Monday, January 19, 2009

My Brush With History

Above: One of the many independently-created t-shirts being sold in the parks and on the street corners of Chicago last summer.

Some kind of disclaimer is in order, I suppose, for any post that begins with a big ol' photo of Obama at the top. While social change and the political machinery that effects it are critically important to my life as a Christian and as a future pastor, I usually I try to steer clear of cheerleading particular parties and specific candidates, in my ministry, and on this blog, too. And this post is really no different. It's not really a post about politics at all, but a personal story about my time in Chicago, and my time at LSTC.

Two years ago, my wife and I were walking back from dinner, probably at Medici's, when I noticed a sign on the door of 57th Street Books advertising a book signing by a local author. 57th Street Books has these kinds of signings all the time; usually the authors teach at the University of Chicago or are outside academics stopping at the U of C as part of a conference or whatnot. The author this time? Former University of Chicago Law Professor Barack Obama.

I had first heard of Obama from a tiny blip in The Economist, who mentioned him as part of their coverage of the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois. It was still during the primaries, and I remember the Economist mentioned something about how he was a Chicagoan and his name began with "O" but he wasn't Irish. A few months later, I caught Obama's speech live during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and I remember my jaw being on the floor about halfway through the speech when he declared that "when a child on the South Side of Chicago can't read, that matters to me, even when it's not my child." And then I distinctly remember leaping off the bed when he declared that "we worship an awesome God in the blue states," which in retrospect seems kind of hard to explain, but you have to remember that at that time the idea that you could be both Christian and progressive was not conventional wisdom in either Christian or progressive camps.

I read Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father, a few months later, and I remember what a page-turner it was for me; I really couldn't put it down. In his reflections on race, I heard echoes of Ralph Ellison, but I also saw a reflection of my own life, standing as it was at a crossroads that winter, as the pages told the story of a young man making sense of where he came from and what he should do. I'd read lots of books before then as I struggled with the roots and fruits of vocation, but here, to my surprise, was an author more carefully thoughtful than most of the thinkers I'd read in college and just as determined as I was to figure out the world.

Two years later Chris and I took a summer road trip to West Virginia, where I explored my own family's roots, and then on to Washington, D.C., where we, two addicts of The West Wing, had wanted to visit for awhile. We stopped at Obama's Senate Office to pick up two tickets to the Senate viewing gallery. There was a White Sox flag hanging on his office door - the Southsiders had won the World Series only a year before. When the friendly receptionist asked us where we were from, we left Indiana behind and said we were from Hyde Park. In only a few weeks, after all, it would be true. Later that year we moved to Chicago, and I began a new stage of my journey at LSTC. And that's when I saw the poster on the door of 57th Street Books.

The book signing, for The Audacity of Hope, was scheduled for the Tuesday of fall break, when I had no morning classes. None of my classmates seemed to be talking much about it, but then again, I mostly kept to myself in those first few months, nervous, determined, introverted, and, truth be told, a little freaked out after that first candidacy interview. When Tuesday morning arrived I took no chances: I woke up early and arrived at 6am for an event scheduled to start at 8am. A line already snaked around the corner of the building.

I stood in line between another young white student like myself and a older black woman who worked at the DuSable Museum for African-American History located only a few blocks away. It was a damp October day and it rained intermittently, so we shared an umbrella while we waited. And we talked. It was probably inevitable, given why we were all there, that we talked about Obama and what we thought he meant, and how he reflected some of our own hopes and dreams for our country, and for our city.

After awhile a black SUV pulled up to the bookstore, and Obama bounded out and waved at us as he headed into the bookstore, jerking his head up and offering a "Hey guys, how's it goin'?" as if we were all old friends. Then the signing began, and the line moved forward steadily. All the while I kept trying to think of what I would say to him when it was my turn. There was all this talk around that time about whether he was going to run for president, and somehow I was convinced, against all reason, that there was something profound I could say to him. I wracked my brain for twenty minutes at least, but came up with nothing. Maybe I could just thank him for his service.

Finally it was almost my turn. The person in front of me took a little longer than everyone else, because, as Obama explained to one of the store's personnel, "This woman delivered my babies!" They exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, and then it was my turn. The future President of the United States looked me in the eye, smiled, and shook my hand, then looked down again to sign my books. Now! Thank him for his service or something! Nooo, I can't! I'm too nervous! As he scribbled his name, he asked me what I did. I concentrated really hard and got the words out: "I'm a student," I said, "at the seminary here." Of course, I immediately knew that he would probably assume that I was at the University of Chicago Divinity School, but what was I going to do? I had neither the time nor the presence of mind to explain that "I am a student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, one of the eight seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran church body in North America!" Whatever. Then he said something about how he liked the food there (?), and asked me how I liked the program. "It's great," I said, truthfully. "I love it." He wished me luck with my studies and handed me three signed copies of his book. I thanked him and walked away, my brush with history over.

I like telling that story, partly because it fits perfectly whenever conversations inevitably move to the topic of who's met the coolest famous person? Everyone needs a celebrity story for moments like these.

Of course, the story's strength is also exactly what's wrong with it. It confirms the stereotype of Obama as a celebrity whose supporters - like me - sometimes treat him like a fifth Beatle. I think that's probably okay when we're trading celebrity stories, but if that is the totality of our view of the 44th president, if his role as a leader of people ends there, then that's probably not so good, which is why making MLK Day a day of national service is a step in the right direction.

As for my own brush with history, to my great good fortune it was only one moment in a longer journey through the streets of Chicago. A few months after meeting then-Senator Obama, I was accepted into the Urban CPE program, and spent three months doing pastoral care in a homeless shelter on Chicago's North Side. The following autumn I began working in a parish church on the South Side of the city, in the same neighborhood where Obama began his community organizing some two decades earlier. Both experiences sparked a growing love for urban ministry and a deepening commitment to the urban community, its continuing struggles and its collective joys.

All of which is but one more reason why I'm grateful for the two years I've spent in Chicago. The brushes with celebrity, complete with fun stories, are a nice perk. But even better has been the chance to leave the sidelines and be the change I wish to see in the world - on Inauguration Day, and beyond.