Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Living in a War Zone

Last night, while I slept, there was a shooting less than a block from my apartment. Seven young men were wounded, several of them critically, when someone ran through a vacant lot and opened fire on a group of bystanders.

Homan and Walnut is a notorious corner in our neighborhood. There is nearly always a group of people hanging out in front of the convenience store on the corner. I have heard stories of the covert drug trafficking business that takes place in and around the store. Even the blue police observance camera has not deterred it. If you have ever seen the HBO miniseries or read the book, The Corner, by David Simon and Edward Burns, you would have an image of what that corner is like. It is a center of commiserating hopelessness, an emblem of a crumbling community crippled by spiraling poverty, joblessness and despair.

We are living in a war zone. Research shows that gang members living in the city are seven times more likely to become casualties of this war than they would be if they had been deployed to Iraq in the height of the conflict. Yet this war goes on in our back yards with little fanfare or public outcry, perhaps because we are confounded by it and tend to blame the victims.

Granted, every individual who was out there on the corner last night could probably have made a better choice about where to be and what to do on a nice Chicago evening. But there are too few options in communities like ours and life seems cheap and dispensable for our young people when they have the very real sense that no one cares. No one cares enough about their welfare to ensure that they are given a good education with marketable skills, or that they have even half a chance of ever actualizing their dreams, if they even have the audacity to still dream.

So the mounting distress finally gets released, turned in upon young black men by young black men, and the rest of us shake our heads and believe that if we were in their situation we would be different. We would pull together self-esteem from some dark hole and walk past the guys on the corner with their wads of money. We would flip burgers at a greasy spoon for eight bucks an hour and save every penny for our future. We would be home working on our homework while people around us scream at each other about who took the last piece of food and how they are going to pay the rent. We would get ourselves out of that hell hole and never look back. Why? Because we know that’s not the way life is supposed to be, for us, for anyone.

We are calling people back in to the East Garfield Park community
, to rebuild it, to restore hope. Some of us have relocated from outside the community to join the many warriors who have stayed, who have been faithfully working, hoping and praying for its renewal. Others are returning with a dream. A dream that things can change. That a network of shalom can replace the spiral of despair. That healthy community can be restored, kids can learn, jobs can be created, loving families can support one another in raising healthy happy children. It’s a dream that must not fail. It’s a big dream.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dr. Soong-Chan Rha

Below is the audio of Dr. Soong-Chan Rha's important message during Euro American Heritage Month at the River City Community Church on July 19, 2009. Soong-Chan Rah is the author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity and the Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

How Should We Respond to Panhandlers?

Panhandlers seem to bombard us in the city. They wash our car windshields at the gas station and then come to our windows expecting payments. They cling to rag tag cardboard signs and approach us with forlorn faces. Some are in obvious need. We can tell by their faces that they truly are blind or they are missing legs or they are sitting in wheelchairs holding dirty cups.

What should we do?

As the leader of a large organization that specializes in ministry among the homeless, let me give you my expert opinion: I don’t know!

I think God gives us these dilemmas to cause us to rely on the compassion of Christ he has implanted in our hearts. Coming face to face with someone who asks us for money is an opportunity to be led by the Spirit instead of being driven by need or guilt or obligation or the desire to bolster our own ego as a “generous person.” There is no simple answer.

Jesus said in Luke 6:30 that we are to give to everyone who asks of us. Most of us are hesitant to do that because we are afraid that we will be taken advantage of. Perhaps the recipient of our charity will use our hard earned cash for booze or drugs. Surely giving to someone who would use our money for those purposes would not be in anyone’s best interest, would it? Yet, the directive is clear. We are to give without question and without judgment.

While we don’t want to contribute to someone’s addiction, it is helpful to understand that people who are living on the street usually do not have access to appropriate pain medicine, mental health counseling, or the gentle pacifiers such as chocolate and ice cream that we turn to when we need a lift. Who are we to judge them for how they spend money? I certainly have not always made the best decisions with the money that God sends my way. Yet God keeps giving to me.

On the other hand, our gifts do not always have to be cash. I urge people to give their financial gifts to an organization like Breakthrough that specializes in wise care for the under-resourced and then get involved by volunteering to help the ministry. Then when asked for cash, we can then respond like Peter and John did when confronted by the crippled beggar. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

A financial gift to a mission or an organization that provides opportunities for the homeless will help men and women who have been crippled by life get back on their feet and—in the name of Jesus Christ—walk a new walk. As stewards of the resources God entrusts to us, we want to make sure our gifts to the poor are invested wisely.

Instead of giving cash to people on the street, we can give directions, or perhaps a ride, to the nearest ministry that provides loving care in the name of Christ. Like the Good Samaritan that Jesus described in Luke 10, we can transport those who are battered and broken to the nearest rehab center and pay for their rehabilitation.

I have a friend who always gives people exactly what they ask for. If they ask for change, he gives them change. If they ask for a couple of dollars, he gives them a couple of dollars. He says that in the grand scheme of things, considering his budget for giving to the poor, the amount of money he hands out is actually relatively small. He thinks we make a bigger deal of being taken advantage of than we should. After all, Jesus let himself be stripped, beaten and hung on a cross unjustly to show his great love. It is not likely that we will ever experience that much injustice in our giving to the poor.

Oswald Chambers says in his June 13th devotional in his great book, My Utmost for His Highest, “Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you.” So, again, we are asked to let the Spirit guide our practices when we come face to face with someone asking us for money.

One thing I am quite certain about is this:
When I stand before God in the judgment, I don’t think God is going to drill me about how smart and frugal I was when face to face with someone who asked me for money. I doubt that God will point out how proud he is of me that I didn’t let myself get scammed by someone who was lying to get a few bucks out of me.

God is more likely to say something like this, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.… I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Monday, July 13, 2009

Urban Farming - Will Allen

I am really interested in doing urban farming in East Garfield Park. As Will Allen says in this NY Times magazine article, there are 77,000 vacant lots in Chicago. One out of every three lots in East Garfield Park is vacant. The time for urban farming is now. Let me know if you want to be included in the planning task force.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Being Spiritually Well

We serve the world by being spiritually well.
The first question is not, “How much do we do?”
or “How many people do we help out?”,
but “Are we interiorly at peace?”
The distinction between contemplation and action can be misleading.
Jesus’ actions flowed from his interior communion with God.
His presence was healing, and it changed the world
In a sense he didn’t do anything!
Everyone who touched him was healed.

—Joseph Campbell

Friday, July 10, 2009


“Arloa!” I was in the center of Chicago striding toward the train. I swung around to see who was calling my name.

My heart nearly leapt out of my skin. It was Jerry with his rugged tan face outlining crinkly eyes and a huge white toothed smile. It had been nearly ten years since I had seen him but he looked just the same, the story book picture of a gypsy man, his worn hat doffed to the side, curly brown hair wafting from underneath, good wrinkles patterned from years of smiling just like he was doing now.

Jerry always rode a bike, an old, thick tire one with a horn and baskets, lots of baskets stuffed with little happy teddy bears and toys and trinkets, gadgets and widgets hanging everywhere.

He had been part of the early Breakthrough family and had moved on, not wanting to be tied down to anyone’s rules. He never asked us for anything and didn’t really want any assistance into housing. He prefers to live off the land, sleeping and finding food where ever he can and occasionally stopping in to visit family and friends. He doesn’t drink alcohol or use drugs to my knowledge, and is one of the happiest people I know. He is at peace with just his bike, the shirt on his back and his love for God and people.

Sometimes I envy him.