When riding the green line train through Chicago to grad school last year, I would notice that as we left the downtown “Loop” business area and rattled deeper into the poverty-stricken South Side, people started looking different. Most obviously, the number of White people decreased and the number of Black people increased. By the time I reached my stop in the heart of the South Side, there were almost no non-Black people to be seen. I also began to notice something less obvious, however, about people on the South Side – there were way more people on crutches, in wheelchairs, and missing limbs here than in the wealthier parts of the city.
This observation is, of course, only supported by my own “quick and dirty” street research. Some other facts, however, contribute to its validity. The South Side is known for street violence. It makes sense that the bodies of the people living here would reflect this painful legacy. Also, poor people are not able to afford the same quality or amount of healthcare as wealthier people. Sadly, this lack of access to treatment results in debilitating conditions which could have been prevented. Furthermore, poor people often do not have the resources or education to make healthy eating choices. It is well known that there is more obesity among poor people, a condition which leads to a range of other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
I found myself strangely drawn to these people on the South Side with their broken, beat-up bodies. One day, as the bus I was riding lowered to meet the curb and a wheelchair rolled on, I raised my eyes to meet the gaze of a very large boy in a wheelchair. He looked around 10 years old, but his weight was probably twice that of a grown man. Part of me wanted to look away in disgust, but the other part of me held his gaze, driven by a deeper impulse. The look on his face was heartbreaking. There was a hint of childish innocence and curiosity, but also a wistful listlessness and despondency.
The bodies of this boy and of others I encountered on the South Side profoundly unsettled me. But as I resisted the urge to turn away and ignore them, I was able to see in them something more than just the grimy and grotesque. These are the sick people for whom Jesus came to rescue! If Jesus were walking again on this earth, I am sure he would wind up in Chicago’s South Side at some point, putting his hand gently on the boy in the wheelchair’s drooping head, making up a dirt-spit plaster for the woman with the white burn scar streaking across her brown face.
Me? I recognize a bit of the Pharisee in me – the part that wants to escape to the shady streets of my quiet suburban neighborhood, where joggers with sleek, toned muscles and expensive running clothes breeze past, and where I don’t have to think about poverty and broken bodies. Yet, I am grateful for my exposure to the poor bodies on the South Side. In some ways, their scars, disfigurement, and pain seem more raw, more honest, and more ready for a Savior than the put-together, self-sufficient bodies of the wealthy. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care of our bodies and seek healthcare when we need it, or that we shouldn’t work with the poor to increase their access to healthcare and their chance to lead healthy lives. I just wonder what we as the Church could gain from simply being with the poor and being in contact with their physical brokenness, and what we lose by ignoring them.