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The (in)Justice Conference?: A lament for Cabrini-Green

On June 3rd, thousands of socially conscious Christian young people will descend on Chicago to talk justice.

The Justice Conference is an annual event created for Christ-followers to gather, engage with, and better understand how to address major justice issues (according to the Justice Conference website). The conference which began in Oregon in 2011 now calls Chicago home, a move intended to diversify its largely white following and root the conference in a social location relevant to its justice commitments.

While I have been very pleased to see the intentional choices being made to broaden the audience base and de-colonize the speaker line-up, I was very dismayed to see that this year’s Justice Conference was taking place at Park Community Church, a megachurch located in the gentrified neighborhood where Cabrini-Green housing projects once stood.

It struck me hard because, though I'm not a Chicago native, I have lived here long enough to have witnessed the systematic dismantling of the Cabrini-Green projects and the displacement of their residents along with the well-planned redevelopment of the area designed for a different socio-economic clientele.

The Cabrini-Green housing projects were one of the most infamous housing projects in the nation. Nestled in between two of the city’s most wealthy neighborhoods (Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast), the Cabrini-Green projects provided a sharp contrast for the 15,000 people who lived in its 3,607 mid-and high-rise units. The projects were known for their crime, gang violence, racial discrimination and deplorable living conditions. After 60 years of neglect, the Cabrini homes were slated for demolition and plans were made to develop the land that had become prime real estate. In 1999, the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation for the former Cabrini-Green site was introduced and in 2011 the last standing high-rise building was demolished. While city planners and developers vowed to build mixed-income properties, many residents were displaced to other low-income communities while some became homeless. Some residents protested the development and others filed a lawsuit against CHA for going back on their promises.

Park Community Church, which began its ministry in Lincoln Park (one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Chicago), purchased its church building in the middle of the Cabrini-Green “transformation.” The only reference I could find on the Park Community Church website related to Cabrini-Green was this: “In 2005, God blessed Park through the purchase of an old warehouse located at 1001 N. Crosby in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood. For the first time in nearly 20 years, Park would have a permanent place to call their own.” Yikes. With echoes of Manifest Destiny, Park documents its rise at the exact point of Cabrini’s fall.

Ironically, while many Cabrini-Green residents found themselves homeless and fighting the forces that pushed them out, Park celebrated its new home in the up-and-coming neighborhood. While Park can’t be blamed for Cabrini’s demise, the church no doubt accelerated the neighborhood’s gentrification as it brought in thousands of higher socio-economic Christ-followers to be equipped to “love their neighbors” (anyone else see a disconnect here?). In any case, Park benefited from moving in at the right time.

Perhaps Park’s fortune was just luck and not calculated opportunism. But why, then, are all of their new church plants slated for gentrifying or recently gentrified neighborhoods (South Loop, Bridgeport, Logan Square, etc)? It’s not a coincidence, it’s a business model. It may make good business sense, but it does not meet the standards for justice by a long shot.

To host a Justice Conference in the graveyard of what once was Cabrini-Green is not just a poor decision, it’s insulting to anyone who cares about at-risk neighborhoods and vulnerable people.

It can be argued that no venue in America would be a just location for a Justice Conference due to America's history (while every piece of land in Chicago once belonged to Native Americans, if American settlers had hosted a "Justice Conference" on the land a few years after the Indian Removal Act was passed it certainly should have raised objections), but I believe there's something particularly dangerous about choosing a megachurch like Park.

Place, context, and land are important considerations in engaging in prophetic biblical justice. The prophet Micah called out the religious leaders for siding with the powerful, wealthy elites as they displaced widows and the disenfranchised from the land (Micah 2:2-9).

To lift up praise and celebrate justice in a building that represents excessive privilege and oblivious power seems inconsistent with biblical justice. Remember Amos’ words:

“Away with your songs of praise! They are only noise to my ears. I will not listen to your music, no matter how lovely it is. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, a river of righteous living that will never run dry. (Amos 5:23-24). Ironically, this is the theme verse for the conference this year, which couldn’t be more appropriate. Amos is speaking to the Northern kingdom of Israel that had accumulated massive wealth due to its military and economic exploits. The people of God had become affluent and enjoyed lavished living, allowed unjust practices in the courts and marketplace, and flaunted their excess in the temple while allowing the poor to continue to be oppressed. Amos calls out this hypocrisy and blatant disregard for the poor in their midst.

Biblical justice recognizes that the people of God weaken their prophetic witness when they hitch their wagons to the cultural practices of the dominant empire. Likewise, the Justice Conference weakens its prophetic witness for justice by hitching its wagon to a church that represents corporate, capitalist Christianity.

