For most of the decades since my childhood, Uptown has changed very little. It was the area in which busloads of mentally ill persons were dumped in the early eighties during the days of deinstitutionalization. Because of the corridor of social service agencies along Sheridan Road, Uptown has often been referred to as the Ellis Island of Chicago; for many immigrants arriving in the city their first stop is Uptown. Because of those social service agencies, Uptown also happens to be the last best hope for those who find themselves on the street due to eviction, addiction and mental illness. It remains for many a beacon of light amid the storms that rage within and without.
I am the clergy-person on staff and a clinical counselor at a small social service ministry that as recently acquired by a larger agency. That in itself holds its own challenges; but it is in the work I do with the people I see each day at the Ministry – both as clergy and as a psychotherapist – that I will be sharing, along with reflections on what it means to worship with individuals who have experienced various levels of trauma . . . and in Uptown trauma and the suffering that accompanies it is a regular way of life.
Over the past year or so, some in the media have referred to Chicago as "the deadliest city in the U.S." Uptown has certainly made its contribution to that designation. In a seven week period this past summer, Uptown was the site of sixteen separate shootings with at least five deaths. A few days after one of this summer's shootings, in which someone was killed, I happened to have a conversation with a young man who frequents the day shelter of the Ministry. He is just over thirty, highly intelligent, homeless and suffering from mental illness. "Matt" reported he had been there; that the bullets went whirring past him as he walked down the street. "What did you do?!" I asked him, stunned by his revelation. "I did what anyone would do, pastor. I dropped to the ground and rolled out of the way." Matt said this as if he had just explained how to take the bus to Wrigley Field.
This week we observed the first Sunday in Advent. For the people of Uptown, Isaiah 2:1-5 is real and in worship this morning we spoke of the swords, spears and wars as if they are something we have personally experienced . . . because we have. Yet the idea of tools of destruction being transformed into tools that give sustenance is also something that we know about; because we find ourselves holding on to hope. For the people of Uptown, hope comes in the form of a lunch at a local soup kitchen. Hope comes in the form of an AA meeting. Hope comes in the form of a service of healing and anointing, or a food pantry or a cup of coffee on a windy Chicago morning. Hope comes in the rhythms and rituals that are life-giving and life affirming.
As I contemplate the coming of the Child of Light and the hope we desperately want him to bring, I wonder about the hopes of my parishioners in Uptown. So often they can do nothing but "roll out of the way." What hope does the Christ Child have for the most marginalized among us? What hope does he bring to those for whom describing a shooting is as commonplace as describing a TV show might be for the rest of us? And how can those of us in ministry worship in a meaningful way with those whose reality is so vastly different from our own? These are some fo the questions I hope to grapple with over the next few weeks. Come along on the journey.
Uptown Ministry is a program of Lutheran Child and Family Services and is affiliated with The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.