THE popes have a custom of issuing a blessing, Urbi et
Orbi - "to the city and the world". In our time, the
difference is disappearing. More than half of the world's
population live in urban areas; so cities have come to incorporate
the whole world in their varied and distinctive ways.
Oakland, California, where I live, is a city of just under half
a million people. It is the old workhorse city of the Bay Area,
compared with San Francisco's glamour; but, in recent years, as San
Francisco has become increasingly a preserve of the rich, or of
young aspirers to wealth, Oakland seems, by contrast, to contain
more of the diversity - the highs and lows - of the world
It is easy to enumerate the lows: poverty; failure in sustaining
and educating children; gangs' drug-running and shooting at one
another; deep-seated antagonism between the police and portions of
the populace; and a city government that has often been more
interested in rewarding its partisans than in caring for the city
as a whole.
Add to all that the highest homicide rate of any city in the
United States, and the canard that, in Oakland: "There is no there
there."The poet and native daughter of the city Gertrude Stein
wrote this line to convey her sense of loss on returning and
finding that her childhood home had been demolished; but later wags
turned it into a judgement on the city itself.
The highs are more fragile, but, if there is to be hope for the
future of the world, they are more important. The city has a good
record in terms of waste management and recycling. More and more
young families are moving into old neighbour-hoods, where a
surprising percentage of them grow some of their own food, or keep
bees and chickens in their modest garden areas. The area near the
city centre has become home to a burgeoning population of artists.
Creative chefs abound - not all of them in high-end restaurants:
some have dedicated themselves to improving school lunches.
Partly, these good things result from the high rents across the
Bay, which drive creative people out of San Francisco. But another
important ingredient, I think, is that Oakland has no single ethnic
or racial group that either constitutes a majority or can impose
its will politically. Nor are we divided between two dominant
groups, which can only be at loggerheads with each other. It is a
situation which favours constructive interactions.
This is not, in itself, a guarantee of progress or harmony. The
Occupy Movement here began as a peaceful, multi-ethnic protest, but
it was hijacked by violent anarchists, and ended in a confrontation
with the police which served only to deepen existing
Nevertheless, Oakland has about it a sense of possibility - an
opportunity for good leadership to plant the seeds of a new world
in the microcosm of the city. The same, I hope, will prove true of
another human community with no single dominant ethnic or racial
group: the Anglican Communion.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New
Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley,