Confessions from the Suburbs

by Bart Campolo

As a well-known urban missionary, I have a confession to make: I just moved my family to one of Philadelphia's toniest Main Line suburbs.

How we got here is a long and complicated story, but it probably shouldn't be. The simple fact of the matter is that while I have long been a 'city person,' my wife and kids most definitely are not. I wish it hadn't taken my wife developing a nasty case of rheumatoid arthritis for me to finally see the cost of ignoring that fact for the past 15 years, but it did, and I have, and so here we are.

As confident as I am in our decision to move out, however, and as thrilled as I am to see my family so happy, the transition from West Philadelphia to Radnor has been hard on me. I miss the city and, no matter what anyone says, I often feel like a traitor to my cause. Like so many Christian activists, I always wore my inner-city address as a badge of honor which validated my commitment. Out on the speaking circuit or among our Mission Year Team Members, invariably the first question I'm asked is, "Where do you live?" Regardless of what I did or did not do there, West Philadelphia was always a good answer. Radnor, on the other hand, doesn't much help my credibility as a crusader for social justice.

My real problem, however, is not what other people think. My real problem is that, aside from adding a miserable commute and a little yard work, moving to the suburbs hasn't really changed my life at all. Stripped of my urban trappings, I am finally facing the fact that I long ago ceased to be a street-level minister to the poor. Instead, I have become the desk-bound leader of a terrific non-profit organization that enables hundreds of young adults to do what used to be my job. The truth is that while I still talk and write a lot about building loving relationships with poor people, I don't do it myself anymore. Simply stated, poor people are no longer my neighbors.

And that's a real problem, not just for me, but for anyone who has to balance his own self-interest against the needs of the rest of the world. People like you, who make up family budgets. Church people, who make up church budgets. Our president and Congress, who make up our national budget. Because, while self-interest has no trouble staying fresh in our minds, the needs of the rest of the world only remain urgent when they are wrapped up in real relationships with poor people we genuinely know and care about, like my old neighbors in West Philadelphia.

I haven't been in Radnor long, but I can already feel myself losing my edge. Life out here is so convenient and comfortable that, like Dorothy in the poppy field in THE WIZARD OF OZ, I find myself in danger of forgetting my larger purpose. If I am to stay alert, from now on I will need to go out of my way to stay in touch with those values and concerns which I mistakenly thought had become a permanent part of me. I will need to seek out and listen more to those who still live and work among the poor, and trust less my own increasingly dull instincts. I will need to read again and again the teachings of Jesus, remembering that he and his friends were all poor, and oppressed, and occupied as well, for that matter. That extra effort, I reckon, is another price to be paid for my privilege.

Of course, as I consider the candidates in this election, who presume to balance self-interest and world needs on behalf of us all, I know better than to think any of them have real relationships with poor people they genuinely know and care about. And now, living in Radnor, I also know better than to judge them too harshly for that. Instead, I find myself asking a new question: Which of these candidates has been and will continue to do the best job of going out of his way to stay in touch with the lives on the other side of the poverty line? Which seems most aware of his privilege, and most willing to listen carefully to those who live and work among the poor? Which is most willing to pay the price to love those neighbors they no longer know?

As I listen to the spiritual rhetoric in this election season, I find myself wanting to shout out loud that God is not a Republican…or a Democrat either. Nevertheless, I feel quite certain that God has taken a side in this campaign, albeit the same side God always takes. God is on the side of those who will never live where and how they need to live, until and unless the rest of us get on their side, too.

Bart Campolo is the founder and chaplain of Mission Year – www.missionyear.org.

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