by Fletcher L. Tink
As October withers like spent leaves off a tree, the
Christian calendar shoots forth two curious blossoms—Reformation Sunday and All
Saints’ Day. Modern cities need reformers and saints and everything between. A
scan of biblical history introduces us to an eclectic array of individuals who
built, evangelized, and transformed cities
Cain, a murderer, is given a second chance and erects
the first recorded city, Enoch, named for his son.
Joseph, a dreamer and economist for Egypt, creates seven-year plans to
deal with deficits and surpluses and relocates urban populations for improved
David, a former husbandry specialist promoted to king,
designs a holy city where the presence of God and the Shepherd of His people
could be found.
Esther, an exiled beauty, joins the harem of her enemy
Xerxes under duress and then uses her privileged state to leverage salvation
for an oppressed urban minority.
Nehemiah, a Persian layman, receives a government grant
and leave of absence to reconstruct the demolished city of Jerusalem. As part of his plan, he
announces a “tithe” of people, not just of money, to offer their services and
lives to rebuild the city.
Daniel, a politician and adviser in Babylon, a man of impeccable
integrity, outlasts several heads of state to bring just order to oppressive
Jonah, a reluctant prophet whom God uses despite his
hostility to the mission, brings the message of salvation to Ninevah. The
city-wide campaign results in revival with a 100% conversion rate. Jonah,
unfortunately, lapses into depression when he discovers that Ninevah, archenemy
of Israel, can be both loved and
accepted by God.
Jeremiah, a city saint, acts out God’s message for the
city in symbolic and, at times, bizarre ways, offering warning in good times
and hope in bad.
Jesus, the Savior, weeps over the city, ministers
principally in the city, and dies just outside the city gate.
Barnabas, a missionary strategist, uses First Church of
Antioch to launch urban mission forays into other urban locales.
Paul, a missionary first for Jewish faith and then for
Christian, tromps across the urban world to plant and nourish churches through
a wide variety of evangelistic techniques, including Socratic dialogue,
rabbinical teaching, signs and wonders, personal conversations, and letters.
The high point of his calling is his witness in Rome, the center of the empire,
where first in chains and then in martyrdom he effectively attacks Satan in the
And God prepares the New Jerusalem, a city gift-wrapped
for those who are ready to receive it as it descends from the clouds.
The pantheon of impassioned urban individuals who create
and transform cities is yet being completed.
Francesco Bernadone (1181-1226), a troubled,
battle-weary soldier, returns to his hometown on the slopes of Mt. Subasio in green Umbria, Italy. He is impressed by its
“numerous family tragedies, impoverished houses, hunger, crime and violence . .
. where the moral order could not fail to go to pieces.” Francesco undergoes a
spiritual conversion, is disinherited by his father, repudiates all symbols of
materialism, communes with nature, and finds soul brothers and sisters willing
to live in huts. He inadvertently starts a worldwide movement that continues to
prod us moderns into concern for the poor, respect for nature, a lifestyle of
pacifism, and a spirit of ecumenicity. To walk today around Assisi, a city forever linked with
Francesco’s name—St. Francis—is to feel not only his impact but also something
of the exquisite presence of God.
John Calvin (1509-1564), a theologian and Church
reformer, is summoned by citizens of Geneva, Switzerland, to bring order to their
besieged and violent city. From 1541 until his death, Calvin materializes his
theology into an ideal Protestant society, writing its constitution, developing
its school system, building hospitals and sewer systems, offering special care
for the poor, and introducing new industries. Today Geneva is known as a center for
international diplomacy, the home of the World Health Organization, and the
heart of the Protestant Reformation.
William Penn (1644-1718), a victim of religious
persecution and internment in England, desires to found a colony
where religious freedom is guaranteed. King Charles II grants him land between
the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers on the eastern coast of the New World, and
in 1681 Penn surveys it, lays it out, and names it Philadelphia, meaning city of brotherly love. It is Penn who
develops the concept of a penitentiary, a place to rehabilitate prisoners on
the basis of penitence. Today, his statue stands tall on the peak of city hall.
John Wesley (1703-91), a missionary failure, comes to
to convert the native peoples but laments that he himself needs conversion. His
three-year pastoral assignment in sultry Savannah, Georgia, turns disastrous due to
conniving women, misguided role expectations, and political intrigue. He
returns to England, dejected but receptive to the
subsequent Aldersgate experience in London. It rejuvenates his purposes
and sets in motion the beginnings of the Wesleyan revival. Savannah is most forgiving, and Reynolds Square now hosts a statue of Wesley, Christ Church notes his services as rector,
and Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church honors its faithful son.
Antonio Francisco Lisboa (1730-1814), bastard child of
master and slave in colonial Brazil, is a prolific and renowned
sculptor. He suffers a debilitating bout of leprosy, which leaves him so
physically damaged that he is nicknamed Aleijadinho, Little Cripple. Shortly
thereafter, he experiences a spiritual conversion and pledges to spend the rest
of his life creating sculptures to praise God. Today, thousands of tourists
visit the old colonial cities of Congonhas and Ouro Preto to see the dozens of
soapstone statues fashioned by this crippled man to honor stories and
personalities of Scripture. He is in good company; the artisans and craftsmen
assigned to adorn the tabernacle are the first mentioned in Scripture to
receive the infilling of the Holy Spirit (Exodus 31:1-2).
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (1910-1997), youngest child of an
Albanian builder in Skopje, Macedonia, joins a Catholic order at age
18. She serves first in Ireland and then in India. When a siege of tuberculosis
changes her life, she steps out of her traditional compliant role and in 1952
founds the Missionary of Charity Order. We know her as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Linked to her name, a city
that previously connoted poverty and desperation is now seen as a center of
practical compassion. Mother Teresa has shown us that great things are done one
by one and that we are called to be “little pencils” in the hand of God. He
does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it; it
is only allowed to be used.
Like the author of Hebrews 11:32, I write, “What more
shall I say? I do not have time to tell about” Josephine Butler, a Victorian
who fought state regulation of prostitution and confronted the root issues of
poverty and women’s civil rights; Octavia Hill, the first social worker;
Florence Nightingale, who shattered precedence by establishing the first
nursing school and pioneered statistical analysis, saving lives throughout the
world; and James Rouse, a contemporary urban developer who on Christian
philosophical principles reconstructed Baltimore’s harbor, the Boston Quincy
market, and Seattle’s downtown. All these are lives of practical Christian
The writer of Hebrews identifies their faith. “They
were longing for a better country—a heavenly one,” he says. “Therefore God is
not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them”
(Hebrews 11:16). Do we share similar tenacious faith in creating and recreating
our cities as we imagine the heavenly city to be? All it takes is one city
¾Fletcher L. Tink is an urban
missions specialist, having led urban and leadership training in 28 nations.