After 20 years of raising our family in this neighborhood, and entering into the injustices that have held it back, many have asked “why?” “Why do you live there?” Depending on their perspective, the question they are really asking is either about safety or about concerns of gentrification.
Our original ‘why’ was rather theoretical but as the years here have shaped us, our ‘why’ has become very simple. We live and work in this community because we love it. We recognize that we have access to resources that are not always available to this community. We believe that we are called to loose the chains of injustice because our neighbors and the issues they face matter, and because we have found that it is difficult to love our neighbor as ourselves if we do not walk in their shoes.
Our deep ties to the community have come primarily from raising our children alongside our neighbors and walking with them as they fight to build healthy families within the constraints of a community that had been historically devalued. When Joel became the Director of Sunshine in 1999, it was located in the Cabrini Green neighborhood. However, at that time many families were being displaced to the Woodlawn community due to a city plan for tearing down the Cabrini-Green public housing. Joel had been reading and learning about Christian Community Development from Dr. John Perkins’ teachings along with Dr King’s idea of the “Beloved Community,” and felt a deep conviction that the best way to truly invest in a community was to move in with our family and learn from the people in the community.
Over the years, much of the programming and many of the activities at Sunshine have been birthed from our own experiences of attempting to faithfully raise our own children in this context. Many of the struggles of raising children in the urban context come from community disinvestment and a lack of resources. As our children grew, we saw and felt more clearly the needs of our kids’ friends and felt the concerns their parents identified. Some of these needs we tried to meet have included programs like Awana, youth group, and Bible studies, job readiness and entrepreneur programs, softball and basketball leagues, as well as college readiness and help with college processes. Each year our staff team volunteered in local schools and showed up for anything the kids invited them to go to. They brought kids with them to the lake, downtown, the suburbs, camp, and took a yearly road trip to Montana, introducing them to life outside the community.
As neighbors, we all shared concerns about the violence issues in the community as we watched gang and police interactions take place before our eyes. The days my boys had to duck stray bullets it became even more personal to me and I felt just how scary it was for other parents to worry about whether their children would get home safely. When I started employing teens from the neighborhood at Greenline Coffee, I saw firsthand how often they would get stopped for no apparent reason by a car full of police officers and knew without asking why my own boys never did. When our Sunshine kids were injured, missing or killed, our grief, fear and feelings of hopelessness threatened to overwhelm us and would make us wonder if it was even worth it. We learned as never before just how much trauma affects all of us. As we have walked this painful path, we also have known the love of God in the midst of the grief.
None of the things we did were rocket science. None of them solved the larger societal issues but each new thing that we started at Sunshine came from an attempt to battle an injustice, one child at a time. Each new difficulty we confronted seemed to have roots to something much deeper and more sinister than the individual family or student.
There were racial and economic walls we hadn’t even realized existed. Some of the biggest challenges for me involved seeing for myself just how unfair life can be when just a couple miles away there is affluence and opportunity that have not been afforded to this community. Learning that many of the struggles weren’t just personal responsibility issues as I had assumed, but more widespread issues of justice, was a dismaying, eye-opening experience for me.
The issues seemed to be more systemic rather than personal, and so our focus expanded to include advocacy and trying to solve for the system, as well as the individual. We have been strengthened in our resolve to try to make a difference, and to try to address challenges at both an individual as well as a systemic level. Our understanding of the complexity of the many issues faced in Woodlawn and by our community has caused us to look much deeper, continue to ask our own questions and seek to find solutions.
Our life here hasn’t been easy. In John 10:10, Jesus says, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” 1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be alert and of sober mind, Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” We see both these verses played out daily. The enemy has been prowling and stealing and destroying this neighborhood for generations, in too many ways. When you enter into the pain and suffering of a community, the roar of the enemy is loud at times. But Jesus has promised that the good news for broken sinful lives and even for broken sinful systems, is that He brings life; abundant life. He revives, renews and brings joy and resiliency.
The greatest joy of living in a community acquainted with grief is that life and struggle are done together. Life is lived with joy and laughter and perseverance and strength. In spite of great difficulty and pain, the friendships, the love and the joy experienced has made all the difference.
God has provided for each of our children, and each one is also knit to the community in unique ways. Each has a cultural dexterity and appreciation for the complexities of life they otherwise might not have understood, so we are grateful. We are grateful for the opportunity we have had to raise our children and now our grandchildren, in this beautiful, welcoming community.
We are grateful to our kids’ friends and their families who have shared life with us and allowed us to see the complexities and struggles and pain of mattering less to others outside the community. We are grateful they let us share their pain, and often carried our pain and showed us how to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and still faithful in prayer.