In 2010, I decided to embark on a major life transition. I left my comfortable, full-time job, gave up my car, and moved. Why, you might be wondering? What adventure could I have possibly signed up for? Where would I be going? Someplace exotic and exciting, right?
Well, sort of. The reason: to be a Young Adult Volunteer with the PC(USA). The place: the Windy City herself, Chicago, IL. Not the most exciting or exotic place on the planet, but a new adventure nonetheless. I arrived in Chicago not knowing where I would be living. I had just met my roommates for the year a few days earlier. I didn’t even really know where I’d be working or what exactly I’d be doing. It truly was, in every sense of the word, a brand new adventure.
Moving to Chicago was an experience of culture shock for me in many ways. I grew up in a suburban, fairly conservative part of Texas. I left that for the liberal, urban city of Chicago. I went from being surrounded by wealth and privilege that I was so accustomed to that I hardly recognized it to living in the midst of poverty and inequality. I went from a primarily white context to a context that was largely African-American. Back in Texas, I needed a car if I wanted to go any further than just down the street. In Chicago, I was able to get around using public transit and could go literally anywhere in the city in just a few train rides.
Prejudice and bigotry, it seems, will take up residence anywhere. But, as I learned in Chicago, so will the Gospel.
Needless to say, moving to a big city like Chicago took some getting used to for this suburban white kid! Looking back, I didn’t fully understand what I had gotten myself into. A few days after my arrival, however, I discovered the reason why God had called me there. I suppose I should have mentioned this earlier: I’m gay. I’m also a Christian. I could tell you plenty about how being gay has affected my faith but that’s another article for another day. Suffice it to say that I understand completely and personally why so many gay people are openly hostile toward Christianity and toward the church. It makes me sad when I hear stories of Christians being openly hateful toward the gay community, but I know it’s a daily occurrence.
And that, it turns out, is why I was called to Chicago. I was assigned to serve as the volunteer coordinator for a church’s Friday night programming known as Cafe Pride. Cafe Pride is a 100% volunteer-run program for youth and young adults that identify as LGBTQ. Many of them are homeless. Many of them are simply seeking a place to hang out for a few hours away from the harsh weather and police harassment. For four hours every Friday night, the other volunteers (most of whom were church members) and I would spend time interacting and engaging with the young people who stopped by. We got to know them on a personal level. We fed them, played board games with them, helped them with art projects, and watched TV with them. It a ministry of presence. We weren’t out to convert them or to make them repent of their “wicked” ways. That wasn’t the point of the program.
There’s something pretty incredible going on when a bunch of young people want to spend their Friday evenings in a church basement! For some of them, that may be the only church they get the whole week, and that’s just fine. The point for Cafe Pride is to present a different face of church. Church as it should be, but often isn’t. It is about being with people, not in spite of but because of who they are.
Little-known fact: 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Many of these youth are homeless because their parents kicked them out of the house after finding out about their sexual orientation.
It was the work that I did in Chicago that compelled me to finally take the plunge and enroll in seminary. I witnessed the beautiful things that the church can do when it is willing to listen to and follow God’s call to be a witness for the good news in the world. I saw firsthand what is possible when Christians truly follow Jesus and seek to model our lives after his ministry. I learned what happens when we open our doors to the homeless and sit with the destitute in their times of sorrow and loneliness. I decided I wanted to be a part of this kind of ministry.
As an openly gay man, I feel compelled to work with young LGTBQ people who haven’t had the same privileges that I have had. Little-known fact: 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Many of these youth are homeless because their parents kicked them out of the house after finding out about their sexual orientation. Even in a city like Chicago, known for being fairly progressive, this problem persists. Prejudice and bigotry, it seems, will take up residence anywhere. But, as I learned in Chicago, so will the Gospel. At its core, urban ministry involves confronting all the ways that the system fails to serve everyone. It involves having your eyes opened to the many injustices that go unseen every day.
Chicago opened my eyes in many ways. It exposed me to new ways of seeing the world and new ways of living. It helped me answer the call to serve God as a part of the church. It both inspired and frustrated me. There were days when I loved it and days when I found myself counting the days ‘til I could leave.
The point for Cafe Pride is to present a different face of church. Church as it should be, but often isn’t. It is about being with people, not in spite of but because of who they are.
While I ultimately decided not to take up permanent residence in Chicago, I remain grateful for my experience there and what it taught me. I’m grateful for the ministry in which I participated and for the people I met while doing so. I’m grateful that programs like Cafe Pride exist to serve those that society might otherwise reject – “the least of these,” in Jesus’ words. I’m thankful that I was able to see the face of God in the city. I saw God’s face and experienced God’s presence every Friday night in the faces of volunteers and the young people who would enter our doors.It is the memory and knowledge of that presence that has sustained me through the tough times in seminary – the times when I don’t feel like I can go on any longer. I just remember those Friday nights spent in a warm church basement rather than outside in the cold, snowy Chicago streets. Experiencing the embodiment of God’s grace will change a person. And where better to look for that grace but in the city?
AUTHOR BIO: Tad Hopp was born and raised in Texas. He is currently in his third year in the MDIV program at San Francisco Theological Seminary with plans to graduate in May 2015.
To read other articles from Week 1: Seek the Peace of the City, click here.
Read more articles in this series.