Last Fall, I began a series on missional living entitled “From Strangers to Missionaries” where I share about a personal strategy to win my neighborhood and city for Christ. After several recent interactions and encouragements, I felt I needed to provide an update and write more about my journey. For a review of what I’ve written thus far, click here.
Why I Hated My City
During the first four years of living in my city, I went from confusion to frustration to hate. I was confused because I was told that I live “in paradise” (sunny Southwest Florida) in what was one of the fastest growing cities in the country. But when my family and I established our roots, the boom town had become the epicenter of the bursting of the housing bubble. During those four years, 14 out of the 17 houses on my street went into foreclosure or short-sale with another one never making it past the cinder block facade.
My confusion led to frustration because, not only did my city suffer the hardest in the foreclosure crisis, but news came out that we also had the worst job performance market in the top 100 metro areas in the country. The frustration stemmed from the economic incompetency of my city to do anything but increase taxes on its citizens. Those years were full of “foreclosure tours” around the city, planned city protests my citizens against its officials, and alarming reports of increasing numbers of people attempting (and committing) suicide.
Over time, my confusion and frustration spiraled into hate. I hated the fact that I live in a city that has no roots. Very few have lived here longer than one generation. I would say that 8 out of 10 have transplanted within the last 10-15 years. They have come from all over the north (Snowbirds becoming permanent residents), from the south (Hispanics and Haitians from the Caribbean), and from the East (Europeans). So many cultures and backgrounds and traditions, there is no one cultural narrative and therefore no real city identity. Everyone is fearful and skeptical of one another, and I live in a city where every neighbor may not only be from a different state but from a different country in the world.
My city is unique in that it is 90% first place (homes). We do not have a business district. We really don’t even have a downtown. We are one big grid on a map of homes and small businesses littered throughout. When the boom hit, dozens and dozens of home builders bought up vacant lots across the city to build houses. They built houses, not neighborhoods. Therefore a house could be built by one builder and have 15 vacant lots surrounding it with no neighbors close by (as is my case). The other unique factor is the canal system. We have over 400 miles of canals in our city, which causes some to call us the “Waterfront Wonderland.” But those very canals which cause so much appeal are one of the greatest dividing lines of separation to people who live in the city. It was hard for me to see them as beautiful when I knew they had become such a barrier.
So for the first four years, I came to hate my city. I hated it economically (no jobs, no business, no plans to change things). I hated it geographically (worst use of best land ever). I hated it relationally (no neighborhoods, highly transient community/no roots, socio-cultural barriers). I hated it because it created just about every possible barrier known to man to keep a city from flourishing. Our city was engineered to be a “bedroom community” so that 90% of the land is housing, but oddly enough this neighborhood had become littered with empty lots and vacant houses.
Dealing with My Hate
The feelings I had toward my city were never high-pitched. They were like a low-grade fever that persisted over a period of time but never left. The feelings just lingered, and I had resigned to thinking things would never change. I found myself investing more and more of my energy to ministry opportunities outside my city, including (ironically) conferences on mission and church planting. Perhaps it was a pacifier to my pain or a substitute for my neglect. Nevertheless, God was breaking me down and helping me realize that the problem inside my heart was far greater than any problem that existed in my city.
In November 2012, God awakened me to His promises and showed me my unbelief. He opened my eyes to see how little fruit existed in my life and how little love dwelt in my heart. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I did not want to come to terms with how I had lived, but God did. Over the next couple of months, God brought waves of brokenness and “truth to my inward parts” (Psalm 51). It was a turning point for my life in my city. Before there was to be movement “out there”, there had to be movement happening “in here” (my life). Everything outside may not change, but by God’s grace, I was going to change by walking in repentance in the city God was teaching me to love.
Things have not been entirely different since that time. Four months after this turning point, I had went through a period of wanting to give up, to move on to somewhere else, and get a fresh start on mission. But again, God would not let me get away with that. It has been and continues to be a battle, but I would not want to live another other way than to see strangers come to live as missionaries in the city I now love, with neighbors I now live so that the name of Jesus would be hallowed here as it is in heaven.