Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. (Zechariah 8:4–5)
Half a century before Jesus came into this world, Zachariah gives us a picture of a God-kind-of-city, where old men and women watch while children play in the streets. It is a place of peace – where all things are made right and people flourish. In this section of Scripture, Zachariah tells us that God will return to the city and dwell in its midst. When He does, as G. Campbell Morgan said in his Claim of the Child sermon, it will be a place where the streets will be fit for the kids and the kids will be fit for the streets.
I think we long for such a city, but this is not to be found in many of our American cities. I drove through the midst of my city this week. The damage done to it over the past few weeks saddened me. The elk that has stood at 5th and Jefferson for 120 years was gone. The base of the statue had been burned and it had to be removed to be restored. A protestor sat on the base with an unreadable sign around his neck. The justice center just southeast of the elk was boarded up, litter strewn and covered in graffiti. It stands in stark contrast to Zachariah’s city, where God dwells.
We used to bring our children to this area to walk and enjoy the city’s beauty. We could wander from river, to park, to sidewalk restaurants and to coffee shops. It was beautiful and inviting. For my family, Portland was an eclectic city where people of all kinds shared it with room for one another. It is what attracted so many people to come and live here.
But we won’t bring our grandchildren to Portland’s downtown. Even before Covid-19, the allure of the streets was already gone, so we stopped coming. It is not clean. It doesn’t feel safe. And now, after the unrest, it assaults any notion of peace and human flourishing. I won’t minimize injustice or the importance of recognizing recent protests. But the aftermath! The streets aren’t fit for the kids.
Why has there been a failure in our time, in our culture, to raise a generation eager to take the baton from us and make the next great contributions to America? We saw some glimmer of this at the outset when the focus was on racial injustice. Healing racial wounds would be a great leap forward in our time. But then we saw young people violently parading through the streets rioting, looting, and burning – hell-bent on destruction. Is this the best we can do? How does wanton destruction move us toward any goal of healing? I have listened to people rationalize this as an important expression of angst, but I don’t see it. They burned an elk statue! I mean, what are we to take from that? The iconic elk was a reminder of the time when these majestic creatures roamed this valley (they still do a few miles away). It has become self-evident that here in my city, many of our kids aren’t fit for the streets.
It is time for us to do some serious soul-searching. Let’s start with injustice. To argue that there is not institutional and structural racism is to live in denial. In city after city, in the areas where largely minority poor populations live, the schools are failure-factories. Fatherlessness undermines the family, which should give children a secure place from which to grow, learn and thrive. Many young men from such hopelessness end up in jail. It’s our history – lash laws, forced labor, redlining and internment camps are also part of my city’s past. It was within the last 10 years that developers saw opportunity to profit in North Portland, forcing its minority communities to be displaced to its outskirts. I acknowledge that my memories of Portland have a privileged skew. But I was hoping we were making progress. And even if there was some progress made, there is much that remains undone. We can’t ignore these inequalities in our nation’s cities where our own American children do not get the same chances to make it. I’m hopeful that civic authorities can determine how to correct policies that got us here.
Where does the church stand in all of this?. How do we step up to make a difference? We don’t need to wait for tax-funded initiatives. What if we become present in a new way? What if we form partnerships with those who are making a difference by mentoring young people who are born into parts of the city where they are seriously disadvantaged? What if we provide scholarships to families who want to escape the failure-factory schools and provide the hope of an education? What if we support prison-based organizations that offer an education to people incarcerated from those same streets? What if we become foster families or safe respite homes to alleviate families of children in crisis? What if we lock arms with those who are working with refugees and other displaced people groups to help them make the transition to our culture? What if we turn our resources towards uplifting those hardest hit by poverty through no fault of their own – the children?
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17–20)
It is time for us to be the ambassadors of reconciliation that we have been called to be. Maybe we could see glimpses of God-kind-of-cities with streets fit for kids and kids fit for streets.