There is an association between the layout and architecture of a town and the values of the people.
Have you ever thought about that statement before?
In the past I would have never guessed that there is a connection between the two. When we normally try to get to know a community we pull out demographic or census reports and figure we know enough. But there’s a vast amount that we can learn from what the town looks like and from walking around.
In theology, this often is referred to as a theology of the “built environment.” Timothy Gorringe in his book, Theology of the Built Environment, says that the built environment “reflects conscious decisions which in turn reflect ideologies and class positions.” In other words, what things look like are a reflection of the values of the people who built them.
He even suggests that one can learn more from the style of buildings in a town than one can from the “smoothed out texts” that describe what the town is actually like. A building or how a community is laid out, then, becomes an open book to better understand what the people are like.
As a result of discovering that association, I invited Andrew Von Maur, a professor of architecture for Andrews University, to take a group of us on a walking tour of Berrien Springs in order to help us better understand our community. Standing outside a hardware store in downtown Berrien Springs, he directed our gaze to the sidewalk. “Look at it. They can barely keep it in shape,” he said.
Evidently, the taxes of those that live in the village of Berrien Springs, which is a small area near the downtown, is not enough to cover simple maintenance. As a result, they have to apply to the state for special grants to cover things like sidewalk repairs. What does that teach us about who lives in the village of Berrien Springs? Low income.
After walking past the downtown, he began pointing out some features of the homes. Many were dilapidated and broken down. There was a house with a fallen tree still on top of it. Some of the homes had boarded windows. Von Maur said, “Poverty looks different in Berrien Springs than it does in Benton Harbor. In Benton Harbor it has a black face. In Berrien Springs it has a white face and has homes that look like this.”
This was a powerful observation because we’re very used to seeing poverty that is accompanied by a black or hispanic face, but we’re not as used to the signs of what white poverty might look like.
Through our walk we began to notice that poverty is, indeed, a real issue in Berrien Springs. As a result of some interviews I had done with some of the principal’s in the public schools, I learned that 75% of the children in this community come from homes that are below the national poverty level. It was one thing to hear a statistic, but it was quite another thing to be able to see what it might look like in person.
He then took us to what he called the real center of town. It’s a very small area that includes a gas station, and a Taco Bell right next to it. On the other side of the street is a McDonald’s with a large football field next to it. This is the part of town that gets the most action and where more people cross paths, in a sense. Von Maur said, “That football field is actually the cathedral of this town.” It’s where people gather. After he left, our group spent a few minutes debriefing about what we saw. We’ve been asking ourselves this question for a long time now: what is God up to in the community? After reflecting we began to see that there are two main issues that God might be calling us to challenge.
1. Poverty. I addressed this a little above
2. Division. In this post, I shared a little about some of the division issues in this community. There’s a sense that Adventists don’t support this community. We have our Christian schools and they have theirs. We have our grocery stores and they have theirs. We have our performing arts center and they would like to build their own. There is a 4th of July parade every year but we don’t participate in it.
While those things by themselves don’t communicate a conscious decision to be divided, there is the perception of that, and these days perception is reality.
The question is: how are we going to challenge these issues in our community? How will we attempt to address issues of poverty? How will we address issues of division. At the moment, we’re prayerfully considering what are options are. Stay tuned.
Here’s a few ideas to think about:
1. Invite an architecture professor or local historian to take you on a tour of your city. That’s right, even if you’ve lived there all your life, I believe there’s still some things you can learn. Just pick up the phone, call your local university, and ask them. I’m sure they’d be willing to go.
As you’re on the tour ask:
-Why was this town established?
-How does the “built environment” reflect that?
-How have things changed?
-What do the new areas reflect about the values and interests of the people there?
2. Walk around the community. Go to the center of your town, and then walk a few streets over.
-How are things different? How are they they same?
-What are the main gathering spaces in your community?
-Why do they gather there?
3. Live in the community. By that I don’t just mean having a physical address in your community, but also having a physical presence in the community. Eat in the local restaurants. Go to the local book stores. Get to know the people.
-What are the issues that matter to the locals?
-What time do people eat there?
So let’s share. What have you noticed about your own community, town, or city?
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