Help Students Engage Their Cities
Teaching young people about the power of place
Photo by Miles Actually.
It was the beginning of the summer, and twenty students and leaders sat on the steps outside of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. They were waiting for me to introduce them to the city of Los Angeles, where they would be spending the next week serving various local non-profit organizations. This was their first trip to L.A.
I spent three hours walking and talking with them through downtown, helping them to experience the city through God’s eyes. I gave them tools with which to understand what they were seeing, and challenged them to ask questions and to be attentive to what was all around them. I began the city walk as I always do, with my own story.
Seventeen years ago I prayed: “Anywhere but L.A.” I was praying to God about the next season of my life. Any city was appealing to me except Los Angeles. After all, why would anyone want to live there? L.A. is dirty, crowded, and dangerous.
God has a sense of humor. Today my life and work in the city is focused on engaging and educating people about Los Angeles through city walks and immersion experiences. It has been a wonderful journey of learning more about the city while watching others discover the city for the first time. And now I love this city.
As the walk began, we arrived at the Biddy Mason wall. Biddy was a former slave who not only gained her freedom, but also was an early Los Angeles landowner and a founding member of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in LA. We were inspired by her courage and faith. When we walked into the historic 1893 Bradbury building, we were awed by the beauty of architecture and use of natural light. Entering into Grand Park near City Hall, we were refreshed by the huge fountain of water that gave relief from the heat. In the city there is both historical and spiritual heritage, and there are tangible indicators of God’s presence and peace.
Walking with students in the city has given me a unique lens through which to view it. They notice things that I don’t. They see the shades and colors, the joy, the play in the city. They also see the places of isolation and pain that I sometimes miss. Their tender hearts pick up on the hurt in the city.
Driving through a city does not allow us to join fully in the conversation with God and others happening in the city. Driving in a city doesn’t give us opportunity to see people and dialogue with them. On the other hand, I’ve found that walking in the city provides an opportunity for us to experience it with all of our senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). Historian and architect Dolores Hayden describes why cities matter based on her years of experience and research in The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. She examines how people can connect with the history and memory of a city, as well as how people relate to their communities. One of the ways we do this is by walking and being present in the city.
Why cities matter to God
In the beginning, God created.
God didn’t create in a vacuum, he created place and then created in that place. In the book of Genesis we read how God created the garden in which humans and all of creation would interact with each other and with God. Urban theologian Dr. Ray Bakke says, “Humanity’s story started in a garden but ends in a city.” Cities matter to God.
Got works, dwells, and redeems in a place. In John 1:14 “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message). In Jeremiah 29:4-7, God calls the exiled and relocated people to seek the peace of the city in which they now live. In the process, God would bring his peace upon them. God asks us not just to live in a city, but also to invest our lives in the city, build relationships, and dream in the city. Cities are mentioned over 1,200 times in the Bible. Cities are also now the places where people are dwelling in greater numbers. By 2030, some estimate that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities.
Colossians 1:16-20 tells of God’s reconciling nature. God redeems both people and places, making all things new. As we develop a “theology of place,” we become more committed to the community in which we live.
Why cities matter to young people
Youth long to make a difference and change the world, address injustices, and fight for freedom for the oppressed. God speaks to their passion by inviting them to journey with him in the city. As the artist Propaganda urges:
You can have a heart that breaks for a dying city, yet have nothing to offer them. Wait! There’s the problem: "Them!" There is no them. Them is us! Culture is you. It’s me. We. We’re our city. We’re the culture. So we too are the problem. And our Savior: He, he wasn’t a commuter. He moved in. He spoke the language of the broken. He spoke our language…. The culture is us. It’s you. We’re participants. How could we possibly be the solution? We need someone to move in! And, the Savior moved in. This is your city. He came and walked the streets of your soul. And you, in the same vein, must move in. You go. You pray that the gospel prospers. ‘Cause if it prospers, you will, too.
Learning about the city helps us to be more attentive to God’s presence and creates a theology that is God-honoring, people-honoring, and place-honoring. In the city there are countless opportunities to make a difference and seek God’s peace.
Young people are looking to the church to teach cultural discernment—ways to understand and translate culture as well as how they can make a difference. Teenagers have passions, but sometimes don’t know how to connect their hearts with action that brings change. We can give voice to this, and provide students opportunities to engage their passions with the city in ways that will change them and their communities.
When students engage their cities, they gain a greater sense of connection to their community, and grow in their own sense of well-being. Many of the Search Institute’s 40 developmental assets are about a student’s connectedness to their neighbors and neighborhood. Finally, students grow in understanding God’s heart for them as they see and experience God’s presence and heart for their cities.
Ways to engage students in their city
We don’t get connected by just reading or talking about a city. Research tells us that face-to-face interactions and relationships are what change us and our environments. For example:
One experiment performed by two researchers at the University of Michigan challenged groups of six students to play a game in which everyone could earn money by cooperating. One set of groups met for ten minutes face-to-face to discuss strategy before playing. Another set of groups had thirty minutes for electronic interaction. The groups that met in person cooperated well and earned more money. The groups that had only connected electronically fell apart, as members put their personal gains ahead of the group’s needs. This finding resonates well with many other experiments, which have shown that face-to-face contact leads to more trust, generosity, and cooperation than any other sort of interaction.
Here are a few practical next steps for helping students engage your city:
- Share with students what you love about your community. Ask your students to share their favorite thing about the city. Find ways to express God’s love your city and invite students in that process with you. (i.e. build relationship with and bless neighbors, pray in the city, beautification projects, etc.)
- Learn together from the history of your city. For example, make it a group project to gather information, interview key leaders and neighbors, and learn from historical figures. In the example of former slave-turned-landowner Biddy Mason mentioned earlier, she also spoke Spanish fluently, was generous, an influencer in the community, and showed bravery beyond her circumstances. In her story we find courage and strength for the challenges we face. But her story too often goes untold in our particular city. Cities offer us many learning opportunities like this as we engage with their histories, but sometimes we have to search for hidden stories like Mason’s.
- Create a city walk or prayer walk with your students (praying for city leaders, schools, and shared spaces). You can include a treasure hunt (seeking out gifts in the city) or look for symbols in the city (i.e. the cross, heart, dove, etc.). Provide tools for them to understand what they are seeing and experiencing. (FYI has created a sample guide for an urban prayer retreat experience to help you get started.)
- If you are a suburban youth leader outside of a city, find a conversation partner who is knowledgeable about and/or leads walking tours in your community or nearby community. You might also explore questions with students around how your particular suburban area developed. What history do you know? What are the similarities/differences to the city? What is the unique gift and identity of the suburban context? Perhaps do a city walk in the downtown core of both areas to compare and contrast.
- For those who serve in rural communities, identify the rhythms and seasons of your particular area. How is community experienced in your local setting? How are people and place defined? What are the natural and artificial boundaries? Walk and drive to various boundaries and landmarks (e.g. a lake, town square, historic landmark) and do something at each location to interact with the power of place.
We are called to love our cities, to be part of our communities, to seek their peace and to work on their behalf. Helping students to encounter God in the city makes God’s love real for us and our cities!
 Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).
 Propaganda, “Justice and the Gospel,” Live Verge 2012: May 21, 2012.
 Edward L. Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. Penguin Books, 2011.