|Looking south down into Sheridan Hollow from Clinton |
Street in Arbor Hill. The Cathedral is the red brick building
just poking out over the trees.
Arbor Hill is definitely an inner city neighborhood. It is poor, and most of the residents are minorities. Though it has pretty places here and there, it's not a pretty neighborhood by any reasonable standard. Block after block of cracked and uneven sidewalks on Clinton Avenue, the main thoroughfare, are littered with boarded up buildings, scraps of paper, black plastic bags and the occasional bit of rusted metal. Virtually the only businesses are derelict and disreputable looking convenience stores with sun faded advertisements pasted to grimy windows. Few if any of these sell fresh produce. Still, Arbor Hill is the real reason I came to Albany.
My wife tells me that every time I go to Arbor Hill and come back, I seem a little more animated and joyful. When I am discouraged and frustrated by ministry (which happens even in joyful times) a walk in Arbor Hill lifts my spirits. Sitting on a bench at the corner of a busy intersection, where the paper plates and plastic bags rustle with the autumn leaves around my feet, I am happy. This is where God wants me to to be.
I don't think this has anything to do with pity for a poor neighborhood, still less with 'white guilt,' two condescending emotions that have never had much motivating power for me. As I have tried to articulate why I like Arbor Hill so much, and why I want to minister there so much, help has come from an unexpected source. My friends know that I have, in the last year or so developed a strong devotion to the anonymous author who wrote under the name Dionysius the Areopagite. They are probably growing sick of hearing about how great Dionysius is; they better get used to keeping the bicarbonate of soda about though, because I'm going to continue talking about him.
Dionysius is a very abstract writer, who uses the language and a not a few of the concepts of Neo-Platonism. He was not someone I initially read to be encouraged about urban ministry, but mainly to satisfy more academic and personal interests.
He surprised me though. I was in a laundromat one day in Arbor Hill, waiting for a load of clothes to finish the spin cycle, and I had brought along a book to read in case there was no one else at the laundry. I was struck by this passage from Dionysius' The Divine Names.
The very Author of all things, by the beautiful and good love of everything, through an overflow of His loving goodness, becomes out of Himself, by His providences for all existing things, and is, as it were, bewitched by goodness and charity and love, and is led down from the Eminence above all, and surpassing all, to being in all... Wherefore, those skilled in Divine things call Him even Jealous... (Divine Names IV. 13)
The metaphysical background of this text is complex, and the meaning has to be carefully parsed, for certain. But that background is not what I am interested in right now. At the time, reading this was like having a light turned on. It struck me, not as a theoretical description of providence or the relation that obtains between the world and God, but as a vivid reality; the terrifying and beautiful reality that God is ecstatically, extravagantly in love with what he has made.
The rest of the afternoon walking around Arbor Hill, light might as well have poured through the cracks in those uneven sidewalks. Dionysius had put words around something I already knew on an inarticulate level: God desires Arbor Hill. God longs for this neighborhood, and his longing makes it lovely. God's is present to whatever he loves, with, in and through the objects of his love, transfiguring them with the light of Christ.
Of course, this is true of any person, any place, any neighborhood. Still, there are times and places when God shows us, vividly, intensely, the truth of what we already hold in some abstract way. I think that's why I love Arbor Hill, myself. God has let me get a little glimpse of his own love for this neighborhood, a taste of his desire and his delight, and so a sense of his transfiguring love for the place. That, in my mind, is the definition of my own call to Arbor Hill.
As for the the Areopagite, I am not trying to suggest that every urban missionary read The Divine Names. He is a generally controversial figure, and many theologians more learned than I are very critical of his thought. Others simply find his writings too obscure and theoretical to be of much help. I know he wouldn't do so for everyone, but he did give me the words to think and talk about some of these things. Of course, that's part of why I love his writings so much; not just because they satisfy an intellectual enthusiasm, but because they seem to me to be written by someone who really was enthralled by the love of God, with a gentle passion to share that love with others. For my money that makes a theologian worth reading and a saint worth imitating.