“Ah, how blind I’ve been. How could I have been so blind?”
These are essentially the words that thematically sum up my experience with the Chicago Urban Immersion trip over fall break. Thirteen other students and I brought our varied perspectives and experiences to a place where the underlying darkness of a tumultuous city plagued by violence and discrimination shines brightly with hope.
The joy that emerged in the neighborhood of Lawndale and its Westlawn Gospel Chapel was refined by the fire, as it were – crafted from messy, hard, human connection and conversation. Mark and Jennifer Soderquist connected us with the community to which they minister and call home, showing us, in turn, the greater impact it has had on them.
Through the struggle, the people of this neighborhood are made more aware of the goodness that exists in the city, and that intense communal connection welcomed me in. The three themes of the weekend were immigration, poverty, and race, and I quickly discovered how consistently those things are interwoven.
We went with the purpose of learning and seeing. Throughout the weekend, we sought to notice. We did some yardwork in the community’s “Garden of Hope”. Rashad and Jada and the other neighborhood kids at the Westlawn Youth Network Center taught us how to dance. We sat with human beings living on the street downtown, sharing a meager sandwich and a listening ear with Leo and James and Nade. We listened to their wisdom, stories, and a variety of frustrations explaining why they’re there.
We walked away feeling our privilege. We bought tacos from a woman who lived with a direct view of the Cook County Jail. We were enveloped into Westlawn Gospel Church and sang the doxology with abandon alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. We met people who speak collectively and with purpose – we, us, our. We make change. Our history. I went to Chicago to observe and process. I left with an acceptance and expansion of my self-centered, one-dimensional tunnel vision of the world.
As a Christian, I should be committed to truth-telling. I am empowered to redemptively listen and utilize my sphere of influence and the privilege I possess to enact change and learn more. Observing the effects of poverty, the role of immigration, and the tension of racially-charged history is one thing; delving into unspoken thoughts and perspectives that sit and grow bitter at the back of our minds is another thing entirely.
That’s what I’m coming away with after this trip. These conversations are hard. I will offend someone. My worldview will cloud my judgment, I’ll definitely fail to make myself heard, and sometimes I won’t speak at all. But God has called us to be present in the pain, because at the foot of the cross, we’re all equally depraved. And that is freeing to me.
“Grace pools in the low places.” I wish I could take credit for that quote, but it belongs to Mark Soderquist. He’s right. He’s seen it. Lawndale has seen it. Thirteen other students have seen it. Even though the whole of the JBU community isn’t consistently confronted with these problems in a widespread way, we have our share of low places. May we notice what we see and why we see it the way we do. May we take a deep breath and get to the heart of it.
Partee is a senior majoring in history. She can be reached at ParteeE@jbu.edu.