A picture taken in London just before heading to Scotland in January 2016–looking into the inner courtyard of Westminster Abbey
In January of 2016 Dave and I led a group of Wheaton Academy students on a trip to Scotland. It was a double-duty trip for us. We were praying for guidance; about which of two very different directions we should pursue. One of those directions was Scotland. We met with the UK field director of GEM (Greater European Missions) during that trip, and it was in many ways an exploratory time for us.
But we were also praying about moving into the city of Chicago, to live in a depressed neighborhood, for Dave to teach/work with underprivileged kids. It was strange how God used the wonderful, spiritually rich trip to Scotland to confirm that it was not the decision for this time, and Chicago is. One of the confirming moments came when we put on the program for an assembly at a Scottish public high school. We began with a video one of our students had made to introduce the team members and their home. After shots of Wheaton Academy and its grounds, the video moved to the downtown area of Chicago. One shot showed hundreds of people milling around the Bean. Watching it for the first time in that assembly, I suddenly got choked up. There were all those people, of all ethnicities and races and religions, gathered together to look at a reflective structure, but going home to segregated neighborhoods, going home to places sorely in need of gospel hope. Behind me in that auditorium sat rows and rows of students who needed to hear about Christ, and I was fervently praying for them, but my heart was pounding for the people of Chicago. When Dave told me—without my saying anything about my own experience—that he’d had much the same reaction when he saw the video, we knew God was stirring in our hearts.
Another affirming moment on that trip came in a coffee shop, where Dave and I had retreated while the students shopped in the area. Here’s what I wrote in my journal about that time:
We were talking about a topic we’ve often discussed: why are some prayers—especially those for “small” things—answered, while others, particularly those for very necessary, very important things, seem to be ignored. This topic had re-surfaced because I told Dave how glad I was that a member of our mission team who’d felt sick the day before was fully recovered. I remarked, “Several of us were praying for her.”
He got a funny look on his face and pulled out the book he’s currently reading: There Are No Children Here, published in 1991, written by Alex Kotlowitz, a Chicago journalist. It follows the lives of brothers Lafayette and Pharaoh, two young boys who lived in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex just blocks from Chicago’s Loop that was a veritable war zone. Dave turned to a passage and gave me a preface before reading it aloud. Nine-year-old Pharaoh, seeking respite from the violence and drama of Henry Horner, has found a condominium complex nearby with green lawns and trees. He goes there to sit under the trees and simply be.
Pharaoh had long sought such a refuge. For a few months last spring, he’d attended Bible classes at the First Congregational Baptist Church. Washington Boulevard was lined with churches, but most of them now served people who had since moved from the neighborhood. Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner. Pharaoh grew bored with the classes and began to question whether there was indeed a God. He often prayed to him, asking that he let them move from the projects. But, Pharaoh would say, “I be praying but he don’t do nothing. Maybe there ain’t no God.” It was as much a question as it was a statement. (page 143)
Dave read the last line and then looked up at me. “I’m struggling with this right now. How can we pray for such relatively small things as someone’s upset stomach when people all over the world are living lives like this?” He tapped the page in the book. “And how does God see these vastly different prayers? Why are our prayers for someone’s stomach answered when a young kid praying not to be molested or sold for sex doesn’t get the answer they so desperately need? When a mom who has prayed for food to feed her family watches her baby starve to death? I don’t understand!”
I don’t understand either. Part of his question does have to do with God, to be sure, but Scripture tells me God is not indifferent to suffering, and Christ proved to me God is not indifferent to suffering. But we, the people of God, the Church, are the body of Christ here, so why is it that Pharaoh was left so abandoned? Where was the church? Why weren’t the churches of Chicagoland agonized by Henry Horner and the other housing projects? And the violence and hopelessness of areas like Englewood and Lawndale and Garfield Park? Why aren’t we agonized now?
I asked Dave to hand me the book. I wanted to look at one line in particular. I read it aloud to him. “Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner.”
“What if the churches were supposed to be the answer to Pharaoh’s prayer?” I asked. “What if they were supposed to pray about Henry Horner—along with all the personal requests they had—praying BOTH, until God so changed their hearts they were ready to act and intervene and enter in, even if in small ways at first? Until they served the people who lived right nearby rather than those who’d had the resources to move out?
“I know it’s not really an answer to your question, but I don’t think the answer is an either-or proposition. I think we should pray about all hurts, even the ones we see as small.”
I looked back at this journal entry a few times during the months that followed, as we prayed for both “big” and “small” and received guidance for all and then detours and then more guidance. For us the conversation was about the inner city and inequality in education and racial reconciliation in the church. But even more so, it was a conversation about prayer and change–heart change. And that’s a conversation for everyone. Not everyone is being led to the inner city, but all of us are being led somewhere, even if it’s right out our front door, even if it’s simply onto our knees.
Prayer opens our blinded eyes and guarded hearts to the needs we are meant to see, meant to enter into.
So I’d like to end this post with some words I read recently in The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright.
The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God. … Learn new ways of praying with and from the pain, the brokenness, of that crucial part of the world where God has placed you. And out of that prayer discover the ways of being peacemakers, of taking the risk of hearing both sides, of running the risk of being shot at from both sides. Are you or are you not a follower of the crucified Messiah? (The Challenge of Jesus, chapter 8, “The Light of the World”)