Land Use Drama: Battling for the Common Good

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I was trying to explain to one of my coworkers some of the ins and outs of City Planning. While doing so, I must have used the word “land use.” “Tell me more about land use” he said curiously. Mmmmmm, well it’s about how we use land, where things are placed in the community and for what/whom – housing, recreational facilities, restaurants, parks etc. At my last office, when there was some big fuss about what to do with some piece of land or the design of the building…I would say “Land Use Drama!” As I have been walking around my neighborhood, I have gleaned a bit of information about land use drama here, about the battles and dissention over what to do with land in our this city.

The Stadium in Shockhoe Bottom

While I am on my morning walks around Church Hill, there are two different signs in the yards of a set of neighbors, one in support of the minor league baseball stadium in Shockoe bottom and those against. It made me wonder what kind of people support such an endeavor and what kind of are against it, their values and interests. I just got here, but it seems odd to place a baseball stadium pretty much in the middle of an urban fabric, even if that fabric needs some work in order to become thriving. I like small street blocks, old brick buildings and history…i.e. quaint character that can’t be replicated. I am also for development and redevelopment and the economic development potential it brings. The fight in this case seems to be between economic development, much needed redevelopment and investment AND history, the history of a slave trade, the most historic part of the city and the original grid. Cities are bombarded with these battles both historically and presently. Over the entrance of our office building is the quote from Jeremiah, admonishing us to “see the peace of the city.” I wonder what it means to be a peace maker in the mist of such drama. It makes me want to find a way to renew and propsper without demolishing history and create development that both honors the past and takes us into the future. Or maybe just get people around a table instead of on either sides of things.

The Libby Park View

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My favorite walk is about a ½ mile down Grace Street, turning on 28th and reaching Libby Park. Libby Park has by far the best view of Richmond that I have seen. It is supposedly responsible for the naming of Richmond, as the founder of the city thought the view was similar to a town called Richmond on the Thames in England. This sign indicated that there was a proposed development to build a condo building that would block this important view. This yet again creates a schism between those for and against. I love the view and hope to stays, but I also realize how important development is not blocking a view is hard to write into a zoning law or enforce.

Gentrification and Mixed Use Housing

My neighborhood, Church Hill is close to downtown and is perhaps one of the most up and coming neighborhoods in the city. It’s become attractive to young professionals and is gentrifying.\. Most people I chat with say that new condo developments, restaurants, bars and coffee shops have been popping up all over the place. Coffee shops and high-end restaurants are a sure sign of gentrification which on the flip side means renewal in a sense, but renewal that benefits whom? Redevelopment has its obvious benefits, but this also comes with costs. Often that cost is displacement and amenities that do not benefit existing residents who are often lower income and/or people of color. Neighborhood change is inevitable and I don’t think it’s a bad thing per se, but it often happens in a way that is not for the good of all, the common good.

There are also plans and public meetings about the redevelopment of one of the city’s largest public housing projects in Church Hill (Creighton Court, 500 units) to create a 1200 unit mixed income community. Mixed income communities are those in which the residential units have a mixture of public housing units, affordable units and market rate units. It’s a method to deconcentrate poverty and delude some of its effects on a neighborhood, upgrade housing, promote homeownership and bring into a community the social and economic benefits of middle income households. They are a good idea, but I wonder the result of putting people who are different races and classes (with different norms, values and tastes) together without a conscious effort to bridge these gaps. On one hand it’s good to occupy the same space, as there is potential for relationship, but I can also imagine there will be clashes in culture and class. Moreover, housing is only one piece of the puzzle in combatting poverty, I hope the services and greater access to employment will follow.

All of this land use drama invokes deep questioning in me about division, about race and class, redevelopment, renewal and how we live together with different views and competing interests for the common good. Working for the peace and prosperity of the city involves thinking through and about these land use decisions, battles and the issues we face and their consequences on the entire community but especially on the least among us. I think sometimes people of faith think working for justice or the thriving of the city means doing charity, but maybe it means understanding the larger fabric of the city and being involved in decision making processes that could result in its benefit…working for the common good. I am glad we pray for the healing and thriving of the city daily, these battles remind me that we need prayer, we need God and we need a new way of being to live in peace. When I pray for the coming of the kingdom, I think about both preserving beauty and history, about economic prosperity and decent housing for all, about diversity and uniqueness all wrapped up into one big vision. I’m reminded that it’s not my vision, but God’s vision.

