Kansas City is for Lovers

“You lived in Denver…and you moved back to Kansas City? Why?” they ask.

I could explain the situation with the job. I could talk about the car, or lack thereof, after the accident. I could say, “It was just time,” or I could go into graphic detail about how life kicked my ass and sent me limping back to my parents’ house with my tail between my legs, so now I sleep on a mattress I threw on top of the hot tub, borrow my brother’s truck to get back and forth to work, and just generally spend my days avoiding anyone I might recognize in Smithville. Which is everyone. Or, you know, I could just lie.

“It’s home,” I shrug. And they get that knowing look because most people understand what it’s like to get sucked back into a place.

I work in the Northeast now, in between Troost and Paseo, which means something if you’re from around here. This is the place I pictured when they said I would be working in low-income neighborhoods and schools in Denver: the multistory houses pieceworked together over decades, one room the outgrowth of another, crumbling around the rickety fire escapes. The century-old stone school buildings, abandoned to plywood windows, inarticulate graffiti, and realty signs. The housing projects where dozens of young children squirm over old, damp mattresses in the yard. The doors of hundreds of homes spray-painted DANGEROUS BUILDING–KEEP OUT. KCMO.

My first day working in Denver’s low-income neighborhoods, I thought I was in the wrong place. I thought I would be placed in the inner city, with kids who lived in crackhouses like the ones I saw in Kansas City. When I got there, I realized Denver’s inner city was inhabited by yuppies who shopped at REI and lived in lofts in neighborhoods that sounded like celebrity couple nicknames–LoDo, RiNo, LoHi. The minority populations had been shipped off to earthtone subdivisions in the ‘burbs northeast of the city. It was like Pleasantville, but with black people, and I guess that’s why they called it the ‘hood. Truly, there was poverty, violence, and unequal distribution of resources and wealth. It just didn’t look like Kansas City.

It’s quite trendy now for inner city KC churches to say, “God Loves this City.” It’s almost a branding theme for churches primarily composed of white people that locate themselves in the Crossroads or Midtown. I’ve ruminated on this phrase for some time, now, and each time I think of it I find myself responding to what I feel is the implied other-half of that statement: God loves this city, though no one else does. If it were evident that people cared about KC, we wouldn’t have to point out that at least God cares. I do commend those churches that choose to participate in the downtown/midtown/inner city community, because Lord knows we don’t need any more suburban Morton building churches, but I do question how much they are engaging with all Kansas Citians as opposed to comprising a church of young, hip urbanite transplants. But, whatever, I’m not writing a book on church planting. I’m writing about me. And this is what I come back to time and again–God loves this city, but do I? God is capable of doing tremendously difficult things, including caring about Kansas City in spite of its dirt and crime and lack of culture. Am I capable of such a task?

For a while I’ve been stuck on a definition of love that I think is a good model for me to strive toward. I believe love is a vast wealth of patience and forgiveness, high expectations of the other, sacrifice of oneself, genuine mutual admiration, and an uncompromising commitment. Since I feel that I should love everyone in this manner–romantically or otherwise–I also think I could use this model in how I love places. And according to my own definition, I simply don’t love Kansas City. I am not forgiving of this city’s flaws; I hold a grudge against it for being dirty and having too many one-way streets and potholes and not having enough innovation and creativity. My expectations of KC could not be any lower. I expect for the city’s nightlife to be dull, the artists and musicians here to be ten years late to the scene, the weather to suck. I begrudge the fact that I live here and blame my ancestors for stopping here on their way to anywhere else, making this the place I crawl back to when my life falls apart. I have no admiration for Kansas City and I don’t make any sacrifices to help it become more of a place I want to spend time. The only lasting commitment I have to Kansas City is that it’s listed on my birth certificate.

I’ve come to these conclusions about how I feel toward my hometown, and I want to be different. This feeling, like most things in life, can be most eloquently articulated by John Cusack in High Fidelity: “I can see now I never really committed to Laura. I always had one foot out the door, and that prevented me from doing a lot of things, like thinking about my future and… I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing, keep my options open. And that’s suicide. By tiny, tiny increments.” I’m tired of having one foot out the door of KC, wishing to realize my dreams anywhere but here. I want to love this place and have a real commitment to this city; maybe not forever, but for the time being I want to have my heart and both feet in Kansas City. God does love Kansas City, and He shows it through his people. I want to be one of those people.

My goal is to love Kansas City as I think Jesus wants us to love not only individual people but the places where they live–with patience, forgiveness, high expectations, self-sacrifice, admiration and commitment. I will be okay when KC is not everything I wish it would be, because it’s silly to hold a grudge against a city for the things its people do. I will have high expectations that Kansas City is capable of being an amazing place, filled with excitement and passion and innovation–and that this is not only a hope for the future but the current state of my city. I will give my time and energy and money and love to help Kansas City become even more of a great place. I will admire Kansas City for all of its history and for the positive changes taking place. I will commit to loving Kansas City even when it’s boring or humid or whatever my problem of the day is. I will choose to love the people of Kansas City, as much as I can, and be proud of my city, defending KC whenever people knock it. However, I will stipulate that my commitment only applies to Kansas City, Missouri, because not even God loves Kansas.

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