In the run up to, and after, the 2018 Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference, I’ve been reflecting a little on what it means for Christians to think theologically and seriously about ‘place’. This book, Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation by David P. Leong, deals seriously with that concern. Our culture is a racially polarised one, as well, and Leong’s book seeks to engage some of those challenges in the discussion too. Finally, and interestingly as I’ve recently started working for London City Mission, this book is particularly focused on urban geography – but that shouldn’t put off those of you interested in the book but ministering or living in rural or less-urban contexts.
Race and Place is a timely and important book – drawing together two important topics in ways that should challenge and invigorate the church. Leong writes in a nuanced and readable way, deftly sharing his own story before moving himself out of the way and focusing on the bigger challenges to urban mission and ecclesiology posed by the history and present of race and place. The author’s own upbringing is a helpful ‘way in’ to the book – particularly for someone like myself – and Leong is careful to unpack what this means and how this looks.
Some readers may be somewhat perplexed at how ‘race’ and ‘place’ can be put together in a book like this. The North American context of the book is partly an explanation – not least because (as Leong notes) of the historic complexity of colonisation, slavery, and other tensions (to put it mildly!). The author, though, puts it rather better, in a way that I found helpful:
“What place and geography do, at least in part, is provide a window into the systems and structures of race so that we can see more clearly how racial issues such as segregation are not simply the result of “bad apples,” or individual people with mean prejudices. Rather, the challenges of race that plague our cities are often rooted in how groups seek and maintain power (either implicitly or explicitly), how cultural patterns become physical structures, and how impersonal systems grow to protect the interests of those in power over time. In other words, geography reveals how race works systematically, not just individually”
And that is why this book is so worth reading. Whether you are a person who has been subjected to racism seeking to find some words and theory to relate it to the world around you, or (like me) a person who is immensely privilieged and seeking as part of Kingdom discipleship to understand the systems that oppress and form my fellow image-bearers, this is a book that seeks to move us towards reconciliation. And, for those inclined to worry that a book like this is another form of ‘social justice warrior’ incursion into the church (Which is a ludicrous idea, not least because as Christians we are called to seek justice!) I would point you towards Leong’s Christ-centred reflection on the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4 (Which also has some interesting things for us to reflect on in the area of sexuality and spirituality):
“Jesus could have easily said, “I don’t see you as a Samaritan woman; you are simply an individual person, and I treat all people equally.” A surface-level reading may even point to such thinking. But what if just the opposite is true? What if it is because she is a Samaritan woman that Jesus chose to meet her in her own neighbourhood and demonstrate the expanding geography of God’s plan to reconcile all people to one another?”
This book, then, is one that takes Jesus (And his call on our lives) seriously, takes the Bible seriously, and most of all takes the mission of the Church seriously. Leong is careful to explain what he is doing throughout – this is a book that would reward re-reading, or reading with a leadership team of anyone involved in urban ministry. It is a well structured book made up of three parts – the reader moves through ‘Race and Place’, ‘Patterns of Exclusion’ to ‘Communities of Belonging’, and it flows more like a novel or a sermon than a theological textbook. Race and Place builds to a climax in the conclusion, which is an invitation into the mission of God, lived out in the real world. I quote, “May we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice on our way to becoming children of God who inherit the kingdom. But above all else, I hope that you’ll discover the truly remarkable gift of Christian imagination that transforms people and places when we join with others in the joyful work of belonging to one another.“. Amen!
As you may have picked up in this review, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both as something to read and a set of ideas and truths to reflect on. I hope that it will be widely read, and not just by those invested in urban ministry and racial reconciliation. Race and Place is an excellent invitation to join in the mission of God, and I’m now very inclined to go and hunt out Leong’s other book.