I was 27. The Loop, nicknamed for the ring of elevated train tracks which anchored Chicago’s downtown area, was less than a mile to my right as I walked out of OBM—the Olive Branch Mission—and toward Grant Park on Lake Michigan. The Chicago Stadium where Michael Jordan was shooting the lights out was a mile to my left.
That two-mile stretch was my classroom. I went to Chicago intentionally for a self-imposed summer lesson on Christ in the city. My non-urban upbringing and TV habits had left me with the impression that cities are godless places. How could I possibly see Christ in the city? My earnest but clumsy approach was to challenge myself to ask one person every day if they had seen Christ in the city. To the bus driver, “Excuse me ma’am. Have you seen Christ in the city?” To the guy at the newsstand, “Sir, have you seen Christ in the city?” Every day I asked. Every day I got strange looks. Any answers I got were forgettable. The hot summer wore on.
At OBM, we welcomed to come in off the street and sit in a large, cool, clean(ish) room. OBM was one of two day shelters on the Near West Side of Chicago. The other was CCIL, Chicago Christian Industrial League. We opened up and served a breakfast of whatever donated food we had recently collected. Then we would remain open for the remainder of the morning, offering showers, clean clothes, and a place to socialize. At noon, the hundred or so “street people” who had walked to our space would later walk a half mile further to CCIL for a hot lunch and social services. Then, at suppertime, they would return to us for a final meal. We’d spent the midday sorting clothing donations, collecting donated bread, government surplus cheese, veggies and dented cans that stores were throwing out. We’d try our best to turn it all into a hearty soup supper. We’d serve our guests. They’d hang out for an hour or so and then make their way to Sousa House, the overnight shelter on our side of town. It used to be John Phillips Sousa Elementary School, but it had been decades since any families lived in our part of town. The community needed an overnight shelter for the homeless folks. A derelict elementary school building would do fine. Beds were limited,though. So, if you didn’t want to find a place on the street or in a park, you needed to get in line early.
The next morning the Sousa staff would roust the sleepers out of bed and they’d head a few blocks back to the Mission for breakfast. Sousa, OBM, CCIL, OBM, back to Sousa… The people on the street called it “tramp trail.”
Try not to stereotype the people we’d serve. Seniors on fixed income. Women who had been abandoned or fled from abusive homes. Alcoholics and drug addicts. Gang bangers and prostitutes. One handsome young man was enrolled in med school. He’d study at the mission. He told me he raised his tuition money by hiring himself out as a gigolo for rich women who wanted a handsome young companion or arm candy. A significant number of our guests had former careers and college degrees. At the time, though, none of them struck me as “Christ in the city.” These days, I think maybe they all were.
One day, late into the summer, I was socializing with a guest. He was extra talkative because he was quite drunk. Whatever entered his stewed mind came out of his loose mouth. It was quite a ride for me. I figured as long as he pretended he was conversing I would pretend to listen. Then a volunteer walked in through the front door, a homeless guy who liked to help. He was carrying two large black bags of donated bread.
My drunk friend spotted him and blurted out, “Frank! Frank is a great guy. He’s always helping people. Other guys tease Frank. Shove him around and try to get him mad. But it never works. They’ll even take off his glasses and stomp on them to see if they can get a rise out of him. But Frank never fights them back. If I had to choose between Frank and Jesus…”
And I prayed, Please God, don’t let him choose Frank.
“If I had to choose between Frank and Jesus, I couldn’t tell the difference!”
There he was. I’d seen Christ in the city! I’d traveled from California to Chicago and spent my whole summer looking for him. I needed to talk to Frank.
I rushed up to him. He made no eye contact. He was not really interested in talking to me. No matter. I pulled him down beside me into one of the rusty folding chairs that lined the walls. He stared at the worn linoleum floor tile in front of his feet.
I pummeled him with questions. What brought him to the mission? Why does he help so much? Why does he let guys be mean to him? Is he a Christian? Why doesn’t he tell people about Jesus?
Nothing. He said nothing. He stared at his tile.
The verse glared in my mind, “Let your light so shine before men that they can see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” It seemed to me that Frank’s helpfulness impressed those, who noticed him at all, merely with Frank. I wanted to fix him; to fix his witness. I had learned at my very Christian college to “become all things to all people that I may somehow save some.”
1 Corinthians 9:22. I heard myself move from questions to statements. I started demanding that he do more than just help out. He needed to speak out.
Frank shifted slightly. He moved his eyes from the tile in front of his feet to the tile in front of my feet. “I can’t,” he said. “I do what I can for the Kingdom and I can carry bread.”
I still remember my tears. I still feel my tears. I’d seen Christ in the city. And I learned an important lesson from him. My Christian college had taught me, “become all things to all people.” I had not yet learned “this one thing I do; press on towards God’s prize. ” That too is God’s word. Frank’s simple, faithful example seeded my soul. My life sprouted something new.
Within a year, the mission invited me to leave my pristine Santa Barbara, California college campus work—with all of its beauty, perks, and privileges—and take up my work at the Olive Branch Mission. With my new bride’s blessing, we moved to Chicago and into the mission.
I worked there for nine years, all the while pressing on to win the prize that awaits each of us.