Poverty and Riches

I’ve lived here 5 weeks now and life is really starting to kick into gear.I enjoy the work, it exhausting yet exhilarating. It’s basically prayer for the city and working for the flourishing of the city in the area of public transit and then working to provide hospitality for retreat guests all rolled into one place. I had a long week. We had back to back retreats, so I had to do my chores twice. We also partnered with a few organizations to host a speaker from the best BRT system in the nation and had 4 community meetings in about 18 hours. My week ended with co-hosting a retreat with 2-3 other residents.  As a cohost, we have to s check guests in and out, lead prayers, make coffee and popcorn, orient guests and answer their questions and set up and clean up during meals. Try washing dishes for 40 people for 6 meals. It’s intense.

This weekend we had the Lay Order of Discalced Carmelites with us. They are men and women who joined the order as lay persons and have dedicated themselves to chastity, obedience and poverty. I sat next to a nursing professor who had been a lay Carmelite for 13 years. She originally wanted to become a nun after her husband died, but she couldn’t bear the idea of not being able to see her grandson, so she joined the lay order. I asked her what it means for her to take a vow of poverty while she is still working and a professor nonetheless, teaching and writing nursing textbooks. “Oh, poverty of spirit, it’s harder I think than living in poverty with no possessions, I don’t buy things I don’t need and a lot of my income goes to charity.” Her textbook royalties go to the church and she says her refrigerator is mostly empty because she only buys what she needs in the way of food. The same thing goes for clothes and other things in her life. I wonder what society would be like if more people did not take more than they needed in life, from others, from the earth, or at least reduced the unnecessary stuff in their lives. There is a lot of unnecessary stuff in our lives that goes beyond possessions. I like the idea of living a lean life in order to make space for more of the things that really matter.

Simplicity is one of the rules of life here, living without excess. We all live on a small income, so it’s a kind of holy poverty. Moving here I realized just how attached I was to my stuff, how much of my identity is synced with my title and income. There is nothing wrong with stuff and having a good income, but after only a month without these things I still feel rich in spirit, life and relationships. Sometimes you can just see more clearly without the excess. My lay Carmelite friend seemed to have a vibrant life as well…she visits the sick, she gives to the poor, she teaches out of her wisdom in nursing and she speak with a smile. Her refrigerator is empty, but she seems rich. Likewise, my life here is full with work, prayer, hospitality and more work, but it too feels rich…so rich I am tired. It’s a good tired though, the kind you feel from doing good work, as simple as washing peoples dishes so they can rest and pray and as broad as getting a city jazzed about being well connected (to others, jobs, and cultural resources) through public transportation.

All this work reminds me that I can’t do everything, so I must say no to some things in order to be fully here and make space for other things that are important for me. I am going through this book that is about merging our inner monk with our creativity. One of the reflection questions this week is “what do you need to say “no” to in your life to make space for this commitment and time of prayer and creativity?”  This reminded me that in our busy and cluttered lives, homes, hearts and minds, creating space for God, for the things that matter most and for simple richness requires intentionality and commitment.

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I was thinking this week about those posters that are about professions and a put together one for myself that characterizes my time here so far:

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What my friends think I do: live in a monastery

What my mom thinks I do: pray and live at a retreat center

What society thinks I do: there is no definition

What I think I do: merge my love of the city with my spirituality

What I actually do: wash dishes, make beds, lead prayer – network and manage communications to promote/advocate for Bus Rapid Transit.

 

 

Free Hugs

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On Tuesday morning, I came in the kitchen to make boiled eggs for breakfast. I said hello to Ms. Patricia who is one of our two Hospitality Assistants. She makes most of our lunches during the week when we have groups. Great lunches by the way, homemade chicken fingers, mac and cheese and red velvet cookies are just a few items from her menus. I am sure to gain at least 10 lbs while I am here, but I digress. After I said hello and went about my business looking for a pot, Ms. Patricia looked over at David, our tall young administrator and said “She hasn’t learned yet has she?” I was taken aback and thought I had done something wrong in the kitchen. I stood frozen with a dumbfounded “huh?” At that moment, she smiled and came toward me with open arms and went in for a hug. “Ohhhhh, I’m sorry. I TOTALLY forgot.” I had been warned my first week that Ms. Patricia is a hugger. A greeting without a hug is just unacceptable. “Now you can go about your business” she said. And I did smiling, feeling a little tickled and a bit of a pep in my step.

