Returning to the City

johonna-mccants_portraitby Johonna R. Turner

May God be with all of you who are his people. You are to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is worshiped in Jerusalem. 4 If any of his people in exile need help to return, their neighbors are to give them this help. They are to provide them with silver and gold, supplies and pack animals, as well as offerings to present in the Temple of God in Jerusalem.” Ezra 1:3-4 (The Message Bible)

Then I gave them my report: “Face it: we’re in a bad way here. Jerusalem is a wreck; its gates are burned up. Come—let’s build the wall of Jerusalem and not live with this disgrace any longer.” I told them how God was supporting me and how the king was backing me up. They said, “We’re with you. Let’s get started.” They rolled up their sleeves, ready for the good work. Nehemiah 2: 17-18 (The Message Bible).

In Reading the Bible with the Damned, Bob Ekblad shares his experiences reading Genesis 1 with incarcerated men: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Gen 1: 1-3 NIV). “What do you think the darkness was like?” Bob would ask the men around him. The men talked about their own experiences of darkness in prison — the isolation and the loneliness. Then they moved to Genesis 1:3, which says that God spoke into that darkness and created the light. From the first three verses of the Holy Bible, the men observe that God was present in the darkness, spoke into the darkness, and created in the darkness. Together, they concluded that God is still present in darkness, is still speaking in darkness, is still creating in darkness – in our present-day experiences of darkness. As I reflect on Bob’s work reading the Bible with marginalized groups including incarcerated men and undocumented immigrants, I wonder what Scriptures he would study with returning veterans. I often turn to the books of Nehemiah and Ezra for clear, relevant lessons on a variety of the contemporary challenges we face in urban communities and how we — the Body of Christ — should respond. What words do Nehemiah and Ezra offer about the conditions of veterans returning to our cities? Most importantly, what good news (Gospel) does it declare for us all?

The book of Ezra tells the story of a group of exiles returning to Jerusalem, the city of their homeland. Under the leadership of their priest, Ezra, the exiled families rebuild their place of worship, overcoming many obstacles and barriers along the way. In the book of Nehemiah, we read about another rebuilding effort in the same city. However, this book opens with a focus on the people who were able to remain in Jerusalem during the long years of exile . The wall around Jerusalem had been destroyed many years ago, leaving them vulnerable to attack and plunder. Nehemiah, a Jewish leader living outside of his homeland, returns to organize the residents of his home city to rebuild the wall together. When we read these narratives, we might consider the mixed emotions of those returning to their city after being away for so long, particularly given the conditions of their absence. On one end, they are overjoyed to return home. Psalm 126 is a song written from the perspective of these returning exiles: “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.”

These returnees are thankful to be returning home alive. They praise God for their good fortune and ask for more. We might also imagine the deep pain and confusion the exiles felt upon their arrival as they make their way around the city that is now their home again. What is left for them here? How will they live? Where will they live? What will they live on? How can they rebuild relationships with their family members and friends who stayed behind? Where do they begin? The place that was the center of the communal and spiritual life — the temple — is no more. Furthermore, the walls around the city that were integral to their physical safety have been torn down. They are finally home but insecure, vulnerable, and alone — left to fend for themselves in an at once familiar yet foreign place. Can returning veterans identify with this context? How would they name and explain the feelings they experience when returning to the cities they call home.

So, what is the good news here? The books of Nehemiah and Ezra remind us that God is in the rebuilding process — and He uses us (His people) as builders. We are His hands, His arms, His feet.These Scriptures also teach us that those seen as most vulnerable and needy have assets, that they too can participate in the rebuilding process. As Ray Bakke in A Theology For the City put it, “[Nehemiah] understood that for the exploited city dwellers, this wall was as much for identity as security. The community, both believers and unbelievers, worked on that wall with their own hands. He approached the people not as victims who needed him, but as people with the capacity to change their situation. That’s critically important.” Ezra reflects a similar reality, as every family in the city contributed to the redevelopment of the temple — from offering material resources to working as masons or carpenters in the construction project. As churches and other ministries consider what supports and services we might offer to returning veterans, let us also remember the importance of offering opportunities. What does God want us to rebuild WITH — not FOR — those returning to the city? If you are a returning veteran, what gifts has God given you to participate in the rebuilding process? God is interested in rebuilding our lives and our livelihoods. He calls everyone to participate in the rebuilding process — developing relationships, systems and structures that provide a positive identity, spirituality and sense of security for those returning to the city (as well as others who may live on the margins of our communities). All of us might benefit from reflecting on what needs rebuilding in our own lives and remembering that God partners with us in these necessary construction initiatives.

Johonna R. Turner is a member of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. An educator, cultural worker and scholar, she has taught American studies and African American studies courses at the University of Maryland, provided training and program development services to community organizing and advocacy groups, and served as a Soros Justice Fellow with the Open Society Institute.


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