The City of Firsts
In 2008 Forbes ranked Kokomo, Indiana (the town in which I pastor) third among America’s Fastest Dying Towns. The downturn in the automobile industry, which Kokomo relies so heavily upon, dealt a crushing blow to the local economy. Chrysler looked as if it might close. Delphi was in the midst of declaring bankruptcy. To highlight the plight, in 2009 on the 100th day of the president’s time in office the BBC broadcast directly from Kokomo at the Rescue Mission, an event that I enjoyed attending. President Obama himself, along with the vice president, came here a year later to assure assistance.
Given this background, it was an encouraging honor for Kokomo to be named the 2011 Community of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in our state. As the video below shows, local leaders are proud of the upswing and the accomplishments that have been made in a relatively short time. As a resident of the town, I am thankful for many of the outer changes I see that benefit us all. Yet I remain greatly concerned that our town is not heeding the warning Jesus gave to cities.
Why the concern? This past week Kokomo was in the news for the four shootings that occurred where two people died and the other two remain critical. Now any town can and does have murders. Perhaps the city in which you live has reports of this type of thing happening almost daily on the evening news. Yet a comparison with other cities is no comfort to me. These four people were shot point blank in the head by a man walking randomly up to them. They all took place within the neighborhood of our church building, with one of them right across the street. Indeed, our women’s prayer meeting that would have been dismissing at the time the shooting occurred was cancelled providentially due to weather.
Upon arresting this man, city officials were quick to assure us that this type of thing does not happen in Kokomo. Yet two days later another person was shot in the head in our neighborhood by a 17 year-old. Is everything as well as the leaders want to make it?
For consider how local authorities rejoiced recently that Delphi reported over a billion dollars in profit last year. Are our memories really that short? What about all the people whose lifetime pensions they defaulted on just a few years ago when they declared bankruptcy? The huge bonuses given to executives right before the bankruptcy? The good families lost to the city because of jobs sent to cheaper overseas labor markets? Our mayor lauds Kokomo for being ranked as the second most affordable housing market. But does that not happen when hundreds of homes sit empty because people move away? A friend of mine, one let go in the Delphi bankruptcy, is trying to invest in these empty homes to provide affordable housing for the poor. We are waiting to see if by the time police get rid of the meth labs that have set up shop in them, and halt the thieves ransacking them for copper tubing, he will still be able to make a go of it.
Twenty years ago, when I first came to the city and knocked on hundreds of doors doing evangelism, the bitter complaint I heard by the dozens was how the recently defunct Continental Steel had reneged on its pension promises. What goes around comes around. The hulking, rusty remains and polluted waters Continental left behind have been removed and cleansed, and a new soccer park put in its place. That’s a great improvement. Yet the ruins and poisons left in human hearts and families hurt by lies and greed are not so easily removed.
The Lord expects cities with their unique cultures to honor Him. The prophets cried out to cities, whether it was Jeremiah to the compact, holy city of Jerusalem, or Jonah then later Nahum to the sprawling, unholy city of Ninevah. In the New Testament some cities, such as Ephesus, were noted for receiving the gospel with great power (Acts 19:20). Others, such as Chorazin and Bethsaida, were warned strongly by Jesus Himself for their lack of repentance (Matthew 11:20-21). Indeed, on the day of judgment, He said these cities would have the unwanted honor of being ranked ahead of Sodom and Gomorrah on the “Most Deserving of God’s Judgment” list. Measured on that scale, where does your city fall?
For cities, like people, do have personalities and are accountable to God. Many cities are given nicknames to capture in part their persona, be it the Motor City of Detroit, the Windy City of Chicago, or the Steel City of Pittsburgh. But sometimes those monikers can become a mocking symbol of an age gone by. Sadly and ironically, Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, has the highest murder rate in the nation. Kokomo is enjoying this first place Chamber award, for it is known as the City of Firsts for its claim that inventions such as the automobile and car radio were first developed here. Yet is it first in that most important of categories, which is fear of God? Twenty years of ministry here would seem to indicate we are further down on the list, more like cousins to the Chorazinians, than we might like to think.
In Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis, he reminds the reader again of the idea from his great work The City of God when he contrasts the virtues admired in the city of man, or the world outside the kingdom of God, with the city of God where Christ rules. Augustine writes:
There are two kinds of love: of these the one is holy, the other impure; the one is social, the other selfish…the one subject to God, the other endeavoring to equal Him…the one preferring truth to the praise of those who are in error; the other greedy for praise however got…
What kind of love describes your city? My city? When we are lauded because businesses remain through huge government bailouts and civic improvements are footed by struggling citizens, do we not look “greedy for praise however got?” And when the Lord cancels a prayer meeting for the city to protect praying women from preying citizens, is it not time to ask, “What is really first to the City of Firsts?”