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Watsonopolis is a place where the Watson family posts their writing, reflections, images and videos.

Most of the stuff we post are our own thoughts, wonderings, and stories that emerge from our lives, our living, the world around us and the world within us.

You'll find us reflecting on our travels, our faith, justice, and what it means for us to live well in 21st century America. 

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The Nature of Cities and the Future of Memphis

For the last several months I've been taking an online course through Bakke Graduate University.  I'm taking the slow train towards a Doctorate in Ministry degree with this outfit, as I've mentioned before.  The course is titled, "The Nature of Cities" and we've been doing a lot of reading, writing and reflecting on the origins of cities, how they grow, where they come from and where they're going. 

For me, much of this course is viewed through the lens of cities in which I've lived and most especially through Memphis.  Below is my final post to the online forums.  I'm mostly reflecting on the future of Memphis as a global city or a city of days gone by.  If you're from Memphis or live in Memphis, you'll love the secret Memphis references.  If you're not, hopefully you'll still find a nugget to consider for your own cities.


"Oh Mama, Can this Really Be the End?"

Recently, Memphis Magazine won the Gold Medal for General Excellence for City and Regional magazines.  In reflecting on this award, the editor wrote, “Ours is such a weird, funky, and supremely unusual place, we have a huge advantage over just about every other city magazine in America…no one else has our kind of raw material”.

Author Mike Davis has written that Los Angeles is one of the most often destroyed cities in film and literature.  Memphis, on the other hand is the most sung about city in music.  Mentioned in nearly 1000 published songs, Memphis’ life, history and culture as the King of the Delta South; Memphis is a city celebrated.  In commenting on the South, the Delta and Memphis’ chief role in the region, Willy Bearden, chair of the University of Memphis’ Everything Southern Conference quipped, “They don’t write books about Iowa”.  The point being, so much of American culture finds its roots in the region that begins, as historian David Cohen put it, “in the lobby of the Peabody [hotel in downtown Memphis] and ends in Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi”. 

Yet, despite the city celebrated, Memphis is also a city challenged.  Though one of the top 20 largest cities in America, it is a city whose population has been in decline while crime and other social ills are on the increase.  Memphis is losing the battle of attracting talent, economic weight and the educated.  When viewed through this lens, Memphis is shaping up to be an after thought city, only referred to in sentimental songs about a day gone by. 

However, there is another way to view these changes in Memphis and its position among the cities of the world and the cities of the US.  And that is as a giver and an unlikely shaper.  I suspect that very few of us knew of Memphis’ prominence in American music.  The influence is subtle, yet profound.  I wonder how this subtle influence in American music, then gives shape to music worldwide.  Though it takes a bit to see the connections, they are there.  Similarly, with those individuals who have left Memphis for ‘greener pastures’, they carry with them this history, heritage and culture of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.  As they go, they likewise influence (and are influenced by) their new homes and new home cities.  In this regard, Memphis is everywhere. 

There is yet, a second way to see the challenges facing Memphis and that is as opportunity.  And I want to beware of boosterism here, but I’m more thinking of Jane Jacobs’ comparison of 18th century Manchester and Birmingham.  Can 21st century Memphis become 19th century Birmingham, England?  Birmingham was the inefficient backwater of England at one time while Manchester hummed along with a prolific and efficient economy.  Yet it was Manchester’s efficiency that led to its downfall and it was precisely Birmingham’s eclectic and inefficient economic base that moved its innovations and development forward. 

Could the need for a diverse economy given the economic challenges facing Memphis be the city’s cattle prod that positions it for a 21st century resurgence?  Because Memphis cannot rest on a tech industry or tourism industry or oil industry or film industry, Memphis must have heart, be gritty and grind out the kind of inefficient economy that develops new forms of work and creates new pathways for economic growth just as Birmingham did in the most unlikely ways.  Stated differently, it is precisely Memphis’ challenges that hold the creative keys to a strong future.  Certainly the jury is out on this being the future, but the possibility is a real one. 

Given the historic (and to some degree current) situation for Memphis as an American culture influencer and the possible future of Memphis as a resurgent shaper in the US and the world, there are questions that I do believe will shape how I continue to pastor in this “weird, funky and supremely unusual place”.  Perhaps the chief question is, ‘How does the gospel get contextualized in such a way that the past is honored and the future is envisioned?”.  How do we proclaim and live out the truth claims of Christ in a place rich in artistic, cultural and musical heritage and all that that will imply in a place, while at the same time pushing for the kind of innovation needed from a people in a city that is a part of the fast moving 21st century?  My gospel proclamation must have the rhythm, feel and flavor of the Delta yet my Christian discipleship of my congregation must prepare them for global engagement and the multi-layered effects of urbanization. 

The short of it is that, as a minister in Memphis, I must know the history of my city.  I must also know the current landscape of my city set against the larger, global landscape of the world.  And I must also consider the future of my city.  To be a faithful, contextual shepherd requires it.  Memphis deserves it. 


Closing Note:

Professors and fellow classmates, I’ve greatly enjoyed our class these past many weeks.  I’ve not only learned from each of you, but I’ve been shaped by you.  You have challenged me, encouraged me and given me space to consider ministry in my city as we have, together, considered the city to come.  I pray for an opportunity to visit each of you in your city and commit to continue to pray for you as you lead your ministry and love your city. 


“Oh Mama, Can this really be the end?

To be stuck inside of Mobile, with the Memphis blues again”

-Bob Dylan

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