Below the Streets of Chicago

by Greg Gonzales

Last week, I was walking down a Chicago street, 10:30 at night, emerging from one of the sub-layer roads beneath the hotels. Nearly two centuries previous, the city’s inhabitants managed to raise up sidewalks, roads, and buildings by three feet, by hand, using jacks. Faced with a challenge, both private and public citizens rose to the task. Now, the city is far more complex, intricate, and gorgeous. However, a Chicago pedestrian inevitably comes face-to-face with the city’s homeless population, which number more than 120,000 by some counts. They raised the city, but its people were left below, in the muck.

I had trouble, though, doing my part. In the face of overwhelming loss, suffering, and fear, we can’t always know what to do — especially in the moment. So I hope this sparks a conversation, or an afterthought, to give someone in need more than dismissal.

“Hey, will you do me a favor?” I was still walking down the street, to a local brewery, and a stranger was asking a favor of me. “Well, maybe,” I replied. “What do you need?”

He lit up a bit. “You look just like my friend John!” he exclaimed, getting closer as we plodded over a crosswalk. “The hair, the eyes, the jacket — everything!” He seemed legitimately floored. “Are you him?”

Nothing set off alarms in my head: He was a black man, maybe an inch taller than I am, with a friendly and raspy voice, wearing a puffy red hoodie that hung loosely over his belly, and a military-green beanie. However, the side-comment threw me off.

“Can’t say I am,” I replied. “My name’s Greg.”

Then he asked again if I could do him a favor, and again I agreed to hear him out. Two bucks, he said, for the bus. Sounds easy enough, but he was the third person on that walk to ask for money, and the sixth or seventh person to ask me on that five-day trip. When I told him I didn’t have any cash (I didn’t), he insisted I go into 7-Eleven and get cash back. At that point, I still said no, as I was tired and in a hurry to eat and go to bed.

In hindsight, nothing could have been more selfish. I’ll bet he was in a hurry for the same thing that chilly night. The difference was, I had a hotel to go back to. In the moment, I failed to live up to my own standards, and settled for less than my best.

Let’s backtrack. My first day in Chicago was on St. Patrick’s Day, and again, I didn’t have any cash. One big, boisterous guy sitting on a green milk crate asked for “a few bucks.” Since I had nowhere to be, I picked him up a coffee, gave him a pat on the shoulder, and went on my way. Passing on my way back from the pub, we greeted each other again, and then parted ways for good. Shortly after, I was headed to 7-Eleven, when another man began walking alongside me, sporting a head of dreads and a light blue long-tee that’d seen better days. He asked for a couple bucks, and I didn’t hesitate to say I’d help him out. Then, he launched into a schizophrenic rant; each word was cut down to about a quarter, he seemed to almost be shivering his speech out despite holding himself confidently and smooth, and the only word I made out was “Muslims” over the course of two minutes. So I went to 7-Eleven, picked up a little cash with my beer, and handed him a couple dollars on my way out. We wished each other the best (or at least I think he did, too), and went on our way.

Two more men approached me for cash the next day, but I was cashless and thought myself too busy to stop. I felt fatigued from all the requests, I suppose. When I’m not out looking to help people, or don’t keep a beneficent state of mind, I find it easy to fall on excuses and except myself from helping where I can.

Have you ever read “The Starfish Story,” by Loren Eisley? The story goes, a young man walks up to a beach that’s covered in thousands of starfish, after a storm. He notices an old man in the distance, gently tossing starfish into the water, one by one. “Old man,” the young man says, “there are thousands of starfish out here; you can’t possibly save them all, or even a fraction of them. You can’t make a difference.” The old man pauses, smiles, and throws another into the safety of the ocean. “Made a difference to that one.” We can’t help everyone and save the world ourselves, but each individual act of kindness makes all the difference to those who receive it.

So the guilt still stings. I could have stopped and talked with him, invited him into the brewery for some suds, or actually stopped at 7-Eleven to give him a couple bucks. The night would have gone on just fine. I’m just one person, but a quick visit to the store could have made a difference. Each and every life comes with its lifetime of experiences. Each one of them matters. We all come from the same place.

When the people of Chicago raised their city in the mid-19th century, it was because they needed a sewage system and to create drainage, of which there was none, and they were wallowing in their own filth, causing epidemics. Now the city has another epidemic to face, but it’s not disease, it’s a small city’s worth of homelessness, of suffering, of tragedy. When cities are raised and people are left below and ignored, we must do our best as a whole to raise them up with it.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

– Isaiah 58:6-8 (NRSV)

Our Homeless Neighbors

by Abigail Conley

The Point in Time homeless count happened this week. I was one of the volunteers who gathered before dawn at the fire station. We were offered coffee and doughnuts, watched a video, then were sent out into the city to search our assigned grid for homeless people and homeless camps. We carried bags with food and water, phone numbers, and socks to offer to the people we found. As we left, it was daylight, and the city was beginning to move about.

