“But the reason we fly from the city is not in reality
that it is not poetical; it is that its poetry is too fierce, too
fascinating and too practical in its demands.”
G.K. Chesterton, Lunacy and Letters

Historically humans have lived in rural places. As late as 1950 there was still only about 30 percent of the population living in cities. However by 2000, at least 47 percent of the population was living in urban areas. That percentage is set to increase to approximately 60 percent by 2030. In the Cascadian region alone more than 85 percent of the people are clustered together in what has been termed a ‘mega-region.’ This poses both opportunity and challenge and leads to some very thought provoking questions.

In the film “Gladiator,” a cinematic representation is provided that captures the trajectory of the intended purpose of this paper. The film tells the tale of a storied military commander, Maximus Decimus Meridius, and his quest to redeem Rome. Early in the picture, soon after Maximus’s victory in Germania, Emperor Marcus Aurelius calls for Maximus to ask of him a favor. Having sensed his oncoming death and perceiving the ineptness of his son to succeed him, the emperor asks that Maximus act as lord and protector of Rome. Maximus balks at this request, whereby the two proceed to have a discussion about the city of Rome: what it is, what it had become, and what it could be. Marcus Aurelius, aware that without some invasive action Rome would not make it through the winter, says to Maximus, “There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper it would vanish, it was so fragile.”
This paper is a collection of “whispers” about a theological discovery of how God sees cities and how this idea is being worked out in Tacoma. It is a series of whispers rather than proclamations. It recognizes that working in Tacoma and cities everywhere is more of an art than a science. It describes the whispers of women and men who have dared to look at the city of Tacoma in which they live and dream about what she could be. It is about the whispers of communities and neighborhoods and trying to imagine something better through collective action. It is about the whispers of people from different spheres of influence seeing a common vision together. It is about the whispers of God loving the city of Tacoma.

City of Tacoma in Context

For the entirety of their eight thousand years of existence on earth, cities have been the gathering places where human beings found protection, got exploited, took chances, accelerated their innovations and met despair. We’ve run toward, escaped from, navigated through, circled wide around and hidden ourselves within the human city—for good and for ill. In the Pacific Northwest (PNW) we are particularly familiar with this uneven relationship where so much of who we define ourselves to be sits in the glorious nature that abounds. Yet we have become urban and, as Chesterton suggests, our Northwest cities have a rugged poetry to them that challenges us in our relationship to God.

It should not, therefore, surprise us that learning how to participate in the missionary enterprise of facilitating peace within the city, let alone how to establish the peace of the city, should be a long project, fraught with hazards and setbacks. Cities like Tacoma promise much and routinely disappoint us. Nowhere else on earth do hope and death more closely comingle, love and spite along with promise and catastrophe. Less should it surprise us that we are still trying to understand what something like the city of Tacoma is, why we seek it or avoid it, how to treat it, and what it’s for? Is Tacoma and other cities like it an accident? A necessary evil? A useful means to a preferred end? Should we grit our teeth and bear it? Seize it? Conquer it? Escape it for a far-away post in some empty countryside, exchanging the din of car alarms for the din of crickets?

Or is the city of Tacoma and those like her in the PNW our home? A home, that is in need of a skillful and graceful homemaker that we have not yet learned how to be? If so, should we then commit ourselves to the city of Tacoma and other cities care and to the blessings they hold? Is that it? Is the city of Tacoma to be our home? Is it to be a place where we can learn how to make friends, extend and receive grace, accomplish important tasks, and live together as the neighbors we were designed to be?

Seeing the City of Tacoma

Stanley Hauerwas, American theologian and professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, has argued we can only act within the world that we see. For our purposes, how well our eyes take in the city of Tacoma, what brings tears to those eyes, and what we look for powerfully determines how we will engage the city of Tacoma. More provocatively, however is the suggestion this article makes: that a biblically centered sightline will see the city of Tacoma as a playground rather than a battleground. This metaphor provides a theologically and anthropologically coherent way to see the city of Tacoma. It will result in a changing of our behavior so that Tacoma can become more spiritually and socially renewed. There are three immediate impacts of seeing the city of Tacoma as a playground that will impact the way we minister:

Theological: Through this lens God is seen as a friend of the city of Tacoma rather than its foe. God delights in her smells, tastes, shape, and people. People who see God this way are able to work with a renewed confidence because God is for Tacoma rather than against her.

