Over the weekend, I was part of a small group that explored areas of Chicago’s south side under the umbrella of “Seeing the City through Prophetic Imagination.” The day of learning and theological reflection, which was organized by the SCUPE urban ministry program, focused on the former Cabrini Green housing projects, the Auburn Gresham neighborhood and the congregations that were places of refuge and resistance in those areas. I signed up for the trip wanting to learn from people of faith living and acting in places of turmoil and transition, but was not sure what I would encounter. What I found were numerous stories that left me hopeful about the church as an engaged and liberating body. At the same time, I also discovered stories that left me wrestling with the delicate dance between church and state, and the viability of anarchist praxis in the midst of systemic and systematic injustice.
A tale of two neighborhoods
Known as one of the nation’s most notorious housing projects, Cabrini Green sat in the shadow of Chicago’s wealthy Magnificent Mile before the city’s Housing Authority decided to relocate its residents, raze the buildings, and redevelop the area. As professor, researcher and tour leader Cynthia P. Stewart has documented, the racially integrated public housing suffered after World War II when “nearby factories closed and laid off thousands; the remaining white people left; the cash-starved city began withdrawing crucial services like police patrols and routine building maintenance; and the population of the projects became steadily poorer with each new resident.” By the 1970s, drug abuse, gang violence and worsening social conditions in the towers were exacerbated as the cheaply built concrete structures deteriorated, and residents—most of whom were Black—suffered from roach-infested apartments, broken elevators and other forms of neglect.
Despite the increasingly depressing conditions, Cabrini Green was more than a place of decay. Our walking tour of the remaining buildings showed signs of people’s resilience as apartments boasted pink, green and blue paint on its cinder block walls. Neighbors took care of one another as seen in the story of Bassam “Ollie” Naoum, a beloved convenience store owner who provided goods to those who could not afford them before he was recently gunned down. People continued to call their housing project “home,” doing the best they could to raise their children with hope for a better life. But the Chicago Housing Authority ignored their already marginalized voices when they embarked on a Plan for Transformation in 2000 without any of their input. Frustrated by the racist ways in which the plan was designed and relocations were conducted, the people sued the city, citing how “residents are hastily forced into substandard, ‘temporary’ housing in other slums, do not received promised social services during or after the move, and are often denied their right to return to the redeveloped sites.” Still, it was not enough to stop the wheels of “progress” from grinding up the remaining buildings and pushing people out.
Staring at the towers emptied of its 15,000 residents—most of whom are now homeless, living in worse conditions and struggling in surrounding cities and states—I felt like I was staring at an American Baghdad. Walking past the new luxury buildings with half million dollar condos and expensive apartments across the street from the new Dominick’s supermarket and the two Starbucks cafés, I was grieved. I was not only witnessing a government- and corporate-sponsored dismembering of a community; I was watching all evidence of their existence be washed away by a tidal wave of gentrification.
Signs of hope…
Sadness and anger would have been the only things I felt if it wasn’t for the powerful witness of St. Matthew United Methodist Church and Faith Community of St. Sabina. At St. Matthew, members supported the community long before and during the redevelopment. They organized an award-winning early education program that served neighborhood children; groups for mothers and for people recovering from addictions; a program for women released from incarceration; an enormous food pantry that fed thousands; and other spiritual and material resources for continued growth. St. Matthew was also a part of a coalition of local churches of various theological and denominational stripes that created housing for people transitioning out of poverty and held politicians accountable for their decisions. For this body, Cabrini Green was not a service project to leave behind at the end of the day or to drive away from after worship: it was a community they had lived in for most of their lives or had chosen to be part of for the long haul.
At St. Sabina, the story was even more compelling. Like St. Matthew, this congregation was filled with residents from the neighborhood who provided much needed resources for themselves and the broader community. However, this was a congregation that focused on empowerment as well as assistance, leading to continued acts of resistance that spilled out into the neighborhood. They built housing for seniors and the homeless, even as they were instrumental in removing a money laundering car wash and a motel kept open by prostitution and drug dealing. They developed support systems for children in foster care even as the church’s youth were emboldened and encouraged to resist violence by and against their peers. They demonstrated commitment to wholeness in their neighborhood, walking and praying through the streets every Friday night each summer for seven years straight while offering drug dealers and gang participants alternatives to their situations. When people began dreaming about what their neighborhood could be like, it was spearheaded—not by developers—but by hundreds of people who gathered for community meetings at St. Sabina to discuss their hopes and needs.
By the end of the tour, I was inspired by these predominantly Black, multi-ethnic, mixed-class congregations who were doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God in ways that had long-lasting spiritual and material impact on the people and places around them. These were communities, to quote St. Sabina’s mission, that were “forming believers into disciples.” How much more of an impact could we make if each of our faith communities took the reconciling and healing work of Jesus seriously enough to embody it within our contexts? What would happen if every church in every neighborhood was passionate enough about Jesus to pursue shalom?
…and feelings of restlessness
Although I was impressed by all I saw, it quickly became clear that the state was a not-so-silent partner in these transforming enterprises. Government funding made much of the churches’ housing projects possible. Solid relationships with senators, aldermans, council people and mayors supported their activities. At one congregation, voting was strongly encouraged while abstaining was denounced, and at both places actively participating in standard politics was assumed. “You have to impact policy” was an underlying theme. But what should that look like I wondered, and when might those activities cross over into a realm that jeopardizes our witness to a Christ that refused certain reins of power in the service of his mission? Can accepting money the state has taken from the populace and diverting it from enterprises that destroy to works that heal be subversive? What would a viable anarchist-minded Christian response be when faced with unequal access and oppression in our local context? What am I—what are we—embodying as an alternative to courting state officials, working closely with police, electing the lesser of two evils, and participating in other activities that support a system that ultimately depends on dominance, hierarchy and violence?
As I continue to wrestle with the challenges and contradictions I feel from this tour, I am left reaffirming my deep sense that Christians who have embraced anarchist politics as one expression of our faith must continue striving for more than well-argued theories and online hubs. We also need more individuals, groups, churches and communities living out examples and experiments of what we mean when we say, “Another world is possible! The kingdom of God is near!” Maybe in so doing, we can embody viable alternatives to depending on the state and corporations to bless (and bankroll) God’s work in the world.
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