Just another day in Paradise (or Philadelphia)?

Last week, after students returned to clean out their desks and men from the community dismantled everything from the ballfield backstops to the roadside fence, an early morning crew with heavy equipment dismantled the boarded-up West Nickel Mines School in Bart Township, Lancaster County. It was carefully hauled away by truck to a landfill with no trace left behind or left along the way to be sold later by some strange entrepreneurial thrill-seeker on E-bay.

And last week, there was a series of murders in West Philadelphia’s Kingsessing neighborhood with no way to remove the memories or bulldoze the buildings. The city’s tally of murders went past 300 in the same week the Amish girls were killed by Charles Carl Roberts. The same week that Roberts’ pastor at Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church suggested that this kind of thing, these kind of murders, this kind of senseless death doesn’t happen in Lancaster County. It happens instead, she suggested 75 miles east in Philadelphia.

For the last year, I have made Philadelphia my home. I have heard the tales of how the city feels slighted, forsaken and feared by its suburban neighbors. I have grown to understand that fear somewhat, having more locks on my house than ever and even this week altered an evening walk after reading the crime report for my zipcode. And I read this week about how Philadelphia is poor, uneducated and violent in an article from the Inquirer. These are the sorts of things that happen in Philadelphia—an infant is the 300th murder; a five year old dies when a bullet finds her inside of her mother’s car; two senior citizens are killed in Kingsessing accidentally; two 17-year olds die. It’s just another week or two in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Sunday after the shootings, I went to hear my pastor at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, in one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. He spoke of the Amish and the power of forgiveness. He dared us not to beatify the Amish, but beckoned us to live that same life of powerful forgiveness in this city of violence and fear. All many of us can think of is how sad it is that these innocent Amish girls died in Bart Township, that they didn’t deserve it. Pastor Leonard suggested that maybe this is a tipping point, maybe people will pay attention to gun violence now.

But it’ll be two weeks tomorrow and the death count in Philadelphia continues to tally at an alarming rate. And no one, anywhere, seems to care or to even have any sort of clue about what to do. As a staff member of the Mennonite Church, for one of its Philadelphia region entities (Franconia Conference), I am stunned by our ability to coordinate efforts; of my credit union, Mennonite Financial, to disburse funds to help the families; of Blooming Glen Mennonite Church to organize a prayer gathering; of Penn Foundation to compile a list of websites and resources for dealing with trauma and of Mennonite Disaster Service’s ability to corral counselors and set up funds. I am stunned by the outpouring of compassion, of the willingness of hospitals to write off the care for the Amish girls; of the rapid collection of what will likely end up over a million dollars. I don’t begrudge any of it. In fact I am proud (at least as proud as Mennonite clergy should be) about how quickly we organized and helped and processed.

But I wonder, here, in my Mt. Airy carriage house what it would take for us to mobilize in any way at all in response to the violence that’s escalating in this city. Mennonite Central Committee along with leaders from Anabaptist churches here in Philly are hosting a Packing for Peace Conference just up the road in a few weeks. It’s an admirable event, a first step towards equipping to be peacemakers. I am grateful for that.

But I am still so uncomfortable with how we don’t seem to care for this city that lies at our communal doorsteps, lodged between the pristine farmland of Lancaster and the burgeoning suburbs of Bucks and Montgomery Counties. An old book that I’ve been reading about Quaker Philadelphia suggested that the peace church folks who helped establish this city emphasized inner piety rather than outward care beyond their own communities. It was an environment of religious tolerance and grace that led to a lack of responsibility and care that eventually let the fabric of the city not only come apart at the seams, but actually (and continually) be ripped asunder.

So here I am living just blocks away from the historic Germantown Mennonite meetinghouse, within walking distance of Rittenhouse Town, the home of Willliam Rittenhouse, the first North American Mennonite bishop whose legacy of meshing communication and church leadership I live within centuries later. And I am provoked by my pastor’s sermon, his stirring assertion that what happened in Lancaster County might affect what happens to us here.

I hope Pastor Leonard is right. I hope we can find a way to responsibly care for this city that provides the impetus for high land values for those of us who live just beyond its boundaries. And I hope we do it soon. I am not sure I can bear too many more readings of the crime report, of guns being pulled on persons walking a couple of blocks from my house in mid-day and before sunset. I’ve already ventured a look at housing beyond the city’s limits. It’s not that I don’t think a bit of fear and frustration about what has and is happening here is appropriate. I just hope that we can find ways to not only care, but to have some of the powerfully mobilized compassion that I saw two weeks ago that brought forth embodied grace in a situation that seemed only to be hopeless.