I often hear people talk about how they feel close to God while in nature: a forest, meadow, lake, ocean. It is in these areas that many people can often discern the fingerprints and footprints of God. I can definitely relate to this, however, I have also learned to be able to encounter God in the midst of a big city.
While I walk through the streets of Milwaukee on a warm spring day, I see people everywhere. I see rich people and poor people. I see business people sitting next to homeless people at a bus stop. I see young folks and old folks. I see some folks running and others walking with a cane. I see single people and couples. I see people coming and going to work, people coming and going from restaurants and pubs, people coming and going from food pantries and mealsites. It is in these moments of simply experiencing life that I can feel particularly close to God.
There are several perspectives through which to view and understand cities. One can see it in simply utilitarian perspective: the ability to house people in close proximity to employment and conveniences. One can see it as a necessary evil: people everywhere, slow-moving traffic, concrete and steel invasions as far as the eye can see, and thus something which is to be avoided as much as practical. Another way to view a city is to see it as a unique eco-system which is to be experienced, understood, and appreciated. I generally tend to view cities in the latter way.
God did not just create trees and oceans and lakes, God also created people and community. God granted us the ability to build, to plant, and to create. God created us to live together in community. A city is certainly not always the ideal of community, but there is no perfect ideal of community.
There are days when there is a certain electricity in the air, particularly when the weather is warm. I can hear the bells of the ice-cream carts being pushed down the sidewalk and Tejano music emanating from every direction. I can hear children on the playground at the school just on the next block. The ubiquitous smell of tacos is in the air. There is a certain life that transcends words, and which cannot be experienced in environments other than a city.
It is important that we do not idealize cities either. Cities are not perfect, there are plenty of challenges. In Milwaukee, we face high rates of property crimes and we have had a few violent incidents the last few weeks in our neighborhood as well. We also face high rates of crippling poverty and homelessness. However, the soul of cities can be seen in its resilience, in the fact that in the midst of these dark and ugly places, there can be light and beauty. Despite these challenges and troubles, life continues. Children continue going to school and to play with their friends. Adults continue going to work, going to church, going to the store, and spending time with family and friends. Laughter continues, so does love, and enjoyment.
For me, it is in the midst of this noisy, colorful, gritty city that I can feel particularly close to God as I can see not only the diversity of creation in the various plants and animals, but also in the diversity of people, families, neighborhoods. It is in this environment that I can understand my necessary and inherent connectedness to others as well as my connectedness to God.