public spaces

squarePublic Space (n)A place that is accessible for anyone to use. Sidewalks, plazas, and parks are the three most common public spaces. Public spaces mitigate class distinctions by allowing us to interact on neutral territory, and they foster relationships within a community by providing opportunities for incidental contact. (Jacobson, 171)

One of the main reasons why I am so excited about living in Boston is the presence of public spaces. Boston has uber-public mass-transportation, bustling sidewalks with tons of foot traffic, open squares with entertainment and crowds, lush parks with dog-walkers and sun-tanners, and tons of more commercial establishments designed to foster human interaction.

These “public spaces” are what Eric Jacobson, in Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, calls “an integral part of Jesus’ ministry on earth” that “facilitated his incarnational approach with people.” Jacobson goes on to say that while Jesus did spend time in the private spaces of other people’s homes and ministered in “the semiprivate realm of temple and synagogue,” the majority of Jesus’ ministry “took place in public spaces, where he risked relationship with people he didn’t know and interacted with them on neutral territory.”

Jacobson writes the following reflection on everyday ministry amid today’s rapidly spreading suburban sprawl and the gradual decline of truly public spaces over the last 50 years:

One problem with taking on the suburban mentality as Christians today is that we can make it very difficult for ourselves to practice incarnational ministry. Can we really say that we are dwelling among even our neighbors when there is no sidewalk connecting our homes to each other and no park or plaza for us to bump into one another during our free time? If our normal, everyday activities rarely coax us out of our private spheres of home, garage, automobile, and office, how can we build relationships with those whom we don’t already know?

Now, of course, if one is committed to an incarnational approach to ministry, one can practice it in any setting. Young Life thrives in many suburban locations. If a person is bold enough or committed enough, he or she will find a way onto the high school campus, the social circles of the shopping mall, or the parking lots of the minimarts to hang out with students. However, incarnational ministry is much more natural in comfortable in settings that have good public spaces.

I can’t wait to get rid of our car and take a bus or metro line. I look forward to going out for brisk walks on our bustling street in the afternoon and coming home with a bag of vegetables from the whole foods store a few blocks down. I long for the day when I’ll be able to play checkers with the old men in the park, striking up conversations about their long lives of hard work and hard play.

I pray that we emulate Christ as we transform these public spaces into venues of incarnational ministry as we seek to “dwell among” our future neighbors in Boston.


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