The book, “If Christ Came to Chicago” was issued just after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was a British reporter’s view of the city behind the World’s Fair –and what he saw wasn’t pretty. “The City that Works” was a city of graft, corruption and disdain for the poor.
Like a phoenix, Chicago had risen from the ashes of the 1871 great fire. It had rebuilt by pulling itself up by its boot-straps. Chicagoans had shown, the nation and the world what incredible stuff they were made of. But, “If Christ Came to Chicago,” written by William Stead, a top investigative journalist, showed the dirt behind the White City. It revealed a poverty that stretched from the bawdy center of Chicago through the neighborhoods jam-packed with recent Polish, Italian and German immigrants and to the day-laborers who gathered on street corners and vacant lots each morning hoping someone would hire them.,
William Stead was particulaly adept at seeing behind the images of the “White City” and into the grimy facades of Chicago’s beery streets. He knew that the developed and mature New York City culture considered Chicago the far west, a place a man could go to have a little adult fun, where a guy could go to let off some steam in its brothels, beer halls and honkey-tonks. Let’s admit it, Chicago was the Las Vegas of the day. What happened in Chicago, stayed in Chicago, sort of….
This was the muckraker era and Swift’s meat processing plant and other dirty industries were being exposed by energetic reporters. Americans ate this stuff up. These books were written as if what was being revealed was all confidential. Stead, though less sensationalistic than the muckraker crowd was particularly good at contrasting Chicago’s lowest class with the affluent owners of factories, processing plants and the churches built by the grand churchmen of the day.
What if Jesus had come to Chicago in 1893? Yes, we are talking about the Christ, the Messiah. What would He have said and where would you have found him saying it? Would he have beeen be on stage at the White City? Would you have found him in the well-established churches of the city?
Stead looked for evidence of the presence of Jesus, the Christ in the Windy City. He didn’t find much concern for the poor among Christian churches. He found that during the recession of 1893, it was the drinking establishments that took care of the poor. A free lunch went with a three cent beer. People were hungry and were fed even though they did not have the three cents. Where were the churches? They were happily organizing, hiring staff, building new schools, erecting new places of worship and generally busy with a huge infux of immigrants, many from eastern Europe. There were entry level manufacturing jobs that paid slave wages to immigrants, barely enough for an apartment and not enough to feed their kids. People went to church of on Sundays where in the Catholic churc the Masses were in Latin but the sermons were preached in their native tongue. However, you wouldn’t have found the members of the established churches ministering to those suffering from the depression. There was little evidence of soup kitchens at those churches, although some parishes had established day-care centers and credit unions.
People were hungry during the 1893 depression. How could it be that the city could construct a world’s fair but did not have enough jobs to hire these immigrant laborers? I guess there were just too many of them.
If Christ had come to Chicago in 1893, he’d have been where the people were huddling. In neighborhood taverns. In alleys. On corners. He would have visited their homes. He would have been telling them in the midst of their poverty that they were still God’s favored ones. That is the Gospel He would have preached. He would have been healing them of their infirmities and forgiving their sins. He would have been promising them hope.
It’s 2018 now and I am still waiting for the resurrection of the city by the lake. We don’t need more elegant buildings, more spacious parkways. We do need to see Christ in the faces of the poor huddled among us on frigid, windy mornings in Chicago’s early Spring. Maybe if we see His face in them, we might not turn away ignorant of His presence.