Oftentimes when people who know Philadelphia’s neighborhoods find out where I live, and that I walk or bike to work most days, they either look at me with concern for my sanity or with admiration for my bravery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “Is it safe there?” and I never know how to answer. Is it safe? No, not really. There have been several shootings on the block or near the block where I live within the past year. There are guys who stand on the street corners at all hours of the day and night, conducting shady “business” deals. It is common for a guy on a dirt bike or ATV to ride up the street popping a wheelie the whole way, shattering the normal neighborhood sounds with their loud engines. My heart still breaks over the story in the newspaper about a 10-month old who lived within a block of me that died with track marks — track marks!— on his body. This is not a “safe” neighborhood.
That being said, somehow I have never felt at all threatened in living here. In fact, I feel like an impostor when people suggest I’m courageous for living here. Indeed, making my home here gives me a sense of integrity and wholeness in my life as it allows my work, church, and everyday life to be lived out in the same neighborhood. I have been graciously welcomed here by many people, and I get to be just one part of a whole group of Jesus-followers who are living in this neighborhood and being the church here. Plus, whenever I feel scared and alone and single and weak and vulnerable in my house alone at night, which has been often over the past year, I get the incredible privilege of leaning on Jesus.
From my journal, I’ve copied out a short list of blessings I received within weeks of moving into the house I bought in 2012:
When I moved in, I had neighbors
– come and introduce themselves and welcome me to the block
– scold me for not asking for help moving a shelf
– give me a hand-crayoned ‘welcome to our block’ card,
– help me break into my own house when the lock was stuck
– knock on my door at midnight to let me know a light was on in my car
– salt my top step and shovel my walkway and sidewalk
– put out my trash for me and bring my trash can back in from the sidewalk too
With this list (and many more I could have written since then), I cannot escape the thought that I am receiving much more than I’m giving here.
I’m not saying that living here is all enjoyable. I am not a city girl. I crave open spaces and silence and firelight and homegrown vegetables and long walks away from the sound of rushing traffic. I don’t know the first thing about urban life, music or culture, and these have never interested me for their own sake. One of my favorite dreams involves living in a small village in a rural area, preferably somewhere really far out, like Sudan, where running water and electricity are unknown. That, I used to tell myself, is what I’m wired for. I’ve told this to God too, and even went to live in South Sudan to prove it to Him and the world. And then it all fell apart as my team was evacuated and my imaginary future life crumbled. God brought me instead to North Philadelphia, the last place on earth I really thought He’d wired me for.
I have given up some dreams to live here. But when I moved here, I asked God how I should live, and it seemed clear that He gave me Jeremiah 29.4−7 (and also 8–11) in response:
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
From the beginning, I had the sense that I wasn’t supposed to live here with an eye to returning to where I think my gifts and desires would lead me, such as Sudan or North Africa. Instead, I was to literally and figuratively follow these instructions. So I planted a garden. And bought a house. And I pray constantly for this neighborhood because it is my home. I have also stopped thinking and planning about where else I might live in the future. Living here has been one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve done in my life. Not because the neighborhood is “unsafe”, but because it’s just not what I would have chosen for myself. But God has asked me to put down roots here.
The process of putting down roots hasn’t come naturally. I felt incredible angst as I bought the house where I now live (angst: not unusual for me – it’s like a signpost that God is at work in my life). Some other day I’ll tell the story of that, but suffice it to say that buying this house was like entering into a deep covenant with this neighborhood. I have cast in my lot with this neighborhood and it has made a huge difference in the depth of my commitment to its welfare.
I am learning to love the city and being a homeowner. I am grateful for the freedom to make a home and offer hospitality to others here. God has given me neighbors who watch out for me (my car, my trash can, my house), and living in the midst of some urban chaos has given me just an inkling of what my patients live through each day. But life here is undeniably good — I walk to work, I help tend two different community gardens, I live two blocks from a great big green, tree-filled park, and I have become part of a house church that is like an urban family. Sometimes neighbor kids come and knock on my door (when least expected) and another neighbor who is also a patient of mine gives me food and shares “Spanish conversation dinners” with myself and several coworkers.
I’m not sure exactly what impact I’m making in this neighborhood, but I know what impact it’s making on me: I’ve become more confident, more likely to reach out, better at making decisions, and am learning about how to be friends with people who are vastly different than I am. But most of all I am learning to daily surrender to Jesus and His plan for my life instead of carving my own path.
So when people ask me if my neighborhood is safe, I think they’re asking the wrong question. A better question would be, “Is it a good place to live?” and for me, the answer is an unhesitating “Yes!”
I neglected to mention in the above paragraphs the deep traumas that my neighbors and patients have recounted to me, and how much the violence here does affect life. Patients often tell me of their very legitimate fears that tend to keep them in their homes, and I can’t discount the level of violence that exists here and in even larger measures in other nearby neighborhoods. I also can’t erase the fact that I am probably less likely to be the victim of violence because of my race. I can’t take away my peaceful upbringing that leaves me with very few panic triggers. I can’t pretend that driving a car in North Philly is very different than taking the bus, and that I rarely take public transportation.
I also can’t pretend that my very safety and security here is certainly a gift from God; He knows my weakness and hasn’t given me more than I can bear. But if He allows me to experience violence, I hope and pray I’d trust Him even then. I also don’t blame anyone who wants to leave this neighborhood in search of a safer, more peaceful life for themselves or their children. I am not trying to say that everyone should move here. I’m just saying that this is a good place for me right now.
Also, during the summer of 2013, I went through a time of questioning, of seeing with a very critical eye the dirt and grime, hearing the noise as if it were amplified in my ears. I questioned why I was here, and had a long list of reasons why I didn’t belong here. At the same time, I came up against a wall when I thought about leaving: I couldn’t leave either this community or this place, not without a clear direction from God about where to go next. So it’s not all a bed of roses. But it is still very good.
Note: This article is reproduced and edited with permission from theurbanresident.com.