by Bart Garrett
Imagine this scene. You are sitting at a coffee shop enjoying your favorite fairtrade, shade-grown, single-origin-bean, vacuum-pressed cup of caffeine when you glance out the window only to see a man walking by wearing nothing but a pink tutu. In your next glance, you see another man walking by carrying a Bible. The guy sitting beside you sees both passersby and then turns toward you and asks, “Was he carrying a Bible?”
Welcome to Berkeley, California
Over the course of nearly seven years, Berkeley and adjacent Oakland (together called “The East Bay”) have taught me much. The lesson, summarized in a fortune cookie, would read this way: “The City has taught me that there is more me to me. Lucky Numbers: 13 47 36 and 19.”
There is more me to me. Before you discredit me as more narcissistic than Narcissus, allow me to explain.
Cities, with their breathtaking beauty, humming creativity, buzzing energy, and bustling diversity, have the power to unlock parts of you that you never knew existed—to uncover affinities, aptitudes, and affections that might have lain dormant for much of your life. And cities, with their encrusted layers of socioeconomic injustice, latent racism, and moral brokenness—well, the underbelly of the city awakens pieces of you as well. Some of those pieces are true, good, and beautiful impulses, aspects of God’s character he has graciously given you the opportunity to experience. Others are as broken shards of glass, lacerating your soul and causing you to ache and cry for redemption as you discover the injustice, racism, and moral brokenness that lurks in your own heart as well.
One of my favorite coffee shops dawdles over the grinding, pouring, and presentation of each exquisite cup it serves. I watch new customers order a drink, look at their watches, and then moan and sigh as they mentally write up their Yelp reviews criticizing the slow service. However, regulars at this coffee shop relish the opportunity to linger over the aromas as they discuss the unique terroir of the coffee bean with the barista. Terroir, of course, is one of those highbrow words used by erudite people who like to use words likeerudite when they could simply say smart. After all, it’s French. But terroir is a great word with a great concept behind it. It refers to the “sense of place” of a wine grape or a coffee bean. What is it about the soil or the climate or the elevation that makes that grape or that bean unique?
The city has gifted to me a humble curiosity that lingers over questions and conversations that I share with people nearly every single day. The rich diversity of people in the city reveals a terroir for each one that is beautiful and unique. It deepens my sense of a creative God that uses all sorts of colors and contours to tell his story. Before I lived in the city, my limited exposure to diversity taught me on a subconscious level that people were mostly alike, and that God’s creativity was hemmed in by a small frame. Now, I see that people have many unique hopes, dreams, and fears—that there are many different ways people go about their lives, that habit, patterns, rhythms, and practices are manifold. And often, these differences unlock my own creativity and more deeply cultivate my own terroir. I now can say, “I like particular vintages of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon,” rather than simply offering, “I like red wine.” I now can say, “I understand why God’s story of redemption through Christ could be particularly difficult for this particular person,” rather than saying, “Why don’t they get it?”
It would be easy to over-romanticize the city without addressing its harshness—the dinginess that settles upon it when a bunch of broken, sinful people dwell together in close proximity. If we are indeed beautifully unique, then we are also indeed shamefully the same, each broken by sin, whether wittingly or unwittingly. Given this reality, the city has again taught me that there is more me to me, as it reveals my own creativity and dexterity in yielding to sin’s siren: I must make a name for myself! I stare deep inadequacy in the face every day when I look in the mirror. People are smarter than I am. People are more beautiful than I am. People are more creative than I am. People are more athletic than I am. People are more industrious than I am. My only means of recourse seem to be the very same tools of injustice, racism, and moral shortcut that I despise in others. Sometimes I wonder aloud: What must it be like to live with Wendell Berry on his farm? Would I care so much about what other people think about me? Would I always look down with contempt on those that I feel are beneath me? Would I always look up with envy at those that I feel are above me? Probably, but I am not sure I would experience these sins as acutely as I do living in the city.
My awareness that my sin is larger than I ever thought possible, I suppose, is a painful gift from God. It forces me to stay on my knees. It forces me to see that while there is more me to me, there is also much more God to God. And in Christ, there is much more freedom through forgiveness.