seeing the face of god in the city

Once it leaves the Loop, the core of downtown Chicago, the Eisenhower Expressway cuts west like a moat through the mid-section of the third largest…

Once it leaves the Loop, the core of downtown Chicago, the Eisenhower Expressway cuts west like a moat through the mid-section of the third largest metropolis in the USA.

The sun had just touched the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Building and other high landmarks four or five kilometres to the east as I headed north from the Tri-Taylor neighbourhood on a dawn walk recently with Orlando Redekopp, a local pastor.

A canyon of concrete below split by the rail of the El right of way, already hummed with near-capacity traffic.

Tri-Taylor is gentrifying but a fair number of long-time, low-income folk still cling to their homes despite the lure of rising house values.

Crossing the Eisenhower we entered into the now renamed United Centre district. There, city planners took a more aggressive stance towards urban renewal.

Many of the old homes that had become tenements were flattened rather than renovated. The poor, as is usual in this type of development, found themselves forced out.

A 19-hectare swath at the centre of the neighbourhood became the site in the early ‘90s of the United Centre, which its owners call the largest arena in the US. It houses basketball’s Bulls and hockey’s Blackhawks.

Cirque du Soleil had its distinctive blue and yellow tents up in the southwestern corner of the expansive plains of asphalt that surround the arena.

We acknowledged a young security guard reclining in his lawn chair at the back entrance of the Cirque du Soleil area as we cut across the site. KOOZA, one of its travelling productions, wraps up its two-month Chicago run this weekend. By Monday morning Cirque’s tents should be nearly down and preparations well underway to head towards Boston for a month’s run.

“KOOZA tells the story of the Innocent,” according to Cirque du Soleil’s promotional material, “a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world.

“Between strength and fragility, laughter and smiles, turmoil and harmony,” it continues, “KOOZA explores themes of fear, identity, recognition and power.”

This sounds like a story well suited for the city.

A few blocks further east on our walk people queued in the early morning light in front of the Mexican Consulate. What brought them there that early?

Was it hope of facilitating access to a temporary work permit?

I have heard one estimate that places the number of illegal aliens living and working in Chicago alone at nearly a million.

One huge march in May 2006 calling for a moratorium on deportations of illegal immigrants, which drew over 400,000 into Chicago’s Loop, backs this figure up.

Back south across the expressway we crossed into the Medical District. There the massive Cook County Hospital fronts on the Eisenhower.

Its 111,000 square metres anchor the district and served as the fictional setting for television’s ER. As we well know, being poor in the USA also likely means being uninsured.

The Cook County Hospital is the only option for many of Chicago’s poor.

An hour and 15 minutes later, we were back on South Oakley street in Tri-Taylor. My mini-immersion reminded me of just some of the issues Reverend Redekopp deals with on a daily basis.

The First Church of the Brethren, which he pastors, has a long history of social activism. Various immigrant groups found a home there.

In the mid-1960s it served as the base for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference activities in Chicago. King preached from its pulpit.

Over the summer his church hosts a continuous stream of teenagers from across the continent. They participate in the DOOR organization’s Discover program (www.doornetwork.org/discover.htm).

A week of activities is designed to help them “see God’s face in the eyes of another- a man at a soup kitchen, an elderly woman at a nursing facility, a child exiled to a homeless shelter.”

Among their goals they hope to challenge the youth by “considering how faith shapes your group’s responses to needs in your home community” and “discovering service as an essential, daily part of living out Christian faith.”

All faiths similarly challenge their adherents. Could we build on the experience of the Lutheran youth gathering held last week in Whitehorse and find more service opportunities like the DOOR program to help our youth to see the face of God in our own communities?