In his Addendum to the Statement of the Baltimore Group Br. David Darst asked:
“What can we say of a nation that lets millions of its children go hungry and suffer from malnutrition while it spends billions developing planes that will fly the ocean in three hours instead of six, racing madly to the moon, arming dictatorships and oligarchies around the world?”
At the time he, along with 8 other men of faith, was on trial for publicly burning draft cards in the summer of 1968 as a grand act of civil disobedience. Br. Darst’s questions cut to the core of the inequity he felt in our country and the stories of those being marginalized we weren’t told. For the Gap cohort this past week and a half has been a continual process of learning new truths, asking hard questions, and reflecting on what our personal and our society’s values are.
Based out of the Br. David Darst Center, an immersion retreat center in the Southside neighborhood of Bridgeport, we traversed the city meeting with non-profits and community members deeply engaged with their city. Most of us felt we already knew Chicago but it quickly became clear that the stories we’d been told about the city weren’t the full picture.
Just like Br. Darst we each had to ask big questions as we worked to reconcile the Chicago we were seeing with the Chicago we’d been told about our entire lives. One Gap student said it well when they wrote:
“Over the course of the week and a half, many feelings arose. My previous thoughts about what was right and what was wrong were challenged. I was often so shocked to learn the truth and mad that our world is truly so unjust. Why are people homeless? Why is gang violence so prevalent? Do public spaces really have the right to discriminate against people because of wardrobe? Why does the government hide so much from its citizens? What gives us the right to be so inhuman and unjust towards immigrants?
These are just a few of the many questions that have run through my head this week. I have learned to not accept something just because one source says its true. I’ve learned how to research, get involved, and how to make my voice known. My biggest takeaway from Chicago is not to accept the preconceived notions I have or am told. Experience the truth, learn, research, and ask people to tell their side of the story. We never truly know what people are going through until we experience that truth.”
Our time began by exploring the burgeoning world of urban farms and hyper-local produce. We visited Sean co-founder of Just Roots a community-oriented urban farm located on the former site of Chicago’s storied (and somewhat infamous) Robert Taylor Housing Project. We were struck by the contrast of lush greens with dull concrete. As we weeded, harvested, and packed Sean told us about the how much the rhythm of the farm taught him balance, plant too much and the harvest goes to waste, too little and there isn’t enough to go around. He reminded us that growth comes slowly as the seasons pass and that messing things up, planting the wrong crops at the wrong time or letting ripe vegetables sit for too long, is part of the learning process.
Over the next two days our team explored Chicago’s Boystown & Wrigleyville neighborhoods with a careful eye towards the subtle way in which an environment can discriminate against people and spent time getting to know some of the residents of the Cornerstone Community men’s shelter. While walking the streets gave us a new appreciation of the difficulty of existing without financial resources, sitting with and hearing the stories of a few of Chicago’s homeless put a human face on the problem. We were forced to recognize and confront our own prejudices and stereotypes about those that were different than us. In the end it was wonderful to joke, debate, and laugh with people we might have been scared or judgmental of if we’d met them at another time.
Our exploration of Chicago’s Southside continued with a visit to Christ the King School in the under resourced Austin neighborhood. Boasting a 100% college acceptance rate and demanding coursework we found a school that’s fighting to serve a population of students that’s mostly forgotten. Following the Christo Rey model students go to class 4 days a week and fund their education by working one day a week. Employers then pay scholarships for the students subsidizing a large portion of the annual cost to attend. Touring the school’s beautiful facilities, we were impressed by the ingenuity of funding quality education through work but also troubled that student almost the same age as us were forced to spend 20% of their school days working to get an education comparable to what each of us had been given.
With one model of change in our minds we traveled to the Precious Blood Center for Reconciliation which serves as a hub for healing and community for the youth of the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The center is rooted in restorative justice practices that emphasize empathy and communication between parties instead of animosity and punishment. Their belief in our common humanity and the power of communication reminded us of the communication tools we’d learned back in the Boundary Waters. We met young people who, through the center, were able to find employment, community, and a path away from the cycles of violence that plague Chicago’s nightly news.
That afternoon we returned to the Northside to visit St. Leonards Ministries, an organization that serves returning citizens who were recently incarcerated and are transitioning back into mainstream society. Based strongly in the importance of respect and the belief that meaningful growth takes time, St. Leonards provides housing, education, and job training programs to those who would otherwise be left vulnerable to fend for themselves. As we toured their facilities we heard the personal stories of several current and past residents. They spoke of lives that lacked opportunity, poor choices they had made, and their own long roads to recovery and healing. We found ourselves reconciling that most of our preconceived notions of those returning from prison shared very little resemblance for the diversity of people we met at the center.
On a rainy morning near the end of our stay in Chicago we sang in fellowship outside of an unmarked grey concrete building on the edge of the city. Far from the public’s view across was a regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement immigrant detention center. This small prison housed men, women, and children that were detained and awaiting asylum hearings and deportation proceedings. We were welcomed into a vigil held by the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants, a group that gathers people of all faiths together to pray, protest, and reflect on our country’s treatment of immigrants. They have been holding weekly vigils for over 10 years demonstrating a commitment to cause that has spanned three presidencies and countless numbers of people deported. It was powerful and affecting to be so close to and hear the names of those who were going to be to be sent away that day but be unable to see them, and to know they probably didn’t even know we were here. It pushed us to re-consider service, dedication, and our roles in enacting the changes we wanted to see in the world. This was an idea we continued to ponder that afternoon as we traveled to meet with the small but dedicated team at the Chicago Religious Leadership Network (CRLN). The four dedicated staff work to link faith organizations with global issues and advocate within the systems of power for the rights of marginalized peoples and countries across the globe. After a week of looking at issues from the ground level of Chicago it left us with a lot to consider when zooming out to CRLN’s global scale.
That student’s journal may be best ended by Br. Darst’s own words
“I for one am through talking about these problems; I think I have done enough reading, writing, and discussing of articles about how ‘It’s time to wake up, America.’ I’ve got to do something more. Perhaps the time has come for action”
As we race down train tracks to Albuquerque and more adventures in the Southwest each of us is left to contemplate the questions and contradictions we’d witnessed. We are challenged to think about what to do with our new understanding and how best to use the gift of this experience.