What kind of place is Oakland?

Oakland has a reputation as a violent place.   It is interesting to stop to think about how Oakland has become associated with violence.  The label covers over lot’s of other realities about that place.  There are lots of Oakland residents who are peaceable people.   The “bad” neighborhoods are also full of peacemakers, like my student whose story I tell below.  In Oakland, as in so many places and times the lives of the poor are threatened by the violence.  At the same time the well-to-do in the hills see themselves as the victims of the violence of the flatlands.  Even though some neighborhoods seem calm, the “good” neighborhoods also have their share of people who live off the violence.

Last month I taught a class in an Oakland church, in the part where people are identified as poor (and “illegal”) and where the streets are identified as violent.  We studied together about Evangelism (good news) and Missions (reaching out, with God to change the world).  When we got to the practical part, my students helped me remember what I keep forgetting.  They amazed me! Most of them did not have much stuff, but they were rich in grace.  Their spirituality is shaped by a place that is labeled violent.   I would not have been surprised if their prayers were for God to help them survive there.  But every one of my students went beyond that simple prayer and eagerly looked for God to help them bring bring real and lasting change that would save others.  Oakland should deserve a reputation as a place of grace, courage and love!

I was particularly moved today when I read what one of my students wrote.  This version is translated from Spanish–an important language to know in Oakland–and shortened:

“I moved here 12 years ago from Central America.  At first I lived full of fear because I had heard about the crime.  I told my husband we would only stay here a short time until we could move somewhere less violent.  That all changed as I got to know my neighbors.  I have African-American, Arab, Korean, Anglo and Hispanic friends with whom I share life.

“When I looked at my city, I did see many homeless and abandoned people on the streets, gangs killing each other over colors that people wear or neighborhoods where they don’t belong, young people injecting drugs on the street, single parents trying to raise their kids as best they can while working extra hours to provide them food, kids who observe daily domestic violence, and parents who drink irresponsibly and fail in their responsibilities to their kids.

“I began to ask myself, if there are so many churches here why have they not done anything to stop this?  Why don’t the people look for help in the churches?

“Then I asked myself what was I doing for my community.  Was my comfort more important to me?  So I asked God to guide me and one day my pastor asked me if I would work with the young people.  So I started working with 8 in a Bible Study.  Now there are 30.  It was a challenge, but their enthusiasm, and God’s help, have kept me going.

“This year I want to reach more, so I am planning to recruit 5 young people to help me by being mentors to the others, and grow the group.

“I see the need daily when I see how many kids die each day.  Almost everyday little memorials, with candles, appear on a street corner to memorialize another young person who has died.  I was greatly impacted by something I saw two months ago.  On the corner by my house, they killed a 13 year old boy, and the next week they shot two young boys–12 and 13 years old.

“These scenes are in my memory, and all that week I thought of my own boy, who is the same age, and of all the young people who are trying to survive on the streets.  Many of them think that if they get to 18 years old, they have made it.  This is the reality our neighbors live.

“God will be with me when I share the good news with these people about God’s power and love.  The Bible says, “the harvest is great and the workers are few.  Pray to the Lord of the harvest that he would send out workers into the harvest” (Mt. 9:37-38)

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor 

So I say, is Oakland a violent place or a place of grace.  Violence may be growing in our land, but so is grace, and people like this student of mine, come from places like Central America to and face the violence in creative ways and depending on God to make it possible and successful.

She also wrote,

“There are lots of needs, and true Christians should be people of action, not just words.  My dream is to see Christians re-establish themselves in urban areas where so many have abandoned needy people.  Those of us who already live here need to stay, no matter how difficult it might seem.  Our people need us.  They are made by God just as we are.

“On that day when we stand before God, He will ask us to give account about what we have done for our fellow man and how we have used the gifts He has given.”

When I think about it, I realize that nearly all my students came to Oakland from some other country.  Though some of them don’t even have the legal papers they need to be able to drive and get jobs here, they all face the violence they found here with grace, for the good of those of us who were here before them.  Someday, I would like to think more deeply about where Oakland’s violence comes from and where Oakland’s grace comes from.  What kind of change is is God invested in when it comes to America’s (and the world’s) violence?  How does he do it?

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