Prophetic justice shows “God's preferential option for the poor.” The Justice Conference and Park Community Church show a preferential option toward the privileged. Is this wrong? Maybe so. Is it justice? Definitely not.

Having the Justice Conference at Park Community Church sends the wrong message to the majority white young adults flocking to this conference. It says justice fits right in with lavish luxury. Justice is comfortable. Justice makes you feel right at home in your megachurch.

I'm thrilled that Park is wanting to learn about justice, but you can't have justice without a critique of power and costly discipleship. I'm thrilled that young people want to attend a conference focused on the topic of justice, and many of the speakers are personal friends of mine (many whom come from outside Chicago and may not be aware of the intimate history of Cabrini or not at liberty to challenge this given their involvement), but I think we do a huge disservice to young people by letting them think that justice comes with little cost. Woe to us if we allow the next generation to think corporate Christianity can pass off for biblical justice.

Also, I struggle to understand how a conference using the name “Justice” can agree to be held in a space where women cannot serve in leadership roles. A church that serves as a catalyst for gentrification and economic privilege rather than community transformation. A church unapologetically for the middle class and not for the residents who once inhabited its space. Park may be a big-box church that wants to do good in the city, but let’s not call it justice.

I suspect that the reason the Justice Conference is being held at Park is mainly financial. The church venue is probably much cheaper than Chicago’s Auditorium Theater which was last year’s venue. But justice is costly, or it is not justice. Besides, there are a lot of other churches that have been doing justice work in the city for a lot longer that could have hosted the conference.

I see a conference at war with itself. It's audacious enough to claim justice as its brand but not committed enough to justice in its execution. I know the conference organizers have made honest attempts to bring greater diversity to the speaking lineups and to listen to local leaders, to this I applaud. But I can't fathom how any justice-oriented pastor or activist they may have consulted with could have recommended the Justice Conference be held at Park. I know several leaders of community development organizations that are refusing to go because of its location.

I’m not against the conference. The organization I’m affiliated with is sharing a booth there and many of my speaker friends will be there. I know it will be transformational for those that attend. I’m excited for the voices they have invited to share the platform. I just know that I can’t endorse it or even participate in it if I don’t also express my lament for Cabrini-Green.

My hope by raising my objections is not to deter anyone from going but to create greater dialogue around justice. I don’t want to see justice watered down. I don’t want to see evangelicals pat themselves on the back for being agents of justice while we are standing in the midst of injustice. I don’t want to see justice made palatable for wealthy white people. I don’t want justice that addresses racial injustice while leaving gender and economic justice untouched. I don’t want justice that demands nothing from us. I don’t want justice that allows megachurches like Park to feel good about themselves for hosting while not questioning the underlying powers (racial, gender, economic) that prop their church up. We can’t let majority culture middle class young adults think justice is comfortable, safe, and uncostly.

I questioned whether I should write this, but there’s a lot at stake. Justice is at stake. The gospel is at stake.

We cannot allow the mass expansion of capitalist Christianity to be confused with the gospel.

If we want to develop disciples with a heart for justice then we have to do it in a way consistent with justice.

I’m encouraged that Park is now interested in justice (now that it’s mainstream and cool?) but I’m also nervous that their social location (and physical location) may skew their view. Justice for big-box churches almost always looks like charity because to really pursue justice would radically challenge the way they see themselves, it would challenge their congregants’ social status (and therefore their tithing structure), and the way the church does business.

I don’t want to simply be critical without offering some suggestions so here are some things the Justice Conference could incorporate to affirm their commitment to justice:

  • Include a lament for Cabrini-Green during the opening session.

  • Include a walking tour of what once was Cabrini-Green to tell the story of housing injustice in the city, gentrification, power, and displacement.

  • Do not try to make Park Community Church out to be a model of justice in the city. Be honest about their complicity in gentrification and that they are just starting out on the journey of justice.

  • Be very bold and outspoken about women being called to ministry and leadership despite Park’s theological position.

  • Invite old residents of Cabrini-Green to share their story at the conference.

  • Provide a workshop on: "What happened to Cabrini-Green?" Or "How do we engage in church planting without being colonizers?"

  • If you’re a speaker at Justice Conference, make sure to mention the plight of Cabrini-Green and challenge the power structures that prop up megachurches like Park.

  • Consult local community leaders for alternative venues for the Justice Conference next year.

Jesus didn't cater to wealth, Jesus called them to great sacrifice for the kingdom of God.

Prophetic biblical justice is much more costly and requires repentance from those coming from positions of power and privilege. Take Zaccheus. He's probably the most apt model for American capitalist churches who want to pursue justice. He didn't merely get on the Jesus-and-justice train because it was popular, he repented for his role in causing economic and emotional trauma to poor people. He repented and vowed to give four times what was taken. I think this would be a good starting point for the conversation on justice.

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