Footwork on the day of rest: Cabrini-Green

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Mon Mar 25, 2019

Reverend Eric Worringer inherited some big shoes to fill, considering that his predecessor at the Holy Family Lutheran Church raised up some of the most influential and healing voices in Chicago’s most beleaguered neighborhood of Cabrini-Green. That praiseworthy forerunner, a Reverend Chuck Infelt, preached out of a small box-like church down at the intersection of Larrabee and Hobbie for over 30 years, tucked under the red-brick frames of the Cabrini’s high-rises. From 1975 to 2011, Infelt witnessed and worked with all the trials faced by the community during his decades-long tenure, with issues ranging from acute personal crises to systemic injustices — a complex history neither Infelt nor Worringer shy away from. Researching this longstanding institution only took a short ride up to Chicago Avenue on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), a short walk, and a morning parked in the pews of Cabrini’s own Holy Family Lutheran Church on the rather windy Sunday of March 10, 2019. 

The service itself as led by Worringer provided a pleasant, almost quaint, start to a Sunday. For my first time voluntarily going to church on a non-holiday in over a year, the experience went well. The church’s main hall appeared small and a little empty — mirroring its current neighborhood well and almost betraying its past importance. The choir never managed to get on-key, but their charisma and accompanying pianist made the music infectious nonetheless.  The sermon from Worringer spoke out against using the Bible as a means to condemn or judge others, noting the Shakespeare line that “even the Devil can cite scripture.” 

In that sermon, Worringer included the ways that Christianity was used to uphold the institution of slavery in the past, a peculiar choice from a white pastor at a historically black church, but handled deftly, the message hit its mark with the audience. 

Though only introduced to the congregation in the August of 2018, Worringer is clearly comfortable with his congregation, a two-way street. “Church started two minutes ago, but oh well,” he quipped at 10:32 a.m. as members were still trickling in, drawing big laughs from those who actually were present.

The people of Holy Family provided the warmest of welcomes and, pleasantly, were more than happy to help when they heard about this project. A majority of the congregation lived in those high-rises some 20 years prior, or are hardly removed from somebody who did. A liturgist eagerly introduced me to the ex-resident Delores Wilson, born in 1929, who lived through the entire history of the housing; in his landmark book “High-Risers,” author Ben Austen features anecdotes from Ms. Wilson’s life in the apartments to provide a well-crafted personal touch to his drier, more analytical sections. When I told them how I managed to get in touch with Pastor Infelt — a connection and man for another article — I received a flurry of responses echoing “tell Pastor Infelt we said hi!”

After the service, I spoke to the pastor about the church and its history, detailing the complex situation of the church even before Infelt began in 1975. Holy Family Lutheran found itself increasingly divided in the late '60s and early '70s. For example, the church hosted Black Panther breakfasts sporadically throughout that era. The Panthers did more good for beleaguered black communities than any city’s housing authorities or policing did — another topic plenty worthy of its own article — but their ideology clashed with that of the church on grounds of non-violence and militancy. Pastor Worringer informed me that the congregation had multiple ex-Panthers in attendance on that day, but he was reluctant in giving names. Further, the escalation of racial tension brought on by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 began to spark flames. Like the later pastors in Worringer and Infelt, the church at the time had a white pastor and a predominantly black congregation. Though this isn’t explicitly a problem in today’s climate, in that specific period of American history, that previous racial tension and previous disagreements created an environment unwelcome enough to cause that current pastor, the church’s inaugural clergyman, to resign. This made way for Pastor Infelt to be brought in during the mid-'70s. 

Worringer shared Infelt’s general practice of looking to federal funding and social policy to explain the decline in public housing, unsurprising given Infelt’s pseudo-mentor status. He praised Infelt’s efforts in improving living conditions by way of maintenance and apartment repairs in the Cabrini high-rises, as if to say that with enough maintenance and decent funding, the housing could have been a success. He also acknowledged the supposed "ghettoization" that took place in those projects, especially as a matter that the Chicago Housing Authority, federal government, or other “powers that be” were doing absolutely nothing about it. 

Above all, Worringer called his purpose at the church one of “building bridges.” Worringer seemed proud to call the city’s de facto segregation less pronounced today than from the stories of the recent past, noting that any supposed north-south dividing line has been moving down from North Avenue to, ironically enough, Division Street. He remains unenthusiastic about the city council — especially unimpressed with the ward staple Walter Burnett Jr. — but this comes as no surprise from a man standing in front of a congregation so often cheated by that same system. But Worringer wants to focus on healing those wounds, rather than fixating over them.

The story of Pastor Eric Worringer and Holy Family Lutheran Church is always going to be wrapped up in that of Chuck Infelt — a whole biography for another time. However, that same biography of Eric Worringer remains unwritten, just as the end to Cabrini-Green’s redevelopment cycle remains nebulous at best. So long as there are still luxury condos to build on bulldozed lots, a pastor at that church on Hobbie and Larrabee, and residents still around and willing to share their stories, that final chapter of Cabrini-Green will still be missing its conclusion.

 

 

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2019 - Spring - Issue 8
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