I have fond memories of a church in Chicago that taught me grace. LaSalle Street Church sat halfway between the city’s richest neighborhood, the Gold Coast fronting Lake Michigan, and its poorest, a massive high-rise housing project notorious for drugs, gangs, and murder. Hoping to stabilize the community, LaSalle joined with other churches in the 1970s to develop affordable housing in between those two neighborhoods.
Lo and behold, some four decades later that investment has paid off in a big way. With the Cabrini-Green high-rises now demolished, and replacement housing in demand, the church has realized a $1.6 million windfall in a real estate transaction.
My wife worked in church offices smack in the middle of this changing neighborhood, and she has stories to tell of break-ins, vandalized cars, gunfights, and scary encounters with street people. Urban ministry is not for the faint at heart. Yet throughout the turmoil LaSalle stuck it out; “We’re a gutsy little church,” says the current pastor, Laura Truax. Indeed, a book published in the 1970s highlighted LaSalle as The Church That Takes On Trouble.
LaSalle has always sought the role of a bridge church between the two neighborhoods. The church spun off one ministry after another: a free legal-aid clinic, school tutoring, a counseling center, meals for the homeless, as well as individualized programs for senior citizens, single mothers, and Young Life kids. Before church on Sunday mornings yuppie volunteers cooked breakfast for a diverse group of senior citizens, half of whom were African-American and half of whom were white. The smell of biscuits and ham does a lot for a sanctuary, I learned. On cold mornings homeless street people would wander in, drawn by the aroma, and sometimes these visitors would stretch out on the pews and sleep noisily through the morning service.
Worship services were rarely boring. Pierre liked to throw things, and one memorable morning the pastor counterintuitively opened his eyes during prayer before communion to see a football heading for him in a perfect spiral pass. With NFL-like reflexes he deftly moved aside the trays of 300 communion glasses he was holding. Another Sunday, an angry young man named Adolphus prayed aloud for the white honky pastor’s house to burn down that week. Characteristically, the church responded not by kicking him out but by assigning a doctor to monitor his medication.
The congregation also included graduate students enrolled in Ph.D. programs at prestigious schools like Northwestern and the University of Chicago, as well as doctors, lawyers, and other well-educated professionals. Even now more than 60 percent of members have advanced degrees, and yet a third of those who attend live paycheck-to-paycheck. I taught a class at LaSalle for eight years, and this mixture forced me to keep things at a common level. Did my words hold meaning for a bag lady as well as for a theological student?
Churches give lip service to diversity, but few practice it seriously. LaSalle was an exception. As Chicago’s urban core gentrified, other churches moved in to appeal to a younger crowd, with flashier, high-tech buildings and louder worship bands. The little church in a 125-year-old stone building kept plugging along, defying proven methods of church growth by trying to bring dissimilar people together. Diversity complicates decision-making, worship styles, and virtually every priority of the church (a pattern that dates back to the earliest congregations, in places like Corinth). Yet I’ve learned that grace is put to the test when we join together with people decidedly unlike us, and LaSalle certainly provided that challenge.
So what does a struggling church committed to social justice do with a $1.6 million windfall? After deliberating, the board decided to support the pastor’s bold idea, a kind of reverse tithe in which they would distribute 10 percent of the money, $160,000, to LaSalle’s 320 members and regular attenders.
On a Sunday morning this fall Pastor Truax announced that each of them would receive a $500 check, no strings attached, and encouraged them to pay it forward by doing something good with the money.
Media outlets like AP and Huffington Post soon picked up the story, and during Thanksgiving week National Public Radio devoted an 11-minute segment to the results. (Click here to listen to the radio interview.)
One young man who spent his youth in Jordan donated part of his check to World Vision but most toward building a skateboard park in Amman. A couple combined their bonuses to support a pet rescue shelter in Florida. A single mom and her nine-year-old put together an ice cream sundae night for a hundred of Chicago’s homeless. One member supported a college scholarship program for immigrant children; another donated to Ebola clinics. A school in the Himalayas will benefit, as will an irrigation project in Tanzania.
The poorer members of the congregation, less oriented toward formal programs, tended to give toward individuals with needs. One woman gave half to a friend who was trying to pay for her grandmother’s funeral and half to a friend who had lost his marketing job. She reports, “It was powerful just to be able to be the gift-giver, be part of that moment and see that the impacts of seemingly small gestures were huge.”
In describing her plan, Pastor Truax refers back to Jesus, “a risky guy” who in the parable of the talents warned against burying treasure in the ground. Jesus demonstrated in person how a few loaves and fishes could be multiplied: the disciples had sufficient food for the inner circle, but Jesus raised their sights.
As Pastor Truax says about her flock, “I hoped that they would see their connection between their little piece and the bigger thing the church was called to do, that they would feel like they actually had some skin in the game, some prayers in the game. And that has largely happened.”
A few months ago I heard from a longtime LaSalle friend who wondered why suburban churches with cappuccino bars and gymnasiums seem to prosper while a church that strives to be faithful to the New Testament’s emphasis on diversity and justice struggles so. When I heard about the windfall, I couldn’t help thinking that God smiled that day. And it didn’t surprise me at all to turn on NPR and hear that the first thing the struggling urban church did was to ignore its own budget shortfall and find an innovative way to give. Now they’re praying about creative ways to use the $1.44 million left over.