The homeless count happens each year across the country. It depends on the year if people are counted in shelters or on the streets or both. Most volunteers where I was were partnered with a city employee. I was glad my assigned staff person clearly knew what she was doing.

She drove around streets I knew existed but had never driven on. Our area was small, because homeless people are typically found there. We found fewer people than we anticipated, only one camp and one person sleeping in a park. As we drove, she told me the stories of homeless neighbors, some now housed, some still refusing, some still unknown. We drove past a woman’s home, housed for four years after nearly twenty on the streets. The city had figured out her housing and she’d been paying her own rent for a while now. I found out the name of the woman who is always at the bus stop at a particular intersection.

We made three stops. One was just a teenager, not homeless, but nervous at the adults approaching. We found a man in a park. In broken Spanish and broken English, we asked as many questions as we could. He thought he’d been homeless for about six weeks. By the time our conversation was over, we realized it had been more like six months. Who knows why exactly he had lost track of time. He pulled out the business card of a city employee from his wallet. We weren’t the first people to offer him help.

The most heartbreaking stop for me was behind a row of buildings, on a street that was little more than an alley. No one was home, but someone was staying there along the wall. It jutted back in one place, creating a small room with three walls. It was invisible until someone walked or drove along that dirt road. Two shopping carts were pushed inside, filled with belongings. Children’s items were the most visible. The clear indicator that someone as living there was the feces against the wall. There were several smudges that I would not have recognized unless the person in the car told me what they were; immediately, it made sense. Of course someone would back up to a wall to relieve himself; of course this is part of polite society that no one talks about. This sign wasn’t even in the training video.

My particular city has chosen not to criminalize homelessness. They’re hiring a homeless navigator; that person will be sent out to all these places to look for homeless people, to try and get them housed. They’ve been very supportive of the faith communities that provide emergency shelter for our homeless neighbors. A city in the same metro area instead chooses to pull people off the streets and drop them in a neighboring city; their belongings may or may not be kept by the officers who do this.

I wonder where the holiness in this story is, where the intersection with our faith is. Maybe it’s in the parable of the lost sheep, where there are 99 sheep in the fold, but the shepherd goes out looking for the one. Maybe it’s in Matthew 25 where Jesus commands us to offer food, drink, clothing, and welcome to people in need as if that person were Jesus himself. Maybe the holiness is in the Beatitudes, where Jesus proclaims,” Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Maybe it’s in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, where there are not poor in spirit nor people who hunger for righteousness. Instead, Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

Maybe the holiness is in an even more unexpected place, the list of questions we were given to ask people we found. What is your gender identity? Have you served in any branch of the military? Do you have a problem with drugs or alcohol? What is your HIV/AIDS status? It was amazing how impolite the questions were, especially to those of us who are comfortably housed. It was amazing how many points of vulnerability were enumerated on that one sheet.

Maybe you have a different answer to where the holiness in this story is. Whatever your answer is, you can likely enumerate ways that Christians have been called to care for vulnerable populations. If you’re not sure how, begin with seeing your invisible neighbors.

End Poverty, Protect the Planet

by Donald Fausel

On September 25, 2015, world leaders at the United Nations agreed on 17 Sustainable Developmental Goals. Here are those 17 Goals.

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well being for all at all ages.

Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

From those 17 goals, today’s blog will focus on Goal 1, ending poverty, and on Goal 13, taking urgent action to combat climate change. It will also include moral issues from Yale Climate Connection. If you want to read the entire article on Sustainable Development 17 Goals, when you get there, click on Goals.  

The forward of the document begins with a statement that is no secret, that it is the poor countries and people who tend to be particularly vulnerable to the difficult effects of climate change and there “…are already evident, natural disasters are more frequent and more devastating and developing countries are more vulnerable…they are more vulnerable because of their high dependence on natural resources and their limited capacity to cope with climate variability and extremes.”

Can We End Poverty?

According to the Sustainable Development goals, more than “…700 million people live in extreme poverty and are struggling to fulfill the most basic needs like health, education, and access to water and sanitation.” That’s a lot of people, and sadly Children Suffer the Most… Even in developed countries there are 30 million children growing up poor in some of the world’s richest countries. Any discussion based on the thesis of “ending poverty” couldn’t evade the question: Can it be done? If you don’t ever listen to another TED Talk give yourself a big treat and listen to a 16 minute Alex Thier’s TED Talk on The End of Extreme Poverty . Thier explains how it can happen and how you can help solve humanity’s greatest challenge. He leads policy development, strategic planning, learning and evaluation at the United States Agency for International Development—the lead development agency for the US government and the world’s largest bi-lateral donor. Enough of his background, except to say this Talk is dynamite.

Science and Mortality

“The absence of certainty is not an excuse to do nothing.” This is a caution that Christine Todd Whitman, President George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), made. Whether we’re talking about poverty or climate change, we can apply her wisdom to almost any situation. However, recently there’s been a shift in the conversation from scientific and technical issues to mortality and ethics. According to the Vatican Radio, April 28, 2015, a meeting of world leaders issued a final statement declaring “…human-induced climate change is a scientific reality…and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.” Basically, the statement says that humans have the technological and financial means, and the know-how, to combat human-induced climate change, while at the same time eliminating global poverty.

