Up on the 14th floor of the Wabash Building, conversation was meandering just as conversation often does. We were a small group—three of us total—looking at the passage in the Gospel of John where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. We talked about the different characters in the story, what it means to honor both devotion to Christ and sincere care for the poor, and what a funny word “nard” is. There were some long, somewhat awkward silences as we considered different images in the Gospel, and other times we rambled and waxed poetic. It was a good Bible study.
Then a couple students stopped by us and asked about our shopping cart. For the past two weeks Pastor Tom and I had brought a shopping cart with us to Roosevelt University to collect socks to hand out at our Sunday night community meals with homeless people. We hung out in the caf with our cart and “socks for the homeless!” posters, and students mostly gave us strange looks. Staff tended to be more positive about the impromptu sock drive.
|Photo taken by Pastor Tom Gaulke, the campus minister for|
South Loop Campus Ministry. And, yes, that's me in the hat.
And then, surprise! We got a couple dozen socks as we finished Bible study on the 14th floor.
One pair of students had met us as we waited for the elevator on the 2nd floor, and they returned to give us socks. Another pair of students saw our cart as we talked about the Himalayan origins of nard, and they too came back with socks. It felt like progress.
That’s when Roosevelt University security stepped in. See, the 14th floor separates the classroom part of the Wabash Building from the student residence section which includes the 15th floor to the 32nd floor. The 14th floor has two separate elevator banks: one set that goes down and another set that goes up. The 14th floor is a transition space from public to private, and so it is also a natural meeting space. Or at least it is a natural meeting space as long you follow the proper protocols through the university administration.
The security guards on the 14th floor asked if we had gotten prior permission to ask students for socks. We responded that we had been collecting socks on the second floor, but we had brought the cart with us for the Bible study with Roosevelt students on the 14th floor. Oh, and we usually work with an RA to book rooms, we quickly added. The guards told us that without prior permission, a sock drive is solicitation and is strictly forbidden. At least it is on the 14th floor, they didn’t add.
My natural inclination is to follow instructions and respect authority. I suppose that comes from my upbringing in rural central Pennsylvania and all those years as a Boy Scout. That day on the 14th floor was no different—we packed up and left down the elevator with our sock cart. One of the students asked why we hadn’t stood up to the guards. We were collecting socks for homeless people, for crying out loud.
One of my favorite teachings of Jesus comes from the Mission Discourse of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus tells his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16) in the midst of trouble. In my experience in community organizing, that means know when to back down (strategically, of course). Especially when I’m on the 14th floor.
I've found that ministry with South Loop Campus Ministry is a very 14th floor kind of ministry. With our “accidental” ministry with the homeless folks of the neighborhood and our outreach to the “anti-sectarian” folks of Roosevelt, we’re a bit on the edge. What we do makes people occasionally uncomfortable, and going back down the metaphorical elevator would ease the tension. However, being present on the 14th floor with our sock cart does open up that transitional space into a meeting space. It stretches us, molds us, makes us available for meeting each other, as well as meeting with our God.
Even though Bible study and our sock cart may move to another floor, I think our ministry needs to stay on the 14th floor. On the 14th floor, where community, action, leadership, and faith all meet.