Where is God: Looking for God in the Hood

This summer I’m auditing a class at the seminary I graduated from – “Spirituality and the Senses”, a course I’ve been wanting to take for a long time. I’m loving the class. A part of our coursework is looking for God through five experiences focusing on our different senses. For my sight experience, I decided to look for God in my own neighborhood. This is what I found.

I have gazed on the enormity of the bells in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, looked down from the top of Multnomah Falls, and climbed every step in the Eiffel Tower. I’ve seen God in the performances of Cirque du Soleil, in the saunter of the giraffes across the African savanna, and in the juxtaposition of death and life on the island of Alcatraz. Around the world, there are amazing places where you can walk up to the face of God, sit down, and gawk at the vastness of his wonder. In my life, I have been very lucky to have traveled, tasted these experiences for myself, and to know they are, indeed, good. Within the beautiful scene of deer grazing in a sun-drenched meadow where the wildflowers sing in chorus, it’s hard not to notice God. But I wonder — what about in the unlovely? What about in the unpleasant places, the old and the abandoned? Is God in the dirt, in the garbage, in the scenes where hope seemingly has no place to go? I’ve seen so many beautiful places but have never stopped to look in the grime of the gutter. Can God be just as present and noticeable where we never stop to look? This is the question I set out to answer.

When thinking about where to go on this search, the image of a nearly empty lot a block away from where I live came to mind. I live on the north side of downtown Salem in a neighborhood with a reputation for poverty, crime, and overgrown yards surrounding falling apart houses. Though the neighborhood has improved a great deal with the building of an independent movie theater, a large building known as Broadway Commons which includes a jewel of a coffee shop, the “hood” still has many rough edges, broken sidewalks, and the occasional gun shots, or so I’ve heard. Personally, I love it. I love my apartment (most of the time), my neighbors have good hearts, and it’s within biking distance to so many of the places I love to go. Yet there is so much along my route that is not pretty which I never look at and I wanted to know if God lives in the Highland and Grant neighborhood as well as the African savanna and the grand cathedrals of the world.

In search of my answer, I started at the nearby abandoned lot and then worked my way to downtown. Wanting to cover ground but also wanting to be close to the world, I took my bike, a notebook, and my camera so I could take pictures of what I found.

To imagine this lot where I started, picture a rather large rectangle of ground covered in grass, weeds, and blackberry bushes, with a little cement walk leading from the sidewalk to front steps which are guarded by two green bushes on either side. That’s it. Just the steps and the bushes. There’s no house, just the remnants of a cement foundation under the weeds and the cracked front steps leading off into the broken dreams of someone who once lived there. I pass it nearly every day and it is an eerie sight. To the left of the steps is the old driveway with weeds growing in the cracks which are as plentiful as the garbage littering the ground. Leaving my bike laying in the grass as the kickstand wouldn’t work on the uneven mounds of dirt, I explored what was once a tiny house and an even smaller garage. Then I noticed the tree. In all the times I have ridden by, how could I have missed it? This tree, this incredible tree, is growing between what was once the cement floor of the garage and the six inch wall of cement surrounding it. Coming through a gap about an inch in width, the trunk is squeezed into an oblong shape but then reinstates its round nature for the rest of the trunk.

What intrigues me most about this tree is its sheer determination to grow. Not only did it find one of the most unlikely places to sprout, but it managed to go through great adversity and remember its true nature. In similar manner, God’s power shines through no matter the struggle and difficulty. We can be going through the toughest of circumstances and it in no way impedes God’s ability to be the gardener in our growth. Even if we are squeezed to our breaking point, the true nature of our souls as beings of light always wins out and we will always ultimately remember our true nature as God’s image. The tree also reminded me that God’s miracles are everywhere and there is beauty and amazement in something old and abandoned just as there is in the largest church. Just because we can’t see all the wonders of God doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Perhaps we are too busy to look or we don’t expect to see God in that place, that theology, or that person, but there God is extending life through the cracks of our awareness.

The other thing that intrigued me about the abandoned lot is when I looked around in the weeds, it was the garbage and not the green growing plants reflecting the light. We are too quick to dismiss what we deem to be unimportant, trivial, mundane. God looks at the small, the throwaway, the things we pass by on our way to find religion and uses those things to make the Divine presence known. Some of my “mistakes” in life have led me to the greatest gifts, my pain, struggles, and questions transformed into healing balm for others. At one house I passed by later on, they had turned broken pieces of granite into a mosaic in their yard. They saw the beauty in what otherwise would have been thrown away. It is only when we stop concentrating on our destination and pause to look along the road, perhaps even leaving the trail and wandering through the field, we become aware of the eternal wildness of God in everything we see.

