An Alternative Way to See a City

There are different ways to see a city.

There is one approach that finds a travel book, video or website. Discovers those “must-see” spots and proceeds to plan their trip around seeing those things.  After all, it seems strange to return from Paris not having seen the Eiffel Tower or New York City without seeing the Statue of Liberty.  This tourist approach is really fun. I myself like it to a point. Ultimately, however, I find it rather unsatisfying.

The travel buff goes a step further, priding themselves on discovering those “lesser known” places.  They hang out at the Shakespeare & Co. book store in Paris and know the best place for hotdogs in NYC. I’m much more this kind of person.  I love finding the hidden treasures of cities.  But this is also ultimately dissatisfying to me.

A third approach to seeing a city is rather simple by comparison. It is focused on simply going about, keeping your eyes and ears and heart open.  It is focused on seeing the people.  I have a friend that has been to Cape Town, South Africa several times but has never been up to Table Mountain.  He took this third approach.  It is a much more missional gaze because it flows out of a desire to connect with God’s image-bearers. As was said last night at the Lausanne Congress here in Cape Town, “cities feature more image of God per square inch than any other place in the universe.” 

So, here towards the end of my mid-congress day off, having not even set foot out of my hotel room (I really needed the rest), it is becoming clear that I may or may not make it to Table Mountain or Robben Island.  I may not cage dive with the sharks or see any penguins (though I would really like to do all these things). But I’m very grateful for the people of this city that have allowed me to see them – at least a bit.

We in the U.S. have a view of apartheid and the "new" South Africa that I’m learning may not be the full picture.  I suppose my view has been a bit simplistic. I don’t think I quite felt it was hell during and utopia after apartheid, but that’s not too far off from what I’ve thought.  But there’ve been some interesting encounters this week that have helped to complicate my view of things. 

One that stands out was a late night conversation with my Cape Malay cabbie.  She, a fourth generation Malaysian South African, gave me her perspective on the country.  “It was better before,” she declared. “Now, it’s just the reverse.  Mandela did a good thing, but his successors are too stupid to cover up the corruption.  At least the white government could sweep everything under the rug.”

What a statement! I asked her how the Cape Malay people were affected by the end of apartheid.  She described loose immigration policies that allowed for what she described as a free flow of immigrants from other African nations.  “It’s great for them, but they take all our jobs.”

I thought about how I have enjoyed meeting the numerous Malawian and Somali immigrants who work in various places in and on my way to the convention centre.  There seems to be a basic goodness to the fact that such people can immigrate to this country and find work.  But my friendly and opinionated cabbie reminded me that it’s more complicated than that – it always is.

Now, staying in downtown Cape Town with limited ability to move around town makes it challenging to see the whole city – the whole story.  It might be tempting to see and interact with the many (usually very friendly) black South Africans working around here and just assume that all is well. But I was grateful to happen upon a protest on morning being held at a housing office in Cape Town.  Here’s a short clip.  I managed to speak with the organizer who was a bit hard to hear over the loud singing.  Still, you get some idea of what she’s saying.

So, while apartheid is over, the healing process continues. Not to be critical of South Africa.  I really just post this today to illustrate the fact that the reality of things are often very complicated.  Working for reconciliation and the peace of Christ in our world today necessitates that followers of Jesus exert enormous effort to understand the complexities of our world.  I’ve said a number of times: for the gospel to be understood as “good news” by its hearers, it must speak to what they already understand to be the “bad news.”

So, there you have it. The complicated brokenness of image-bearers -- a way of seeing a city that I recommend trying from time to time. 


  1. My black South African friend who lives in a dangerous part of Cape Town has the choice to move to a safer community; but he never did.

    Yes, you don't go walking around his community at night and go check out a gang clash and risk the possibility of being hit by a stray bullet. That will be ignorance.

    His desire to be a light for Christ in that community far outweighs the risk. And in order to be an effective ambassador, it goes beyond just staying behind the "safety" of one's house (or shack) in the community. His work with youths in that community is a known fact. People don't "touch" him; and I credit that to the grace and protection of God for His servant.

    Now, something closer to home in Oklahoma. I am currently staying with a couple who lives in a community known for its run-down houses and regular drug busts. I once had a taxi driver asked me, "Why are you staying here?" when he had to pick me up to go to the airport.

    A recent community cookout hosted by some of us who lived in that community opened my eyes to see beyond the stereotypical view of this area. Yes, most of the people who came out of the woodworks for free food may immediately be perceived as bums and vagabonds. But who are we to judge if we are all equally sinful and needed the grace of God?

  2. simply put...I think this 'alternative way' to see a city is certainly the best way, seeing His glory in His beloved creation, humans - what a way to see the world.