It’s Political: My Own Self Realization

Trust me when I say, I wish it didn’t have to be political, but it is and there’s no escaping it! 

I wish we could just simply house the homeless, feed the hungry, visit prisoners, give those thirsty a drink, visit the sick and clothe the naked without fuss; but let me tell you, it ain't that easy!

When I first came to Chicago 21 years ago, when I first started working with those experiencing homelessness, I was very naive and my views on homelessness were somewhat one dimensional. In my naivety, I thought politics would never rear it’s ugly head because it was all about spreading the gospel, providing “3 hots and a cot”, giving away coats and welcoming strangers. All that is great, but in my naivety, I thought I could easily separate myself from anything political, I thought I could divide the two into vastly different worlds where they never needed to meet! I was very wrong!

In my naivety, I truly believed I could help and assist Chicago's “least of these” with direct aide without it ever becoming political. The truth is, I quickly discovered that when we attempt to follow the steps of Jesus, it becomes political! When we live out the parable of the “sheep and the goats”, it becomes political. When we love our neighbors as ourselves, it becomes political. When we follow the example of the One they crucified, it becomes political! It’s something, unfortunately, we cannot dodge! Those with the money and power often invade our space, enforce their will on us, demand we comply and bully the weak, making what shouldn’t need to be political, political

Look at Jesus: He didn't come to run for office, he came to “bring good news to the poor, set prisoners free, help the blind to see, free those who’ve been beaten down and proclaim the year when He will set people free”. By bringing the gospel, His Kingdom of love, freedom, and hope into this world, it enraged those with power and money. They felt what Jesus brought threatened them because it opposed their money-making plans and oppressive regimes. The empires of his day challenged him, bullied him, threatened him and eventually killed him because of the life he lived, the message he spoke, the actions he did and the people he befriended! Jesus came into this world to bring good news to the poor, but those with the power and money wouldn’t let him freely do that and they made what shouldn’t have been political, political!

Nothing’s changed; they did the same to the prophets, John the Baptizer, the apostles and they still do it today! Kings, presidents, religious leaders, CEOs, aldermen and the countless others who lust after control and who have been dosed with privilege feel threatened by the "have-nots". Look at what they did to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Oscar Romero, and Gandhi. Unfortunately, history shows time and time again that when people fight for and support those at the bottom, when they become a voice with the voiceless, when they show compassion for the oppressed, when they cry freedom for those captured, when they lift up the "least of these", those at the top get uncomfortable and make what doesn't need to be political, political!

When Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the leaders tried to stop him and made it political, yet he continued to love. When the woman was caught in adultery, the leaders questioned Jesus and made it political, yet he saw their hypocrisy, how unfair the system was, challenged them and the woman went home free. When Jesus dined with "undesirable folk", the leaders questioned his righteousness and made it political, yet he still ate with his friends. When those with power and money made the Temple a "Den of Thieves", they had made a place that should have been one of love and reconciliation, abusive and political. Jesus couldn't ignore what he saw in his Father's temple, so he reacted by overturning tables and clearing the offenders out! 

Today in my diverse eclectic neighborhood of Uptown, Chicago, what shouldn't be political has also become political. I never thought that supporting and loving those struggling at the bottom would bring so much opposition. I never thought there would be so many people who'd purposefully and systematically try to chase my poor "unsightly" neighbors out for the sake of progress and gentrifying the neighborhood. I never thought that being compassionate and chilling with those in need could cause such rumblings and hatred. 

Let me be more specific! I've seen some horrible abuses of power in my relatively short tenure in Chicago, making me realize that silence can never be the answer! Following Jesus calls us to keep on loving, despite who tries to stop us. 

After a few years of questioning and pondering how I should or should not be involved, my story took a giant leap forward in the twilight of 2004...

From 2001 until 2004 we operated an emergency homeless shelter that housed around 100 men every night. These men would line up in front of our facility and this sight didn’t sit well with the local gentrifiers. Our “unsightly” folk apparently decreased their hope in higher property values, so we were often slammed with an onslaught of vicious rumors and attacks. They didn’t like seeing how parole officers would come to check in with their clients. They didn’t like seeing men walking around the neighborhood with jam-packed bags on their backs. The list could go on, but basically many neighbors vilified an already vilified people and called for a successful program to close. The politicians listened to those whining and complaining, so our funding was cut in late 2004 and that chapter of CCO sadly ended. 

A couple of us lived out the extremely traumatic final week. We had been there for the shelter’s 3-year duration and we weren’t about to disappear during that final week. We stayed to offer support to our homeless friends and make sure they were treated with dignity and respect. We were shocked and dismayed as we watched an onslaught of hypocrisy and bold-faced lies take place. 

This included deceiving the neighbors they wanted to impress by telling them that all our clients got housed. The truth is, most of them got shuffled around the corner to another homeless shelter where they opened another floor. This act of deception made us look incapable of doing what they could. The reality was, nearly all of the residents remained homeless. 

This included how they handled an elderly gentleman named Nick. He was an extremely sick man who could neither read or write. In his young mind, he couldn’t comprehend what was happening and was traumatized by our closing, so he loudly voiced his frustration. Even though we pleaded for sympathy, the commissioner callously tried to toss him out and told his staff not to help him. We refused to throw him out, and when the week ended and we finally closed our doors, they had refused to place him in the other shelter and he ended up sleeping in a local park. 

