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How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul
The Thicker Life
My wife and I worship at Latte Temple most Sundays before heading to church, and recently a homeless man asked for a ride to the College Avenue train station as I climbed into my SUV with two coffees worth almost $9 in hand. I told him to jump in.
"Are you headed to church?" he said. "Everyone goes to church here. I do too."
I've often thought my 'burb, located a little over twenty miles southwest of downtown Chicago, could create a tasty tagline and positioning statement for its public relations brochures: WHERE EVEN THE HOMELESS HAVE A CHURCH HOME. There appear to be more churches in my community than pizza joints. That's quite a statement, because Wheaton, Illinois, is, after all, a suburb of Chicago, home to the world's best pizza. A church building fills at least one corner of most every intersection. On Sundays, high school auditoriums are rented by start-ups. Here is no shortage of houses of worship. I'm sure there must be some pagans in our community, but nobody has seen one in years, though I recently saw some Democrats at the Fourth of July parade. Wheaton is pretty much a God-and-country community.
I'm at church most every Sunday with my family. I play tepid electric guitar licks in the worship band for our "contemporary service." I don't give as much money as I should to the church, but I hope to after I make it big. And I fear that my lack of Bible reading may be the primary reason I feel such spiritual malaise while living the good life in my safe 'burb. Somebody just told me that 90 percent of Christians don't read their Bible every day. I sure don't. I've had a few good stretches, but I'm not in one now, and I've never read the Bible in one year, like my mom did. I slid through a graduate theological education without reading every verse of the Bible. My religious tradition advises me to "get into the Word" (the Bible). And that, perhaps, is my problem: my knowledge is insufficient. But I have my doubts.
My family and I live in a county that recently was ranked in the ninety-ninth percentile in the United States for quality of life. On most days, my biggest decision is lunch: the Atomic Turkey or the Veggie Panini? Our suburb, an older one of glorious hardwoods, harbors an intriguing mix of folks who can somehow afford its nosebleed housing prices (at least to a Midwesterner). Plumbers live next to investment bankers. Fixed-income retirees, who bought their small ranch-style homes thirty or forty years before prices skyrocketed, live across the street from thirty-five-year-old bond traders who work in Chicago, who mortgaged their peace of mind to tear down a fifty-year-old, 1,200-square-foot ranch and erect a brick "starter castle." Everyone knows where "the apartments" sit along Route 38, near the local community college (one of the largest in the nation), and along north Main Street.
Our Mayberry public elementary school sits in white-skinned suburbia, though busing from apartments just down the street and a suburb to the north adds to our children's experience ethnic and economic diversity. An acquaintance told me that her neighbor yanked her first child out of the school after his kindergarten year, transferring him to a Christian grammar school. The woman apparently felt uncomfortable with all the kids from "the apartments" in little Johnny's class. "Too diverse," she said. "Besides, don't kids at the Christian school end up getting better SAT scores?"
Our elementary school has almost 20 percent less Caucasian kids than other District 200 schools. Enough to make a Security Mom nervous. I grew up in North Dakota, a state with virtually no diversity, except for a few Native Americans, who in times past we sequestered on a reservation. Today I inhabit a metropolitan area where a suburb nearby has a Hispanic population of almost 50 percent. Some suburbs are fast becoming almost as diverse as the cities.
There's no one-suburb-fits-all, of course. Not all suburbs are like mine. As far as I know, my suburb has not recently had first-graders getting busted with Baggies of crack in their backpacks, like another Chicago suburb. However, many 'burbs are arguably organized around the provision of safety and opportunities for children and neat, tranquil environs for homeowners. Suburbs and exurbs have grown to dominate the American landscape precisely because, most of the time, they fulfill those promises in spades. Throughout this book, whenever I refer to the suburbs or exurbs, I'm doing so in an archetypal sense.
In the introduction to Crabgrass Frontier, sociologist Kenneth T. Jackson writes, "The space around us -- the physical organization of neighborhoods, roads, yards, houses, and apartments -- sets up living patterns that condition our behavior."1 What Jackson observed sociologically may also be true spiritually. Whether blue-collar or white, Yankee or Southern, west coast or east, North Dakota or southern Texas -- the environment of the suburbs weathers one's soul peculiarly. That is, there are environmental variables, mostly invisible, that oxidize the human spirit, like what happens to the metal of an ungaraged car.
I think my suburb, as safe and religiously coated as it is, keeps me from Jesus. Or at least, my suburb (and the religion of the suburbs) obscures the real Jesus. The living patterns of the good life affect me more than I know. Yet the same environmental factors that numb me to the things of God also hold out great promise. I don't need to escape the suburbs. I need to find Jesus here.
'Burbia with No Jesus
Seven-year-old birthday parties in which the party favor your son scores on the way out costs twice as much as the gift he brought; the one-ton SUV in the driveway; the golden retriever with a red bandana romping with two children in the front yard; the Colorado winter vacations; the bumper sticker trumpeting "My daughter is an honor roll student at Hubble Middle School" -- those are the dreams of the denizens, like me, of suburbia. . . .Death by Suburb
How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul. Copyright © by Dave Goetz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul by Dave L. Goetz
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