My friend and I were walking home one Monday evening from dollar burger night at one of our favorite local places two blocks from home. As we completed the first block, a woman who was approaching the intersection from the direction of our home spoke to us and warned, “Be careful, they were just shooting down there.”
As we continued our walk, we kept our eyes peeled, looking everywhere for hints of what had happened, when and where. Other than a palpable tension in the air and pensive looks on the faces of the few people out, we saw no evidence that we had been literally two or three minutes away from a gun battle. As we made our way into our gate, we began to hear the sirens approach. Within minutes our block was swarming with police officers shining flashlights all around and hanging yellow and red tape on either side of our yard — signifying a scene where gunfire crossed in front of our home, resulting with a person being struck.
I quickly walked down three doors, past about six police officers marking and counting more than half a dozen shell casings, to the nursing home where many loved ones live. I had to make sure my family was safe, and they were.
As I made my way back to my house and around the police officers, their cars and red and yellow tape, I was disoriented by the scene. There were news crews on the scene, and a cameraman was setting up his shot right in the corner of my yard. I heard a helicopter flying overhead. My gate was fully accessible, but my neighbors on both sides had crime scenes on their sidewalk. Stepping into my yard I crossed the airspace where, just moments before, bullets were flying. I soon found out an innocent pedestrian who was my age, on her way home, was struck in the chest.
I spent a lot of time the next day reflecting on that terrible tragedy.
The first time I got out of my head was the evening after the shooting. Scout, our golden retriever, and I ventured out to the local soup kitchen on the next block to talk to friends and invite neighbors to our last two holiday feasts of the season.* The first friend we saw gave me a huge hug when I told him we would be hosting our foot clinic this coming Saturday. (We’ve been providing basic foot care for our neighbors each month for nearly 10 years.) Soon others gathered and eagerly accepted invitations to dinner, while lavishly petting Scout. It was a cold night, but these encounters brought some warmth and comfort to my weary soul. Standing outside the soup kitchen with Scout, I had returned to the scene where my call to this neighborhood originated. My sense of vocational life among the vulnerable was discovered around the shared table of the soup kitchen a decade ago.
In 2010, when I first moved to this neighborhood, I knew the way in which I postured myself from the beginning was important, so I developed a spiritual practice of contemplative community eating. I would quietly join the soup kitchen lines and walk through the process of being fed by different churches in the area. Friendships slowly developed as those around the table got used to my presence and began to invite me into conversation. My neighbors began to trust me and see me as a neighbor rather than a benevolent imperialist. A year later I was able to begin hosting family-style meals in our home where people from all kinds of places in life and society shared a home-cooked meal in a home.
Attending the soup kitchen remains an invaluable practice of accepting the hospitality of my community on their terms. The sacred ground of the community soup kitchen is where I first glimpsed God’s upside-down kingdom on display and began to find my place in it.
When I returned home with Scout that night, I felt refreshed and encouraged, yet I still had a painful truth to process. The violence in my community repels people outside of my community and keeps them from this fountainhead of God’s kingdom. When people I love and who love me recoil in fear and horror, I am tempted to feel abandoned, or worse, question my own decision to live here. One dear friend communicated regretfully that “common sense” would prevent her from attending a holiday feast this year. Does common sense dictate that those who can avoid “these neighborhoods” should avoid places like my home, my block, my beloved neighborhood and neighbors? That phrase bounced around and around my head and heart as I contemplated the implications and wrestled to formulate and articulate what I believe.
The truth is, I choose to live here, and I have the agency to move out of this community if ever I fancy. I do not rely on soup kitchens or social service offices across town. I don’t depend on clothing closets or public transportation. No one chose this place for me (though an amazing team of donors provide the rent, and someone gave me a car a few years ago).
Despite the violence that occurs around affluent places in Chicago, this neighborhood is a gentrification dream. Statistically, this is not a dangerous place — but the thing about dangerous places is that people with agency move out when they felt threatened. This is the story of Chicago — one of the most segregated cities in our nation. Simply because people can pull away from others’ pain, suffering and violence does not mean they should. This is not how God’s shalom comes to us. That is not how we participate in the new life the Triune God has unleashed through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ!
When we recoil in fear and allow terror to gain space in our hearts, we are stepping away from God’s invitation to make all things new – not just around us but in us.
The act of getting out of my comfortable home and walking past the place a woman just like me was shot on my sidewalk as I ventured the block to the soup kitchen has strengthened my commitment to this place and these people. And as COVID-19 hit the nation, that commitment intensified.
The week the governor of Illinois gave the stay-at-home order, one of the local soup kitchens shut down permanently. This soup kitchen has provided six hot meals a week for over 25 years. My job (I’m a barista at Starbucks) gave employees paid time off until it is safe to return to work, so I began to serve soup five days a week for my direct neighbors.
For two weeks between 15-25 neighbors stopped by for a hot bowl of soup and a cup of coffee. After researching other services in the neighborhood, I provided these neighbors with a list of where to obtain food each day and reduced my soup service to two days a week. These meals have been essential for our neighbors but also have provided social connection that has helped me get through this disorienting time.
For Easter we created a true holiday feast, complete with live music and goodie bags, as several of our partners came together to safely pull off a celebration at a distance. Despite the palpable grief and fear, we celebrated. The words exchanged, even just those choosing favorite dish options, were filled with the tone of a shared experience. JUSTembrace has always sought to create spaces where shared humanity is what motivates our gatherings. This Easter, we did not have to try — those hosting and those attending were bound by a common hope of survival and a need for human connection.
As best as I can, I will continue to enter into the scary realities firmly alongside those who truly have nowhere else to go, because it is here that God’s upside-down kingdom is on display. And it is here that I have found my salvation.
Sherilyn Sheets is founder of JUSTembrace. She serves as president and executive director.
*JUSTembrace is a hospitality house in Chicago where the author leads a house church and community development organization that leans into the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. During the holidays, it hosts a dozen family style feasts for neighbors. You can find out more at www.justembrace.org.