Holy Monday: What If . . .

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.   Isaiah 42:6-7

Marcus Garvey SchoolOn the cusp of Holy Week, officials of the Chicago Public Schools announced Friday that 53 elementary schools and one small secondary school will be closing.  That’s 11% of the city’s grammar schools.

Most of these schools are on the South Side of Chicago in low-income neighborhoods, some bearing the names of African American or Latino-American heroes:  Mahalia Jackson, Marcus Garvey, Ana Roqué de Duprey, Benjamin Banneker, Mary McLeod Bethune, Jesse Owens.  It looks like this is a done deal, which begs the question:  what will Chicago Public Schools do with these buildings?

Leaving buildings  abandoned sounds like a particularly terrible plan.

After listening to this radio show on Friday, it struck me:  What if the Presbytery of Chicago – or any denominational body in the city – partnered to lease at least one of these soon-to-be empty school buildings and create something new?  This is why we have denominations – so that we can join lots of congregations together to do what a single congregation cannot do.

So, here’s my Big Idea:

  • Choose a school, preferably near a Presbyterian congregation (or whatever kind of congregation is part of a larger body that wants to do this with the community.)
  • Lease it with the understanding of the City of Chicago that this will be a non-profit center for service, education, and ministry.
  • Invite the amazing Ashley Goff to come share with us what she’s learned about The Pilgrimage in DC and start by creating a Pilgrimage-esque facility (sleeping quarters, showers, kitchen, gathering space) in the former school – for youth and adults to stay for Urban Plunge Experiences to paint, clean, and serve in countless other ways to prepare this space for ministry.
  • Find – among Presbyterian Christians in our churches or from other connections – contractors willing to donate HVAC, lighting, plumbing, landscaping, and other services to refurbish the school.
  • Call a specialized minister  – or preferably a team of ministers – to be  Curators/Conveners/Pastors to organize the ministries of this new spiritual community.
  • Talk with the neighbors – preferably in a community organizing style of relational meetings – about what they want/need in their neighborhood.  (Note:  This is about the neighbors, not about what we want to do.)
  • Create a haven in this neighborhood with any combination of services depending on the needs/hopes of the community:  after-school homework and tutoring, adult education, computer lab, prayer chapel, music lessons, childcare, financial counseling and education, spiritual direction, video/multi-media classes, Bible studies, sex education classes, basketball games, yoga, community garden, cooking classes, movie nights, psychological therapy, basic medical care, job counseling, enrichment classes for children. Whatever.
  • Hire a full-time grant-writer to help find funding streams.
  • Hire a staff to manage the assorted ministries offered, including a volunteer coordinator who recruits, trains, supervises, and honors the volunteers.
  • Hire security.  We want this to be a very safe place.
  • Offer regular prayer throughout the day.

What if we could do this?  We churches don’t believe we are rich, but we really are.  There are ways to do this if only we want to do it – and if God wants us to do it.

Image of the Marcus Garvey Elementary School in Chicago, one of the schools selected to close after this school year.

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11 responses to “Holy Monday: What If . . .

  1. What if you partnered with McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and empowered the soon to be pastors giving them special permissions to use their faithful leadership skills before graduation? They could offer round-the-clock pastoral care for the neighborhood.

  2. What if we partnered with DOOR to see what kinds of collaboration with their wonderful agency would be possible between neighborhoods and young adults seeking urban immersion experiences?

  3. (Can I move back to Chicago to help?) This is really brilliant.

  4. This is just the kind of entrepreneurial ministry I’ve known is possible for Presbyterians who want to pursue it. Would be a great opportunity to partner with and learn from other organizations. By The Hand is another great educational/child care ministry to work with in Chicago. I also think you’re right that it would take humility on our part to not serve our own agenda or anxieties, and thus many diverse voices at the table.

    Let’s get some convos going about this soon, whether at Assembly or elsewhere. I will gladly work to fold it into the Relational Meeting campaign that those of us on the Vision Praxis group are initiating.

  5. Oh please, oh please, oh please…

  6. Seems like this would be a wonderful initiative to seek some guidance from the folks in Philly (Broad St. and Arch St.) for a partnership with DOOR and McCormick to start a new thing! I would be up for it!

  7. This is a great idea! We need to do it!

  8. I hope and pray this can happen! Since you obviously have a vision and passion for this ministry and know others who have made it work in other settings, it sounds like it would be right up your alley. What a difference a process and plan such as you have outlined would make in Chicago! I remember you commented on this last week on FB and mentioned some people in particular. I will pray that you and others, perhaps partnering with McCormick, will make this happen!

  9. Our rural ELCA congregation has been working along the same lines with a recently closed elementary school building in our area. A parishoner family who runs a daycare center bought the property for a fairly discounted price to expand their business,,and our church has been partnering with them as far as using the space for special events and activities..It’s always a blow to a neighborhood when a beloved local institution closes, so it’s nice to be able to repurpose the building in a way that benefits the people around it while keeping the property tidy and in good repair.

  10. I was thinking…call Erika! Great ideas!

  11. Christine Vogel

    Jan: I’m borrowing” your blog as I go and church with a pastor here in Hyde Park about an idea McCormick has to create a safe haven for children in our area. We’re still in the brainstorming stages and given our location it will likely be ecumenical. But it’s not completely out of sync with some of what you proposed in this blog post.

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