I teach at Augsburg College, a small Lutheran institution in a neighborhood that houses the largest Somali population outside of Somalia. These Somali-Americans practice the separation of the sexes their religion requires. The majority of men drive limousines or cabs. In between runs, they gather at a coffee shop where they cluster according to tribe, talking politics with great animation.
The women run the International Market, wiring money home and selling cloth for their colorful hijabs. Together, they make a home in a climate very different from the red dirt of East Africa. With us, their neighbors at the college, we build a common life.
The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis welcomed immigrant populations since Scandinavian immigrants settled there in the 1880s. Over the years it has been a port of entry for Germans, Bohemians, Hmong, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and now, Somalis. The sidewalks need repair; the shops beg for a paint job, but from generation to generation, this pocket of the city blessed diverse peoples with a sense of home.
The city serves as the soundtrack for the summer’s Bible study theme. The prophet Isaiah speaks out of an urban context, one that is just as gritty and run-down. Moreover, the prophet speaks to a similarly dislocated people. Where the Somalis experience the dislocation of moving to a new home, the Hebrew people experienced the dislocation of returning to a former home. Behind Isaiah’s promise, hear the city’s sounds. Behind Isaiah’s promise, hear the longing of dislocation.
“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” (Isaiah 58:12)
Former President Bill Clinton drew from this text in his second inaugural address; he wanted to quell partisanship and rally people around a common cause. Isaiah, however, intended his words to be taken literally. He called people to a “commons,” the city. Cities in the ancient world symbolized a coming together of diverse peoples and diverse dreams. True, they could be fodder for idolatry, as happens in the Tower of Babel. The people gathered “to build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens” (Genesis 11:4). When people worshiped their tower, not God, things ended badly. Still, the destruction of a city occasioned sharp lamentation in the biblical world (Psalms 79, 137; Lamentations), and even Jesus lamented Jerusalem’s fate (Matthew 23:37–39; Luke 13:34–35). Indeed, Revelation closes with the vision of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2). Cities mattered.
Martha E. Stortz is the Bernhard M. Christensen professor of religion and vocation at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minn.
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