Friday, February 10, 2023

Beside Me, Not Beneath Me

      For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

     Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! 

1 Corinthians 4:7-8 (NIV)

If you live in Chicago, you might have heard of Aleta Clark. Though you might know her by another name. She also answers to Englewood Barbie.

     Clark is pretty, like a Barbie doll, and she’s from Englewood, the kind of notorious neighborhood on the city’s South Side that’s remote from the Mag Mile and Edgebrook in all kinds of ways, not just geographically. 

     After the gang murder of a 9-year-old boy and the death of her mother from a heroin overdose in 2015, Clark founded a non-profit she calls Hugs No Slugs. Through Hugs, she has been serving her neighborhood ever since, trying to show that respect comes from helping people, not hurting people.

     One of her avenues of service is called Club 51, a sort of supper club every evening during the winter for people who live under the viaduct at 51st and Wentworth. She puts together educational and recreational programs for kids. During the pandemic, she opened “safe houses” where she distributes groceries for those who need them. She’s partnered with Louis Vuitton, the clothing store Notre, and Chance the Rapper. 

     Recently, Hugs No Slugs paid $16,000.00 for a group of people who live on the streets to stay for over a month in a West Loop hotel. Clark calls the group “the friends,” saying, “[They] are the people that live out here. I don’t identify them as homeless because that places them beneath me. Calling them the friends places them beside me.” 

     But when check-in day came for her “friends” this week, the hotel turned them away. Clark gave the desk clerk her confirmation number and was told, “My general manager doesn’t feel comfortable renting to these people.” 

     Maybe “these people” wasn’t intended to convey what it conveys: that separation that calling them “friends” is intended to bridge. Hotels can, I suppose, rent to — or refuse to rent to — whoever they choose. Policies were cited: there wasn’t a name on the reservation, the rooms were reserved by a third party, all possibly valid security concerns. The hotel did offer to rebook the group for a week — they claimed that the reservation had been canceled before the group arrived and a week was all that was available at that point. 

     Still — it would surprise me if the hotel would have refused to honor the reservation if the group of “friends” in question had been Ivy League buddies in town for a wedding, or a group of Fortune-500 executives using the hotel for a corporate retreat. Or if they’d been well-dressed. Or, maybe, if they’d been white. I don’t know the  hotel business at all, but it sure looks as if Aleta’s comments about placing people beside her instead of beneath her might be words that needed to heard in this situation. 

     For their part, the hotel chain released a statement saying they were “deeply sorry” for the incident. They said that their “purpose is to care for people so that they can be their best,” and apologized for making the group feel unwelcome.  They said, “We are dedicated to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion and, when those values are not upheld…we hold ourselves…urgently accountable to do better.”

     So should we all hold ourselves urgently accountable to do better. 

     There are lots of reasons why we forget to place people beside us instead of beneath us. It’s why political differences turn ugly; we treat those on the other side of the aisle as less than us. We do it with money, power, education, race, gender, age; people are injured when we treat those who have fewer resources or opportunities, a less-privileged place in the world, or who are different from us, as somehow inferior. Or, maybe just as likely, we’re like the guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple — we think the things we have and the degree of success we may have attained entitle us to being elevated above “those people,” people like Aleta’s “friends,” who don’t deserve to stay in a hotel like “we” do.

     We can even do it with religion, twisting the Scriptures and the gospel and our own piety to pretend that through our own efforts and spiritual enlightenment we somehow deserve the grace God has given us — or at least deserve it more than “those people” who haven’t gotten their lives up to snuff like we have.

     God must laugh. Or maybe not. More likely he doesn’t see anything funny about it.

     We need to hear again Paul’s words to the church at Corinth. He doesn’t stroke egos or cater to people who like to feel superior for any stupid reason. One way to translate what he says is “Who would see any difference between you and anyone else?” Boy, that could stick a pin in an inflated ego, couldn’t it? We’re all like grammar-school siblings arguing over whose “art” should be on the fridge. Though I often am impressed with my own work, in truth there’s not much special to distinguish my efforts from my brothers’ and sisters’.

     Another way to say it might be, “What makes you so special?” 

     Usually, the only real answer to that question is, “My mother says I am.” 

     And, listen, our Father in heaven does indeed think you’re special. But no more so than anyone else in the world. That’s not intended to make you feel bad about yourself, but to make you recognize that there really isn’t such a thing as “those people.” We’re all “those people.” But we’re also all God’s “friends.” You’re not beneath anyone. But you’re certainly not above anyone either. We stand beside each other, whether we want to admit it or not — but we stand beside each other in the love of God. 

     Know what that means? It means we have to answer another rhetorical question: “What do you have that you did not receive?” That’s a good question. In his love for us, God gave us everything. Through Jesus, he calls us his friends and shares generously with us. And if he’s given me more of something than he’s given you, then what entitles me to think that makes me special, that it makes me somehow superior to you? All I did is receive what God gave me. As Paul asks, “And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

     That attitude will help us stand beside people, to share in their joys and help bear their burdens Not consider ourselves above them, where their problems have nothing to do with us.

     Englewood Barbie is taking that seriously. Most nights, you’ll find her in a tent with her friends near 51st and Wentworth. “I can’t go home tonight knowing…that this hotel just told them to go back to their tent,” she says. “So I told them I’m going to stay out here every day until I raise enough money to buy us a shelter.”


     That’s how Englewood Barbie does it. I don’t know if she got the idea from Jesus, but he did it first. He could have regarded us as “those people.” But he came and lived with us and said, “us,” even when it cost his life.

     Look around for people to stand beside. Live with them, even when that means taking on their struggles as your own. Call them your friends, like God has called you his.      

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