Is it Safe? The Urban Resident

Posted on February 10, 2014

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

Tags: Violence


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