One Sunday I was getting hot under the collar reading an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about an ongoing budget battle in the Pennsylvania legislature. The article cited one state representative from rural PA who was talking about our mass transit system as a fiscal black hole. He said our buses don’t do a thing for his constituents.
Another representative from one of Philadelphia’s suburbs went on the counterattack, citing a study that shows that the Philadelphia region generates 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s revenue, even though we have only 32 percent of the population—and we receive only 27 percent of the transportation funds.
I looked up from the newspaper and said to Kip, “Philadelphia ought to secede from Pennsylvania!” It was not my most spiritually enlightened moment.
But the frustration was real. Our city’s public schools are on the verge of collapse. Our roads and bridges are deteriorating. We need gun control laws to keep illegal handguns off our streets. And without SEPTA—our mass transit system—the city would be paralyzed by gridlock. Thousands of people who don’t own cars would be stranded, unable to get to work to help generate that 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s revenue.
Yes, our buses do do something for rural constituents.
But at every turn, when Philadelphia tries to move legislation to address our urban problems and improve the quality of life here, we are thwarted by legislators in Harrisburg who see the city as nothing but a cesspool of welfare leeches, drug addicts, and morally corrupt hedonists.
Not surprisingly, most of us who live here see things differently. We see the brokenness and challenges of the city, sure, and sometimes it breaks our hearts. But we also love the vibrant tapestry of cultures and traditions here. We love the spunky innovations, the world-class orchestra, theaters and art museums, historic Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell that people travel from around the world to see. We love the visionary steps our city is taking to make Philadelphia a green, sustainable city. The list could go on and on.
Just think, if we seceded, we could keep that 40 percent of revenue to ourselves, and we’d be golden.
Deep down though, even as I said it, I knew that seceding wasn’t the answer, even if it were legally possible. There’s enough division already in this country, and the way forward isn’t to create more, but to find ways to bridge the chasm that divides us.
Yesterday morning, as I was reflecting on this sad state in Pennsylvania I wondered, what is the answer? We seem so locked into this us-them frame of mind. How can we stand down? Soften the lines in the sand? Lay down our swords and shields and find some common ground?
I feel a sense of urgency about this because I know these divisions aren’t just plaguing our region. They are the greatest obstacle to our nation meeting the many formidable challenges before us.
It doesn’t help that our differences have been christened “The Culture Wars.” (Does everything have to be a war for us? War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Women?) And yet I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that many people in rural America and many people in urban America see each other as enemies.
Kip and I co-pastored for nearly five years behind “enemy” lines in a small, rural Missouri town, 65 miles south of Kansas City. One of our parishioners laughingly told us a story of when she was a child growing up during WWII. One Sunday the pastor asked one of the church elders to pray for their enemies. The elder got up and prayed, “Dear God, please remove our enemies from the face of the earth.”
I don’t think that’s what the pastor meant, but I bet a lot of us would pray pretty much the same way given the chance. Life would be so much simpler if our enemies just, oh, I don’t know, got raptured up one day.
Living in that small town was a cross-cultural experience, and like all the other cross-cultural experiences I’ve had I’m very glad I had it. I got to see up close, through the eyes of people who had lived there all their lives, the struggles they were facing:
- Farms that had been in families for generations were being foreclosed on because small farmers couldn’t compete with corporate agriculture.
- With the influx of corporate retail stores, family businesses were going under.
- Job opportunities were scarce, and mostly minimum wage.
- Towns throughout the region were decaying because their young people, seeing no future for themselves, were moving away never to return.
People were feeling powerless before cultural and global forces they couldn’t control. They were watching a cherished way of life slowly dying. And yet in the midst of it all they kept the faith, kept taking care of each other, kept holding potlucks, and kept trying to think of ways to protect and resurrect what they once had.
When you know what other people are dealing with, it’s really not hard to pray for them. Love them even.
All of this got me thinking about our current situation here in the commonwealth. (By the way, I love that Pennsylvania is a commonwealth. It just kinda says it all.) What if people in Philadelphia started praying for people in rural PA? Not because we want to guilt-trip them into being nice to us, nor show them that we can take the moral high ground, but because we have listened to their struggles. We sincerely want the best for them, as much as we do for ourselves.
I can’t help but believe such a movement would help repair our relationships and open a path forward in a way politics never will. We are Philadelphia, after all, the City of Brotherly/Sisterly Love, and brotherhood and sisterhood don’t stop at municipal boundaries.
Can you imagine if congregations all over the city started a prayer movement for our rural siblings? Maybe it could be called The Philadelphia Love Experiment. Maybe we could make animosities vanish into thin air.
