This past Saturday morning I was lucky not to be at home. I had a funeral at 11:30 and decided to go and try and get my back to ache a little less by swimming and sitting in the whirlpool. I was on the way back to the parish when the phone rang in the car. There was someone in the courtyard breaking things and doing who knows what. I called Bob Martin and asked him if he’d meet me there. Just in case the guy had a gun. You know. I’d already called the 10th district Sargent and he told me he’d gone to grammar school at St. Paul and he’d try and get a car over. Not much hope of a quick response these days… but I figured he’d probably try.
Anyway, I got back to the parish and pushed the button to open the back gate. I drove in and and Bob and his guy came in with me. Sure enough, there was a guy in the portico. He had a beard and was moaning and screaming and throwing things. He’d done some pretty good damage. There was broken glass and wires hanging out of the wall. There were ruined tables and broken statues. He climbed on one of the tables there and tried to go out the window (there are round windows in the portico wall about 8 feet above grade on the alley side).
The neighbor lady across the alley was pulling her car out of her parking area at about this time. She has razor wire on top of her chain link fence. She told me it’s to keep the thieves out of her parking area, that they’d been jumping her fence and trying to take her car. Her sons are good guys, she told me, and they all have conceal carry permits. One of her sons wanted to come over to the parish with his gun and she talked him out of it. “Good thing you did,” I answered her, “What if he came over here and shot the guy? Or what if the guy had a gun and shot your son?”
This afternoon after the funeral and all the emotions calmed down I got to thinking about living in South Chicago. We had a dangerous neighborhood back then. There was a lot of violence and a lot of shooting. You might get hit by a stray bullet, but nobody did vandalism on the buildings. Nobody broke windows. And we didn’t have cameras or alarm systems or barbed wire. We did have a soup kitchen, though.
I remembered that back then I had a stone carving studio in the garage next to the rectory. Sometimes the garage door wouldn’t close, or maybe I’d forget to close it. Or some seminarian would leave the back door of the rectory wide open. Not just unlocked, but wide open. And one of the street people would close the garage door and come and ring the doorbell of the rectory. “Faather,” (imagine a street person talking), “you left the garage door open again. You have to be careful father, there are thieves around. There are bad people out there. Don’t forget father.” And so on. The next parish over had alarms and cameras. And their windows were constantly being broken. People would steal things. And paint graffiti. Not at my parish.
So, what’s my point here. I’ve been thinking about the past 13 years lately. You may remember that our church used to have a 6-foot-tall wrought iron fence around the yard. We used to have bars on the windows all around the rectory. The rectory front door had a metal grate on it and the window in the door was a tiny one-way mirror. The place had the look of a fortress.
These days, our neighbors walk their dogs around our campus. I’ve met some of our newcomers and gotten to know a few of the dogs, too. If you think about it, we have almost the only grass in the neighborhood. We used to have a tree on the North side of the church where the fountain is. Just last fall, some of our parishioners fixed the fountain. People love to come and sit by the fountain.
I guess I think we ought to have a New Year’s resolution. We ought to find a way to make a tiny difference in these people’s lives. We probably can’t solve the mental health problem in Chicago. It’s too big. We probably can’t solve much of anything.
But, we probably can’t do nothing at all either. We have a coffee shop with young people working in it. We have young people working in the rectory, and often enough they’re working alone. What if one of them would have run across the guy throwing concrete? Not only that, if these unbalanced people live here, aren’t they our parishioners? Aren’t they our brothers and sisters?
If we want to avoid razor wire and bars on the windows and everyone get a conceal carry permit we ought to do something. It’s a thing for us to think and pray on as we begin our new year. I know I’ll be doing it. Please join me in this. It’s for our own good and for the good of our neighbors.