Part 1. The Global Village on the Urban Edge: The New Face of Urban Ministry

The New City
At the dawn of this new millennium humanity has achieved a demographic milestone: for the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in rural areas, and the new urban immigrants are no longer a minority. Explosive population growth and a torrent of migration from the countryside are creating cities that dwarf the great capitals of the past.

The movement of people from the country to the city and from foreign lands to Western countries is not a new narrative. However, the conventional explanation of the “push” of poverty and the “pull” of economic opportunity does not fully explain the current level of movement.

Neither poverty, nor overpopulation, nor economic stagnation serve to trigger mass migration, although they obviously play a significant role. A natural catastrophe will generate movement or displacement; however, it is usually temporal. Certainly, wars and political repression fuel mobility patterns. However, in the past twenty-five years or so the prime factor in the movement of vast numbers of people has been the allure of contemporary urban life with its promised economic opportunities and material amenities.

Due to the global commoditization of Western culture cities like New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Berlin have become worldwide symbols of the good life. Well-advertised air routes and cheap fares have turned far-away cities into magnets for millions of people who leave their homelands in search of the more glamorous and exciting life they have seen on the screen or heard in the beat of a song played on the radio.

Since the founding of the first city, cities have been at the hub of all important activity, shaping the political, intellectual, and moral character of our societies. They are the centers of communication, commerce, creativity, and cultural life. However, the radical technological and economic changes of the last quarter century have transformed cities into vital links of a highly interconnected global village.

With this global transformation has come the emergence of a new cultural perspective that is decidedly urban, Western, technology-driven, and consumption-oriented—forever shaping the consciousness of the village's inhabitants and challenging our notion of “urban.” In turn it raises provocative questions about the mission or role of the Church in the emergent global village.

Cultural invasion is also nothing new. It has been with us at least since Alexander the Great spread Hellenism from the Nile to the Ganges. Where new ideas once advanced at the foot pace of advancing armies, they are now spread instantly by satellites bringing Hollywood's fantasies and Madison Avenue's commercials to places as widely separated and isolated as the Alaskan tundra, Guatemalan villages, and the Kenyan bush. It has been said that the formation of culture is the process of the telling of stories. Today's far-reaching signals have new tales to tell of affluence, freedom, and power.

Far from uniform, the emerging global culture is a shifting mixture of experimentation and innovation in which the more and the less developed countries learn and benefit from one another, each mutually transformed, ignoring or adopting elements of one another, each mutating almost immediately in the process.

Indeed, these transformations take place almost invisibly, without the conscious decisions of the people affected. Yet even under repressive governments, which are ineffectual in curtailing the flow of information, nearly all sectors of the village are subject to what can be called “cultural synchronization” (or as it is more commonly called “globalization”). Driven by urbanization and reinforced by innovations in telecommunications, there is a real fear that this homogenizing process will absorb every cultural nuance into one big “MacWorld.”

Exegeting the New Urban Landscape
You need not spend time in distilling statistics or information to get a glimpse of what our future may hold. Jaime Lerner, the ecologically-friendly architect and daring former mayor of Curitiba (Brazil), declared, “If life is the art of encounter, then the city is the setting for encounter.”

Once you start looking with a new set of lenses, these encounters are everywhere. In fact, the clues of these evolutionary and revolutionary processes are ever visible in our urban communities (i.e., in the built landscape). In other words, within the spatial dimension of our global village—our cities—there are clear signs of the emerging urban reality. All sorts of factors (demographic, political, economic, ecological, theological, and so on) interweave to form the living, vibrant, and imperfect miniature world that is a city.

In turn, all of these dynamic variables interact with and are affected by its built substance: some of it is beautiful and good to be in, some aggravates the human condition. But the interplay contributes to the creation of new patterns of social life and interaction.