Somebody has to take the first step—refuse to participate in the warmongering anymore and reach out the hand of friendship. Why not us?
I also think about how Pennsylvania is known as the Keystone State. Take that in for a moment. A keystone, that one crucial stone at the top of an arch that keeps the whole structure from collapsing in on itself. It sure seems to me this tottering, torn country could use something like that.
A very famous declaration came out of Philadelphia once that completely rocked the world. We could do it again if we wanted to, but this time we wouldn’t be declaring independence. We would be honoring the reality that we are all, like it or not, interdependent.
Let’s we the people just do it.
Kathleen Kler says
Thank you again Patricia. You have touched one of America’s open wounds. Out here in the West, we are facing similar issues of folk in “planned communities” with separate pools, parks, trails setting up their own park districts so they won’t have to pay taxes to support the county-wide park and recreation system. And in the rural areas, citizens are asking why they should pay for facilities that are not available to them because of distance (and elimination of Sunday public transit throughout the county.) Exactly who is the enemy? and what is making us so afraid of each other? the inequality of resources? Sigh. Onto my knees, again.
Patricia Pearce says
Kathleen, I hear you. It seems to me the first step, always, is really listening to where other people are coming from, what they are facing, what they’re afraid of. It’s a skill that seems to be in short supply. I see the us/them stuff really being magnified in social media too, and sometimes I notice myself getting caught in it too, when something that’s been posted pushes my buttons. I find there is so much vilifying going around, and it’s simply unhelpful because it inflames the situation, making people even more entrenched and rigid.
Susan Wargo says
thanks so much, patricia. as always. i love the challenge to live biblically. sounds like something that tabernacle might embrace….and learn from. going to take it there. thanks again.
Patricia Pearce says
Thank *you* for taking the call seriously. Keep me posted.
Gary L Lake Dillensnyder says
thank you, Patricia, for sharing such wisdom and insight, along with challenge and call to change. I especially appreciate your candor and integrity in sharing yourself so honestly and openly. you are a prophet in such times whose word is so appreciated! sincerely, just peace–always, all ways, forever: GLakeDylan
Patricia Pearce says
Thank you, Gary, for your encouraging words. The way I see it, we all have a part to play in bringing about healing and reconciliation. I honor you for your contributions as well.
Marie Scearce says
When the ills of rural areas are described, I see a striking parrallel/inverse with the problems of folks in Urban areas. It seems as if it sould ease a lot of the tension if we could grow a coalition, a bridge, between the urban and rural areas to circumvent the middle, which seems to be blocking the path. Farmers can’t compete, urban poor can’t buy produce: shouldn’t there be a win/win solution in there somewhere? Wallmart seems to undermine the “Mom & Pop” businesses in both urban and rural areas. People usually are motivated to help and support each other. Is there a way to grow social and economic relationships so that we don’t dismiss and trivialize each other/ Is there a way to pray through action that builds?
Patricia Pearce says
Marie, you raise such excellent points. There is so much in common in the struggles the vast majority of people are facing, whether they live in urban or rural areas. The details, of course, get sticky. In the case of Walmart, because so many people are already struggling to make ends meet they welcome the chance to buy things at rock bottom prices, but that only accelerates the downward economic spiral. I think, as you say, the first step (and the one community organizers always do before anything else) is to listen to the plight of people, listen to what they care about, listen to what they hope for. That and *respect*, without which we won’t ever build relationships of trust. (I think many of us in urban areas need to take a close look at this. I think often times we look down on rural folks, and they can sense it, and understandably resent us for it.)
I agree that there seems to be plenty of room here for coalition building if we can get past the ideological blockades that have been promoted and magnified in our culture by those who believe their personal interests are best served by fostering a polemical atmosphere, assuring that the coalitions that could really bring about change never happen.
Here in Philadelphia, one of the most promising movements bridging the rural/urban divide is the local food movement, establishing dozens of farmers markets throughout the city. We have such a market near our house, and it is a place where city dwellers and farmers see each other face to face, every week. It’s about more than the food. It’s also about getting to know each other as people and recognizing that we need them and they need us.
sara steele says
I think this is a fitting tribute to Rev. Bill Gray who passed away suddenly this week and was responsible for putting forward-thinking political and social ideas into action for both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.
Patricia Pearce says
I never met him, Sara. I look forward to learning more about what he was involved in in this region.
Patty Sundberg says
Oh, Patricia… thank you. Part of me wants to say more, but the part that’s winning out this moment is the part that wants just to be silent and to listen.
Patricia Pearce says
I understand, *and* if and when you want to share your thoughts I’d *love* to hear them. Peace, P.