One Step Forward, Twenty-Four Steps Back

“I’m going to Chicago to study war.”

The pronouncement coming from my mouth startled even me. I hadn’t thought of my impending move to begin a master’s in international relations at the University of Chicago in those terms before, but, I thought, isn’t that what I am doing?

The thought came as an evening of grilled salmon, wine, and friendship in an idyllic Princeton backyard was winding down. The setting was in sharp contrast to the topics of poverty and violence which had dominated our conversation.

Chicago brings a lot of conflicting thoughts and emotions to mind; it always has. It’s where I was born, though not where I was raised. My parents wanted my siblings and I to grow up in New Jersey, for many good reasons.

In truth, I wasn’t really born in Chicago, but a few miles south. Growing up, “going to Chicago” was the phrase my siblings and I used to mean the city itself and the suburbs surrounding the south side, the area upon which spread the bulk of my father’s family.

When I think of Chicago, I think of family. I think of laughing harder than I ever have with any other group of people in my life. I think of music, the likes of which Jersey musicians can’t compare. I think of rap cyphers in parking lots, heated family arguments, and dancing. I think of Fox’s pizza, Giordano’s, Polish sausages, and Harold’s chicken. For some reason, I think of lightning bugs. I think of basketball, and the pride I feel for the amazing things my family has accomplished. I think of how proud my family is of me. I think of the church my uncle pastors, where we attended growing up whenever we visited the family.

I think of my cousin’s best friend, shot and killed in front of that church just moments after my cousin walked away. I think of how alienated I felt from my high school classmates in New Jersey when it happened. I think of my most recent trip to Chicago last fall, listening to a conversation among some family members about times they’ve been shot at or had guns pointed at them. I think of how middle class black families never completely escape the woes of the ghetto. I think of how the violence in Chicago is getting worse, and no one seems to have solutions. I think of the hard work my family does in the community to fight Chicago’s worst tendencies, and how it never seems to be enough.

I’m going to a city where people who look like me get shot every day, while I isolate myself in a protected bubble with people who don’t look like me, puzzling out the intricacies of what brings nations to the point of ordering the deaths of thousands. The enormity of the effect this could have on my soul was beginning to hit me, when my friend remarked, “It’s a good thing you’re a Christian. Be in church as often as possible.”

I might have slipped into dismayed brooding but for that remark. It made me realize that, though the University of Chicago is my dream school, though I’ve known for several years that I want to return to my “roots” and live with my Chicago family, there is a certain amount of emotional preparation I need to do along with my packing, and there is a certain amount of spiritual and emotional upkeep I will have to insist on while I’m there. While I’m studying wars and conflicts in countries far away, I won’t be able to block out what’s going on in the city around me. Whether that becomes a strength or a burden is entirely dependent on my approach.

Always clinging to the rock that is higher than I, I look forward to the challenges of the step to come.