As many of you know, West Side Story is a Tony-Award-winning musical about love, family, loyalty and hatred. A rendition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Story ends in tragedy. Love is lost, and the audience is left with no happy ending. For a week in February, a group of four seminarians (including myself) went on a mission trip to Chicago’s West Side. Located in the North Lawndale and West Garfield Park neighborhoods, our story was based in reality, not fiction. Its theme was to spread Jesus Christ’s love.
The neighborhoods we visited on Chicago’s West Side have similarities to the setting in West Side Story. From the 1950s to today, different ethnic cultures have migrated to and from the neighborhoods we visited. At first, the community was predominantly Jewish, then Italian, and now African-American. Rivalries between city blocks and ethnic groups exist in the community. Run-ins with the police are common. Families bear their own share of conflicts. Businesses are abandoned.
Through all of these hardships, it’s hard to “see” God. Where is His glory amid rundown buildings that are routinely raided by law enforcement? Where is His love amid so many homicides? Where is His justice amid hatred and discrimination?
One passage of Scripture we meditated on during the mission trip was Matthew 25:31-46. For those unfamiliar, it is about Jesus coming in glory to judge everyone based on how we treated Him when we could not “see” Him—in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Both, the righteous and unrighteous, could not “see” Jesus in the poor and lowly. But one group loved the poor and lowly anyways, while the other group did not, which led to their downfall. Even in places and people where Jesus seems absent, He is there. How we love Jesus there is crucial for salvation.
What saddened me most about the mission trip, was that God’s presence should have been obvious. There were hundreds of Christian churches in both the North Lawndale and West Garfield Park communities. Yet, according to the residents, only a handful of them try to make a difference in the community. Thankfully, many residents have counted St. Agatha and St. Martin de Porres among the few churches making a difference. These were the churches we were sent to in our week of mission. We were able to witness and partake in so much of the work that both parishes were doing in the community–food pantries, parenting programs, restorative justice programs, peace programs, youth programs for sports, jobs, and faith.
Although our time there might not have felt like we were bearing much fruit for the Kingdom of God, “faithfulness, not success,” is what St. Mother Teresa used to say. Matthew 25 shows how the righteous have no agenda for their love. They have no clue that their love for the weakest among them grants them eternal life. God might not have wanted us to know that the people we were serving embodied Him in “disguise.”
What growth is there in having the teacher too close to the student? How can a sheltered adult son grow? There is no growth without challenge. Mission challenged us in going forth and bringing Christ’s love to the ends of the earth, in our case, Chicago’s West Side. Prayer helped us look back with God to see the love He showed us in those challenges—the warm welcome, the friendly smiles, the generous hospitality, etc. Yes, these were small expressions of love we experienced on our mission trip. In retrospect, however, the love we showed to Chicago’s West Side was small, too. We played one part in the whole story—a story for all sides—North, South, East, and West.
Diocese of Rockford