Raising Kids in the City
Finding community, ministry opportunities and fellowship as Christian parents

by Julia Chang

Here's what comprises the typical American dream: Getting married, having 2.5 kids, and buying the house with the white picket fence, two-car garage, and well-manicured lawn. Here's what it usually doesn't include: hauling groceries up a fourth-floor walkup; dodging taxis, harried pedestrians and street vendors during the morning commute; and paying a premium for an apartment considered a walk-in closet anywhere else.

For many New Yorkers, however, those inconveniences are a part of daily life–and are only amplified when they decide to start rearing little urbanites. Then their biggest issues run from minor logistics such as hauling a stroller up two flights of subway stairs, to major headaches like a preschool application process that rivals those of Ivy League schools. Despite these challenges, Christian parents in New York say that raising a family here provides as many opportunities as it does obstacles: They get to participate in the unique ways in which God works in an urban environment, a setting where community ministry plays a particularly important role.

I want my child to have diverse friendships, and there's a greater opportunity for my kid to do that [in the city].

"You do think, 'Why not move to Long Island?' It's one hour from the city. [But] having grown up in the suburbs, we made an intentional decision to stay here," says Maria Liu Wong, assistant director at City Seminary of New York, who lives in Manhattan's Lower East Side with her husband Tony and son Joshua, 3. Diversity and the desire to get involved with their community convicted them to stay in the area. "Being at City Seminary, I've thought a lot about choosing ways to invest in your neighborhood," Liu Wong says. "I want my child to have diverse friendships, and there's a greater opportunity for my kid to do that [in the city]."

One way to cultivate that community is through the church's family ministries. Outside the third-floor balcony of Redeemer's morning services at Hunter College, a speaker sounds the sermon to several toddlers running around on a mat as their parents look on. Urban baby carriages (the kind with four-wheel drive, so to speak, for city strolling) frame the perimeter of the rows of special seating for parents. In Hunter's building across the street, an army of staffers and volunteers, complete with walkie-talkies, run the rapidly growing nursery and Sunday School ministries.

Most community building, however, occurs outside church walls. Parents' groups, for instance, provide play dates for kids and a way for parents to fellowship. Liu Wong started a mom's group on the Lower East Side that grew through word-of-mouth. And Sandra Young says joining her mom's group in Hoboken, N.J., provided instant fellowship, not to mention the much-needed babysitter referral, after she had her son James less than a year ago. Urban parents, especially, often find they need advice and support when it comes to one of the biggest challenges of raising city kids: They grow up fast. In urban areas children have ready access to culture and diversity, but also more overt exposure to realities like poverty, homelessness, and drugs. "I don't want James to be sheltered. I just have to be on top of what he's exposed to," Young says. "Exposure is the best and worst part of being in a city."

The one thing exposure can do is provide an opportunity for open dialogue with children, especially as they get into their teen years. "Basically how we've dealt with the things that they were exposed to at school was constant conversation," says Sharon Stedfeld, who moved to the city with her husband Eric almost 30 years ago and raised two daughters, Ellen, 21, and Nancy, 17, in Manhattan's Stuyvesant Town neighborhood. "We talked about what we agreed with, what we disagreed with, but we didn't feel so bad about what they were exposed to. If we were going to raise them here, we knew that was part of it."

The Stedfelds also tried to make their home a haven for their daughters' friends, especially those who came from less-stable families. "We made it a place where teenagers could feel comfortable, where they could come over for dinner, watch a video, have pizza," Stedfeld says. "We made a point of making sure our home was open."

And don't forget about the singletons–they are as much a part of the community as fellow parents. "The city is mostly single people and I think it has been a blessing for many of our friends to participate in the lives of our children and our family," says Debbie Mardon, who raised Joel, 20, and Jenna, 15, in New York with husband Michael Betar. Mardon also felt exposure was a concern, but believes that growing up fast can be a good thing, too. "The best part of the city for me is that as the kids get older, they can travel all about using public transportation and taxis. They do become very mature and responsible in that way. My daughter goes to Starbucks after school with her friends, or to the museum, or downtown shopping, and she has never had any problem. She has great friends, and the best part is the different backgrounds of all the kids."

Whether permanent or temporary, a stint raising a family in the city can be a great witness to other folks whose first instinct might be to retreat to the suburbs at the first sign of subway stroller struggles. "You do think, what if changes happen to your community, or you can't afford to live here? If your kids go to a bad school, do you send them to private school?" says Rosemary Suh, who lives on the Lower East Side with daughter Sophie, 1, and husband Shawn Watts. "[But] as a Christian, it's a huge witness when people see you have children and you're still in the city."

"You don't really start out and say 'I'm going to raise my daughters in the city forever.' It doesn't happen like that," Stedfeld says. "God blesses each decision and opens doors. We feel He made it clear one door at a time, but it's been a long process, and we still feel like we're in that process. But we feel really blessed to have been in New York all these years as a Christian family."