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The Beginning of One Life, the End of Another

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 17, 2008

Friday night I celebrated the birth of my son with a few friends with the traditional smoking of cigars.

My friend and fellow Missio Dei community member Josh invited me, my housemate Chad, and our new friend Orin to have a couple beers at the Acadia Cafe. Afterwards we smoked the cigars (which were actually Cuban) to ceremonially celebrate my fatherhood.

Meanwhile, a couple blocks away, a young Somali man was shot and killed. Abdillahi Abdi was 18. He was shot in his car.

Somali youth violence has been increasing in the neighborhood. It made my celebration feel a little hollow. Josh and Chad realized that some of the young men involved in the incident were around last Saturday when we did our weekly “Hospitality Train“outing. There has been a rise of Somali youth violence in the area. The Somali community blames the police for not doing more to curb violence…and at the same time tend to repeatedly deny their young are involved in gangs.

This is all to familiar in our nation’s history; the rise in 2nd generation immigrant violence is a story that has been told in this country before. The parents come here for a better life for their family. They lived enough in their homeland to retain their ethnic identity. But their kids…that’s another story. They are usually cut-off from the homeland. And they don’t quite fit in in this new land. This lack of social identity and its accompanying frustration is the natural breeding ground for the formation of young gangs. Gangs offer social identity and empowerment in a new land where you’re in the margins. This was the story of Italian and Irish youth. And it is the story among 2nd generation immigrants today.

Police don’t seem to be in a hurry to help address the problem of increased violence. They are being reactive rather than proactive. Meanwhile, the parents tend to act like their kids can’t possibly be doing anything wrong. The one youth program geared towards East African youth in the neighborhood is crammed into the same space that everyone has to share…a handful of classrooms and an under-resourced community center.

Many homeowners and business owners in Cedar Riverside assume that the best way to address this problem it to spread things around. If we could tear down the “crack stacks” (the image shown here), then Somali folks won’t be living in a ghetto. They’ll be forced to relocate around the Twin Cities and get absorbed into the larger culture. Meanwhile, new housing and new businesses geared towards hip city-dwellers can come in and revitalize the neighborhood. This is a gospel of gentrification. And the best it can do is push the misery around.

But for us it is a deeply spiritual issue. Missio Dei is grappling with how to embody Christ here in the midst of this neighborhood. Following Christ means that we engage the brokenness and attempt to show a better way. Somali youth violence is just one among a host of issues facing the Cedar Riverside neighborhood. But for us this isn’t an easy task. We’re trying to raise funds for a building that, among other things, could be shared (for free) with local area organizations, like the youth program mentioned earlier. We try to connect with folks through hospitality (and this season we’re launching a neighborhood garden). But with a budget of about $20,000 a year, we’re stretched thin and we’re a long way off from getting a building.

And so, we are a marginal group in a marginal place following a marginal Jesus. And we’re trying to see transformation, one person at a time, as we build relationships…as we try to become a spiritual family with broken people. For us, change happens, at least primarily, across the table. Over bowls of vegan chili. As people become adopted into a family.

And so, I have a new son. Jonas is a delight to his papa. God has entrusted him to his mother and me. He is family. But we also believe God has entrusted us to the Cedar Riverside neighborhood because he wants to see a family grow there. A new shared identity where there was once fragmentation and frustration.

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