Many Christians are aware of this disconnect between their ethical intention and their daily reality, and seek to care for the strangers and the poor in more programmatic ways. Child sponsorship represents a less direct strategy and volunteering at the local food bank a more direct strategy for dealing with this problem. While I don’t want to dismiss the important work of child sponsorship organizations and food banks, I also don’t think that either strategy alone fully captures the mutual benefit of encountering the poor and the stranger on our own turf and dealing with the ethical dilemma that they represent as part of our everyday life.
For this reason, I believe that choosing to live in a neighbourhood that is mixed in income, mixed in use, and replete with inviting public spaces can be an important fundamental ethical decision. When we can walk from our home to the corner coffee shop or park with the realistic expectation of running into someone who is destitute in one way or another, we place ourselves in the uncomfortable realm of Christian decision making.
Neighbourhoods that maintain a place for the wider community and aspire to be more than “lifestyle enclaves” can be a significant school of discipleship for those who are willing to forgo some of the privacy and homogeneity of contemporary suburban living. I realize that the irony in even raising this question is that many urban neighbourhoods that seem to fit this description have become prohibitively expensive for many would-be residents. However, there continue to be a number of traditional neighbourhoods all across North America that, for one reason or another, have eluded the capricious attention of the real estate market and represent a realistic residential option for any number of Christian disciples. The recent decline of prices in many housing markets may also be bringing urban neighbourhoods back within an acceptable price range for some of us. And from a long-term perspective, I can’t think of any compelling reasons why the Christian community should support the current practice of building new communities that stifle Christian compassion.
How, then, shall we live? It’s an important question that should probably concern us for the rest of our lives. I’m simply suggesting that the answers that we formulate to this question might look very different depending on where, then, we choose to live.