Sociological: Through this lens we are able to see others in the city of Tacoma that we inhabit as colleagues rather than competitors. People, citizens and neighbors become perceived as assets rather than deficits. People who see others this way distance themselves from the contentious world of petty rivalry and needing to see others lose. They live into the broad world of generosity where all can win.

Economic: Through this lens we are able to see resources as abundant rather than scarce. Things like money, ideas, practices, and time, are properties to be shared. There is enough for everyone. People who see the economy this way find themselves giving rather than taking.

City of Tacoma As a Playground

Jesus wept two times, the scriptures record—once at the death of a city, and once at the death of his close friend Lazarus. The human city and the human person moved him to equal passion. Jesus cried, addressing his beloved city of Jerusalem, “If you would only know what would bring you peace!” There is something that is knowable, his words pronounce, something which holds such weight that the Christ of all eternity wept for its absence … a city seeing or understanding what would bring its peace.

Two-and-a-half thousand years ago, the prophet Zechariah had a vision from God of a city restored, and a city that had been devastated by war: “Old men and women will again sit along the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of advanced age. The streets of the city,” Zechariah continued, “will be filled with boys and girls playing in them.” (Zechariah 8:4-5) City leaders in Tacoma have found that this simple picture of a city restored—with boys and girls playing with joy in the streets, watched by their elders—is one good place to begin talking about the peace of a city.

Jesus and Zechariah move us to consider seeing Tacoma and other cities as a playground where God’s redemptive Spirit is already at work in a myriad of ways inviting all to join in, offering our gifts—rather than battlegrounds that divide.

City Case Study: Tacoma

For the past 25 years the Northwest Leadership Foundation(NLF), one of 49 local leadership foundations that is a part of the global movement of Leadership Foundations (LF), has been attempting to operationalize this reality of seeing their city of Tacoma as a playground rather than battleground. Under the leadership of Patricia Talton NLF offers a number of accessible, contextual, relevant services to the urban community of Tacoma. These programmatic expressions range from Act Six (a leadership and scholarship initiative for 1st generation scholars to six Christian Universities in the Northwest), to ProTeen which provides an alternative to the juvenile and criminal systems, to Mentor 253 which is a one-on-one mentoring program through the Department of Justice. However, critical to both their longevity and effectiveness, is that they don’t see themselves as a programmatic agency, but rather a community of people called into mission to love the city of Tacoma as a playground. They understand that programs are necessary, but go the next step where they have taken the idea of seeing their city as God’s playground and said yes to three transforming practices. The first, Tacoma as a playground correspondingly demands a theology of place. NLF is staying put. The second, Tacoma as a playground necessitates programming as a commitment to the incarnation. Nothing will be done at NLF apart from the community it is done in. The third, Tacoma as a playground develops the recognition and the sociological reality that citizens of a city first belong, before they believe, rather than believe so as to belong. NLF develops community and then creates direction.

The thrust of this article has been to show how the city of Tacoma has been embraced as a playground—engaged in, invested in, loved and settled in—knowing that there will be setbacks and sorrows, but through the whispers of this rugged poetry, we are provided the opportunity to engage Tacoma and other cities in the Northwest on behalf of the Kingdom of God.


  • Dave Hillis

    Dave Hillis is a thirty-two year resident of Tacoma. He has worked for organizations like Young Life, Northwest Leadership Foundation, and Leadership Foundation. Dave received his MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary and his DMin from Bakke Graduate University. He is deeply committed to the welfare of urban centers like Tacoma. Dave and his wife of thirty-three years, Teresa, are faithful members of St. Leo Parish in Tacoma.

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