Pastor Dan Olson, recently installed at St. Paul’s in Onalaska, has spent a fair number of years serving our Lord in “The Big Apple,” New York City.
Been to the city lately? I mean the big city. Take, for example, Mexico City. The metropolitan area of Mexico City covers about 1200 square miles. Estimated population is over 21 million. A single apartment complex could house most Midwestern towns. There are fancy stores, towering skyscrapers, elegant restaurants and green parks. But woven into the city are sprawling slums, pot-holed roads, shoeless children living on the streets. Most folks there profess to be Catholic, but most do not practice it. The streets are empty on Sunday morning, but not because people are in church.
It’s this way on our side of the border too. Some pollsters will tell you that 40% of people attend church on a regular basis. But they are quick to admit you can probably cut that figure in half – that less than 20% attend church. That’s because of what they call “the halo effect” when taking polls. The “halo effect” means that if you ask a man how often he goes to church, he will exaggerate the figure a great deal. On the other hand, if you ask him how much he drinks, he will underestimate that a great deal. A recent poll indicates that church attendance in Seattle, Washington averages 3% on Sunday mornings. Meanwhile, Islam and Mormonism have exploded onto the scene in our big cities.
Immigration has changed the make-up of our cities too. Conservatively, 1 in 4 Californians is foreign born, as is 1 in 5 New York residents. Does this make us uncomfortable? Our ancestors were immigrants too, weren’t they?
Yes, we know the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” But maybe we think of the fair-skinned immigrants from Northern Europe, the white man from England, Norway or Germany. Perhaps today we picture something less than the industrious, self-sufficient immigrant of old and imagine more of the under-class of other nations pouring over our borders, seeking government support. Sometimes this is true. And we are a nation of laws. But neither do we walk in the shoes of a man who lives each day in a scary place where people are the property of the state, where there is no honest labor to be had, where the impulse to flee for the safety of family is strong.
A lot of people to whom we are called to proclaim the gospel don’t act like us, don’t look like us, don’t talk like us. They have grown up with a different background in a different kind of world. None of this is new. We all bring our own cultural baggage to the hearing of God’s word. The sin-forgiving, heart-changing Good News of Christ has always been strong enough to cut through this. So it was when Paul entered the booming cities of Corinth, Rome and Athens. So it is when Christ comes to any city in our day too.