Earlier in September, I went to Chicago for Christian Community Development Association‘s national conference. It’s an association of people who are committed to developing under-resourced (= urban) communities, through the Church or the non-profit and social sectors.
I’d never been to Chicago (as an adult) – I was excited to explore and observe the city as much as I could in the limited time. The downtown area is really beautiful. It was pretty wild to stand on the ‘beach’ next to Lake Michigan, look over your shoulder and see skyscrapers just 50 yards away. The first question I ask in order to judge whether a city/location is livable is, “Does it have a large body of water for me to run next to?” YES! It may not be Sunset Cliffs, but the early morning sun shining on the boats anchored off shore was still ridiculously picturesque.
Train platform over the city street, Garfield park in the background
I thought I didn’t like big cities, but for some reason I was really drawn to Chicago. To me, urban spaces typically feel claustrophobic, congested; The constant clamor of horns and sirens make my palms sweat and heart race. But I didn’t get that vibe from Chicago. It felt clean and tall and old – and it looks like the 1930’s.
Chicago got me going on all kinds of spiritual reflections on the City, as an abstract concept. A lot of evils are at play in Cities. Not just in people, but in systems as well. Cities are so imperfect, but there is so much potential for people to embody the Gospel, by building community, through social change, by planting seeds of hope within the cracked asphalt and concrete.
One of my days in Chicago, I took the train from downtown to the west side for an off-site seminar. The woman sitting behind me was yelling and cursing into her cell phone, and then (mildly, if there is such a thing) threatening her young daughter, who was singing a cheerful song to herself, and crawling underneath the seats across the aisle. I continued to face forward, and so did everyone else on the train. I felt frightened on behalf of the little girl, because it’s scary to be yelled at. And I felt sad for the woman, because that was probably the only way of communicating she’d ever learned. There’s an evil there that wasn’t present when that woman was a baby herself; it came from somewhere else. Hearing her yell into her phone and at her daughter made me sad.
But hearing stories from the people who attended the conference made me glad and hopeful. Because they are people who have decided not to walk away from their city, not to abandon the problems they encounter and pursue a better outcome for themselves, but instead to say, “I want to make this place my home too, and I want US to make this a healthy place for our children to grow, a place where we experience authentic community with one another.”
Something one of the conference speakers said: Social justice is the ‘in’ thing nowadays. Social justice is the latest trend, and you can wear it on your feet, on your screen-printed t-shirt, on your crocheted hat. What I loved about this conference is that it challenged me to think about what it looks like to pursue social justice as a way of life. And it reminded me that it’s not a cause to be championed by an individual, but it’s a vision to pursue as a community. Thanks, CCDA.