Take, for example, Los Angeles, which might possibly be the best setting to explore the emerging trends and the role of the faith community. In the heartland of Los Angeles there is a dazzling constellation of global culture that simultaneously reaches out to every corner of the world and draws in to Los Angeles an amazing array of once “exotic,” but now ever-familiar, influences. Reproduced on its streets and in its neighborhoods are the microcosms of Taiwan and Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. There is:

  • a Little Tokyo and a vast Korea town;
  • a huge Mexican barrio and a sprinkling of maquinadora-type factories;
  • a Little Manila, complete with remnants of pro-Marcos and anti-Marcos factions;
  • Armenians periodically reviving their animosity with the Turks;
  • Jewish diasporan settlements from Iran, Russia, and Brooklyn debating Middle East politics;
  • African marketplaces teeming with discussion of current events in Cape Town and Addis Ababa;
  • purveyors of soul food, as well as food from Seoul, Kosher burritos, and sushi pizza;
  • more Samoans and Tongans than now live back in their Pacific homelands;
  • mosques, temples, and religious centers for worshipers of every color and creed; and
  • quite possibly the largest concentrations of Salvadoreans, Guatemalans, and Belizians outside of Central America.

The kaleidoscopic landscape of Los Angeles is now approaching that of a world atlas and almanac, and we as a society, and much less the Church, are only beginning to grasp the significance what this means and what it may foreshadow. More important, these multicultural expressions of local community reflect powerful global forces at play. The “city,” then, is the text, or guide, to what is happening on a global scale.

At first glance, the city can be overwhelming in its complexity reflected in its design and structure. Yet, on closer examination we find that the values, hopes, ideals, and beliefs of the emerging, new, multicultural, urban world are expressed explicitly and distinctively in the urban landscape itself.

Take for example, the Westin Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. When construction of this 35-story, tri-cylinder, mirror-faced structure was completed, there was no doubt the building spoke of power, privilege, and prestige. Its style was to appeal to the kind of people who benefited from the emerging global economy and could afford to eat, stay, and play there. All others would have to be satisfied with simply traveling on the external elevators up to the revolving bar on top of the building. (Architectural style has as much to say about the promotion of certain values and a cultural perspective as it does about the role and function of the structure itself.) Ironically, the fickle economy necessitated a change in ownership and in marketing. Today, the hotel is a prime spot for special high school events and has a more eclectic clientele.

Urban form is never devoid of social content: it is merely the grid within which we organize our daily lives. People give life to the city, they embody culture, and they express it in distinctively new and creative ways. Just as the city is an imposing and complex amalgam of structures, it is a place of human activities that can be just as complex and overwhelming.

If there is one distinct feature of this social dimension of the emerging urban reality, it is the increasing diversity of the city's residents. Immigration adds ethnic diversity and continues to create ethnic enclaves. Regional migration creates geographic subcultures, and divisions along color lines reinforce their own kind of diversity. Communities forged along lines of generational or sexual preference have emerged and will continue to be important.

A look at and into corner shops or neighborhood shopping malls can reveal the cosmopolitan character of the evolving city. They are places where the material needs and desires of their customers are catered to. Attractive, intriguing, descriptive window displays and outside signage not only advertise what products are being sold but who would most likely frequent a particular shop. Koreans have transformed neighborhoods into their own likeness in Los Angeles just as Indians and Pakistanis have in London. Immigrants from Asia have established colonies in all the major cities. Indeed, this hyper-mobility has been a huge factor in the creation of a world without borders.

One of the tragic specters of the pursuit of happiness translated into purely economic and material terms is the people living on the streets. Homeless people may not have access to secure lodging; nevertheless, they need a sense of identity and place, well as a sense of community and belonging. Their make-shift “urban camps” are considered an eyesore to some; however, few of us would actually walk up to them and intrude into their space. The uses of space by homeless persons demonstrate that while the urban landscape is constructed with solid materials, it is the people of the city that make the built substance malleable.

