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Lessons from the South Side MAG
During the summer of seventh grade, I spent a week in Chicago on a mission trip with six other teens from my church, our youth pastor, and his wife. Our goal was to help renovate a church on Chicago's South Side. When I signed up for the trip, I expected this section of Chicago to be full of gangsters packing pistols as they waited to ambush the first tourist who came by. I thought you were dead if you wore anything red. I believed this mission trip to Chicago would be more dangerous and ominous than a trip to the remote jungles of South America or trekking into the wilds of Africa.
My ideas were naive. On the South Side, I saw glimpses of a life that was very different from mine, but there weren't gangsters packing firepower on every corner, and I could wear any color safely. Instead of danger, I found great need.
There were homeless men and women on every corner, in the park, and on the train. There were poor children playing in alleyways and city parks, kicking cans and ratty soccer balls. Underneath the glittering lights and the looming buildings, behind the restaurants and shopping malls, alongside the bustling city life, the South Side of Chicago suffers from terrible poverty.
The fledgling church we were renovating has a day care program to keep children off the streets from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day. The church feeds them breakfast and lunch; more often than not, these are the only meals the kids have. The food is basic – a cup of cereal, a carton of milk, and a juice box for breakfast, and a small burrito, green beans, and water for lunch. During our week-long stay, we ate what the children ate. Our stomachs would rumble until dinner, but eventually we adjusted to the small portions.
Each night at dinner – after the children had gone home – I couldn't help but feel guilty eating a hot meal in a building that was air-conditioned and mostly rat-free (emphasis on mostly). I knew many of the children I had played with that morning wouldn't eat supper that night. Yet they made do with what they had and seemed happy. They didn't have cell phones or anything made by Apple. They barely had enough food, but they played happily with cans or old toys and were overjoyed to get a hug from any of us, never asking for more.
One afternoon, we took the El (Chicago's elevated railway system) to a nearby square. It was hot and muggy. The smell of exhaust, hot dogs, and restaurant food mingled in the air. As our group walked past homeless folks sitting in shady alleyways, the strong smell of sweat wafted to everyone's nose.
Once we arrived in the square, we were given packs of gummy bears to hand out to the homeless men and women to make a small dent, perhaps, in their hunger. They also proved to be great icebreakers. That afternoon opened my eyes to how many people in the South Side live. One man we talked to, a friendly man with a beard and dreadlocks sticking out from his battered baseball cap, told us how he would ride the El or a bus at night in the winter, switching between the two when someone woke him up and kicked him off. He did this to keep warm, but he constantly had to deal with gangs. He would sleep on a park bench or in an alley in the summer.
Another woman raising money for a new pair of tennis shoes sat on a curb. The shoes on her feet had duct tape holding them together, yet I could still see her toes peeking out and her heels flopping out the back. I looked at my own shoes, in good repair and covering my feet completely, and realized how blessed I am.
An elderly gentleman stood panhandling in front of a museum. He seemed very grateful for the gummy bears, thanking us profusely. As we talked with him, we learned that he had fallen from a roof as a young man during a construction job and damaged his knee. He walked with a pronounced limp. For a while, he had gotten disability checks, but they had stopped and no one could tell him why. He said that he had applied for jobs in construction, but employers usually turned him away because of his leg. He didn't have money for a doctor. At that point, we moved on and he headed back to his plastic and cardboard dwelling under the bridge.
One of the most memorable experiences I had was talking with a young man. He must have been in his late twenties or early thirties, but his long beard and hair and the tan on his face made him appear older. His living situation was similar to the first man, sleeping on buses and the El in winter and park benches or alleys in summer. He ate the gummy bears while we talked, but we could tell he was still hungry. So we offered to buy him dinner. He eagerly accepted.
As we walked to McDonald's, he talked. We learned more about the street violence that happens at night. The gangs ran the city. Homeless folks often had their few possessions stolen or were even killed on the streets when the sun went down. He had been robbed a few times and now took to using his battered backpack as a pillow, keeping all he had in the world inside.
Once at McDonald's, he and my youth pastor got in line together. After a few minutes, a burly security guard walked over to our new friend and asked him to leave, none too nicely. When our pastor insisted that he was with him, the guard left them begrudgingly.
Our friend took his food and we went outside, escaping the watchful eye of the security guard. We found some shade and sat for a while as he ate. None of us wanted to bring up the incident. It was my first experience with stereotyping and prejudice being so boldly expressed. It made me angry that the security guard would assume the man was homeless based on his appearance or, perhaps, his race.
He finished his food quickly and thanked us profusely. His attitude about life on the streets greatly impacted me. This man maintained an outlook of gratitude and optimism when he didn't even have a real bed or a source of food. I have all of that and so much more, yet I complain and whine and often take so much for granted.
The mission trip was over all too soon. We returned to Kansas changed. I had a new passion for the homeless and inner-city children, and for the victims of urban violence – innocent people caught in the crosshairs of gang warfare and drug battles who suffered undeserved consequences. I was appalled that anyone should have to sleep on a park bench or under a bridge. I was appalled that anyone should be judged by their race or appearance.
Though I felt changed, the effect wore off. I found myself overlooking the homeless, even being disgusted by them less than a month later. I found myself throwing away food because I was too full or didn't like it. I didn't think about the people, the children, who were hungry. I found myself judging others as the security guard had. I found myself being negative and complaining because I wanted such-and-such, or I was too hot, or too uncomfortable. I did nothing for the plight of the homeless, the hungry, the victims back in my home town. I had forgotten what I had learned about life, about people.
You don't need to go to a third-world country to witness poverty, hunger, and violence. You don't even need to go to the South Side of Chicago. You just need to look around, be aware, and have compassion. There is a great need right here, right now. What are you going to do to meet it?