A dimly lit sanctuary offering rest and nurture amid a bustling downtown; an underpass surrounded by sounds of a roaring interstate where worlds collide; a somber park where the Lady Peace stands erect in the shadow of reckless violence as nearby workers eat their lunch unaware, and a skyscraper standing tall against adversity as a beacon of hope for a broken community.
A place is much more than a place. It bears witness to the history of its making, the people who call it home, and it has the power to invite or disaffect others from joining it. What are the layers of stories that shape the places we inhabit today? What are the things our communities are saying without speaking a word?
In March of 2016, a group from Truett Seminary traveled overseas to dissect the essence of “evangelism” and its impact and place in post-modern Christianity. We met with leaders in London who were reimagining evangelism through intentional community, social impact and cross-cultural friendship.
Alchemy Project founder Matt Valler introduced our group to something he calls the “City Hack” or the “City Labyrinth.” Over the course of four hours, we walked a labyrinth that took us all across the City of London, forcing us to slow down and notice the architecture, sounds, sights and smells of the community around us.
“A place is much more than a place. It bears witness to the history of its making, the people who call it home, and it has the power to invite or disaffect others from joining it.”
The Labyrinth – a walking meditation that helps you to focus and be still as you enter God’s presence – has been a part of the Christian tradition as a spiritual practice since the Middle Ages. You may find one outside your church.
As you walk the labyrinth path, you’ll enter God’s presence and see the cathedral from different perspectives as you walk the path to enlightenment.
A labyrinth has only one path to its center. Unlike a maze, it’s not trying to trick or confuse. It takes you instead on a spiritual journey to inspire, challenge and comfort you.
It’s typical to stop at the center and wait for what God might teach you. Then you walk the path back, remembering that God always leads us back into the world.
For as long as cathedrals have been built, architects have attempted to make a statement of doctrine through their work. For example, the space in which the pulpit sits (center stage or flanking the sides) shows that congregation’s value on the Word of God and the importance of proclamation and preaching.
I challenge you as you worship this week to ask yourself a few questions. What is it about this room that ushers you into worship? Is it the grand organ, the stained glass, grand pulpit or the communion table that speak to you? And is this room speaking your same language? We show what we truly value through how much space we allow it.
As I moved from Truett Seminary to the Diana Garland School of Social Work, I held on to my experiences and questions from my London city labyrinth. As I dove into my macro community practice social work courses, and we discussed asset-based community development, I couldn’t help but think about the intersection of faith and practice and the ways we survey and assess our communities.
“What are the layers of stories that shape that places we inhabit today? What are the things our communities are saying without speaking a word?”
If the labyrinth is really about our growing awareness of how our physical environment affects our communal understanding of who we are, then it’s the perfect tool for community assessment. So I set out to create a city labyrinth in my own community of Waco, Texas.
Here are some simple steps to creating your own community labyrinth:
- Set your boundaries. I chose the downtown area of Waco. You won’t be able to labyrinth your whole city, so take on a few important blocks or a historic neighborhood in your community.
- Get out there and walk it! A labyrinth is meant to be walked. You may do an initial windshield survey, simply driving around in your car to take an inventory of the area, but to truly wander your community, you have to get out there on the ground and walk the streets, become uncomfortable and notice things in ways you’ve never noticed them before.
- Map your labyrinth. Use tools such as Google Earth to create a map for other journeyers to follow and to show the physical path you want to walk. Tell the story of your city by creating cards with information on particular stops along your labyrinth with historical background or questions you want your travelers to ask themselves.
Some things to consider as you wander your community and prepare to create your own community labyrinth:
- Go slowly and purposefully
- Notice and write down everything
- Use technology to help you “hack” your city. I found wacohistory.org to be a helpful resource as I learned more about my city.
- Experience the community
- Look for the resonance and the dissonance in your community. What symbols and places seem to be sending the same messages, and which ones are at odds?
“If the labyrinth is really about our growing awareness of how our physical environment affects our communal understanding of who we are, then it’s the perfect tool for community assessment. So I set out to create a city labyrinth in my own community of Waco, Texas.”
Not only is the city labyrinth a tool for community assessment, but it is also a tool for inner transformation. As the pilgrims of yesterday walked this path for enlightenment, you will also walk a new path as you become more aware of your space and purpose in this community.
Walking the city labyrinth is a spiritual tool for those who wish to rediscover God’s presence in the daily spaces you inhabit. As you wander, seeing your community with fresh eyes, ask yourself some tough questions. How does this space make you feel? What does that symbol mean? When was it put there and why? For whom was this built? Who does it seem is welcome in this place? And who might not feel very welcome here?
As you walk, think about the family that might live in that building or the young adult that spends more time at this job than at his own home. As we boldly ask these questions, research, find answers, and find even more questions, we rewrite history. When we discover together, we can imagine new ways of life in this space together. Every city has a story hidden in plain sight. Go and find it.