The lawyer for the Archdiocese of Chicago entered the meeting room in a matter-of-fact manner and announced to several of us listening, “Recreation is NOT our mission.” The words hit hard. Her point was to remind us from the Back of the Yards neighborhood that the Archdiocese needs to be protected from any liability. In other words, the playground we were petitioning for at the old St. John of God site would not be approved. Others in the room, from the department of land management and engineering, listened politely, and they even apologized for the interrogation style they used questioning the motives of Fr. Dave Kelly and myself. However, in the end, their hearts, and not even the heart of the Cardinal, would be moved. “We cannot accept such a liability for the children from the neighborhood,” were the words imprinted on our hearts. Fr. Dave and I returned from the meeting sad, but determined to continue the conversation and educate the lawyer about why a part of our mission certainly touches on “recreation.” The words of Jesus came to mind, “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” (Mt. 25)
The fact is that the mission of our Church in the Back of the Yards is to care for our children and protect our children …in a most urgent way and with whatever means we can. We have lived many days of violence and buried too many children. In our neighborhood, with 50% of the population under the age of 20, we are called to create safe family settings, safe mentors, safe places, safe opportunities for our children so they can mature into responsible Christian adults. A child needs life skills, tutoring, and opportunities to learn and grow in their awareness of life. Our leaders and community must model for them how they can serve and give of themselves, finding meaning and happiness in their gifts.
Of course a playground would not be considered a big deal in most places of the Archdiocese, but this is a gift of the corporate world, designed to create an opportunity for children and families to gather, a first step in recognizing the right of a child to be cared for and served. If Dave and I had our way we would build a community center in the place where the Archdiocese closed three churches over 20 years ago and left a neighborhood abandoned in their poverty. But we do not yet have the resources, and to gain resources we must first educate the rich on why this is important to the neighborhood… and ultimately to a healthy City of Chicago.
Today we celebrate Mother’s Day. Like our mothers, we must to continue to embrace the mission to give our children safe opportunities to learn, to grow and experience the care of our community. We know well in our neighborhood the risks our children face. We know that to care we need to be creative. May the celebration of this day inspire us to be animated and untied in our quest to serve every child in need… even if it means creating a playground where children can play and dream of a future.
Fr. Bruce Wellems, CMF