There is a saying by Virginia Satir, a respected family therapist, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” I am glad I have somewhere to go for at least a few hugs a week, and good hugs at that. Ms Patricia gives the kind of hugs that make you feel comforted and fully embraced, a hug that lingers a bit. I wish more people gave hugs like that, and were not afraid to embrace one another.I wonder if the way a person hugs says something about them. Some people are not good huggers, they give awkward hugs, rigid hugs, side hugs (I slightly against these, but tolerate them), hugs where you barely touch. I read that a proper hug happens when hearts are pressing together. This kind of hug can boost happiness, strengthens the immune system, increases trust and security and the benefits go on (click here to read about 10 of them). I am glad that Ms. Patricia greets with a hug, a heart to heart hug. I reminds me that I am seen and fully received even though everything around me is still fairly foreign. Her touch awakened me from my morning trance and forced me into a moment of giving and receiving. It felt holy and it made this place feel a little more like home.

The Great I AM and Peculiar Me

Our old testament reading for last week was in the book of Exodus. It’s Moses’ first encounter with God, the call to go tell Pharaoh to free the children of Israel and God proclaiming himself as IAM. Wednesday morning was the 4th time that I had heard it read. My friend Will said to me the other day, “anything happening 3 times is a sign that God is trying to tell you something, the 4th is kind of like smacking you over the head.” So I asked myself, what does God want to tell me through this story?

This chapter has revealed several things to me. What comes to mind first is the absurdity of God. He comes in a burning bush and calls an old man who is shepherding on the edge of the dessert to go tell the Pharaoh to end slavery. Huh? The way that God works through everyday people is astonishing and sometimes laughable, but I like how God can use the underqualified and ill equipped to do mighty things. This passage also made me realize that God will find you (Moses had run away from Egypt and Pharaoh’s house many years before), that your call with find you or perhaps you will even stumble upon either God or your call when you are doing something rather ordinary. That sounds like good news to me. I can stop worrying about my calling, God will speak when it is the right time, either it will find me or perhaps I will stumble upon it while I am being present to my life. I can also stop trying to come up with excuses of why I can’t do something, God, the great I AM will certainly be with me.

At our Wednesday Bible study we had a lively discussion of God’s response to Moses’ request for HIS name…“IAM WHO I AM.” DeBorah’s interpretation resonated with me. Maybe God was saying that He is being itself, He is reality and the ground of our being. His name, “I AM,” revealed His eternal, self-existent, and all-encompassing sufficiency. A powerful force both with me and within me ignites enough strength for me to say yes to God, yes to joining him on an often scary and overwhelming journey. Perhaps I can stop fixating on what I am not, or what I do not have and go with God.

The preacher at our worship service gave us three directives from this passage… to face God, face our mortality and embrace our own peculiarity. This last statement struck me, as I have been thinking about embracing my own oddity this year. Moving to a monastery is an odd thing as is wanting to live in intentional community in the age of individualism and desiring less in the age of consumerism. Despite the status quo, I have had to embrace my unique desires. Ultimately, I am attracted to the Rule of Life here, the 12 statements around which we hope to live our lives around and set the intention of living into. Many of these statements reflect the things I want to pursue (social transformation, racial reconciliation, stability, prayer), the kind of person I want to become (humble, . Moving here was an act of embracing the unique desires of my heart, my own peculiarity. I was chatting at a coffee shop with a new friend on Monday. Toward the end of our conversation she said, “Wow, you are a really interesting person, you have really lived outside of the box.” Sometimes this out of the boxness causes me grief because I often wonder where I belong or if maybe I am crazy. Lately though, I have felt compelled to just receive myself and so I could really do nothing in response to her but smile, receive her words and agree. I am reminded of the scripture that leads me to believe that being peculiar is a good thing, I can receive this as well:

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Stability, Freedom and Wonder

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This the beginning of my third week here and I think I have adjusted quite well. Most of my friends and family have asked questions about how I like Richmond and what it has been like getting used to the rhythm of intentional community. The short answer is I really like Richmond and the same goes for living at Richmond Hill. Maybe it is being in a new place, but something in me feels lighter and freer than I have in a very long time. Space has opened up in my heart and mind for something new and that fullness/emptiness feels exuberant. With everything being so new, I have been able to recover my exploratory spirit, to wander with wonder. hat is priceless. Lastly, there is some level of uncertainly about my life and experience here that feel exciting while the structure and rhythm of community is comforting. Structure, Freedom and Wonder… a great recipe for a type A, free spirit. 

