“Where is the moral voice in Chicago?” That question was raised by an occasional attender of worship who is a key player in the not-for-profit world of the city. Where is the alternative vision to challenge the granting of privileges to corporations, selling off public services to private companies, hiring and appointing for political gain, and valuing everything only in dollars and millions of dollars? Where is the vocabulary using words like “justice, truth, goodness, and compassion” in a public discourse limited to “profit, influence, control, and power?”
Where is the moral voice in Chicago? Who is speaking out to make the city a more graceful place to live?
A case in point: Mayor Emanuel of Chicago recently shared his hope that someday the children living in all of the neighborhoods of the city, especially the most impoverished and troubled and dangerous, would look to the skyscrapers of the Loop and say, “That belongs to my city; I am welcome there.” Certainly, that is an honorable hope. But, a moral voice would respond, “Mayor, take the corporate and political leaders of the city to the top of Willis Tower and have them look out south to Englewood, west to Austin, and northwest to Humboldt Park, and have them say to the children, ‘Your neighborhoods are part of our city; we will be there to help.’”
Where is the moral voice in Chicago? Who is speaking out to make the city a more graceful place to live? The voice is here, but it is faint. It is heard from the several groups that are organized to care for the poverty-stricken. It is heard from the thousands of volunteers who span across the city to make a difference. It is heard from the teachers, small business owners, and community organizers. It is heard from the religious communities from time to time. But the sum is less than the parts. There is no unified declaration that constitutes a moral force.
There are not many churches at the heart of Chicago. Our congregation, the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, is the only one of the original churches remaining that started in the city center. Chicago developed rapidly south of the river in the 1830’s and 40’s, and many churches were built along Washington and Madison streets. But it became clear very early that this area would be used exclusively for commerce and government, not residences. People were choosing to live in the “suburbs” a mile or two away. The churches followed them, so that by the 1850’s only the Methodists were left, eventually to be joined by a Franciscan center, now St. Peter’s, in what would become “The Loop.”
Our current building, the Chicago Temple, is the fifth structure on this Methodist corner. The first was a log cabin that had been built in 1834 north of the river (after the congregation was started by a circuit rider in 1831, making it the oldest in the city). When the city was started south of the river in 1837, the congregation put the log church on a barge, floated it across the river, and rolled it down Clark Street on logs to Washington Street.
The second structure looked like a church: a white, wooden building with a tall steeple. The third was a rectangular building of mixed-use, with commerce on the first two floors and the church on the top two. The congregation needed a special dispensation from the legislature in Springfield to do that. This third building burned in the Chicago Fire of 1871. The congregation rebuilt it along the same lines, and then in 1924 they built the Chicago Temple.
“Why is it called a temple? Methodists don’t have temples.” It is a question we routinely answer by quoting the minister of the time, the Rev. John Thompson, perhaps envisioning a cathedral city of his British homeland, “We will call this the city’s temple, because when people come to Chicago seeking gold, they will find God.” And the Chicago Temple was the tallest building in the city for a short while, measuring 588 feet from the sidewalk to the top of the cross on the spire. It still ranks as the tallest church building in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, though we do not say much about that. If you put a church steeple on top of a business tower, you are bound to win something.
But the peculiarity of the building matters as our congregation tries to be a Christian presence at the heart of the city. Three of our most important resources that we have to offer others are location, space, and time. We sit on the southwest corner of Daley Plaza, “where cross the crowded ways of life” as we often sing. The city estimates that 60,000 people pass our corner every weekday. Up close we look like a bank and a coin shop, our tenants at street level. It is only when someone stands across the plaza and looks up over the Picasso sculpture that the building takes on the appearance of a church.
But what this location allows us to do is offer a literal sanctuary seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, to anyone seeking a safe, quiet place to pray, think, meditate, read, sleep, warm up or cool off. One of the most valuable gifts we have to offer is an alternative space to where people have spent most of their time.
The sanctuary also is used regularly as public space. We have hosted public school teachers organizing their response to school closings, Iraqi War veterans seeking health and social services, Cook County’s memorial service for the indigent persons it has buried, political debates (the most bizarre being the night both Barack Obama and Alan Keyes appeared), and pre-protest gatherings for several groups marching on City Hall or the State of Illinois Office Building across the street, including United Methodist Women Against Human Trafficking. We also are a venue for concerts, recitals, and lectures.
Our location allows us to host these public events. If we were situated six blocks west or north across the river, we would not be in such demand. We do not say “yes” to everyone. We choose in accord with the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, which is a detailed outline of public ministry that has developed over the past 100 years in our denomination.
Space and time – we host about 60 to 80 events a week at the Temple, including eighteen 12-step programs. Again, our location at the heart of the city is ideal, we have classroom space, and we are open all hours of the day and the night. We host Baptist seminarian meetings, North Central College classes, justice team meetings, United Methodist district events, staff meetings for new church starts, ecumenical discussions, student organizing sessions, and food safety courses, as well as the normal church activities of Bible study, choir rehearsals, and committee meetings. We trust that sometimes the moral voice is heard through an effort at inclusion, without having to put it into words.
Like every church anywhere, we organize our life around worship, education, pastoral care, and mission. We have about 700 members and a few hundred constituents who come from every zip code of the city and about forty suburbs. That is admirable when it is understood that we have no parking. Especially noteworthy is the great diversity among our participants – racially, ethnically, economically, geographically, theologically, and also in terms of age and religious background. Diversity at the heart of the city is a given, not a goal. The challenge is to make that diversity something more than merely an optical illusion.