Fighting Poverty and Climage Change Must be Done Together is a twelve-minute interview with Isabella Lovin, the Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate, who explains why goals must not be dealt with separately.

Science and Values

Douglas Allchin opens his essay Values in Science: An Introduction, by writing, “A fundamental feature of science, as conceived by most scientists, is that it deals with facts, not values. Further, science is objective, while values are not.” Later he acknowledges that this value-free notion has been challenged by sociologists of science about the authority of science, and its methods are “overstated and misleading”. Many of us might say that science can only provide data to inform our decisions but cannot tell us what we should do, that we should leave our values up to religion. If you read Sam Harris’ latest book The Moral Landscapeyou might not agree.

But for the present time lets us see what some of our religious values are that will help us end poverty and combat climate change. Since this blog is mainly for the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, it seems appropriate to start there. Here is an article from the Yale Climate Connection website by Christine Woodside on April 4, 2012, The United Church of Christ on Climate Change .

I like the first phase of the article; Humans carry responsibility—and should take action. I also was impressed by the Rev. Jim Antal, the head of the Massachusetts United Church of Christ conference, spending three days in jail last August for refusing to leave the park across from the White House. It’s also very motivating to see how the synods have moved forward from 2005 despite  “…all the resistance we met…”. And how about the “Not Waiting for Someone Else to Do It” activity. And how Pastor Susanna Griefen gave a sermon about the climate titled “Slouching Towards Crisis” a play on William Butler Yeats poem, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”. And don’t miss Politics Aside… ‘Everyone Wants to Take Care of the Earth’ I believe we can all learn these.

Below are a list of other religious groups and what they are doing for the poor and climate change. All of these are worthwhile. I want to end this blog with paragraph from the ‘Preach-In’:

“All people of faith share a moral obligation to care for the poor and vulnerable. These are the people who are least able to adapt and who are most affected by the climate crisis. We must not turn our backs on the future generations.”

I’ll focus on other goals in future blogs!

Also see, as part of this continuing series on faith-based groups:
Nationwide Climate ‘Preach-In’ To Target Broad Faith-Group Congregations
The Catholic Church and Climate Change
Judaism and Climate Change
Episcopalians Confronting Climate Change
Baptists and Climate Change
‘Green Muslims,’ Eco-Islam and Evolving Climate Change Consciousness
Presbyterians and Climate Change
Preachable Moments: Evangelical Christians and Climate Change
Mormon Silence on Climate Change: Why, and What Might It Mean?

Jesus’ Solidarity with the Least of These

by Amos Smith

Jesus’ solidarity with “the least of these” plants him among the prophets. Jeremiah and Isaiah said the measure of a society is how it treats its least powerful. How would America measure up?

How do we treat those without adequate health care? How do we treat the elderly who can’t afford their medicine? How do we treat our poor neighboring countries? What are our priorities? Are they as George Herbert Walker Bush put it, to be a “kinder and gentler nation?” Do we send neighboring countries the food and medicine they need or do we send them fighter planes and guns? Our obligation to the poor and powerless has deep Biblical roots, echoing through the generations of prophets leading up to Jesus.

In the fullness of time, God entered the messiness of history. God entered into solidarity with the human family to show us the way. Jesus walked the dusty streets of Palestine in sandals. Jesus entered into solidarity with the poor and suffering. Authentic Christianity continues to enter into the fray of poverty and affliction. This is Christianity’s legacy—to show God’s love through service to “the least of these.”

Out of Touch with the Poor in Africa

by Amos Smith

After graduation from high school I worked for Habitat for Humanity in Uganda, East Africa. I’ll never forget Semunyo, an elderly gentleman with an oozing foot infection. When my friend Matovu first took me to see Semunyo, his leg had begun to swell and gangrene was days away. It was obvious to me that he needed penicillin. The sorry fact was that Semunyo didn’t have enough money to pay for penicillin shots at the local clinic. So Matovu and I put him in a wheelbarrow and rolled him to the clinic, where I paid five dollars for penicillin which saved Semunyo’s life.

Many Americans have lost touch with the Semunyos of the world. Semunyo is the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Semunyo is a tame example of “third world” realities.

If a jumbo jet went down in North America it would be headline news. If two jumbo jets went down on the same day in North America it would be huge news, congressional committees of inquiry would form, a media shakedown would commence, and reparations would be made.

Every day the equivalent of five jumbo jets goes down in Africa. In other words, over three thousand Africans die from AIDS daily. This is a travesty. We add to the inhumanity of the situation by turning away. Where are the headlines in the daily paper and blog? Where are the congressional committees meeting around the clock to solve the crisis? These human beings are flesh and blood. They’re Christ’s body.