As I write this post the Gap Squad is on an Amtrak train headed away from the city of Chicago. We’ve got all our bags with us, but the most important thing we carry in this moment is a new perspective.
We had all been to Chicago before. Some of us think of it as Milwaukee’s bigger brother – a place we’d come to to escape the monotony of our home towns. In those visits we’d go shopping, visit the tourist sites – Cloud Gate and the Willis Tower, and eat pizza and hot dogs.
This time was different. We came not for the food, but to chew on tough ideas and glimpse a well-hidden reality.
Our parter in the city was the Brother David Darst Center for Justice & Peace, Spirituality & Education. The center was founded fifteen years ago with the goal of spreading awareness about the many needs of marginalized communities throughout the Chicago area through visits with agencies that support those communities. Their work is grounded in the principles of charity and justice. Charity being the work we can do in the moment to meet the basic needs of the community and justice meaning the things we can do to address the root causes of social justice issues.
The first community organization we met with was the Pui Tak Christian School in Chinatown – a quick walk from the Darst Center. The school population is largely comprised of the children of Chinese immigrants and teaches Mandarin language alongside English from pre-K on. At Pui Tak we helped with the after school program – some of us tutoring math while others assisted in reading, played chess, or taught piano.
Our next stop was Cornerstone Community Outreach, a shelter for men experiencing homelessness in the city. Here we met face to face with less fortunate folks who we had a lot more in common with than we could have imagined. Spending time with the men at the shelter allowed us to connect a name and a story to an unfortunate reality that affects up to 6,000 people at any one time in Chicago.
The following day we visited St. Leonards Ministries, a charity that provides career readiness and housing services to the formerly incarcerated. We spoke with some of the people that benefited from the Ministry – many of them former gang members, drug dealers, addicts and murderers. Here we found hope, gratitude, and repentance in their words.
In the afternoon we went to an organization that functions in a preventative capacity to give youth in the most dangerous and impoverished areas of the city a way to stay engaged and off the streets after school. At Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation we met a group of teenagers the same age as us who grew up in a storm of violence and trauma that had been previously impossible to comprehend from accounts on the news alone. The PBMR students were able to participate in gardening, beekeeping, construction, art, and cooking programs with people who truly cared about their well being. Once again, we experienced hope, gratitude, community, and a sense of normalcy despite a reality much different from our own.
Christ the King School in the city’s Austin neighborhood , one of the city’s poorest, was a gleaming new construction private Jesuit high school funded entirely by corporate donations that are paid back through a one-day-per-week work trade with the students. The students get experience working in a professional setting and benefit from 4 days of rigorous academic programming per week. The result is an astounding 99% college acceptance rate for the incredibly bright and capable students. We all agreed that more schools like CTK should exist and that education is at the foundation of many problems that Chicago faces.
We wrapped up our week of discovery with an hour long Sunday morning meditation ritual and conversation at Kadampa Buddhist Temple. The meditation was a good way to reflect and clear our heads after dealing with many heavy ideas, stories, and problems throughout the week. In the conversation after the meditation we reflected on interconnectedness within the human experience and the inherent positivity to be found in discouraging situations.
Leaving Chicago as we are now, we feel a connection to the place that a traditional tourist visit to the city could never accomplish. We know that there is work to be done, we’ve been inspired by some of the people doing it, and we’re left to think about what our contribution will be in pursuit of a more just and charitable world.
A heartfelt thanks to Suzanne, Greg, Hannah, Keith, and the rest of the Darst Center staff for making us feel at home in your city as well as all the community partners who allowed us a glimpse into your world and the amazing work you do.
Community partners we visited but are not mentioned in this post include:
Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants With whom we attended a vigil for detained immigrants destined for deportation.
Alphawood Gallery Where we received a docent-led tour of an exhibition featuring Dorothy Lange and Ansel Adams’ photo-documentation of Japanese incarceration during WWII.
The Plant A vertical farm and aquaculture facility that is working to turn an urban brownfield site and old meat processing warehouse into a hub for fresh, local food for the community.
Photos from our time in Chicago (click to enlarge):