As a born and bred Northern Minnesotan raised in the middle of corn fields, I consider myself to be a formidable expert on all things Scandinavian. I'm a proud Swede and Norwegian mix with a few others things thrown in too, and in no other place in the world outside of Scandinavia will you experience such widespread cultural norms influenced by these countries. I took Swedish for two years, I love lefse with a desire that cannot be quelled and I am a life long Lutheran who will gladly talk for hours about justification, sanctification and grace. And in Minnesota (especially my community), it's assumed that Lutheran equals Scandinavian, which equals tater tot hot dish, church basement coffee, jello salad and all the bars one could ever hope to consume. It means quietly sharing the peace, 300 year old hymns played on the pipe organ and if you're caught clapping or your infant is caught screaming during services, you're about to get some super passive aggressive stares. I will be the first to admit I rarely challenge this idea. I love my religion, my church, my heritage and the ways in which they are interconnected, but the thing is, as much as we want to believe that this narrative which we all hold so closely to our hearts and minds is real, it's actually blatantly wrong. Hold that thought and dwell on it for a moment, because I have lots of news to tell you...
....that's right! I'm in Chicago! Well, for another few hours anyway. Last Tuesday, at an hour way too early for humans to function, I left Minneapolis for my week long YAGM orientation to be held at the University of Chicago and the Lutheran School of Theology, and boy, has it been a week. After a quick flight and a few hours in the airport, I boarded buses from Chicago-Midway along with 30 other YAGMs, with the rest following along at later hours. We checked in at the residence hall which would house us for the next week, and ate some lunch before a quick opening session and some worship. My emotions were in a tailspin. I tried to hide my tears the best I could in the airport, but they all came crashing down over the course of the next 48 hours. Questions of sadness and inadequacy filled my head along with the guilt of leaving my parents and community back home. Yet, I somehow, by the grace of God, was able to pull it together and sat through sessions regarding power, privilege, identity, communication, cross-cultural experiences and interfaith experiences for the rest of the week. We were challenged almost every step of the way and tended to be completely emotionally and physically exhausted come sundown. I became a part of a community that lifted me up in my doubts and insecurities, that comforted me when I needed it the most. And yet, that wasn't the best part.
Chicago is a city that is broken. Chicago is a city with insurmountable issues. Chicago is God forsaken. These are statements I have heard many, many times, and I'm sure you have too. And yet, I have seen God here more than I ever could have anticipated, and in people that I never in a million years would I think would be a living, breathing, called embodiment of Christ. The pictures above are from this past Saturday night, when after a long morning and afternoon of sessions, we were set loose on the city to find our secret restaurant location for dinner and the YAGM alum waiting there through various scavenger hunt clues. Long story short, our directions were... less than helpful. They ended by saying "your restaurant is on the right." What they didn't say is that it was 6 blocks down to the right. Instead, we were directed to a restaurant condemned by the Health Department and the City of Chicago. Through some phone calls and Facebook messages, we finally arrived at our restaurant 30 minutes later, a hole-in-the-wall, no-more-than-20-feet-wide joint that served Somali food.
This restaurant was a hub and favorite dinner spot of many Somali taxi drivers in the city, and it would be a lie to say we didn't stick out there. Nonetheless, the owner could not have been more gracious, filling our plates with literally the best meal I have had in months, asking questions about our journey and taking our photo for their Facebook page! Together, with the owner and other patrons, we even cheered together as Mohamed Farah, a Somali immigrant to Great Britain, won the Men's 5000M race in the Olympics. We left, absurdly happy and full, our soul filled with the great hospitality of strangers who welcomed us in dearly.
The same night, the YAGM United Kingdom group was returning from their dinner, when they found that their bus had stopped running. Stranded in the middle of the South Side with few options and a distance of only a mile, they discussed walking the way back to U Chicago. A woman working in the bus station interjected and told them that she refused to let them leave the bus terminal and walk. They resisted, citing that nine people would be a safe number, yet she insisted that their safety would be in jeopardy and again refused to let their plan come to fruition. She then proceeded to leave them, walk outside, devise a bus schedule in which to get them safely home and when their bus arrived, accompanied them to it.
On Sunday, about 70 members of our group ventured to Riverdale, Illinois, about 45 minutes south of campus, to Shekinah Chapel, a majority-black ELCA congregation, where we attended worship. After a truly powerful two hour service that included praise songs, slam poetry, introductions of all of the YAGM participants, and lots of hugs, we waited patiently for the bus that would take us back to Hyde Park. It wouldn't come for two hours. Riverdale is a community that feels the effects of racist urban planning practices every day. It's surrounded on three sides by train tracks, effectively boxing it in and making it difficult to get in and out of the community. That morning our bus had gotten stuck behind two completely halted trains for two hours. The folks from Shekinah mentioned that even though it's illegal for a train to be completely stopped on a railroad crossing for more than 20 minutes, it happens quite frequently. Yet, in that time of uncertainty and uneasiness, the Holy Spirit made itself known once again in the church that welcomed us so readily, bringing us water, trying desperately to contact the bus driver every few minutes and eventually, placing people into the church van and some of their own cars to drive us to the closest metro stop that would get us back to Hyde Park.
Monday evening I went on an adventure with another YAGM, Rebekah, who will be serving in Hungary this upcoming year. We made a few stops to get last minute items, and while we had a pretty decent time shopping and walking around, the best part of the experience was the same part that had rang true in this city before: the people. Particularly two Uber drivers, Melanie and Terrance. A decent length of journey gave us plenty of time to talk to Melanie, a 4th grade reading teacher employed by Chicago Public Schools. She shared with us the struggles of working for CPS, chatted about our stories and shared excitement and joy for us when we mentioned the journey ahead. Later that night on our return ride, we were picked up by Terrance. While we didn't speak the majority of the trip, we found a few moments to chat before the end in discussing where President Obama's house was in Hyde Park. We learned that it was soon the one year anniversary of his brother's death and that he had passed away in University of Chicago hospital which was a few blocks away from our dorm. And again, he shared joy and excitement at the prospect of the future, even saying that he wanted his kids to get involved with a program like YAGM. While these interactions may never stick out to these people as anything more than just pleasantries, the kindness and compassion for two girls who had no idea where they were going was truly an incredible sight.
As much as we Minnesotans like to believe, the Holy Spirit is not Lutheran, it's not Norwegian, it doesn't care about Special K bars or the general fund, it is the real, present, living, breathing presence of God shining through in the most unexpected ways. It's in transit workers working the night shift, it's in the U Chicago security guards that without fail said goodnight to us every time we passed by them this week, it's in Melanie and Terrance and our Somali brothers who have no good reason to offer us kindness and hospitality and yet they do. In Hebrews, we are invited to show that kind of love and hospitality:
"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware." Hebrews 13:2
Chicago is not broken and it is certainly not forsaken. The faithfulness found here in the everyday people who live and work and pray and love is so evident. When we needed it most, God was revealed here in His beloved people, going out of their way to make sure we were happy, safe and comfortable, living out love for their neighbors in the smallest, yet most significant ways.
Thanks be to God for this incredible city.