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RACE & PLACE: HOW URBAN GEOGRAPHY SHAPES THE JOURNEY TO RECONCILIATION
DAVID P. LEONG
INTERVARSITY PRESS, 2017
The day I finished reading this book was the day 15-year-old unarmed Jordan Edwards was shot and killed by a policeman’s rifle. This death, like the long string of deaths of young black men (and women) that came before Edwards’, the current U.S. presidential administration’s executive orders regarding immi-gration as well as other policies focused on race and class, are what lead David Leong in his new book Race & Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation to write, “One sign of the times is that our streets have been burning, both literally and figuratively.” One doesn’t have to read or watch very many news stories to know this is true. Or, at least it’s true for urban dwellers who are not white and not middle class. We North Americans are (maybe more than ever) racially divided, segregated and isolated. Our streets are, indeed, burning.
This state of affairs is what makes Leong’s book more important than ever. He writes, “To assume something as challenging and complex as racial division will just work itself out without serious reflection and radical praxis is dangerously naive, and for many, even life threatening.” Leong does not simply and not only call for racial reconciliation. Instead, he writes that “colorblindness in all its various forms and good intentions … suggests unity through uniformity instead of belonging in spite of difference.” It is this difference among human beings, Leong argues, that reflects the goodness and creativity of the Trinity. Thus, racial division is not simply corrected through colorblindness or tolerance.
As a white, middle class, educated woman, I wanted more action steps from Leong’s book.
Leong’s call for theological reflection and radical praxis includes both biblical and historical explorations of place, including how place shapes who we are (Chapter 3, “From the Garden to the City”) and how place is structured to divide (Chapter 4, “Walls of Hostility”; Chapter 5, “Place, Parish, and Ghetto”; and Chapter 6, “Gentrification.”) We are both a product of our place and produce (or construct) our place. However, Leong writes, “Christian belonging insists we can and should transgress the boundaries [visible and invisible walls, neighborhoods, schools, churches, social constructs such as race and class] that divide us.” It is in seeing and acknowledging the boundaries as well as the historic nature of the boundaries that the work begins. And it is here in these chapters, I think, that Leong is strongest both in his writing and in his point. As he explores “God’s calling of a people to a place (gathering) and the dispersion of those people from that place into the world (scattering),” he makes connections between God’s work in and through the Israelites and churches today that, in a perfect world, would gather as a diverse group in order to scatter into a diverse world.
Sadly, this is frequently not the case in today’s churches. Thus, Leong’s historical examination of the rise of suburbs, the inequity of lending and housing discrimination and gentrification is a helpful examination of race and place. These issues – these walls that divide – have ramifications for a multitude of people and institutions, including the church. Leong asks, “For what and for whom is the church called together?” He responds, “the church – the gathering of people covenanted to God and one another – is … a place where socially estranged people are becoming family to each other.” This is, he writes, easier said than done. Yet, in order to stop the streets from burning, we need to recognize that God calls each of us – all of us – to the Table. And, Leong argues, that the church needs to take up that hard work.
As a white, middle class, educated woman, I wanted more action steps from Leong’s book. I, as many of you, want to know what the answer is so that we can take the steps to make it happen. But, Leong reminds us, that isn’t how this works. We cannot make decades of harmful – often violent – racist policies, actions and institutions disappear with a 10-step Plan. It is in this section (Part 3) of Leong’s book where it feels to the reader that Leong felt the need to (or was told to) give his audience a plan (even though he complicates that idea). But, because I was so engaged in Part 2 (the heart of the biblical and historical examination of place and race), Part 3 felt like a departure to me even though he clearly calls his readers to a “lived faith in word and deed … a synthesis of active reflection and reflective action.”
Our streets are indeed burning. We are torn between a deep desire to protect young black men who are dying at an alarming rate and our police officers who are called to serve and protect. We are torn between being smart about safety and immigration practices and policies that seem to be the antithesis of who we are as a country. We are torn between the allure of making good choices for ourselves and our families and making good choices for what is best for our churches, schools, neighborhoods and cities. But, Leong reminds us, “God is community … God can only be God in community and the divine community perfectly models unity in diversity, mutuality, and belonging.” It is this diversity, mutuality and belonging that Leong challenges us to work toward while at the same time he reminds us that this is difficult, often painful, work. And yet, now maybe more than ever, lives depend on this good work – the good work that the church is called to do.
Kathryn Schoon-Tanis holds a doctorate in curriculum, instruction and teacher education. Her studies have included research on how secondary English teachers use popular culture with the literature they teach.