Monday, February 2, 2015

G.K. Chesterton, Pimlico and Canada's "Most Racist City"

Whenever I need inspiration about how to address huge challenges facing Canada's inner cities, I turned to G.K. Chesterton. I like his suggestion that fixing social ills has as much to do with the heart as the head. And so it's great to recall his sage advice from over 100 years ago as Winnipeg faces charges of racism. 

Is Winnipeg Canada’s most racist city?

That was the charge leveled by a Maclean’s magazine article in January.

The article prompted a lot of response, starting with the obvious: Who decides which is the most racist city, and how do they decide?

It’s not like there’s a scale out there that anyone can use to determine which city has the most racial challenges.

The truth is that every Canadian city has racial issues. As Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis put it: “I don’t believe racism is strictly a Winnipeg issue. It’s a human condition.”

But it is also true that Winnipeg does have a problem when it comes to relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents.

Said Winnipeg’s Mayor, Brian Bowman:  “We do have racism in Winnipeg . . . You can’t run away from facts.”

In response to the article, various people and sectors to step up and address the issue—government officials, civic leaders, the private sector and educators.

To date, nobody has asked people of faith what they might do.

People of faith are also challenged by racism. But there is possibly no other sector in Winnipeg that is more involved—financially or as volunteers—in tackling this issue and other issues like poverty, homelessness and addictions.

Through organizations like Siloam Mission, the Salvation Army, Youth for Christ and a host of other organizations supported by places of worship, people of faith are practicing what Christians call The Golden Rule: Do to others as you would be treated yourself.

So it’s a bit strange, on the one hand, that nobody has asked what this pool of energy and resources could do—is already doing—to bridge the divide.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly understandable in our increasingly secular world that nobody thinks there might be a spiritual dimension to this problem.

And there certainly is a spiritual dimension, as British author and Christian philosopher G. K. Chesterton noted over 100 years ago about poverty in his hometown of London.

In his book, titled Orthodoxy, Chesterton drew attention to Pimlico—a nice place to live today, but a foul London slum in 1908, filled with poverty, disease and despair.

But how to fix a problem like Pimlico? The only way, he said, was not to just address the economic, housing and social issues that made it such a terrible place to live.

The answer, he suggested, was a change of perspective.

“The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico,” he said. “To love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason.”

If that happened, “then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles . . . if men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.”

Some people, he noted, “will say that this is a mere fantasy.”

His answer? “This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great . . . men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

In other words, it’s a matter of perspective. Or, as people of faith might say, a change of heart, a spiritual view of the problem.

We need to roll up our sleeves and practice what we preach, of course. 

But our work starts with the belief that God loves this city despite its flaws, and wants the best for it—just as God loves each and every human being.

In 2004, I attended a convention in Pittsburgh. At the time, the city had severe economic problems. It had applied for, and received, distressed community status from the state government. 

The city had, as once city councilor put it, “hit rock bottom.”

One convention speaker was a pastor and community activist. He acknowledged the problems, but said there were two ways to look at Pittsburgh

One way was to only see it as “bankrupt and suffering under a lousy provisional administration.The other was to take a God’s eye view and “see what it can be.” 

He preferred the latter.

So how do we see Winnipeg? How do you see your city? As full of problems, or full of potential? As what it is, or what it can be?

In what Christians call the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites were given some advice by the prophet Jeremiah about Babylon, where they had been taken in captivity.

“Pray to the Lord for it,” he said. “Because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

It’s still good advice today.

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