In 1981 Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first female mayor, moved into the most infamous subsidized housing complexes in the city—Cabrini Green, home to 13,000 residents. In the first few months of 1981, already 11 people had been killed and 37 wounded by gunfire, mostly over drugs. Byrne and her husband moved into an apartment and vowed to stay until “people could look out the windows and not get shot”. They were escorted by round-the-clock security, police following them wherever they went. In the lobby of the building where the mayor was staying was a poem written by one of the residents:
I live in Cabrini-Green.
I’ve met some of the finest people I’ve ever seen
While living in Cabrini-Green.
Most of you are afraid of our neighborhood.
But did you know?
So are we.
But we are here, you see,
Not because we want to be.
The mayor will stay as long as it takes, the aids told the ever-gathering press. The mayor will shine a spotlight on all that is bad, all that is wrong; the mayor will make everything right.
The mayor moved out after only three weeks; and life went on in Cabrini-Green.
I’m done pretending I’m poor, she said to me, self-assured and almost nonchalantly. I’m educated and I didn’t grow up poor, so why should I pretend to be what I’m not? She lived near the co-op, was a counselor at a nice school, provided a safe and wonderful home for her children, was involved in her church and some amazing outreaches to single mother’s in the neighborhood. But she had stopped doing what I was doing, which was living and working with the poor.
Her words stuck with me, stinging just a little, unearthing a question I had long tried to keep buried: Am I pretending, too?
I also come from a solidly middle-class upbringing, I arrived in my poor neighborhood with a master’s degree and starry eyes about incarnational living, I feel every day the shock of how there are two America’s, living side-by-side. And every day I was here, in this apartment complex, this neighborhood, this park, my validity was being challenged.
I have options, a safety net, the ability for mobility (be it upwards, or in the case of me and my family, downwards), a networks of friends and supporters, a lifetime of good relationships, a life free of the traumas that so many have experienced. I am not the same as my neighbors,
But I live here, have stayed for awhile, and will be here until as long as God tells me too. I deal with the roaches, the mice, the ants. I struggle to cook and feed my family, pay for unexpected bills. My daughter doesn’t have a yard to play in, our belongings are crammed tight into small spaces, We listen to the sounds of the neighborhood, some joyful, some frightening, and they effect us. Because we live here.
As we ease ever more into a life where the goals are less about money, achievement, safety, and recognition, we have started to realize that our biggest barriers to relationship is not that we come from privileged backgrounds—and that we are pretending to be poor—but it comes from something far deeper and stickier than I have let myself dwell on.
For years now, I have been pretending to love people who are different from myself.
The thing about moving in somewhere is that you have to stick around long enough for the sheen to wear off; for fears and prejudices and hurts to bubble up to the surface. For me, moving into low-income housing was born out a desire to see if Jesus really meant all that he said: that the poor and the sick and the broken would be blessed, blessed, blessed in his kingdom.
And I have been blessed, just by my geography, of camping out in neighborhoods far from where I grew up. The lessons are painful, joyful, so beautiful they will make your heart burst (there is a reason many artists and poets came out of Cabrini-Green). And there has not been a day where I haven’t been confronted by my own desire to withdraw into my own world, to seek out relationships with people who believe like me, act like me, look like me—perhaps the greatest sin of our world today.
I am done pretending that I desire true reconciliation and diversity in my life. Because the truth of it is–it hurts. It is hard. It is a thousand little deaths of your own preferences, your own sense of superiority. I don’t desire it.
But Christ does.
So I stay. I seek out the Other America. I am not pretending, but I am opening myself to love and be loved, especially by those neighbors whom Jesus was always talking about–the poor and the marginalized. Not as a stunt, or out of guilt, or with misguided intentions about the “good” that I will be doing or bringing.
In the end, I stay because I’ve met some of the finest people I’ve ever known, living in my own Cabrini-Green.