Monday, November 14, 2016

Parenting in the City

Urban Ministry 9

I confess I am hesitant to write this post, or any post on parenting. There are too many stories in my past of preachers who put themselves up as parenting experts only to watch their family blow up later. Mandy and I have both talked about this extensively, and I have promised her that I will not write a book on parenting. I want to raise my children to love and serve God more than I want anything else in this world, and I will not risk that for anything or anyone.

Jack and I at a makeshift kitchen
table the day we moved to Chicago
Having said that, I do want to help people who are genuinely searching for answers about how to raise a godly family in the middle of an anti-family environment. The Lord knows that I would have benefited from this advice thirteen years ago when I moved to Chicago but I did not have it. Thus it is – specifically in answer to requests – I bring you this post. As with so much else I write I feel like someone older than me should discuss it but nobody appears to be so I will.

One more word of preface: I am purposely limiting it to things that in my view make parenting for the cause of Christ in an urban environment unique. This is not intended to be a blanket post about how to raise children to love and serve God. It is much more narrowly aimed.

The first thing that occupies my mind as a father in this environment is the necessity to protect my children.

Some of that is physical. I had lunch a few hours ago with a man in our church who lives two blocks away from me. I learned today that ten years ago his daughter was accidentally shot on their front porch during a gang drive by. Coincidentally, on that same corner a couple of years ago, while Jack and I were coming home from taekwondo practice, we saw a man urgently limping up the street. Blood trailed down his leg and he was hollering for help because he had just moments ago been shot. Numerous times I have picked up the newspaper and read about some shooting or stabbing in the streets and parks in my neighborhood where my children have lived all of their known lives. I know what it is like to peer out my blinds while a gang mills around my corner late at night, phone in hand, borderline cursing because 911 yields nothing but a busy tone. There are 52 registered sex offenders in my zip code and two that the state labels sexual predators live within a block of my house.

I can hear you now… "Then why in the world do you live there?" Because God called me here, and where He calls He provides all that is necessary to fulfill that call. God knows I have children. In fact, He is more concerned than I am about their safety because He loves them even more than I do. He is a big God. He is bigger than the gangs, the constant foul language, the liberal worldview, the increasing paganism, the radical homosexual movement, or any other physical or emotional or spiritual danger present in this environment.

Brennan family, 2002
It is also true that God calls for us to use practical wisdom in such situations. Physically, I protect my children by keeping them off the streets at night. When it is dark we are inside for the most part. For years I did not allow my children to walk anywhere by themselves other than across the yard to church. Chicago's notoriously strict gun laws forbad me to keep a handgun even in my own home. The Supreme Court has since overthrown that but while it was still law I ignored it. My oldest son has spent a thousand hours practicing taekwondo, and earned his Korean certified black belt a few months ago. There were other reasons for that than just safety but that entered into it. I am confident he could handle himself in any situation short of a drive by shooting, and that he can protect his younger siblings as well. We do not drive through certain areas of the city after dark. Etc. etc.

These are largely common sense but there is another yet more important aspect of protection that does not appear to be so commonly thought about. That is spiritual protection. If you allow your children to live the same life as all of the other city kids the spiritual result will be the same – disastrous. You must identify what actions and places are the most dangerous to your children's spiritual health and avoid them.

For example, I would never, under any circumstances, with zero exceptions, enroll my children in the Chicago Public Schools. The typical American public school is godless in its curriculum, foul in its language, satanic in its music, and barnyard in its morals. The CPS increases all of these exponentially, and adds to them the danger of a constant physical threat of gang violence and sexual assault. I know some godly men and women who teach or work in CPS or have their children enrolled and I do not wish to insult them with this paragraph, but this is my honest opinion.

I will not allow my children to become comfortable on the street. I do not mean the literal street. I mean the whole street life scene that most children and teenagers in this city experience and live in. Their friends either attend our church or are geographically distant. They do not know what it is like to hang out at the park fieldhouse or the corner with their buddies, and they will not ever know what that is like. We do not join the rest of the block during the block party. The perceived benefit of being sociable with my neighbors is over ruled by the pulsating Latin rap music that thunders from speakers dragged to the front yard of house after house that day, and the open and wide consumption of alcoholic beverages. I do not want my children comfortable in that kind of environment, and I freely confess I do not understand those of you that do.