To cap it off, with our cafeteria eerily quiet, Scott and I watched the same commissioner walk down the street and knock on our neighbor's door, who happened to be one of the chief complainer’s. He went to let them know the “job was done”. As we observed this blatant display of hypocrisy, it felt like a massive slap in the face after we'd all been kicked in the gut all week long. Ironically, the door wasn't answered and he came back looking disappointed!

The trauma of this event, and then hearing about the death of our friend Nick within a couple of months, resulted in stirring me up to go to a new level. They’d shown me how much money talks! They'd shown me that one wealthy neighbor who whines a lot was deemed more significant than all the poor men who were sleeping inside. They’d made it political. This tragic ending inspired me not to give in. Nick died under a tree, in a local park, on a cold November night. To this day I have his picture on my wall at work to remind me to have the courage to put people first. This event showed me that change doesn’t happen because of politicians, but through people on the ground working together. This event showed me that we can't just let those on the top enforce their often callous ways on us! 

I could have easily given in. I could have easily surrendered at this point, but I knew I couldn't. I knew God didn't want me to do that. I knew I had to keep on fighting. I wanted to use this grief and grow through it. I prayed for strength and courage and that's when I started venturing out of 4 walls of CCO to do outreach. The whole ordeal had knocked me down, and this is how I got up. The relationships we developed weren't going to be forsaken, so I took a leap of faith and started going into the streets, other shelters, Cook County Jail, under the viaducts and throughout the city trying to assist the friends I'd made over the years. I also started writing to prisoners. I didn't know what I was doing, I just felt it had to be done. The men I'd grown to know and love felt rejected and abandoned by the powers-that-be, so in my weak and fragile state, I attempted to follow the example of Jesus and offer a little hope in this messed-up world! 

Having gone through this whole ordeal sparked within me my own self-realization! To love those who society rejects and bullies means challenging those who do the rejecting and bullying. I realized that my walk with the Lord had changed and in following him I need to do as he did, which means not sitting idly by as my friends suffer. Doing as Jesus did will always run contrary to those controlled by money and power, and by lifting up the weak, those in charge will feel challenged, threatened and they will try to silence us. Don’t forget: they chopped off John the Baptizer’s head, they sent Paul to prison and they crucified Jesus! 

As I reflect on all this, I can't help but look at the birth of Jesus, where those in charge tried to eradicate someone they deemed to be a looming threat to those in power. He was in such danger, his parents had to flee to Egypt and Jesus remained an aggravating menace until they ended up crucifying him. As we know, the Kingdom of Jesus brought freedom, healing, peace, salvation, compassion, and love and this is what truly threatened those with the power! It infuriated them because Jesus announced that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the "poor in spirit" and "peacemakers", not arrogant war-mongers. 

Thankfully, his story didn't end on the cross and neither does ours. Jesus rose from the grave and therefore we live in his resurrection power. This gives us hope and we don't need to surrender. Jesus is the master of turning what was meant for evil into good! Jesus loves using what is weak to shame the powerful. Jesus uses what oppresses us to create new opportunities. 

In the twilight of 2004, thankfully our story didn't end in defeat. It continued. We grasped what we could and new opportunities arose! Trusting in the One who works things together for good, and by taking risks and stepping out helped create what we do today. I'm thankful we have a God who turns things upside down and around. I'm also thankful I'm surrounded by people who know hope or freedom doesn't arise from politicians, but folks on the ground who are willing to sacrifice the little they have and get dirty.  

I want to close by saying that as we've moved forward, those with money and power have continued to make what doesn't need to be political, political. The battles continue. The poor continue to be bullied, ostracized and criminalized in different ways. Daily. Despite all this constant harassment, my hope comes in knowing that God uses his weak and fragile people to bring about change and the resurrected Jesus hasn't forgotten those who society has tried to silence and make invisible. 

LINKS regarding some of the situations I've written about.....
To read more about what happened with the closing of the Men's shelter in 2004: please read Dejected, BUT Not Forgotten!!
To read more about Nick and his story: please read N I C K 

Moving forward, my plan is to elaborate on this topic, how the "war on the poor" has continued and how we've fought against it. I plan to write at least 3 more posts that journal this struggle, but also the hope that arises out of the ashes. These are the titles I plan on using...
  • It's Political: The Punishments Do Not Fit The Crimes! How I've seen people arrested, convicted and criminalized more for their status in society, rather than committing heinous crimes. Also about how the Justice system works against those who are homeless and without money.
  • It's Political: Deemed Unworthy and Unsightly! How actions have been done to make people feel unwanted and unworthy in our neighborhood. Deemed unsightly, basketball rims have been taken down, benches eliminated, the Salvation Army was told to "feed the poor no more", and most recently, the eviction of Uptown Tent City.
  • It's Political: Building Up and Casting Out. How more and more places for those who are poor are being shut down and turned into housing for the wealthy. How when these places are closed, they often end up homeless and can't afford to love in the neighborhood they consider their community. 


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