I’ve told this story before. Maybe not on this blog, but I’ve told it before.
When I began seminary at the University of Chicago Divinity School, all new university students were given a variety of orientation presentations. The safety presentation was delivered by the head of the campus police department. At one point he outlined the borders of the Hyde Park neighborhood and said something to this effect: if you venture beyond these boundaries into the South Side neighborhoods surrounding Hyde Park you are putting your life at risk, so don’t go there.
Chillingly, it reminded me very much of the message I received when I began my studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem: if you venture into East Jerusalem you are putting your life at risk, so don’t go there.
Fortunately, the ministry program at the Div School took us on a tour of the South Side that ventured into the neighborhoods we were warned about. I specifically remember seeing some of the remnants of the infamous Robert Taylor Homes, already being dismantled and demolished.
It was also the case that my love of local food brought me into some of those neighborhoods on my own. If you want the best Chicago style ribs or rib tips, you go to the South Side. (Similarly, years before I had discovered that the best roasted chicken meals were to be found in East Jerusalem, where I also discovered a vibrant Palestinian culture from which my hosts at Hebrew University evidently wanted to shield me.)
Now I’m being introduced to another new city. Today I joined a group of new students UPSem students on an orientation trip to Richmond Hill, an ecumenical Christian community in a historic monastery in the Church Hill neighborhood. The original monastery was built after the Civil War to pray for the city and the community today continues to pray for Richmond and work for its transformation, with a special emphasis on racial reconciliation. I’ve heard much about this sacred place since arriving here and I was happy for this occasion to make my first visit.
The bulk of our time was spent listening to a fascinating history of Richmond from Ben Campbell, Richmond Hill’s recently retired director and author of Richmond’s Unhealed History, and John Moeser, an emeritus professor of urban studies and planning. Their presentation covered everything from John Smith in 1607 to contemporary efforts to develop more widespread and accessible public transportation. The issues of race, class, and segregation I became fascinated with in Chicago are all present here in Richmond. In fact, I feel like they are amplified because of the pivotal role this area has played in both aspects of America’s original sins: the theft of land from Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, not to mention the ongoing oppression of their descendants.
I can’t wait to traverse the boundaries of this city and explore more of Richmond, with all of its storied history and contemporary complexities. I can’t wait to visit places I’m not supposed to go and learn things I’m not supposed know. I don’t yet have a clear picture of why I’ve been called here—beyond the obvious elements of my new job description—but I can’t shake the feeling that coming here was no accident.