent groups got into an interesting conversation. A number of older, Vietnamese grandmothers were eager to prepare their signature dish: delicious, handmade egg rolls with an essential ingredient—ground pork. A similar number of younger, Muslim, Somali mothers were also excited to plan their contribution: injera with stewed goat. This lovely menu generated a few questions about food preparation, labeling ingredients, and the acceptable proximity of pork egg rolls to halal foods. But my favorite moment of the planning meeting was when a nominally Buddhist grandmother from Vietnam asked—through a translator—her conservative, Muslim, Somali neighbor what would happen if she accidentally consumed pork. Awkward laughter turned into a conversation about the relative similarities and differences between pigs and goats, and more significantly, the cultural and religious meaning of something being designated “unclean.”

As a listening neighbor around the table, I immediately thought of Peter’s vision in the tenth chapter of Acts where he sees a sheet lowered from heaven, full of unclean animals, that he is supposed to eat. And just as this vision prepared him to receive and eventually embrace an “unclean” person by reframing his cultural categories, so did it seem to me in the moment that our amusing mistranslations and attempts to break bread together were helping us to reimagine the boundaries of friendship. We did end up figuring out the potluck, and no pork was accidentally eaten. But more important than an incident-free evening was the act of patient listening, honoring each other’s cultural identities, and seeing strangers-turned-neighbors more fully. We all left the potluck nourished not only by delicious foods that brought distant homelands a little closer, but also by relationships strengthened through the kindness of hospitality.

At the same time, hospitality does not always go as planned, and diversity is not always welcomed as a gift. My kids’ local elementary school largely reflects the demographics of the neighborhood: three-quarters students of color, a majority on free or reduced lunch due to economic need, one-third English language learners, and so on. While the school has faced real challenges, we have always been encouraged by the resilience and resourcefulness of the school and the many diverse families they serve. Many of these families have intentionally invested in the school and have deep ties to the local community. This reality is what made last year’s discovery of prominent white nationalist organizers in the neighborhood so shocking.

Apparently, for several years, a local family at our school had infiltrated our neighborhood and had been living double lives as friendly neighbors by day, but with secret online personas providing critical leadership for the Pacific Northwest region’s various white nationalist groups. These two parents were essentially participating in the life of the community, earning trust and making friends, all while fanning the flames of racial hatred and building the social architecture of white supremacy throughout the city and state. Naturally, many in the neighborhood were quite shaken when their online identities were exposed. How could this happen in our beautifully diverse community? How could people seemingly committed to their neighbors commit such an act of deception and betrayal?

When people ask me about my decade in Rainier Vista, I typically share that I learned two things about people. First, there’s no community without proximity, and a shared commitment to a diverse place makes certain kinds of boundary-crossing relationships possible that might not be possible elsewhere. However, I also learned that despite proximity to all kinds of cultural difference, people can still remain strikingly isolated from each other. Sharing space does not always mean that a shared commitment to place develops. What prompts some neighbors to take the step of intentionality across those boundaries while other residents remain in isolation is at times still a mystery to me, but what’s clear is that Christian love of neighbor must embrace the former.

Christian discipleship in contexts like these requires a commitment to bridge-building and reconciliation—a ministry entrusted to a people who have been transformed by a boundary-crossing God who is making all things new. It’s not a thin or cheap notion of reconciliation that is mostly sentimental and momentary; rather, it’s the kind of rooting that costs years of investment to see small gains across the table of fellowship, even when those fragile ties seem threatened by one family’s twisted ideologies of exclusion.

While opposition to this kind of boundary-crossing, place-making ministry is inevitable, there are many signs of hope if we have eyes to see. The last community snapshot I want to share is a small movement of neighbors who decided to face the crisis of homelessness and housing affordability with a little creativity and innovation. In a fast-growing city like Seattle where the booming technology sector has fueled vast economic polarization, the numbers and visibility of homelessness have increased dramatically in recent years. In 2018, Seattle had the third-largest homeless population in the nation, trailing only the much larger cities of New York and Los Angeles. With the need for shelter space and affordable housing so great, many people have circled their wagons and doubled down on a “not in my backyard” mentality.

But thankfully, in 2017, a local organization called Facing Homelessness partnered with two architects to create The Block Project, a new effort to develop sustainable, affordable microhousing in the residential backyards of households who volunteer to be matched with an individual experiencing homelessness.6 Rather than rely on public land or church parking lots for temporary housing, they are inviting concerned, private citizens to share in a more permanent solution. Their mantra is appropriately “yes, in my backyard,” and the families who have generously opened their homes and lives to fellow neighbors in need are helping to eliminate homelessness, one backyard at a time. I was proud and unsurprised to learn that multiple families in my neighborhood were the first to sign up for the program and volunteer their yard space to house a new neighbor. In a community where compassionate hospitality has been a vital thread of our social fabric for so long, it was a beautiful reminder of who we are and where we’re from.

I think I’m beginning to understand what St. Anthony of the Desert meant when he suggested remaining in a place so many years ago. At a time when isolation is so tempting and displacement so rampant, I need the reminder to not so easily leave the community where God has placed me. In my neighbors I continue to see possibilities for peculiar friendships and imaginative disruptions to the status quo of remaining closed off from our differences. Sharing this complicated place is not always easy, and we are bound to misunderstand each other from time to time. But in the everyday moments of greeting a neighbor on the sidewalk, sharing a recipe or a seat at the school meeting, or working together to close the gaps of economic opportunity, I sense the Spirit moving. 

David Leong

David Leong is an associate professor of missiology at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary. His teaching and research examine the theological meaning of the city and the vocation of the church in urban life. David’s most recent book, Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation, explores themes of exclusion and belonging in our cities and neighborhoods.

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An excerpt from “Can White People Be Saved?” by Willie Jennings