Friday, February 24, 2012

Like a Good Neighbor

Recently a new friend asked me why I moved out of Rogers Park, a neighborhood on Chicago's far north side. I gave her all the standard reasons--we wanted to experience as much of Chicago as possible, especially if we decide to relocate, the work commute was too far--and then I mentioned that we didn't really like where we lived. There's a lot to like about Rogers Park: it's far enough out of the city that when you live there you feel like you're out of the throng; it has a lot of interesting small businesses and a thriving neighborhood scene; it's one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. But after several years of living there, we found it just didn't suit us the way we wanted a neighborhood to suit us. There are some parts of Rogers Park with large tree-lined streets and great, pre-war rambling houses, or amazing apartments with stained glass windows and original moulding; we lived in a rehabbed six-flat that didn't sell in a part of the neighborhood that was just lots of sad, slouching brick buildings and failed housing-market investments. Our next-door neighbors were in an enormous building, a place where people seemed to live on top of each other, where during the summer it wasn't unusual to hear blaring classic rock until two or three in the morning--and the off-key voice of the classic rock lover singing right along. The worst of it was children screaming in rage and frustration and adults screaming right back at them; the worst of it was used condoms or vomit on the sidewalk; the worst of it was 5-0 outside on the next-door lawn breaking up violent domestic disturbances that brought out the whole neighborhood to gawk, and unmarked cars zooming down streets to infiltrate gang activity, and police cameras appearing on telephone poles with all the silence and insidiousness of suspect-looking mushrooms.

Now I'm not so naive as to believe that this kind of stuff only happens here. This isn't the only rough neighborhood I've lived in, and I know that gang activity, prostitution and urban rage are not unique to Rogers Park. But there just came a point when he and I said, yeah. It's time to get out of here.
This is a view out our front window on one of the last (rainy) days we lived there. The trees really were pretty.

I've never regretted this decision; we've been in a new part of the city for over four months, and although we traded space for convenience, I still don't regret moving. But when my friend asked me why we left Rogers Park, I could hear the choir behind her of voices swelling with the "Rogers Park is Great!" chorus, and I felt a little convicted. Not by her asking, but by my own choice. After the chorus died down, I heard a voice inside me ask, Jess, why did you leave? It's an awful lot of privilege you have to just run out on a community that needs you. You gettin' too saditty for your own community?

Years ago, I went to a church that had as a tenet of its mission incarnational ministry. My best sense of this  that those members who felt called to minister did so by moving into the community where this church was housed (Humboldt Park) and to live a life that models Christlike behavior. A kind of contemporary Christian commune, a la Acts in the New Testament: giving back to the people, taking care of the sick, investing in local economies. Like that. At the time, I lived in the neighborhood because it's where I happened to land when I moved (back) to Chicago. The church was conveniently located: even on the coldest days, it was only a bundled-up 10-minute walk away. But incarnational ministry wasn't something I was seeking from my worship experience; I was just on the hunt for a worship space that had politics I could live with and a community that I could appreciate and who could appreciate me. This place was that: the people were young and diverse, the theology was grounded in grace and integrity and the relationship practice was radical*. I liked it a lot. I liked the idea of doing the heavy lifting that is relationship work in order to heal relationships as pursuit of Christ, and while I didn't always like the practice at times, I always came to the table, because I believed in it (and still do). I liked the idea of living in the community where you worship, and using your resources to connect with others and hopefully to model a healthy faith-based life practice that's grounded in love.

(There's a really interesting story about a similar concept of a black family patronizing black businesses here in Chicago for a year on Marketplace. Despite my own irritation at one point--Kai Ryssdal, for all of his wisdom, is still another white person who says to his guests, "Gee, you don't sound black." Seriously, white people? Enough.--it's an interesting story.)

I lived in Humboldt Park and attended that church for years. I left the church for personal reasons, and moved out of the community a short time later. It saddened me to leave the neighborhood, which was becoming, and since has become, a more expensive place to live, and I moved into part of the city where I frankly didn't want to invest, financially or otherwise. I don't know that I was "called" as the evangelicals like to say, to live in Humboldt Park, but I know Nobody called me to Uptown. Then I made a life with another person, and incarnational ministry was a concept with which he was unfamiliar and uninterested in pursuing. Our home choices were dictated by things like location relative to city center, neighborhood vibe, parking, stores nearby, the usual stuff. We spent most of our lives together so far in Rogers Park.

The move into Rogers Park felt to me like a kind of return to incarnational ministry. There was no worship body we were attached to, no conversation between the two of us about what it means to live out our (differing) life philosophies in a new neighborhood, not even so much as a chirp on the Jesus phone that might be "calling" me. But I felt like I was moving to a neighborhood where there were more people with whom I shared some common experience, based on our race if nothing else. But this time I found I couldn't do it. I spent too much time feeling unsafe from all the catcalls walking to and from the Howard Street el station, or feeling like a suspect from all the CPD who would slow down to size me up before speeding onward. I was too horrified watching women with sad flat eyes slap and yank their children around to say Good Morning to them, and I was too nervous about the packs of young men wandering the street with nowhere to go to say, "have a good night, fellas." I wanted to be doing a good thing by living there, shopping local, and I wanted to know my neighbors, and to do it all with a great Jesus beam shining out from my chest , but I couldn't do it.

Now I realize that maybe it's ridiculous to think that I might know anything about what people need. How arrogant it seems to me that I thought I could move into a neighborhood with my education and my middle-class money and my well-meaning heart, and demonstrate the love and compassion of Anyone to anybody. The fact that we're both brown? Meaningless. I don't know these people's lives, and they probably don't see me as an example of anyone except more of the suckers who move into the crappy rehabs that are taking over their neighborhoods. I feel ridiculous. Disgusting. And humbled.

And now I live in a building with a doorman. There are two markets less than five minutes away by car, and I'm close to a lot. Aspects of my neighborhood seem pretty diverse, but not the way they were in Rogers Park. People here care as little about my philosophy of life as they did anywhere else. I haven't stopped believing that how I behave can set a small but powerful example of what the world can be, of how people can show and feel enduring and miraculous love for each other with some Help.

But it's not what dictates my ZIP code anymore.

*Yes, I must admit, to the outside this can seem like white people moving into a neighborhood of brown people with a white man's burden to save them from themselves. There may be people  in that worship community acting from that place. But enough of what I witnessed and experienced in my time there teaches me that there are some who live and work in this community with sincere hearts.