It isn’t a new question. In fact, in some ways, it is the question of my life, but living the life I do, I keep thinking about it.
For these few days I am in one of the beautiful places on the face of the earth, San Diego, California. I am drawn here by two friends, Geoff Hsu and Shauna Schneider, and their dream for their city.
“Flourish San Diego” they have called it, and it is as audacious as it sounds. How about simply, “flourish my house”? or “flourish my neighborhood”? In truth those are hard enough— and in truth we have to begin there. If there isn’t honest integrity in those places, then it is romanticism to talk about a city as large as San Diego, which in reality is a metropolis with millions of people spread over many miles, filled with countless houses and neighborhoods. Only a few miles from Mexico, just down the coast from Los Angeles, it is a city of glories and shames, like every city, but with its own unique mix of tribes and traditions, races and ethnicities, haves and have-nots, hopes and dreams.
But “Flourish San Diego” it is.
Knowing Geoff and Shauna as I do, I know that their hope is born of the words of the prophet Jeremiah from long ago, who said to the exiled people of Israel living in Babylon, “Seek the flourishing of your city. Plant trees. Build houses. Get married. Have children. Pray for your city to flourish, that you will flourish.” They are strange words, given what we know of Babylon. Is there a city in the history of the world that is as iconically “bad,” as Babylon? We almost spit “Babylon” out of our mouths, sure that we are speaking of the worst of the worst.
For several years I have been watching Geoff and Shauna wrestle with this idea, and over the last year they have named their longing, remembering Babylon, choosing to seek the flourishing of their city. Because of who they are, they have made “vocation and the common good” the heart of their hope. Another central player in this is Amy Sherman from Charlottesville, VA, many years ago a student at the American Studies Program on Capitol Hill where I taught for much of my life. She went on to earn a PhD at the University of Virginia, and has spent her life thinking about and working on the flourishing of cities all over the world— and not surprisingly has given years to the question of vocation and the common good, as have I. The four of us are committed to this for the foreseeable future, and for a few days are talking together with 25 others to see what might be done, taking responsibility for the way things are, and aren’t, in San Diego.
Yesterday, we heard from several people who have given the years of their lives to the city. Journalists, business people, psychologists, who in their different ways were windows into what is being done, and what is to be done. In the evening we had a fascinating conversation with a woman who started “Good Dogs,” a project that connects children with autism with their own specially-trained guide dogs. We all had tears in our throats– but that is what it means to be called to the common good. At the end of the day, this cannot be ivory-tower, a wouldn’t-it-be-nice idea? Instead it must be about ordinary people with ordinary lives, marked by histories and hopes, longings and loves– just like all of us.
So yes, the coast of California is beautiful, with its palm trees and sunshine. And yes, San Diego is just about as good as it gets, having more sunny days than any other city in America. And yes again, the fish tacos are the best. But it is also true that there is a complexity here that is born of hundreds of years of history and politics and economics, a social construction of life full of twists and turns that have made life in the early 21st-century its own great challenge for everyone who calls this place “home.”
At our best, we are a small company of hobbits, earnest and hopeful, not sure at all what the adventure will bring— but we have begun, and we will see.