Friday, June 26, 2009

In which I find a way to work Michael Jackson in...

...even though (to my knowledge) three pastors' wives read this blog.*

I don't have anything to say about Michael Jackson, the person (well, I probably do, but I'm not going to). But there is certain music that makes up the fabric of your life and your past. I remember clearly my brother bringing home the album "Thriller" (on vinyl!) and us playing it on our record player. Those songs always make me think of high school. But the album I have the most memories of is the one that followed, from 1987, "Bad."

I was a freshman at Moody Bible Institute, majoring in Urban Ministries, with an emphasis on African American culture. Yup. Go ahead and laugh. Because I am from Wheaton, IL, (which is a little more integrated now) an upper-middle class, HUGELY Caucasian city. Protestant Mecca.

I had been in a Sunday evening service at church in my senior year of high school, actually listening--which was a rarity, and there was a guest speaker there who worked with inner-city gangs and something inside me said, "Oh, yeah. I want to do that, too." A few months later I was accepted at Moody, despite my lackluster grades, ready to minister in the city.

Every Moody student has to complete a PCM (Practical Christian Ministry) every semester. There are all sorts of options--nursing homes, prisons, hospitals, churches--the school decides your first one and then you can either pick after that or let them assign you. You go once a week and minister in whatever capacity you are asked. My first, and consequently only, assignment was at the Chicago Fellowship of Friends. It was a small Quaker church in the heart of Cabrini-Green, the notorious near north side housing project.

A van picked us up at Moody and deposited us on the sidewalk outside a brick building that didn't look anything like a church. The row houses, the red high rises, and the more distant white high rises of the housing project surrounded us. The warm air thumped with the music: Terence Trent D'Arby, LL Cool J, and of course, more than anything...Michael Jackson. With the exception of the Moody students, the faces were black. This began my inner city experience.

I find as I try to type this that I can't adequately summon up the words to describe the people, the church, the ministry, that time of my life. I tell you this much: in about 0.9 seconds I realized that I wasn't going to be the giver, the teacher, the minister. I was the receiver, the learner, the one ministered to.

The pastors of the church were Steve and Marlene Pedigo. Their skin was white, but underneath they were black. I have never met two more selfless people. They lived and breathed that ministry. They took kids into their home. They fostered many, unofficially adopted many, wept and prayed over all. The money they received to live on barely kept them off food stamps. I remember Steve taking some of us to a mall one time and him being so excited because he bought a pair of gloves at Sears. I'm pretty sure the clothes they owned could have filled maybe one drawer.

During my time at Chicago Fellowship of Friends, I can't begin to list all the things I learned or how those people affected the way I act, think, and view Christianity. All I can say is: their faith had hands and feet; it was a living faith. They were pacifists in the midst of a war zone. There was heartbreak all the time--someone you thought was doing well, then you found out they were back into drugs. Or pregnant. Or back with the gang. Or headed to prison.

But I can't let this go unsaid: we had a blast. It was so much fun, and there was so much laughter and always, always the music. CFOF is where I learned to love (black) gospel music. But mostly I remember walking the streets there, feeling the energy, and hearing the street music.

I requested to fulfill all four years of my PCM there. I served in the children's after-school club, the youth group, Sunday School, the tutoring program, the choir (yes, I did!), and whatever was needed.

When I graduated, my friends from Cabrini came to the ceremony. Moody requested that everyone remain silent until everyone had graduated, but you don't really tell black folks to remain silent so when my name was called, I heard "Yeaaaaahhhhhhh Alice!" and general hooting and hollering from the balcony. Definitely one of the high points of my life.

After graduation, I went back to Wheaton and, though I lost touch with a number of my friends, they have always remained in my heart. Steve Pedigo read Scripture at our wedding.

Recently, I tried to look up some people from my past on facebook. Unfortunately, either I've gotten no matches or thousands of matches--until I found one young man, one of the former high school students from the church. I get a little teary just writing this: he married one of the former high school girls from the church; they live in Atlanta, have a little girl, he has his doctorate in social work, and has written a book.

We caught up a bit, and I wrote this:

Gerrick, I gotta tell you something funny--in one of the classes I was teaching a few years ago (Minority Voices in Literature), I mentioned that I had worked with an organization/church in Cabrini-Green (about half my students were African American). They almost fell down in shock and died laughing. They were like, "Alice, you are the whitest person we have ever seen! What were you DOING there?" :-)

And he wrote back this:

That is definitely funny. What they probably failed to realize is that God works in and through those who are willing to take on the goal of peace on earth. No matter who you are, you can contribute to that goal. You were probably an inspiration to many of those students, so continue being a wonderful human being. God bless.


Needless to say, that's an email I'm keeping forever.

So, back to Michael Jackson. His music, particularly the "Bad" album, is forever imprinted on my consciousness from those years I worked alongside those phenomenal people at Chicago Fellowship of Friends. This morning I went to the basement and dug up my copy and have been listening to it. Whenever I hear his songs, I think of the people of CFOF and how they taught me what ministry should really look like. This is probably the one that reminds me most.

*Re the pastors' wives--one who reads this blog is my friend Alysa's mom, Mae Emma. She has pretty much always been too cool for school. I remember Alysa telling me back in the day about being in the car when "The Way You Make Me Feel" came on the radio, and her mom turned it UP instead of down. "Mother!" she said, a little scandalized. "HEY," Mrs. C. answered. "It has a good beat!" Yes. Yes, it does.


Juliet said...

Powerful post!

PCM was PCW..use to call it Practical Christian Work. Even though it was work, I guess it would be better to call it a ministry. I remember working in Awana programs and going to prison jails too as part of my assignments. Bob use to say when he went on assignments in dangerous neighbourhoods, "If you weren't right with the Lord, you made sure you were while walking through that area.":)

I sure grow while doing many of my PCW. Plus you got to know other students from Moody.

Thanks for the post.

picturingme said...

I remember when you made the inner city decision, we must have still been writing our long-hand letters to each other at that time. I was were definitely called.

Great post...I enjoyed the BAD album as well, but for different reasons :) It was a great album...