Many years ago, my heart was captured by stories—stories of authentic, caring community—shared with me by John McKnight of Northwestern University. They were so compelling, I asked John if he would introduce me to someone who was building community based on authentic care. Without hesitation he told me about Jackie Reed at the Westside Health Authority (WHA) on the far west side of Chicago. After spending time with her and the people of the WHA, my heart was captured yet again. They accepted me in the most caring and compassionate ways.
The Austin neighborhood, where the WHA resides, is an area that white, baby-boomers like me have been taught to fear—an area in which I was clearly in the minority. As you drive east from Oak Park into Chicago, the change in socio-economics becomes painfully obvious. The store windows that are not boarded up are barricaded with metal grates. At first, my eyes, filtered by middle-class privilege, were only able to see poverty, crime and drugs—unable to discern the hope, pride and love I subsequently came to experience.
The people of the WHA are using, not needs analysis, but capacity building, to bring both hope and investment to an area of the city that 20 years earlier benefited from little of either.
But, besides optimism in the face of hopelessness and perseverance in the face of poverty, what is behind their success? I sat in Jackie’s office talking with her and Pat Perkins, one of the WHA’s most active citizen leaders. “How,” I asked, “do you deal with drug dealers and addicts, a segment of the population most of the world has given up on?” “We love them…unconditionally!” “How,” I had to ask, “can you love drug dealers and addicts unconditionally?” “Because,” they explained, “each of them is someone’s child.” “But if you love them, doesn’t it hurt all the more if you fail?” With eyes that forgave my extraordinary ignorance, Pat turned to me and said, “Roger, love never fails.”