Friday, March 16, 2012

Fer da neighborhood: why I'm staying in Chicago for seminary

"It's not what you're doing, and it's not how you're doing it. It's that you're doing it to us."
- retired cop in Bridgeport, Chicago

"Would you like to hear the good news or the better news first?", asked Howard, the admissions officer. I like it when people begin a conversation like that.

I had that conversation three weeks ago when I found out that not only was I accepted to Chicago Theological Seminary, but they were also offering me a merit scholarship of 80% of tuition. CTS was my top choice seminary. Case closed.

View of downtown Chicago skyline from U.S. Cellular Field
But maybe that begs the question, "why Chicago Theological Seminary?" CTS has a great reputation in Chicago for academic rigor and social involvement, but it's not one of the dozen or so United Methodist-affiliated seminaries that the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) pushes so hard. And I had heard from several people that it was unlikely that CTS would be able to offer a very good financial aid package. I even have to admit that prior to November of last year, CTS wasn't even in the top 5 of my seminary choices. So really...why Chicago Theological Seminary?

Confession--it has less to do with CTS and more to do with my adopted home neighborhood. The only way to stay in Bridgeport was to go to CTS.

Bridgeport is located about four miles southwest of Chicago's downtown, the Loop, and about two miles west of the lakefront. The Chicago River/canal makes the northern border of the neighborhood, separating it from the predominately Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen. It has working class roots with a mix of Irish, Italians, Lithuanians, Polish, and Germans making up the white population in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Irish were there first, building the canal for 10 cents a day--and whiskey. The Germans came in as bricklayers who built the Lutheran church that I attend now. On certain days I can smell the wafting fumes of a meatpacking plant, somehow leftover from the now razed Union Stockyards that were just south of Bridgeport.

It has a reputation for being one of the most racist neighborhoods in Chicago, which in its own right is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. I've heard stories about how Chicago police would pick up some unfortunate African American for some minor infraction or other, but instead of booking him, they would just drop him off by one of the Irish bars. Back in the 1990's an African-American man was beaten to death by a group of Catholic schoolboys in Bridgeport.

It's also home to the quintessential Chicago political machine. Bridgeport has produced mayors that have ruled the Windy City for a combined 68 years since 1933. The Mayors Daley (Richard J. and Richard M.) were mayor for 21 and 22 years respectively. Whereas most ward offices occupy a small storefront, the 11th Ward of Bridgeport has its own 2-story building on corner of 37th and Halsted.

21st century Bridgeport is a little different than the one Mike Royko described in his columns, however. Whites make up less than half of the population, while Chinese from Chinatown and Latinos from Pilsen and Little Village move into the houses that the whites abandoned. All but one of Daleys--a Cook County Democratic committeeman, of course--has left, and now more chic restaurants, bars, and art galleries open every day. It's one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city.

I landed in Bridgeport by accident back in late summer of 2010. Two North Side co-ops had rejected me with less than a month before my cross-country move from central Pennsylvania. Luckily, the office manager of my organization, Interfaith Worker Justice, found a Lutheran church that rents rooms in an apartment and the old parsonage. I didn't expect to stay there, but something happened. I fell in love with the community.

It really happened while I was organizing to shut down the nearby coal-fired power plant. As I had conversations with folks in the neighborhood, I saw that Bridgeport was really a lot like the small town I had grown up in back in Pennsylvania--just on the South Side of Chicago. However, it's a changing neighborhood, and judging by the TIF districts, it's going to change faster soon.

Bridgeport is a place that I can call home as I deconstruct, reconstruct, and synthesize my theology at seminary. There's no bubble to hide in, and I love that. I can apply the principles of liberation and incarnation as I do community organizing with Bridgeport Alliance, my neighbors' answer to the largely ineffective 11th Ward machinery. I have no choice but to look at my neighbors in the eyes, because they won't accept anything else.

2011 Oktoberfest worship service at First Trinity Luthehan Church
I recently had a great one-on-one conversation with a retired cop who is very active in First Trinity Lutheran Church. He gave me great insight into the cultural and political underpinnings of the neighborhood. A week later he mentioned to me that a "great philosopher" had once told him something that had a great impact on him: "It's not what you do, and it's not how you're doing it. It's that you're doing it to us." After a long pause he muttered, "whatever the hell that means."

But that just the thing. Theology, politics, and other contact sports happen in places like Bridgeport a lot more often than in the laboratory of the academy. Bridgeport folks can be some of the most forgiving and gracious folks you could ever want to meet, but they are who they are. If they don't like you...well, you won't stick around long in that case.

What better place to prepare me for the itinerant nature of Methodist parish ministry?

1 comment:

  1. Great post Joe. Congratulations on the good news. I'm glad we're going to be around while you deconstruct, reconstruct and synthesize your Methodist theology! Sounds like good Bible Study conversation. Or good conversations at Maria's :)