For most of my life, I lived in the suburbs of Maryland. Despite it being a very Democratic state, I held onto my conservative (Republican and then Libertarian-leaning) views. For the last few years of my time there, I lived on a cul-de-sac nestled back on some side roads and surrounded by a small wooded area. Even though it was a blue collar, southern suburb of Baltimore, our little neighborhood was an upscale oasis for the area. When I looked out the window or sat on the porch, all I saw was a shallow wooded area and $300 thousand homes around me. Upon leaving the cul-de-sac and approaching the stop sign, the demographics changed drastically. If you crossed the next busy road, you were in the projects. Despite being less than a mile away, I never sensed it. I lived in an isolated haven, surrounded by people just like me.
Two years ago, my family moved an hour and forty-five minutes north to Lancaster, PA. While many refer to it as Amish country, we decided to move into Lancaster City – a small urban area of 60,000 people and a vibrant mixture of Mennonites, African Americans, immigrants, and hipsters. We went from a 4,000 square-foot single-family home on two-tenths of an acre to a 2,300 square-foot row home on a 4,200 square-foot plot of land. My personal bubble got much smaller, which was probably the biggest adjustment to city life.
Whereas in the suburbs I had to make an effort to talk to my neighbor even if we were both outside (which worked great for my introverted personality), now I’m surrounded by people – both neighbors and strangers passing by. On warm Saturdays, I smell the cigar that my Israeli neighbor three house down as he smokes on his porch. When I walk out my front door to pick up my kids from school, I chat with my neighbor as he sits ten feet away on his porch reading the newspaper. My elderly neighbor on the other side comments about how she loves watching my dog bark at squirrels in the morning (it’s like the neighborhood rooster). And when the elderly homeless woman came strolling by on the sidewalk on a hot day, my seven-year-old daughter dashed to the refrigerator, grabbed a Coke, and brought it to her. Our life in the city looks nothing like our former suburban life.
In the move, my children also made huge adjustments. In Maryland, they attended a Christian home-school cooperative. When we relocated, we decided to enroll them in the local public elementary school, which happens to be in a Title 1 school district. For the first time, our kids didn’t have to make their lunches for school, but they also learned what government-provided soggy cold cuts and processed grilled cheese tastes like. They learned a lot of new words (no thanks to bathroom stalls), which prompted discussions we never had in the past (“Yes, ‘as’ is okay, but ‘ass’ is a bad word”). But most importantly, our kids made friends with people that weren’t like them. Being a different color, speaking a different language at home, having a different home life doesn’t bother them one bit. They’ve learned to love beyond racial and socioeconomic barriers. For some people, that’s more love than what they’re used to, and I’m so thankful my children provide that for them.
For us, this change enabled us to have conversations about different home lives. When my oldest daughter became best friends with a girl whose family were refugees from Nepal, she learned about a new culture, about how a nine-year-old friend was responsible for cleaning the entire apartment every day, and what it was like for three generations to cohabitate a two bedroom flat. Some people only read about those experiences in newspapers.
City life also has more serious challenges – loud rap music being blasted as a car drives by at 1 AM, finding the contents of my glove box dumped out in my car, packages getting stolen off front porches, people getting robbed while walking home at night, and a shooting that happened four blocks away. Lancaster is a charming city, but cities, no matter where, have their challenges.
Even though in Maryland the projects were less than a quarter mile away, I was isolated from their problems. I lived comfortably in my spacious home tucked in my nice neighborhood. Whatever problems they had was their problem over there, not mine. Living in a city, the walls that create an us vs. them mentality break down. The $700 thousand homes are not on the other side of town from the $30 thousand rowhome. They’re just a block away. What happens on one block affects another. That’s city life. For better or worse, you become part of a community with people much different than yourself.
If anything, this move has helped me become more empathetic to the needs around me, and I recognize now that it took living among people much different than myself to begin to understand it. Politically speaking, I used to lean far to the right – some sort of mix with Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Constitutionalism. I worked hard to get where I was career-speaking, so I didn’t understand government handouts. But when I talk to the young lady who cuts my hair, who has her kid in daycare every day, as she tries to make a living, I understand that some issues are too complex to slap on a Republican or Democrat solution.
Last year when President Obama proposed taking in additional Syrian refugees, I got into a lengthy Facebook discussion with a Southern relative, who loves Jesus and loves taking pictures of all his guns. As I argued my position of being pro-refugee, he said, “I’m shocked at how much of a liberal you are.” I didn’t know how to respond. As a Constitutionalist, “liberal” was an insult. I’d always referred to a liberal as one who would burn the Constitution if it wasn’t bad for the environment, an individual who felt that government was the solution to all of society’s problems, and who continuously nursed from the teet of Uncle Sam. For a moment, I was insulted.
And then I realized something, something important. This relative and I are both pro-life Christians. He lives on a ranch in the South; I live in an urban area in the Northeast. He may live among many undocumented Latin Americans, but I live in a city that legally and successfully resettles close to 500 refugees each year and helps them become contributing members of society. He fears what he doesn’t know. I know there’s nothing to fear. Perhaps before I moved, I would have thought the way he did, because I didn’t know. Now I do know. I live among refugees.
With that in mind, I told him, “If being a liberal means defending those who are defenseless, then so be it. I’ll gladly wear that label.”
As I’ve thought about those labels, I’ve come to realize that the conservative and liberal mantras unfortunately have evolved from being an ethos about how one approaches government to “are you a Republican or a Democrat?” It’s unfortunate because political parties are illogical and inconsistent. They usually take a position based only on doing the opposite as the other party, not on the basis of logic and reason. How does one claim to be pro-life yet reject refugees? How does one claim to be sympathetic to the causes of humanity yet support abortion? How does one profess Judeo-Christian values, while ignoring global warming? It just doesn’t make sense to me. Being called a “liberal” by this particular relative was meaningless. It didn’t mean I was actually a “liberal” (I’m sure many liberals were insulted that I was grouped with them); it just meant that I disagreed with his viewpoint (which he felt was the flawless example of conservatism).
On the other hand, he is right. I have become more liberal. This morning I took one of those short quizzes that tells you where you are on the spectrum of conservative, liberal, libertarian, or populist. Three years ago, I would have been on some sort of Libertarian-Conservative extreme. This morning I got centrist. That may seem like a cop-out, but I’m okay with it. In my opinion, sometimes government intervention is necessary. Often times it is the least effective option. But at the end of the day, what the government does or doesn’t do affects real people with real problems, and nothing has helped me recognize and appreciate that more than living among people much different than me.
In an era which seems to be getting more racially, economically, and politically charged, I feel like my liberalism is much less about how I feel about government and much more about how I feel about humanity. Living in a city is like a game of dominoes. What one domino does affects all those around them. Such a realization of community inspires me to want to impact positive change rather than waiting for a negative situation to provoke government intervention. As a Christian, I don’t know what kind of government Jesus prefers, but I do know He wants me to love liberally. I’m eternally grateful for this small city for providing me the opportunity to strive for that ideal.