The Question Everyone Asks Us About Living in the City

Photo by Rob Bye via Unsplash

Soon after we moved into the city, someone asked Maile, “Do you feel safe walking around the city?”

Maile wasn’t sure what the person meant. “Do you mean at night?”

“No,” the person pressed. “Just during the day. Anytime. Don’t you feel scared?”

* * * * *

It’s late at night and through our bedroom window I can hear the occasional car pass by on James Street. When we first moved into our small city five years ago, the passing traffic kept us awake. It took me at least a week before the sounds of cars and people walking the sidewalk and the occasional ambulance didn’t keep me awake long into the night.

We love it here in Lancaster. Our kids love it. Our older two walk downtown to meet friends or sit in coffee shops. Mai walks the younger kids to parks and occasionally museums. Three of our oldest four walk to school, and Sammy, the only one who still has one of us accompanying him, begs to walk by himself.

Our neighbors take our packages into their house for safekeeping when we’re away on vacation (even when we forget to ask them to), or water our plants when we’re not around, or shovel the snow off our front sidewalk if I haven’t yet gotten around to it. We look out for each other.

So, it’s strange to me when the first thing nearly everyone asks when they find out we live in the city of Lancaster, population 60,000, isn’t, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” (Luca or Himalayan) or “Where do you volunteer?” (we’re a little lost with that right now) or “Can you see the fireworks from your house?” (Yes), but whether or not we feel safe.

“Do you walk around town by yourself?”

“Are you okay letting your kids walk a mile to school?”

“What about crime—do you ever feel that you’re in danger?”

* * * * *

“…we are tempted constantly to grab a little bit of power that the world around us offers…But as we dare to be baptized in powerlessness, always moving toward the poor who do not have such power, we are plunged right into the heart of God’s endless mercy.”

Henri Nouwen

* * * * *

Normally, I quickly try to assuage people’s concern over the safety of living in the city, and for the most part I believe my own lines.

For every questionable interaction we’ve had, there have been a thousand positive ones, I say.

People look out for each other, I say.

People are, generally, good to each other, I say.

But I wonder sometimes if I am candy-coating things. After all, last year someone shot a gun at someone else just behind our house and across the alley. This probably wouldn’t have happened if we lived in the suburbs. And we routinely see police arresting people or bringing them out of their homes—a few weeks ago, the SWAT team was tracking someone down about eight houses away from us. At one point, an unstable man across the street insisted to me that my house was his house.

So maybe the city is more dangerous.

Maybe, when people ask us why we live here…aren’t we worried…am I nervous raising children here…I shouldn’t shy away from the fact that there are inherent risks with living in the city. But the thing is, we don’t live here because it’s safer.

We’ve tried to move away from making big life decisions based on fear.

We live here because we love city life.

We live here because our kids love their city schools, their city friends, and their city school teachers.

We live here because it’s a wonderful place that offers community to us in ways we haven’t experienced before.

And, as Henri Nouwen writes, “as we dare to be baptized in powerlessness, always moving toward the poor who do not have such power, we are plunged right into the heart of God’s endless mercy.”

Living in the city and having our kids attend city schools is, in some ways, being baptized in powerlessness. Things are not always “fair.” People are not always “nice.” Most places we go, whether it be PTO meetings or the Y, we are in the minority.

We find ourselves often unable to curate our (and our kids’) experiences.

But we’ve found, in this powerlessness, that we have been plunged directly into the heart of God’s endless mercy. What a feeling! What a way to live.

* * * * *

This is not a post arguing that everyone should move into the city.

This is not a post arguing that you should send your children to public school.

This is a post about not letting fear keep you from moving into a greater sense of God’s mercy.

Make decisions that work for your family, yes, but don’t make these decisions out of fear! I have so much more to say about that, but this post is already long enough. Maybe I’ll talk about that in more depth some other time.

Do you dare to be “baptized in powerlessness”? Do you dare to join the poor who do not have power, come alongside them in some tangible way, choosing to share in their poverty?

Maybe consider answering those questions the same way you might answer this one: Would you like to experience more of God’s endless mercy?

7 Replies to “The Question Everyone Asks Us About Living in the City”

  1. The line “don’t let fear keep you from moving into a greater sense of Gods mercy!” Is a classic line, one we need to live by whether in the city or country! Thanks Shawn

  2. Yes, that longing for community is what sent us to Philly, too. And I love the idea about being positioned to receive mercy. That resonates.

    The obsession with safety is weird, because it’s an illusion or water through your hands no matter where we live. (And for Christians, so much of Scripture is about stepping out of and casting out fear–not building lives, politics, and industries around it.) In our last small town, I thought a lot about “safe for whom and what?” It was definitely a safe place for whiteness–and white supremacy and racism. It was a harbor for islamophobia, and I wanted my kids to be a lot less “protected” and exposed instead to grace and community and difference and the values we didn’t share with so many of our security-seeking neighbors.

    1. Yes! I wonder if many of the people who ask me “Is it safe?” are actually asking, “Is it safe for you, a white person?” without even realizing that’s what they’re asking.

  3. I think your lifestyle in the city is so very different than all of the organizations that are out there to “help”. You are living among community instead of coming in to “help” which automatically sets up an “us/them” or “we’re better –let us help you” atmosphere.
    I love your stories.

  4. I really love this post.
    We have just moved into a city and are also fielding questions like that.
    I’ve been thinking similar thoughts and you are giving me good food for thought.

  5. Yes, yes, yes. We raised our kids in the city (Denver) and now are watching our son and daughter-in-law raise our granddaughter in DC, and how they invest in their neighborhood and already volunteer at the local school (even though she is only 2 – and there was a big drug bust down the street).
    And the whole thing about “safety” and parenting – not just for city, but for allowing our kids to follow God’s call on their lives. When our daughter was in college and called to work with migrants, she spent a summer working at a shelter for Central Americans in southern Mexico – she told us, “Don’t read the State Dept warnings.” Obviously that gave us pause, but we released her to God’s call on her life – knowing safety is an illusion. So much more I could say … over the long haul – so worth it! Keep on! What if Christians abandon the city?

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