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Brennan family, 2007
Along this line, but opposite in a sense, my wife and I seek to ensure that our own and our children's attitude toward difficult people is compassionate. The city, by its very nature, collects more people that are substance abusers, that are mentally ill, that are deeply scarred by sin, and that are challenging to work with in this sense than typical small town America. We do shelter our children and do not apologize for it but at the same time we do not want them to become pharisaical better-than-thou's looking down their nose at sinners. We are here to reach and minister to sinners, and our family dynamic and approach to parenting is to include our children in ministry as much as possible. If that means, for instance, a mentally ill person wants to throw my child a birthday party I will let them – even if I have to bend over backwards to make sure everything is ok during the event. A normal parent would probably tell them to take a hike, and I would not argue with anyone who did. But we want our children to see the dignity of people made in the image of God even if those people are badly broken. So we buy them bus tickets and take them dinner and mow their yards and pick up their groceries and invite them over for lunch after church. When the homeless approach us on foot at the drive thru we buy them a meal. And we include our children in all of these things. We want our children to be comfortable stretching themselves, adjusting themselves, being flexible and compassionate in ministry. We do not want them to view people as dangerous or contaminating for the most part; we want them to see the beauty and joy there is in serving people.

Next, be conscientious not to bad-mouth your calling in the ears of your children. God intended us to serve Him with joy. He designed ministry that way specifically, and it is just as possible in an urban environment of service as it is in the Bahamas. If your public face at church is all joyful but your private talk about ministry around your dinner table is negative you are being hypocritical and your children will notice. If you do not like your position, church, deacon board, or city the answer nowhere includes whining about it in front of your children. Take your burdens to God and then leave them there. God is not punishing you by asking you to serve Him in the grit of the inner-city; He is graciously consenting to use you and that is a high privilege. Your children should see that in you and it should be genuine.

Lastly, we strive to take advantage of the benefits that come from big city life. Our town has world class concerts, parks, recreational facilities, museums, zoos, arboretums, and conservatories. We go to all of them. Often. No, we do not pay much if anything because we have learned over the years that there are times and places when all of these are either free or relatively inexpensive. So we pack a picnic dinner and head to the lawn at Ravinia to take in a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the trees. In bad weather we join the business set listening to free chamber music and eating lunch at the Chicago Cultural Center. We attend the largest auto show in North America with free tickets provided by a man in our church who works at McCormick Place. We take family pictures at Buckingham Fountain. We stroll through the fascinating German pop up village that is the Christkindlmarket, buy the kids hot chocolate, and then take in the festive Christmas windows at Macy's. We have been to museums with the free Kraft passes available in the library so often we do not need maps anymore. Speaking of libraries, we go online and order any of the millions of books the Chicago Public Library owns and have them shipped to our closest library. And then we take in a Lego building demonstration there while we pick up our books. In winter we go ice skating at a city park two miles away. When it snows we pull the sleds out of the garage rafters and plunge headlong down the only hill I know of in a Chicago park. There are some wonderful aspects to urban life. Take your children and enjoy them.

Brennan Family 2016 b
Brennan family, 2016
Years ago when we moved to Chicago with a two year old and a six week old we were told that it was a mistake, that we could not raise godly children in this environment. I rejected that perspective then and I reject it now. God sent you where you are. He will provide you what you need to keep your children safe and to raise them to love and serve Him. The truth is every family is unique, and every child is challenging to parent. Yes, we have some things that cause our situation to be difficult but so do you – even if you live in the middle of the woods. The key to raising spiritual children is not location; it is the same as it has always been – love, prayer, wisdom, quality time, and a genuine faith lived out in the home.

One of God's names in the Hebrew Torah is Adonai, which means lord and master. He is our Lord and Master; we are His servants. Pharaoh was a bad master because he sent his servants to make bricks without giving them the straw necessary to do so. Adonai is a wonderful Master. If He sends you to do a task rest assured He will give everything you need to accomplish it. You can raise a godly family in the middle of a modern godless urban American environment. You can. Our Adonai will help you.


  1. Mandysuebee@gmail.comNovember 15, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    How good our Adonai has been to us. I love you husband.

  2. What a beautiful perspective. God bless you and your dear family.