If you are at all familiar with St. Louis, our urban issues are nothing new to you. This morning I was with Rev. Al Buckmann, director of Christian Friends of New Americans. He provided some sobering statistics. After living in this city for 10 years, I still find our issues staggering. They are incredibly convicting for the church, which has largely abandoned the City to decay.
St. Louis hit its population peak in 1950 with 856,796 residents. By the 2010 Census, we were down to 319,294. When the City was incorporated in 1877, there were 350,000 residents. The gutting of our city has created mass decay and decline. There are certainly pockets of revitalization and great prosperity. But cruising many of our neighborhoods, you would think you were in post-war Europe, replete with bombed out buildings and vacant lots.
One of the great casualties of this decline is our education system. The unaccredited St. Louis Public School System is woefully troubled. Only 12% of public school students are 50% proficient in math and science. Digest that one for a moment. I have great respect for current superintendent, Dr. Kelvin Adams and other educational reformers in St. Louis. But the challenges are substantial. Even with great leaders, it is like pushing an elephant up a hill.
While many "outsiders" rant about the City's plight, I feel I have earned some right. I've lived here for a decade. I am raising children within the City limits. And my wife has been at a City charter school for 10 years, having taught over 1,000 students. My observation is that the church has largely left the City. Of course there are many good Christians and congregations living and working for justice and prosperity here. But the disparity is appalling and constitutes a moral issue. We have children in our own City living in third-world conditions. Broken social and domestic systems deny them the choice and the ability to escape.
I am heartened by people like Alan Buckmann and his organization's work among refugees. Al noted this morning that the church has always been a leader in addressing urban plights throughout history. "The early church was known to be more committed to the urban poor than the Roman government," he said.
It is easy to focus on church's abandonment of the urban core. But we can't allow despair or anger to be the last word. William Barclay once noted, "We may sometimes despair of the church; then let us get to action in our own small part of the church . . . there is always something to be done." So I see noble Christians living out the gospel in word and deed. I am encouraged by them, and I join them to serve my neighbors. So in strange and unexpected ways, we begin to see God's redeeming work in the City, in the least expected places.