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Christmas Chasms

Only 5.3 miles separate St. Agatha’s Roman Catholic Church in North Lawndale, Chicago, and Macy’s Department Store in the Loop. The bus and elevated train ride take about a half an hour, give or take a little depending on the time spent waiting for a transfer. But for the people Lydia and I worshiped with at St. Agatha’s in the morning, and ate dinner with at Macy’s Walnut Room in the late afternoon one Sunday in December, the destinations are worlds apart. Few ever make the journey along five miles of public transportation to encounter what is, in essence, a foreign land.

There were, of course, similarities. St. Agatha’s was filled with a vibrant, welcoming community – lots of excited children participating in their annual Advent pageant, many proud parents and grandparents in attendance, a sense of Christmas anticipation. The Walnut Room was also a vibrant community, mostly families with children or grandchildren enjoying their own kind of annual pageant under the beautifully decorated Christmas tree. There was a special kind of joy in each place. But the chasm separating these two Christmas scenes was dramatic.

The congregation at mass in North Lawndale was at least 90% Black, more so if one removed a group of white friends and family of the pastor from the count. The church demographics came close to matching North Lawndale’s population: 91% Black, 6% Latino, 1 % White, 2 % other. Outside the walls of this active congregation much appears bleak. In North Lawndale 43% of the population lives in poverty and the crime rate is three times the rate of the city as a whole. Sixty percent of 20 to 24 year olds are jobless and the total jobless rate in 2010 was three times the city-wide numbers. Twelve percent of births were to mothers under age 18. Of the 38,000 residents, 460 were incarcerated as of 2010.

Inside the Walnut Room things looked very different. The diners were white. Not mostly white. All white. A few African Americans were present, but all were restaurant employees. Instead of the modest parochial school uniforms worn by the St. Agatha children, many of the children at the Walnut Room were decked out in expensive Christmas finery fit for the annual Christmas card family picture. Not everyone in the Walnut Room was wealthy. But I doubt that anyone was poor. Meals were not exorbitant, but they weren’t cheap, either. My guess – admittedly a guess – is that few if any had friends or relatives in prison.

As different as these worlds are, however, they are inextricably linked together. Racism in America binds the privileged and those who are not in powerful and wounding ways. Survivors of mass incarceration, predominantly Black and Hispanic, are mostly barred from meaningful employment, forcing them into communities like North Lawndale, allowing wealthier neighborhoods to avoid a problem our shared legal system perpetuates. Public school funding and politically connected charters tip the uneven playing field ever more drastically toward more comfortable neighborhoods and suburbs and away from public, neighborhood schools in the urban core. Development and bank financing follow the money leaving the North Lawndales of the city blighted by foreclosed homes, boarded up storefronts, and glass strewn empty lots even as new condos rise in neighborhoods less than three miles away. Even beacons of hope are hard to maintain. When we arrived at St. Agatha’s we were met by children asking us to sign petitions to keep their parochial school open. Earlier this fall the Archdiocese announced it is slated for closing.

The wealth gap widens as public policy aids and abets the transfer of wealth toward an ever smaller slice of the American elite, with upper income American families holding a median net worth nearly 70 times greater than the country’s lower income families. The optimistic growth theories of “Chicago School” economists at the University in the 1980s have left us with growing pies and ever smaller slices for the poorest of our neighbors, with rising tides that lift a few and swamp the rest. These communities are bound together by history, public policy, and money, but in ways that drive them further and further apart.

We can argue over cause and effect. But it takes willful effort to ignore these simple facts: In the 20 Chicago neighborhoods that are 90% or more Black, 34% of the population lives in poverty compared to one in five across all neighborhoods; median household income in those twenty neighborhoods was $28,000 a year in 2010 compared to a median household income for the whole city of $47,000.

North Lawndale exists, at least in part, because of countless choices and decisions benefiting those who eat at the Walnut Room. And the diners at Macy’s enjoy their privilege because of systems that transfer social burdens to neighborhoods like North Lawndale. Lydia and I didn’t set out to have a cross cultural experience on the Third Sunday in Advent. We wanted to visit a good friend who is the pastor at St. Agatha’s and experience his congregation in worship. And we wanted to eat at the Walnut Room, sharing a Chicago tradition that stretches back decades. We are privileged, of course, so we can plan days like this. But it was hard on the bus ride home to Hyde Park that night not to ponder the pain of our divided city. As two Chicago’s celebrate Christmas this year, the words of Ta-Nehish Coates in The Atlantic earlier this year haunt us: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts America will never be whole.”

John H. Thomas
Christmas, 2014

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