Our public agenda on the public plaza is handed to us, and we have to decide, “From among the hundreds of things we could be doing, what are the three or four that are essential to do right now?” Where is the moral voice most needed to be heard? Poverty is at the top of our list. People who are homeless and are in desperate need know that we are a church (and sometimes wish that we were a bank). We cannot meet all the needs that walk through our doors seven days a week, but we do have a reputable ministry of offering services to assist, with coordination through the Franciscan network. But that also gives us a voice when we ask the city’s budget department why they are not doing what they promised to do and when we hassle with the state officials over why they are not living up to their contracts.
Right now all of the issues around the closing of public schools, the quality of education, and the safety of children going to and from schools are commanding a lot of our attention. Because we have church participants from every neighborhood at every level of the debate – students, parents, teachers, administrators, and public citizens – we have the potential of offering a reasonable context within which to discuss the difficult issues. We will see whether or not that that potential comes true for the good of the city.
One of the best things we have done over the past decade has been to collaborate with a poly-cultural not-for-profit theater, Silk Road Rising. They are not a ministry of the congregation, but we offer them free production space in our lower level. A Syrian Orthodox Christian and a Pakistani Muslim decided to start a theater company in response to the attacks on 9/11. Over the past ten years they have presented plays by, and about, people from the historic Silk Road – Italy to the Middle East to India to Asia. How better can we get to know “the other” than to hear their stories?
Sometimes the moral voice is spoken with different actions and inflections.
They have won acclaim both for the integrity of their dramatic performances and for their gift to the multicultural life of Chicago. For us, they have attracted thousands of people over the years who never would have come to the Chicago Temple for worship on a Sunday morning, most of them young and non-Christian. But they have put the Temple on the map as a safe and trustworthy church for non-Christians to enter, as an institution that champions the cause of multicultural understanding, and as a place for good drama. Plus, as I insist that our congregants understand upstairs in the sanctuary, “The Christian story is a Silk Road story. If we do not understand the context of the gospels, we do not understand Jesus.” Sometimes the moral voice is spoken with different accents and inflections.
Location, space, time, and people, people within the church and beyond, provide a platform from which a moral voice can be spoken. These are the strengths of this particular church, and as I learned a long time ago about styles of leadership, “Focus on your strengths rather than spending time bringing your weaknesses up to the level of mediocrity.”
When each religious entity speaks in isolation, it is easy for those in the city who wish to keep us quiet to do so.
Yet, we must be aware of our weaknesses, one of which is that we do not look like a church. Of the 60,000 who pass by every day, probably 59,000 do not know there is a church on this corner, and of the 1000 who know, a lot of them do not care. Second, our dual identity as The First United Methodist church and as the Chicago Temple confuses some people. Third, because our constituency is so spread out, we seldom see each other outside of church activities. Rarely do we run into each other at the supermarket, the library, or the park, and there is no school concert or game to attend. Fourth, and most vital for offering a moral voice at the heart of the city, we have tried too often to speak as a lone voice. When each religious entity speaks in isolation, it is easy for those in the city who wish to keep us quiet to do so.
Yet, it is interesting that media representatives are aware of a faithful presence. Given our central location with most of the television stations within just a few blocks, often I am contacted to offer ten seconds or so, on a number of issues. I have welcomed that and am prepared for it. It sometimes is about gambling and casinos, public schools, urban violence, and more often now about conceal-and-carry laws. When I see a demonstration across the street in Daley Plaza, which occurs often, I will go over to discover the issue and then look to see which reporters are covering it, in case there is a moral voice that can be added to the amplified voices of the day.
And sometimes it still happens that clergy are asked to offer a prayer in a public setting. I have not been invited back to the County Board since three years ago I began with a simple religious dictum, “First, do no harm.” The Board, in fact, did a lot of damage shortly after my “Amen.”
I accepted the delicate job of offering an invocation at the 125th celebration of the birth of George Washington at a local business club. It clearly was a military affair. What constitutes genuine prayer in such a situation? I tried my best by thanking God for George Washington, “a man of your creation and a hero of our making, who fought for the freedom of all so that we might honor life, cherish liberty, and pursue happiness, and yet so human as to own slaves . . .” I ended by praying for God to save us from a lack of imagination, from the narcissism of fear, and from the rigidity of fundamentalism so that, and then calling upon an image I hoped all would honor, the ancient vision would become a reality . . . “when swords are transformed into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, guns into laptops, and bunkers into school rooms.” There was absolute silence after the “Amen” . . . perhaps people were thinking.
Where is the moral voice in Chicago? I think there are a lot of people yearning to hear it as so many of our secular voices have been silenced by the failure of Wall Street, by the uncertain end to wars of questionable beginnings, and by the shrinking of public debate as the proliferation of electronic connections is making the meaning of “public” unclear.
At the same time, the center of the city is changing. Today there are 85,000 permanent residents living within a 15-minute walk of Daley Plaza when there were almost none twenty years ago. There are 65,000 college students enrolled in schools around the Loop, plus all of those at UIC and IIT. The relocation of the Goodman Theatre to Dearborn Street from out behind the Art Institute on Columbus Drive ten years ago has led to the emergence of a theater district at the heart of the city, accompanied by several new and good restaurants. And the development of an old rail yard into Millennium Park has transformed how people come and go across the city center.
It is a new day in the Loop. We would be happy at the Chicago Temple to convene a social ethics roundtable that would take a rigorous look at the public policies of Chicago and what future they promise, and to offer a moral voice from the heart of the city. You know our location; we will find the space and the time.
Join the Conversation:
From among the hundreds of things we could be doing in our communities, what are the three or four that are essential to do right now? Where does the moral voice most need to be heard in our city?