What I like best? Well that is what this blog post is about.

City Life

Richmond or RVA as it is affectionately called, I think I might be falling for pretty hard and fast. I has a lot of history, nature and culture. Right down the block from me is the liberty trail, the slave trail, around the corner from me is where the lines “give me liberty or give me death” were spoken. There are also about 5 parks within walking distance from my house, the river is minutes away along with a bunch of restaurants and coffee shops…a great place for a Buppie (Black Urban Professional). It seems like a city with many issues, but a lot of promise. I want to get to know it’s past and present and I will be working and praying for its future. This fall I am going to a lecture series on the history of Richmond taking place at Richmond Hill, which will focus on its unhealed racial history. I will also get to participate in a training for people who want to lead dialogue around race and difference. I am excited about both. Culturally, I am looking forward to attending the many festivals that are happening this fall, the 2nd street African American Festival, the Indian Festival and the Folk Music Festival. Richmond seems to have good art and architecture, both of which I appreciate and believe enhance a city from a personal and professional perspective.

To get to know the city a bit, I am going to try to visit different coffee shops throughout the neighborhoods. Today, I am at the Globe Hopper,  its my 4th. They have a full menu, good day old muffins and my favorite type of iced tea — Hibiscus. So far, I have been to a free concert in the park put on by the Virginia Opera, Maymont Mansion and Park (great Chinese and Japanese gardens), walked/ran Canal Walk along the river, Forest Hill Farmer’s Market, free walking tour of downtown, a 80’s/90’s dance party and got a $2 movie at the restored Byrd Theater in Carytown. Fun stuff! Will, who is transitioning out of community here has been my coconspirator in some of these ventures, which has also been fun.

Community Life 

Community Life runs like a well oiled ship here, so all I had to really do is just on deck. I guess I am a quick study and/or was just ready to live in community, because it seems rather simple although it has a lot of moving parts. I like the sense of being a part of something that I believe in and the level of accountability and responsibility that entails. Much of our lives revolve around prayer and hospitality. I will lead prayer every Tuesday morning (again very simple, but a good amount happens in those 15 minutes), help with cleaning up after dinner twice a week, co- host a retreat two weekends a month and have cleaning assignments. Will loves to wash dishes and calls it “getting his Brother Lawrence on”, he is a red headed future pastor that loves puns. Linda hates making beds but uses it as a time of prayer and communion with God, she is always smiling and grateful. I made beds on the 2nd floor last week and I think I agree with Linda on that one. I’ll be taking out trash and dusting from now on. My other assignment is keeping the Chapel clean…vacuuming, dusting, cleaning glass. It’s not glamorous, but necessary. All 10 of us, from Director to Service Corps Members (that is what I am) do it. There is a sense of humility that comes with hospitality. I appreciate that, it all seems meaningful and collective. Aside from all of this, we all have other jobs within the organization. Rapid Transit is what I will be working on. Richmond is 92 out of 100 of the nation’s top cities as it relates to public transportation, so I am happy to be a part of a visionary movement to increase access and connection in a racially and economically divided region.

Relationally, I really like everyone. We range from 28 to 73 years old think, black and white and a range of denominations. I like the ecumenism, as I have gone to a few different churches and don’t know exactly where I fit. It doesn’t seem to matter so much here for those who live here or those who visit us. A woman that I had lunch with this weekend was overjoyed by her first experience of a black woman serving communion, that was beautiful to hear her reflect on. Our Monday worship service is diverse, denominationally and about 50/50 black white.  It’s a unique space within the community and I am delighted to take it all in and have some small part in the mechanics.

Generally, it I feels like we all have our own personal space and we come together to invite people into our larger communal space. They pray and eat with us, have meetings, walk the gardens, chat with us, retreat, receive and go home. We keep our home clean for them and our hearts open to them. Simple, although ALOT of things have to happen to make that a reality. I appreciate the focus and the freedom, the rhythm and the spontaneity, the vision/purpose but also the spirit of discernment that pervades this place. It has provoked both a light heartedness and a sense of solidity in me.