Until a few years ago, my congregation was a mission of the ELCA. Though gradually weaned down to only about $1,000 of yearly support, we counted on that bit from churchwide in a budget stretched thin across so many community needs.
That is, until someone forgot to fill out a form and send it back to the churchwide office. Our first clue was a letter from the ELCA congratulating us for becoming a self-supporting congregation.
But the Sunday Pastor Chuck Infelt shared the news, longtime members' faces shone with pride, not dismay. What a thrill to realize that we could make up this shortfall ourselves. What a mighty long way we'd come since 1965, when Holy Family Lutheran Church was first planted in the midst of Chicago Housing Authority projects intended to bring together people from different walks of life. Those were the early days — before the government built impersonal concrete high-rises; before many professionals moved away, draining the community of role models; before Cabrini-Green became known for gang warfare, drugs and shootings; before the tendency of white drivers to speed down Larrabee Street skipping stop signs; before an ugly chain-link fence was erected around the church to keep depressed people from defacing the tall iron cross, flower bed, bullet-scarred plastic windows and scraggly grass.
Now Cabrini is in the middle of a gentrification process. While high-rise projects gradually come down, half-a-million-dollar townhomes spring up. For now, the working poor and the jobless live directly across from urban professionals. Larrabee Street looks different these days as folks overlap geographically — if not socially. Except at Holy Family. Here one newcomer has become a church leader and old-timers know we must reach not one but two communities seeking to live together, this time more successfully, in a new geography of luxury townhomes and scattered low-income apartments.
Although we lost our "mission" status, we kept our mission mindset. Yes, it's kind of nice to know we have enough financial resources if we settle for defining needs in an insular way. But we chose to define Holy Family as "everyone we come across," so we accept help every year (financial and volunteer) from other ELCA congregations and members who believe we share the same mission. Together we're not "spread thin" but spreading thick layers of love across a grade school for disadvantaged inner-city kids, after-school programs, Christian and community education classes, addiction recovery ministries, a public computer lab and more. Even the ugly fence came down, thanks to members and friends, and was replaced by a landscaped courtyard for Sunday school classes or for residents — from either side of Larrabee — to sit, rest, play or learn. No matter who you are, you're important, worthwhile and loved by God.
So our mission is to say: We know you, too, struggle for hope, acceptance and love in various areas of life — things we don't always find. But here's some peace and encouragement. Here's a place to pray as honestly as you can bear to openly. Here's a place to share the joy of a birthday or a loved one's recovery from addiction. Here's a place where an AIDS patient is hugged during the passing of the peace, where someone can sit at worship although they reek of alcohol, where a lonely person can find a friend. Here's a place of mercy, not sacrifice. Here's a place where we try not to let anyone slip through the cracks. But here, too, is another place where we must accept that we're not perfect — but where we can clearly see God taking us by the hand, building us back up, tearing down fences.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers