Summer in the City
For five years I was a teacher and principal in a small school in North Carolina. One of the traditions of each senior class was to take a trip and, of course, it was ideal if it was a cruise in the Caribbean. It was also a tradition that the senior class spent their final year raising the money for the trip. Parents could not pick up the expense so there were endless rounds of car washes and cookie sales every year. Students love cruises.
One year, the seniors kept putting off their fundraising in spite of all our reminders and warnings that there would only be a trip if they raised the money. Somehow, in their minds, the money was going to magically appear. By the time they realized they did not have nearly enough to go, it was too late. No cruise. No exciting trip at all.
However, I suggested, “What if we take a trip to our own city and imagine we know nothing about it?” Groans. They thought it was a stupid idea: “What could we possibly do? We know everything there is to do here and that’s why we want to get out. Maybe someone could pay for our trip instead of our having to raise the money?”
But, there being no other options, they took me up on it. We collected what little they had raised and booked rooms at a hotel downtown for two nights.
A small group of us spent time setting up an itinerary of what we would see, places we would go and people we would meet. The rule was it all had to be new and unexpected as if we were on a trip to a foreign country. No movies. No clubs. Nothing anyone had done. And, frankly, that was not as difficult as it sounds. All of these students had spent most of their lives in one part of town without crossing any of the “borders” that separated them from the rest of the city. Many had traveled to Europe and other parts of the world on vacations, but their own hometown was foreign to them. They knew how to follow the worn paths from home to school, church and the mall, but their contacts outside that were rare.
School vans dropped us off, and we did not go anywhere that we could not walk or take public transportation. There was no contact with parents or other friends. We spent the next three days exploring our city on foot or on a city bus. We visited parks no one had ever seen. We looked at urban renewal projects that were invisible to us in the suburbs. We found monuments and historical plaques of the founders, pioneers and important figures. We had visits with city officials, ministers of churches, nonprofit leaders, bankers and attorneys, and the director of the Chamber of Commerce. We found ethnic restaurants and small diners with delicious and exotic food none of us had ever eaten. We explored cemeteries, old buildings, museums and public spaces. Not a single mall or visit to a retail store. No entertainment but what was available on the street. In other words, we discovered a place we had never been.
No, not everyone applauded me for giving them the experience of a lifetime. In fact, for many of them they would have much preferred the imaginary cruise. However, for me and a few others it became an object lesson for the rest of our lives. Where we live is often foreign to us and discovery can be an exciting adventure.
Last month, we hosted a group of Gathering participants in Chicago, and several who joined us live in or near the city. We had designed the trip to spend a full day visiting ministries on the west side and another whole day on the south side. They stayed in the hotel along with the rest of us instead of commuting. At the end, all of them told me this: “We’ve seen our city for the first time.” It was true for them and it could be true for you. Whether you live in a small town or a city as huge as Chicago, you can experience the same thing. All you need is a guide, an interesting itinerary and an adventurous spirit to get to know the place you live in a completely new way. Do it with friends or, even better, with family. Just make sure you pretend you are in a foreign city. Come to think of it – you really are.
I wish I could go with you but I’ll probably be on a cruise.