It is a natural tendency of mine to spend a good amount of time in reflection, and this year spent in service has given me much to reflect on. In this time I have had many strong and ever-changing feelings and insights. One such insight continues to stare me down in the face and refuses to be forgotten or brushed aside. It is, simply, that sometimes living in Chicago bothers me. It challenges me and it forces me to see the world, not as I would like it to be, but as it really is. The shocking reality that I have come to know, is that Chicago, while beautiful and brilliant, is a broken city. It is broken by poverty, segregation, economic inequality, and violence. And that is something I have struggled with.
“I see a skyline that only half the city gets to touch.” This is a line that really stuck with me from a play I recently saw about the devastating effects of the violence that occurs on Chicago’s south and west sides. These words were especially jarring because of my own love for Chicago’s beautiful skyline. Since I was young, seeing the giant skyscrapers reflecting silvery light or brightening up the night sky has always filled me with a sense of wonder and awe. It stands as a symbol of all my hopes and dreams for the future, and its unwavering presence gives me comfort and confidence. Even after living here for nearly ten months, that view has never gotten old or tired for me. But as I thought about those words from the play, I tried to put myself in the place of someone living in a Chicago much different from the one I’ve come to love. Someone in a city that seems to show no mercy, no care or concern if you live or die. A city that has segregated you, failed your schools and your community, and seemingly left you to fend for yourself. In that situation, my beautiful skyline becomes nothing more than an ugly reminder. A reminder of a place that has hopelessly trapped you. What I see as a symbol of dreams and potential is only a tease of possibilities that are so incredibly far beyond reach. This realization has been one of my many struggles this year.
I struggle with the frustration of knowing that life is so difficult for half the people in this city. It is same sense of frustration I often feel when I find myself driving through different parts of Chicago, watching as the neat and orderly streets of affluent neighborhoods fade into run-down, poverty stricken ones, marveling at how a ten minute drive in one direction can lead me into a seemingly different world. It’s the frustration that I have as I see church after church nestled in between dilapidated, boarded up homes and wonder how the God who watches His faithful pack those churches each Sunday can be the same God who watches children gunned down as they play in the park or walk home from school.
I struggle to reconcile my faith with the world I see around me. At a mass at St. Sabina’s Church on the south side, I was blown away by the strength of the faith that surrounded me. The people present were not there out of some sense of obligation or right-doing, but out of a true need for spiritual strengthening. Here were people struggling with poverty, violence, and injustice, experiencing a deep and spiritual connection that I don’t know if I’ve ever felt. They had every reason in the world to abandon faith, but there they were. I was amazed and inspired and wondered if I’d ever be able to have such unwavering faith in God’s love for the world.
I struggle with my job. I meet with clients nearly every day, and as I listen to their stories I wonder how on earth they are able to get through each day with lives that are constantly thrown into chaos. I wonder what events in their past lead them to where they are today, knowing that at one time they were probably just like me, young and filled with hope as they began to make their way in the world. I marvel at the fact that in the Lakeview neighborhood, one of the nicest and most well off in the city, there are over two thousand individuals each month who come to the pantry to get basic necessities. And I continue to see many of the same faces month after month, realizing that we give only a temporary solution to a much bigger problem that’s way beyond our control.
Then there are all the folks coming in from other neighborhoods, where pantries are either non-existent or woefully inadequate at meeting needs of the community. These individuals are served once by Lakeview Pantry and then referred to a pantry closer to where they live. There was one client I spoke to, at the pantry for the first time, who had come over an hour by public transit from the far south side, just to get some food for her family. She was a young woman, my own age, a single mother with three children, the oldest not more than four. In that moment, I realized that, had my life circumstances been different, I could have been in her same situation. It was a jarring thought. I talked her through the process of getting food and then gave her a referral to another pantry, my heart heavy. All I could do was hope that the other pantry would be able to help her and her family. It’s hard to turn people away, but our food supply is limited and we simply can’t help everyone. There is more need in the city than we will ever be able to remedy. Realizing that has been a struggle too.
And as I think about these experiences, thoughts, and, especially, struggles that I’ve had, I’ve begun to recognize something else Chicago has shown me. Like the city itself, I too am broken. Broken by my doubts and insecurity, unsure of myself and my future. Broken by my inability to feel as though I’m truly making an impact. Broken by my seemingly endless lack of faith.
So, with the year coming to a close, what remains? What do I take with me after my realization of a broken city and a broken self? Well, what remains is, that in all honesty, we are all broken people, broken by different things at different times. And with that brokenness comes the opportunity for healing. That’s really what this year has been about, recognizing our brokenness and the brokenness around us and working towards healing. I am not naïve enough to think that by giving out food to a family once a month or by sitting down and helping a young women with her resume, that I can even begin to make a dent in the brokenness of Chicago. But maybe, just maybe for that family or that young woman, I can help them along the path to healing their own human brokenness. And in doing that I am brought to healing as well.
What remains is that one true definition of service, two lives coming together to heal the brokenness of life. What remains is the journey of a lifetime, that path of personal healing that we all find ourselves on.
This year has given me the tools to press on in that journey: a willingness to serve, a desire to learn and grow, a faith to deepen and explore, and a love for others that I never could have imagined. Now I can go with purpose and with hope on the path of healing, for myself, for those around me, and for this beautiful, broken city I’ve come to call home. I’m thankful for that, thankful for all this year has given me. Thankful for the chance to become whole. And that is what remains.