A Stranger Comes to the Inner City

“A cry from the North, from the West and from the South Whence thousands travel daily to the timekept city; Where My Word is unspoken, In the land of lobelias and tennis flannels The rabbit shall burrow and the thorn revisit, The nettle shall flourish on the gravel court, And the wind shall say: ‘Here a decent, godless people: Their only monument the asphalt road And a thousand lost golf balls.’”

In a desolate city of three and a half million people a stranger walked. As he walked near the center of this city. He found a group of 200,000 black people (or “things” as they were often called) jammed into an area surrounded by railroad tracks, factories and expressways. Obviously the area had been built for only about 120,000 people, but now there were 200,000 with no new housing. Everywhere they spilled out into streets covered with glass. He thought of the poet—“plotting of happiness and flinging empty bottles” and He walked on. Poverty and dirt became depressingly apparent. He had heard before that there were 200,000 people on relief in this city, but he had not realized that so many of them were living in the same small area.

Curious to know more about the area he collared a passerby and asked rum how such an area came about. A strange look of resignation illld bitterness overtook the face of the man as he leaned hack against a building to think over his reply.

Recall was painful, but eventually he began. “It was six and a half years ago that my wife and I moved here from Mississippi. That was during the time that people poured into this city at a rate of 500 per week. Of course, we needed a place to live. So a few of us families -and incidentally, families are an oddity around here, thanks to the bankruptcy which slavery brought to family life—a few of us families moved into this particular area. At the time this community was entirely Jewish and Dutch. Do you see that building across the street? That was some Dutch grade school. But they’re gone now. All of them. Only the Colored live here now. They tell me that the transition was the fastest of any aren. in the United States.

“Yes, all it took was panic, block-busting, absentee land-lordism, and politics, and they all left. The panic began when we moved here. I suppose it was our color. But no sooner were a few of us here, than the realtors sent their front men to evely white family in the area, advising them to sell their house immediately because the Colored were coming. Naturally they did not want to move, but when the realtors returned a few weeks later with a much lower bid for their house, the panic took hold. So they’re gone now. Many sold their homes for much less than they were worth -five to six thousand dollars less in some cases. As may well be expected, the Colored who moved in to fill these homes signed contracts binding them to long-term payments which amounted to more than the homes were worth. This exploded the myth that property values go down, but it also exploded our people. Many were ignorant and did not read the fine print in their contracts which stated that if one payment was missed, the house was taken away. All it took was one siege of sickness, and you know the rest. Well, eventually these buildings were sold again to rich suburbanites who broke them up into makeshift apartment buildings. They come in now and then to collect the rent.

“My neighbor lives in one of these buildings now. It’s over on the corner of Harding and 21st street where so many people are shot and mugged. Located above a corner grocery store, the apartment is small and dilapidated. It is unfurnished, but has a bathroom, a kitchen, a living room and two bedrooms, all for the price of $95 a month.

“But, man, it doesn’t do any good to complain about it. The building codes that do exist are not enforced. Besides, tho mayor plans to bring in his bulldozers in a few years anyway. The government has promised him federal funds for reconstruction, but he has to wait until the area has deteriorated enough. How soon that will be, I do not know.”

The stranger only lowered His head, brushed away a tear and walked on. It was night, and the sounds of night clubs, vandalism, and promiscuity drifted to his ears, as He walked on, and on -walked until it hurt to walk, and he looked for a church. “Christian Reformed Mission” he saw on the sign. The welcome of the Colored elder was warm. He invited the stranger to sit in on the meeting which was just beginning.

The topic—summer workshop in missions. The purpose—evaluation. All in all it had been a good summer. 250 children had turned out for Daily Vacation Bible School and the only advertisement had been a small sign on the front door of the church. The team of “swimmers” who worked in the church did well. They exposed over 600 young people to the gospel message in less than six weeks. BYBST had been an unbelievable success. Two team members had only to walk around a block once and they had 75 to 100 children behind them, eager for Bible stories, games, and cool-aid. And Teen-right, why, it had to be discontinued after four weeks because it became impossible to control the growing number of teen-agers, a number which exceeded one-hundred teens after only four weeks.

The stranger listened to the church people talk, discuss and evaluate. He listened to them exclaim about the marvelous potential for growth, but the frightful lack of manpower to follow up intensively on the extensive outreach. Finally, when he could contain his question no longer, he asked, “But are you that much alone? Where are your sister churches?” A strange look of bitterness and resignation overtook the faces of the little group. It was the friendly elder who made reply.