Our use of space is evidence of that reality. For example, youth are quite adept at modifying space. When standard sitting places prove inadequate, they sit on other structures like low free-standing walls. Once that act is executed that space is converted: the wall is now a bench and the bench itself a footstool. Public space can become intimate space when a romantic kiss is exchanged. A blank wall on a building becomes the canvas of freelance artists or the space to declare the territorial influence of a local youth gang. Urbanites change space, free up space, convert space—working into it who they are and revealing what they are about.

The Spiritual Dimension of the New Urban Landscape
Religious traditions—the spiritual dimension of the urban context—provide yet another and, perhaps, rhe most provocative layer of texture built into the landscape. Traditional and established Judeo-Christian forms of religion are still very present. Their places of worship remain impressive in their architectural style, but the activities inside are increasingly disappointing in appeal and often disconnected from the change around them. However, contrary to popular thought, the built environment testifies that religion is alive and well in the emerging urban world.

While historic forms of religion continue to attend to the spiritual needs of their constituencies, they now have to be understood in relation to a host of different and evolving religious expressions. As people move to a new land or city, they carry with them their beliefs and understanding of the sacred. It should not be too surprising to find, even in the most prosaic of neighborhoods, transplanted expressions of world religions and sects. Asian architectural design may reveal a Buddhist temple in the new community. A Muslim tower on the urban horizon testifies to the growing global presence of the Islamic faith in the city.

The built environment further demonstrates that the religious community is not only about effecting how people live their lives, but about converting buildings and space as new expressions of that transformation. In the middle of Los Angeles, for example, two blocks from a Holiness church, one block from a former synagogue (now a Korean Presbyterian church), four blocks from a historic Presbyterian church, three blocks from the founding Church of Religious Science, a vacated mortuary is transformed into an Islamic Center. Every Friday afternoon at their appointed hour of worship, the neighborhood becomes a Muslim community. Scenes like these punctuate the urban landscape—ever transforming and converting space into sacred place.

Christians are among the faithful writng their signature onto the landscape. Examples abound:

  • a former movie theater is now a Christian bookstore
  • an entertainment auditorium becomes a place of worship
  • a former auto repair shop offers spiritual sanctuary
  • a duplex is remodeled into a house church with an education center

A neighborhood house in central Los Angeles is now the international headquarters of the Evangelical Holiness Mission Center of America, just two houses up from the Buddhist Center. Who is evangelizing whom? The answer is not clear, but the evidence in the landscape suggests that buildings are indeed being converted. But not all conversions are successful or permanent. The multi-layered signage on an empty corner facility in south Los Angeles reveals that over a few years time it was a pub, then a repair shop, and was converted to a church before becoming vacant space.

Religious structures are converted as well. Traditional structures take on new forms as old-line congregations open their doors to other ethnic groups and faith expressions. We see not only different ethnic groups residing in the same community, but even their respective religious expressions coming together, if not to worship in concert then at least to share the same roof. A Lutheran church in Hollywood shares its facility with a Korean Reform church. A Pentecostal church shares space with a Korean Presbyterian church. A Disciples' congregation jointly celebrates in their facility the Jewish High Holy Days with a Jewish congregation. Religious structures may also be converted into secular space, as in the increasing occurrence of former Catholic or Episcopal sanctuaries becoming microbreweries or distinctive restaurants.

These new religious expressions in the built environment point to the irreducible fact of religious pluralism and other sources of cultural diversity that greatly increase the significance of the question about the locus of Christianity. In other words, given these global transfigurations, what is the role of the Christian faith community in this emerging urban world?

This question will be answered in Part 2. The Challenge for the Christian Church: New Roles in the Urban Context.

Rev. Michael A. Mata has extensive experience in urban-related programs, and his skills and expertise lie in developing practical approaches to faith-based community development, congregational redevelopment, transcultural ministry, and community conflict transformation. His research interests include social-cultural analysis of the urban landscape and assessing the social ecology of religious institutions in urban communities. He currently serves as the urban development director for World Vision U.S. Domestic Programs and provides assistance in the areas of community engagement and collaboration.