To put into practice this new awareness of stopping to see what I normally pass by, I stopped on the sidewalk along my route on Broadway Street to look at a creek. As I was leaning my head on my arms watching the water flow below, a voice spoke up behind me, “It’s flowing faster today than yesterday. Yesterday it was only flowing two to three miles an hour. Today it’s probably about five.” I looked behind me to see a teenage boy with blond hair wearing a black shirt and white shorts with an ipod in his ears walking along the sidewalk. I commented back to him it was probably due to the rain we had the night before and he replied while still walking, “Yeah, and it’s also getting warmer and the snow in the mountains is melting.” I looked after him for a few seconds as he walked away and got the sense I was watching the back of God. After all, how many teenagers with an ipod notice and can measure the speed of a creek? It was as if God decided to take a form to talk to me like in the old show “Joan of Arcadia” to tell me about the creek I was looking at, how he noticed it intimately every day and wanted to point it out to me. Even now, the experience has stayed with me. I think God likes showing up like that with a “Here I am!” under the words. God likes to walk past and leave us with puzzled looks on our faces wondering “Did God just do that?” Whoever it was, God was still there and was also in the yellow dragon fly that flew in front of me when I turned back to look at the trees.

Looking down into the waters, I realized I didn’t even know the name of this creek flowing through my neighborhood. I later went online to Mapquest to look it up and found it is the last portion of Mill Creek before it empties into the Willamette River. I knew Mill Creek wound through Salem but didn’t realize this was the same body of water. Wondering where the water came from, I followed it on the map but there were so many bodies of water coming off of it along the way and it spread out to so many other towns, fields, and forests, you can’t actually tell where it comes from as it comes from everywhere and touches so many places and people. Isn’t that just like God? We as churches camp out on the banks of God Creek and tell each other that only this view of the creek is the correct one. Only a creek going through a city or farmland if we’re in the country is the right one; perhaps we only believe a creek watering a forest is the real creek. But wherever we’re at, however we relate to God, we as a church tend to stay in our theological box. I bet God laughs at our attempts to contain him/her. I bet God is there inviting us into a boat to try the creek for ourselves and to take a look at all the different places God inhabits. I wonder, what do the places look like I have not yet seen? Where do I refuse to see God? Where have I not yet found her?

Just past where I stood looking at the creek is a short dead end road with a few small houses and postage stamp yards. Though I have never visited him, I know a fellow dragon boater lives on this street and since I had never taken a closer look, I decided to check it out and planned on turning around where the road ended to resume my route. Along my way, there were lovely crimson flowers and a few kids playing in front of one house. Arriving at the end of the road, I was surprised to see that instead of the dead end I expected, underneath an arch of trees was the opening of a bridge beckoning me on. Through the trees, the bridge arced over the creek below and I stopped halfway along to gaze down into the water. A duck played along the left bank, it’s emerald green head shimmering in the dappled sunlight. Not only was there no dead end, but there was life, abundant life! In my explorations of God, a year ago I was on an interesting but relatively predictable road of knowing God, as predictable as such a road can be, when a friend made an observation about me which lead me in a whole new direction of how I saw myself, what I considered my soul to be, and a great deal about how I saw God. I initially thought to just check things out, see what was there, but at the end of the road, God gave me a bridge to walk over and there around me, just when I thought I was playing out of bounds of mainstream orthodoxy, I found abundant life. I came to value who I am as a soul, to bless the mystery of myself, and to see things from a larger perspective. Respecting my own power and decision making abilities, I now have greater respect for God’s power. There is a peace now knowing God will make a way for me when I don’t see it from this human perspective though there are many times I need to be reminded of this truth again and again. Still, I have learned to see beyond the apparent limits yet with greater understanding of how much I do not know about God—and myself—and because I’ve been given this gift of not knowing, I have greater trust in God to be whatever he/she is. Taking that bridge changed the entire course of my explorations in my neighborhood and I saw many beautiful things on the other side of the bridge I had never seen before.

Exploring my neighborhood, I discovered things are never truly abandoned. There is never a place without God shining through. Even if we choose to leave and not see it, even when it seems to be a dead end, God’s truth remains and hope dwells within. Besides all the seemingly beautiful places I’ve seen, I’ve also seen God in the depths of the Kibera slum, in the rotting carcasses of the buffalo left on the savannah, and now in the garbage and rundown places of my own neighborhood. God’s light is not dependent on our presence or our awareness. But when we stop to look, stop to really see, God likes to show up at a creek we’ve never really seen to remind us she sees its beauty, knows it most intimately, and to encourage us to keep on looking.

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