The city of God may be in the city of humankind

World's cities provide fertile fields for missionary work
The city of God may be in the city of humankind
Father William Grimm, Tokyo
October 8, 2015
During a summer break in my language training in Tokyo, I went to a rural parish in northern Japan. Though some 40 years have passed, I still vividly recall one day sweating in a sun-drenched field as a farmer told me about his fear that he may have overfertilized his tomato crop and that would hurt the quality of the fruit.

I was bored, but reminded myself that he was talking about his livelihood and that the tomatoes I like are raised by such people as he. I did not say much, because my Japanese language ability was still rudimentary and did not include agricultural vocabulary. I do recall, though, that after about a half hour listening to talk about fertilizer I warned myself, "Don't strangle him!"

Those of us raised in big cities frequently lack the patience to live a bucolic life.

Later, I was assigned to a large city, and have spent my life since then living in places where the tomatoes grow on supermarket shelves.

Pope Francis, himself a city boy, was recently in my hometown, New York, where he spoke about the opportunities and challenges of urban life.

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"Living in a big city is not always easy. A multicultural context presents many complex challenges. Yet big cities are a reminder of the hidden riches present in our world: in the diversity of its cultures, traditions and historical experiences. In the variety of its languages, costumes and cuisine, big cities bring together all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life, wherever we may be."

We have become an urban species. That is, the majority of human beings — 54 percent, according to the United Nations — now live in cities, and the percentage is growing.

So, the majority of human beings can potentially experience the benefits of urban society of which the pope speaks, but also the dangers and drawbacks that come along with them: sensory overstimulation, crowding, pollution, noise, crime, exploitation, anonymity, poverty, slums, squalor, crowded isolation, material wealth combined with spiritual poverty, corruption, hopelessness.

Some of the world's "big cites" are actually refugee camps that are little more than corrals for people who have nothing except fading hopes of finding safety in a home where they can live with dignity.

Christianity grew as an urban phenomenon in the Roman Empire. The church was so city-centered that the word applied to those who did not believe was the equivalent of "hick": pagan. The countryside was the realm of unbelief. The city, because it was the place of church activity, was the place of faith.

By most counts, of the world's 10 largest metropolitan areas (cities and their dependent surroundings — "metropolis" literally means "mother city"), seven are in Asia.

So, "the fields ripe for harvest" in Asia are now in the avenues and alleys of our cities. If that is where the people are, that is where the church belongs. But, the fact is that much of the church's missionary and pastoral work in Asia is focused on the countryside, as it generally has been all along.


Where the majority of God's children live

The countryside has real attractions for mission work. It is often a place of poverty, and the Gospel is to be proclaimed as good news for the poor. The countryside is a place of community, where people are easier to notice and know than in places of urban anonymity. Rural areas are places of shared activity and time, whether it be planting time, harvest time or the waiting time in between. Because they are generally small, rural communities are comparatively easy to know and it is easy for an institution like the church to be a noticeable and notable presence.

City dwellers, on the other hand, are often busy with myriad activities that limit the time and energy they have to spend with one another or with a church community. They belong to many different groups that call for differing levels of commitment and, at times, even standoffishness. If they have come from the countryside, they may live in segregated ghettos that are either imposed or, often, self-chosen, but that isolate them from the larger community. When those people come from Christian backgrounds, their ghettos end up within but not of the city and therefore are not a missionary presence to the larger community. Competing ideas, ideologies, diversions and opportunities draw youth away from the church of their rural forebears.

In many cities, the sort of social service that the church provides is provided by many other agencies, including governments. So, the traditional avenues of insertion into society by the church are often closed off, limited or unneeded. And where needs may be overwhelmingly great, Christian service can seem insignificant and ineffective.

Ultimately, for many reasons and in many ways, it is easier and attractive for church personnel and activities to remain focused on the countryside.

But, should they?

There is more to focusing the church's mission on the cities than just going to where the people are. That, of course, is a prime reason for an urban focus. But, there is another reason: we do not know what to do in the city or how to do it. In other words, the city provides opportunities to explore new ways of being church, new ways to see how the Spirit is moving through the world today. The city can become a source for a new spirituality.

It will not come easily, and may take years or even generations of trial and error, but if we wish to find the Lord at work today, proclaim that work and celebrate that work, we must go to where the majority of God's children are: the cities.

Maryknoll Father William Grimm is publisher of and is based in Tokyo.

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