I got off the “L” in Chicago (short for elevated railway), and said to myself, “self,” I said, “I don’t know where I am, but it looks like the worst slums in America, and I’m pulling a suitcase. This could be a bad day.”
It almost was.
It had been one of those weekends. The year was 1997. We were living in Tucson, but I was taking modular classes at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. Back then, you couldn’t receive an accredited degree unless there were 40-hours of in-class instruction for each 3-hour semester class. As a result, Moody structured their master’s classes so that you could do pre-class work, fly up and get all your hours in one week, and then go home for your post-class assignments. A very gracious friend and United Pilot supplied me with “friends and family” tickets to complete my degree. There was just one hitch.
The tickets were “standby.”
This meant that I never knew if there would be room on a flight for me (there was no online check-in at that time). I also had to pack everything that I needed for the week, including my books, into my carryon, as I couldn’t check any baggage. It was good Haiti training.
I had a class starting on Monday, so I went to Phoenix after church on Sunday and tried to fly out to Chicago.
Nothing doing. All the flights were full. All day.
At the end of the day, I took a flight to some bigger city in California to try and fly out from there. That worked, but it was a redeye flight to Chicago. I landed around 6am with no sleep, and, trying to save some money, I decided to take the L for the first time in my life instead of calling a Taxi.
Lack of sleep can make for low IQ decision making.
There was no one on the L except for one African American guy the size of a Suburban, and he hadn’t an ounce of fat on him. He just stared at me like, “This is my train boy. Sit if you dare.”
I was tired. I dared.
Now is when my issues started. I knew where I was going, but I had no idea how to get there. The maps on the side of the train showed all kinds of “blue lines,” and “green lines” and places to switch trains to different lines. It was worse than trying to figure out our governor’s Covid color restrictions. By the time I realized I knew nothing about Chicago except that Moody was somewhere close to Lake Michigan, the train had started moving. I was stuck.
I figured the announcements might be of some help.
I figured wrong.
The announcements sounded like someone talking with their mouth full of marshmallows, played back at full distortion, speaking Arabic. By now the train was getting packed with people, but they were city people going to work. They didn’t look like folks you wanted to talk to. Besides, I’m an introvert. So, I did the next most logical thing I could think of.
I stayed on until I could see the lake and things looked kind of familiar and got out the next time the train stopped. It turns out I wasn’t too far away from Moody; I was just several blocks Northwest of the school.
But Northwest of Moody was Cabrini-Green.
If you are unfamiliar with Cabrini-Green, count your blessings. It was a massive high-rise housing project that started in the 1940s. The city put aside the money to build it, but not to maintain it. It became known as “Little Hell.” For decades it was in the media for gangs, drugs, rapes, murders and was called, “one of the most feared places in America.” In 2000, Chicago decided to tear it down, and the last building was demolished in 2011.
But I was there in 1997.
So, I, a skinny white guy, got off the L in the middle of one of the most dangerous projects in America, pulling my suitcase behind me. I was the first one off, and I assumed the only one who got off. That’s when I realized I was lost. I had no idea which way Moody was located. The high-rise apartments all around me made it feel like walking in a canyon. The smell and look of the place made me realize I was in a dangerous place. The streets were silent and empty. All I knew is that I should start walking. Fast. I went down the street and took my first left. And there he was.
The mountain of a man who was on the train when I first got on, was standing about six feet in front of me, like he was waiting for me to turn left and run into him. I never saw him get off the train. He was sitting behind me, so he would have had to have gotten off after me, but he never walked past me.
And yet, here he was.
“You’re lost, aren’t you boy?” he asked.
Gee, how did you know?
“Yes, this is Cabrini-Green?” I asked.
“Yes, we need to get you out of here. Where are you going?”
“Moody Bible,” I answered, “Do you know where it is?”
“Yup, come with me,” he answered. You don’t argue with mountains when they give instructions. He walked me around back to an underground station, didn’t kill me, and instead got me through the ticket thing and told me to get off on the second stop, I think. Anyway, it worked.
This week I’m speaking at Anchorpoint about the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin from Luke 15. Lost people matter to God. And if they matter to God, they should matter to us also.
I’m sure glad this lost, tired suitcase-pulling idiot mattered to someone else. I still wonder how he got past me, or if he was an angel (Heb 13:2). Either way, he was an angel to me.