Almost twenty years ago my wife Lisa and I moved into a pretty rough neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. We didn’t have a great vision or strong sense of calling to the neighborhood, but it made practical sense for us; rent was cheap and we saw value in living where we were already building relationships. There were a few challenges, but in time we bought a house, met our neighbors, and settled into life here.
From time to time we’re praised for living where we do, likely based on the assumption that as a white family in a black neighborhood we are ostensibly providing some great benefit to our neighbors. While Christ compels us to look for ways to love and serve those around us, just having this address has little intrinsic value. As a result, when we are occasionally asked about “relocation” by people who have never lived in a place like Lawndale but may be considering moving here, my response is often noncommittal. After all, there are plenty of valid reasons not to live here, and it would be disingenuous to deny them. If litter, vacant lots, abject poverty, crime, and other visible ills of American society drive you to fear or despair, then Lawndale may not be the place for you. Yet, truth is that nobody around here likes those parts of our neighborhood life, so embracing those negative things is not a pre-condition for living here. Lisa and I regularly suffer from suburb envy; what’s not to love about parks with new playground equipment and no broken glass, quiet streets, and houses with attached garages? On the other hand, there are reasons we remain.
I recently joined a sailing club. Nobody has expected me to offer an explanation of how I wrestled in prayer to determine whether it was God’s will. The adventure of living out your comfort zone doesn’t have to be entirely driven by some deep spiritual passion any more than other things in life you might enjoy. And while I already knew I like sailing, we can all think of things in life that we didn’t imagine we’d enjoy until we tried them. If you have an adventurous spirit, life in a place outside of your traditional comfort zone can be fun. In spite of very real frustrations, we live in Lawndale, at least in part, simply because we enjoy it.
And it is not because we have always liked things urban, or now like all things urban. In fact, the over 65 crowd on my block, with whom I connect the most, is much more interested in gardening than hip hop, as am I. When we live cross-culturally we find connecting points in our work, our family life, or our other common interests. You can’t be sure of your place in an unfamiliar environment until you actually plant yourself there for a while, because it is only then that you discover the connecting points for yourself beyond your initial stereotypes.
Suffice it to say that while census figures may show this to be one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods from a material standpoint, life has been truly rich for us. We couldn’t have predicted that.
Living in the land of plenty has a terrible way of lulling many of us into complacency. While it’s still easy to forget God in our neighborhood, by forsaking some of the safety net of the American dream, there are ways in which we are driven to surrender ourselves to Him that might not be as present elsewhere.
The most obvious one for us is physical safety. While we have never experienced bodily harm, we’ve had some trials and close calls over the years, and we’ve had to come to terms with the fact that burglar bars and the police cannot protect us or our possessions. In light of that fact, some have questioned whether we can be responsible parents living where we do. Sure, our children are probably at some modest increased risk of harm because of where we live. But at the same time, we cannot secure our own or our children’s health, no matter how many steps we take. Indeed, several years ago one of Lisa’s cousins lost his toddler son to an accident on their family farm. Would we then encourage people to not live on farms? In the end, when fear of unlikely events drives our decisions, it seems we have stopped trusting God. Don’t we profess that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without the Father’s knowledge? If you are avoiding a place because of what it may seem to lack, whether that is simply creature comforts, safe streets, or good schools, it’s worth asking yourself who you are trusting to supply your every need.
The church should be at the forefront of caring for orphans and widows, so I’m thankful that there are Christians who are willing to work as doctors and teachers and various other vocations in service to my neighbors, and that there are churches willing to help feed our homeless population or run summer camps in the city. Our family has participated in those sorts of things ourselves. Yet there is something unique about loving our neighbors as a neighbor, and not as part of our job, church program, or some other labeled activity. A few nights ago Denise showed up at our door late at night looking for a sandwich. We hadn’t seen her in ages, and I had forgotten her name, but she knew we were always good for a bite to eat, so she decided to ring the doorbell. I have a different rapport with the young men around our block because of the hours I spent fixing their raggedy bikes a decade ago. Perhaps I could have engaged in some formal process to share my snowblower or irises, but I’m convinced that something is lost when we try to institutionalize our neighborliness.
Perhaps even more significant to me is how this works out in the lives of our children. Just behind our house is an apartment above a vacant store, where nine children live with their mom and grandma. In many ways their world is so different than ours, and it would be so easy to objectify them as an “opportunity for ministry”, but because we live across the alley, they are simply friends. The oldest among them is an eleven year old boy that is great buddies with my eleven year old son. They spend countless hours together and play on the same soccer team. Some of the younger siblings adore my thirteen year old daughter Abbie, who has joyfully nurtured them by creating a library with bean bag chairs in our front hallway, and last week running an art camp for them, along with her brothers and a bunch of other kids on the block. God has given our children relationships that are far richer than they would have experienced if they were limited to structured acts of charity.
Life in Lawndale isn’t for everybody, and maybe not even for most people, but I sometimes wonder if people too quickly assume that because they don’t have a pioneering personality, they could never thrive here. The opposite is the case: Many people would find themselves surprised to realize how much they might like about what other people would describe as an unlikable place to call home. As our dear friend Sam once admonished his friend over some green eggs and ham, “You do not like them. SO you say. Try them! Try them! And you may. Try them and you may I say.” It would have been easy to assume that we simply didn’t belong in a place like Lawndale before we arrived, but now we can join Sam in saying, “You would not like living here so you say. Try it, try it, and you may!”
Rob Werner is an administrator at Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago, where he has worked intermittently since 1999. Rob and his family have lived in North Lawndale since 1993, apart from four years working overseas.