So, how to cover all that is going on: Liam’s Baptism, Stewardship, the election, Pittsburgh, vandalism? We start with a story:
Kirsten and Lee Hildebrand had just settled into their first home in a suburban community where Kirsten practiced labor and employment law and Lee was working on a doctorate in counseling psychology. But when the couple attended Eastbrook Church, an inner-city Milwaukee church, they began to wonder, did we settle in the right place? Gradually they became convinced that they needed to move out of suburbia into the city.
In three days they sold their home and bought one in Sherman Park on Grant Blvd, where old brick homes shoulder Mediterranean tile roofs and copper gutter, and neighbors take in the world from adjoining porches. As the couple unpacked boxes, a question hung over them. “We knew we were led here for a purpose, but we didn’t know why,” says Lee.
Six months later, after they had remolded their own home, the Hildebrands noticed a foreclosure sign a few houses down. Along with two neighbors, Paul Handle and Dave Klevgard, they made an unsuccessful bid for the house, but in the process they identified a problem of absentee landlords. “The landlords didn’t care about the properties, didn’t put work in, and then demanded rent,” Kirsten says. “They’re treating people this way, but everyone deserves a nice place to live.”
After many late-night conversations, the four of them decided to systematically purchase rundown houses , restore them, rent them affordably to the residents of their city, and hopefully, change the absentee landlord trend. They registered as “City Ventures LLC” and brought their fifty-page business plan to Legacy Bank. “We didn’t just go in jeans with stuff scribbled in a notebook,” Lee says. “Kirsten is an attorney, Paul is a marketing manager, David is in insurance, and I was doing my Ph.D at Marquette. We went as young professionals.
With investment capital from the bank and additional funds from individual home equity loans, City Ventures bought a single-family house and then a series of duplexes. The partners juggled full-time jobs with the new worlds of plumbing, electrical work, rent collecting, and the realities of the inner-city. At night drug dealers moved onto their construction sites. In the morning they’d see vandal scrawls on freshly painted walls. Once, a disgruntled tenant held a gun on Lee, forcing him to us his counseling skills to talk his way out of the room.
Still, the couple refuses to see crime as the neighborhood’s defining characteristic. “That’s not the sum of the neighborhood,” they say. “ninety percent of the people are people who just want to live their lives.” After just six years, Sherman Park was a living illustration of that commitment. Seventy restored buildings boast colorful awnings and shutters, new bricks, or siding. “We worked hard, and God’s grace was involved,” Lee says. “We give God all the credit.”
A Gentile once asked the great Rabbi, Hillel, “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Taking his cue from the Shema, the commandment that Jesus quotes: the rabbi replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is just commentary on that.”
Several of the speakers at Tuesday night’s vigil for the Pittsburgh Synagogue victims mentioned the importance of “showing up.”
Maimonides described evil as the absence of the good, when people absent themselves.
So there is our answer, “showing up,” make your presence known, don’t be absent.
That’s what Liam’s family is doing for him, showing up, for baptism. That’s what Lee & Kirsten Hildebrand & their partners in City Ventures did in Milwaukee, restoring a neighborhood. It’s what we must do for Ignite, show up next Sunday with our commitment cards to decrease debt and continue ministry on this corner by supporting the budget. It is what we do for an election, letting our voice be known. It is what we do for Pittsburgh, sharing in the suffering of brothers and sisters. It is what we do when for vandals, so they are deterred.
The poet Wendell Berry writes: “…for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another, and with this place and all the living things.”
We show up, for we are woven together and in that tapestry of life, we are not far from the kingdom of God.