“You must go 6 blocks south and the same number of blocks west, and you will come to a railroad track: which has a sign on the other side that reads: ‘Welcome to the suburb’! Some of our sister churches are there and some are in other suburbs, but none in the inner-city. Years ago there were six Christian Reformed Churches in the inner city. Now there are none, except our church which has returned. But it’s understandable. All of main-line orthodox Protestantism has deserted the inner city. They seem to fit better in middle class situations. At least that’s my impression.” The meeting ended.


The stranger only lowered his head, brushed away a tear, and walked on. It was night, and the sounds of night clubs, vandalism, and promiscuity drifted to his ears.

In a desolate city of three and a half million people a stranger walked. And as He walked He thought of the poet:

“We build in vain unless the Lord build with us. Can you keep the City that the Lord keeps not with you? A thousand policemen directing the traffic Cannot tell you why you come or where you go. A colony of cavies or a horde of active marmots Build better than they that build without the Lord. Shall we lift up our feet among perpetual ruins? I have loved the beauty of thy House, the peace of thy sanctuary, I have swept the floors and garnished the altars. Where there is no temple there shall be no homes, Though you have shelters and institutions, Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid, Subsiding basements where the rat breeds Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors Or a house a little better than your neighbor’s; When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?’ Do you dwell together because you love each other? What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together’ To make money from each other? or ‘This is a community?’ And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert, O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger, Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.”

Fellow seminarians, a great challenge faces us as a church in regard to the inner city. This challenge appears in various forms, of which I will only mention a few in brief fashion.

The Christian Reformed Church, and all of main-line orthodox Protestantism for that matter, must realize first of all that this world is sluinking. It is fast becoming a giant megalopolis. Practically solid city stretches from Milwaukee to Gary, from Detroit to Toledo, and someday from Boston to Norfolk. The world is closing in on us, and eventually the alternative of escape from the city will not exist. Such a trend should frighten us and make us willing to allow for a new climate of honest self evaluation.

Secondly, we must strive with all that is in us to drop our exclusive middle-class identifications, at least our defensiveness for such. Certainly, this does not involve the release of self respect and integrity in life. No, it is simply the frank recognition of the fact that there is no such thing as a middleclass gospel. At heart the gospel is classless. And to the extent that we are the embodiment of the imperatives of this gospel, we too are at heart classless. Our real identification, and one for which we need not be ashamed, is our identification with Jesus Christ. Such an identification places in sharp focus not so much who we are, but whose we are!

And finally, we ought as a church and individually to seek to make real the principle of sympathetic identification. Such an identification may very well involve the willingness on our part to remain in areas of transition with our homes, our churches, and our gospeL Christian concern is more than sending surplus benevolence funds across the tracks. It is also an attitude of willingness to become exposed to conditions of poverty and illness because we feel that such conditions are wrong, and because we feel that only thus can we bring permanent alleviation to such conditions.

Seeking to make real the principle of sympathetic identification likewise implies the desire on our part to become increasingly the embodiment of the mind and Spirit of Jesus Christ. The example of Christ will become the norm for our action. As indicated in the very figures of speech which Christ used, this example was one of penetration. Salt penetrates the meat to preserve it; light penetrates the darkness to illumine it; the key penetrates the door to open it; leaven penetrates the dough to make it rise; bread penetrates the body to nourish it; fire continues as long as it reaches new fuel. As indicated in the very life which Christ lived and the life which he asked for, this example was one of suffering. “Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you…, for my sake.” Is that a dead principle in the Christian Reformed Church?

Mr. Clifford Bajema, middler student at Calvin Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI, spent the summer of 1964 on student assignment working among the large Negro population of Chicago, IL, in the neighborhood of the Lawndale Christian Reformed Church of that city.

In this article, first presented in the form of a Chapel address at the Seminary, he urges his fellow-students and the church to a compassionate understanding of the desperate spiritual and social plight of this large segment of the American nation who spend their years in the blighted Inner City. Publicly we also express our thanks to Harcourt, Brace and Co. for permission to quote in this article from THE COLLECTED POEMS AND WORKS OF T.S. ELIOT, “Choruses from ‘The Rock,’” p. 195.