Do We Idolize the Brokenness?

FencesI was 17 and living in my small town with two stoplights when I declared I wanted to grow up and become an urban missionary. And I was 19 when I left college to spend a year serving in downtown Atlanta. It was a crash course on life in the margins, and I was hooked. Living among the poor was where I learned to be an adult, where my faith was challenged and deepened, and where my understanding of the world as it is was formed.

After a few years in school and other cities, my husband and I bought our home back in Atlanta seven years ago. At that time, almost a third of the houses in our neighborhood were boarded up and abandoned. They’d been mined for copper and become makeshift shelters or places to hide nefarious business dealings from the public eye.

We joined a group of Christian community developers already at work creating spaces of mixed income housing, economic opportunity, youth programs, and more. They were doing transformational work, and we were excited to be a part as intentional neighbors in the community. I was living out the dreams of my youth.  

But after seven years, here’s the thing. Our neighborhood is changing.

A small coffee shop has stayed open and provided community space for socializing and local meetings. Artists have repurposed rundown buildings for creativity. We’d been a food desert for decades, but a year ago, a local market opened. That may or may not sound like a big deal, but after years of half-hour car rides (or hours longer on the bus) for milk, these are signs to my neighbors and me that our community is being restored. It’s coming back to life.

And what if it does?   

Urban renewal and gentrification are not new ideas. And many who care about the poor worry that an influx of new homeowners, ice cream shops, and well-supported schools will push out longtime residents to a new place of margin. This concern is valid and important.

In our neighborhood, though, fifteen years of conscious community development has come alongside current residents to prepare them to navigate the inevitable transition that is happening all over the country. Many of my neighbors own their own homes thanks to a housing agency that’s been quietly selling affordable homes and offering low interest loans. Some residents have purchased second properties to keep affordable rentals available. And the new grocery store hires locally and offers a product mix that serves recent and longtime neighbors alike. Shoppers can find hummus and pickled pig’s feet, local honey and loaves of white bread. In such a small store, the intentionality is clear.

My neighbors on the margins are being included in the mainstream renewal of our community, so isn’t that a good thing? I mean, of course it’s a good thing! I feel both hopeful and delighted. And yet, I also find myself questioning, wondering about my own place in this revitalization.   

Does my identity come from living in a neighborhood where outsiders would drive through with locked doors? That hardcore 17 year old who proclaimed she’d live her life in the margins—will she feel like a failure if the neighborhood is restored? Have I been here because I really want to see change or because I’ve wanted to be seen as doing something radical? Somewhere along the way, I had created a message that “doing hard things” was the way of following Jesus. And while that’s not entirely untrue, perhaps I had accidentally replaced my desire to follow Jesus with a search for suffering and sacrifice.

It makes me wonder if my theology idolizes brokenness and suffering and sacrifice without relationship to healing and redemption. Do I understand the death of Good Friday, but forget all about the joy of Resurrection Sunday? If my sense of self requires my neighborhood to stay disenfranchised so I may be validated, that is a serious problem.

But I am convicted that this work is not about me. I always hope to seek justice for and suffer with the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, but I also want to recognize and embrace the redemption present before my very eyes. I want to enjoy the renewal in our midst and fully celebrate this season of restoration in my community.  We are witnessing the redemptive work of God in our schools, streets, and neighborhood spaces so this is our time to dance together and proclaim the goodness of God.

Sarah Quezada

Sarah is a writer and nonprofit professional living in Atlanta, Georgia. She shares life with her Guatemalan husband and provides unlimited snacks to two kids whose legs are surely full of granola bars and string cheese by now. Sarah writes about social justice, family, and living across cultures on her blog, A Life with Subtitles. She loves to connect with new friends on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • These are such good questions to be asking. There aren’t easy answers but the fact that you are asking matters. I know just what you mean being someone that has worked in the international community and had these same thoughts. Keep asking and above all, keep coming to Him and let Him refine your motivations. He knows your heart. By the way, I live on the south side. I would love to visit your community sometime!

    • Wow – what a small world! That’s so fun, and we’d love to have you visit!

  • You share important insight here. Good questions to pose, ones I will ponder too. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Debby. I imagine I will still be pondering it, too. 🙂

  • Becky Lehman

    I love that I knew you as that wide-eyed 19 year old and that I know you today, Sarah 🙂 Your wrestling with these big questions is good and right and I look forward to following your journey from afar.

    It brings me great joy to hear about the restoration and healing in your community. Soak it in, Sarah, for it IS a gift from God! Look up, for redemption is near! Breathe it in, celebrate it with those around you who you love and who love you…belonging and community and growth are happening where many would find it completely unexpected. THAT is the work of God; proclaiming and celebrating God’s goodness is its own kind of ministry. Blessings to you…

    • I’m so thankful for the parts of the journey we’ve been able to travel together, Becky!

  • Stephanie Thompson

    Such great and reflective questions Sarah. I like to think through these issues as well (although my husband tires of me always questioning…:)) It sounds like your neighborhood has thought out the implications of renewal and gentrification. Members of the community remained in the community-which is what it’s about. Renewal for the sake of a powerful few results in a broken community. Jesus’ resurrection proclaimed a new vision of community-one that unites us despite our differences.

    • Yes, absolutely. There is so much goodness of God to recognize in this season for our community. Glad to know I’m not the only one thinking about all the questions. 🙂

  • Very interesting post! The defeat of success, if you will! I totally empathize because I also have a “you must do hard things” mentality. I am sure that although you are seeing success now, you did see moments of defeat and uncertainty along the way. So you have fought the good fight, run the good race – enjoy it! Maybe God will have you stay to continue building, or maybe He will have you move on to the next project – but now is the time to savor!

    • Yes, we have definitely had our share of failures and hurts along the way. Thanks for the encouragement to enjoy the renewal happening now. It is a delight!

  • What a great question and a beautiful reflection, Sarah.

  • Marie Gregg

    Do we idolize brokenness? I believe we do. You speak here in terms of physical poverty and development, but I’m thinking about all of the people (myself included) who choose to stay stuck in spiritual poverty and victimhood because we get something out of it. Either way, literal or figurative, we fear that we’ll lose something if we do the work of healing as God leads. Good words here; I’ll be chewing on them for awhile.

    • Thank you, Marie. Yes, I agree that we can be drawn to suffering because we get something out of it or are afraid we’ll lose something if healing occurs. But goodness, the restoration of the Lord is sweet. I’m realizing I don’t want to miss out on that part! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • You bring up an interesting thought, and I wonder how many times in my own life I have understood “…the death of Good Friday, but forget all about the joy of Resurrection Sunday?” We need to remember as you said that it’s not about us but the redemptive work of God in so many areas. Thanks for giving us food for thought. Blessings to you!