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
On 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.