Imagine a quiet May Sunday morning in a Chicago neighborhood. I am on my way to catch a Blue Line train for worship at our local church.
Suddenly, from behind me arises the baritone backfire of hundreds of motorcycles cruising along the street. As the cyclists pass, I notice the red and white of the Polish flag everywhere, from the patches on riders’ jackets to the flags flying from the rear of the motorcycles.
It is May 3 — Constitution Day — a public holiday in Poland that celebrates the Duchy of Warsaw from the 18th century and the fall of Communism in the 20th.
The motorcyclists turn southward toward St. Hyacinth Basilica: a conservative Roman Catholic church in the heart of Jackowo, the Polish name for the parish neighborhood in Polonia or Polish Chicago. St. Hyacinth celebrates the rich heritage of international Roman Catholicism in the city; many images commemorate the frequent visits of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, more famously known as Pope John Paul II.
St. Hyacinth composes part of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which is a multinational, polylingual collection of 2.3 million people in Cook County, Illinois.
Life in a globally-integrated city like Chicago provides insight into the unique microcosmic reverberations of global macrocosmic forces.
As I walk down Milwaukee Avenue, I see election banners for Andrzej Duda, the current president of Poland from the nativist, eurosceptic Law and Justice Party. When I ride the 77 CTA bus along Belmont Avenue, I hear an American aunt teaching her Polish nephews — in America for the summer holiday — phrases in English.
In short, every neighborhood is a collection of stories; each of these stories reflects a global conversation, many conducted in languages other than English.
A visit to Chicago means one must wade into the questions that lie at the heart of the global conversation. Significant movements have altered the landscape of international communities, whether it is the mass urbanization of society, the structural inequalities built into free market economics or the increased ubiquity of technology and media access from the rural villages of the Pyrenees to the hyper-cities of South Asia.
As Christians, we are disciples of Jesus, fashioned together in a new community — the church — as the “beachhead of the new creation” in a world east of Eden. It is our vocation to understand the complexity of our world and proclaim Christ king of every inch of it. Chicago is a powerful example of how the Church must live and act in a great city.
Further, Chicago is a focal point in a network of dense urban communities which function as international gateways to life in different cultures. North Americans are immediately connected to social movements, politics, languages, religious beliefs, popular culture and economic orders which span the globe, merely through participation in the life of a city like Chicago.
Two words are vital for anyone who seeks to enter this global conversation: observant and intentional.
In order to understand the forces at play in a massive city anywhere in the world, one must be observant of the people and possibilities there; equally important is the intentionality required to become conversant in the community each person inhabits. Before any of that is possible, however, one must first come and see.