Mi Casa Uptown Author Q&A
What prompted you to write a book about your story?
The narrative of the inner-city kid was all too familiar and all too crippling, it seemed. “Familiarity breeds contempt.” If you were still around, you hadn’t done something right. While there was plenty of hardship growing up; and plenty of stigmas with staying put for close to three decades —there were so many life-giving moments. The story of Jesus and the grip of the Holy Spirit has convinced me the story can be reimagined, that the narrative can be told with honor and dignity and beauty. Through it all, place has become a significant part of my story — and I believe it does for all of us too.
One of the things you talk about in the book is the common phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” and about how you want to flip the script and talk about how familiarity should breed love. How did you begin to think about that concept and how has your neighborhood impacted your thinking on this?
I guess it’s best to begin with the reality — familiarity does breed contempt. There’s often no two way around it — we objectify that which we’ve grown most familiar with. Acknowledging that allows me to humbly and honestly target the specific ways that I do that to my neighbors and neighborhood. Inviting familiarity to breed love and understanding and investment calls for intentionality of hands and clarity of your heart. Once my view of the hardships, differences, and “unlovely-ness” of my neighbors shifted, I was much more compassionate about my city. I was more understanding about my city. I was more eager to be a part of offering something more inspiring, something more compelling. Perhaps, in the midsts of so much change, our approach has made room — moreover, has celebrated — the stories of many whose story wasn’t being told, let alone celebrated. Perhaps our approach has made room for embracing the scars and the unlovely-ness and the other-ness of the stories around us before our presence eclipses theirs. Perhaps our approach makes room to love differently; to stir curiosity because of the way we love.
There are many readers—most!—who will read this book who don’t live in Uptown, NYC. Why should readers read a story about your hometown, and how will it change their view of the places that they live?
You may not live in NYC, but there is no denying the effects and influence of cities. Cities, especially on the coasts — like NYC — are often the center of culture. And although the rest of our country may be good and creating their own enclave, they won’t be able to resist the influence of cities much longer. The rest of our country will take city culture and adopt it and make their own in some way. So, to consider what is happening in cities like New York and how Christians are existing in those places may benefit the reader. It’s of eternal importance that the Christian consider the dynamics of city life on this side of eternity. Cities are dense, diverse, fast-paced, often overtly glorifying darkness, and not leaving much margin to react to the world as we ought. But in those same cities is more image of God per square mile than anywhere else. In those same cities is the potential to harness “taste-makers”, influencers, and culture builders for kingdom purpose. In those same cities are rhythms that demand us to crawl out of the shadows that often hide our secret sin and selfish habits. Cities, as it’s often imagined, build “thick skin” for certain. I would say, it builds a faith that endures in ways that other environments cannot. A faith that wrestles through nuance and tension, when other environments draw hard lines around those nuances.
What would you say to the person that hears about your book and says, “Oh, that’s about NYC, I can’t relate”?
Look again. You can relate. While our environments are different — our stories, our fears, our dreams, our wrestles, our hopes are not. The vices that you fight in the privacy of your suburban bedroom are the same vices we wrestle through at the city park. The fear of ending up alone that grips you on your quiet car ride to work is the same fear that can grip us on the 40-minute train ride to the office. The hope of freedom that’s offered to you at 2,000 member faith community is the same hope offered to us in our mobile, church plant.
The last chapter in your book is called, “Trust Jesus, Die Well.” Most people don’t like to think about death, let alone include it in their life motto! Can you share a bit about what this phrase means to you?
It has deep significance. Loss is one of the few things in this life that connects every single person that could pick up this book. If we commit to think about life, we must commit to think about death. If we choose not to, we run the risk of not thinking soberly about our lives in the present. Asking the question of life is synonymous to sharing what is most valuable to you; what is your greatest affection. Conversely, to ask the question “What is death?” is identify your great fear, or the greatest obstacle to your greatest affection (the answer to the first question). Watching my mother struggle and lose the battle to cancer was an embodiment of a death embraced. She showed me in that season that life is worth stepping into the battle for, and death was no enemy at all but an unintentional ally. How we finish in this life tells the story of what is most valuable and precious to us. Die well.
You and your wife are intentionally raising your children in a context that might not fit the mold of the “American dream.” Why is that? What are some of the most important principles for you as you raise your children?
I couldn’t see it any other way. Familiarity, although at times has bred contempt, it has bred a fascination with the city. It has bred love for it. The city offers us potential. Potential to love hard; to love deeply and authentically. No hiding. No pretense. The American dream falls apart in a place like NYC. The American dream, as we know it, sells the majority of us a crippling comfort, self-centered ambitions, and success. In the city, especially NYC, you’re offered the potential to optimize your impact and influence. There’s nothing that we want more for our kids than a durable faith and an authentic personality. It gets scary living and raising kids in the city. Not because it’s dangerous. Come on, I’m from New York! But because the city is good at enticing, glamorizing, and inviting us into all the things that draw us away from God. Slower pace, bigger housing, and cleaner air is tempting. But crossing the street while having to navigate glaring vices, the “other” with my kids offers us the opportunity we need to break free from the “American dream” and plunge into the life of a selfless, authentically sacrificing disciple of Jesus.
How do you hope readers are changed as a result of reading Mi Casa Uptown?
My hope is that readers would be inspired to shift their view of city life — whether existing city dwellers, city natives, or non city dwellers. I’m hoping for a deep sense of understanding, compassion, and excitement for life in the city to be cultivated in the reader. I’m hoping for divine imagination to grip the western approach to theology. An imagination that feels as much as it thinks. An imagination that empathizes. An imagination that unsettles tradition. An imagination that involves the community more than it does the self.
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