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FIRST-PERSON: Chicago neighborhood shouts symbols of truth & allegiance

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–There are precious few streets in America like West Devon in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. In a half-dozen blocks between the North Shore Channel and Western Avenue, you find a good chunk of the world represented, and even replicated.

Heading east toward Lake Michigan, you come first to the Orthodox Jewish sector, with Kol Tuv Kosher Foods, Restaurant HaShalom and the Bnei Ruven synagogue. Next come the Russian shops, with Cyrillic signage, and you know they’re not talking Atlanta when they say Georgian Bakery.

Pressing on, we enter the Middle Eastern/Muslim (Nineveh Grocery and Meat; Iqra’ Book Center; Al-Mansoor Video) and Indian/Hindu (Siddharth Jewelers; Annapurna Vegetarian Fast Food) sectors.

Beside the basic green street signs, you find brown signs to honor Mother Teresa, Golda Meir, Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, etc. And mixed in with Western dress, you spot saris, caftans and shawls.

Working my way down Devon the Saturday morning after what the FBI calls PENTTBOM (Pentagon/Twin Towers bombing), I ask folks what impact it’s had on them. Here are 10 voices from that walk:

1) Raphael, 19, a young Jew with a yarmulke, is planning to return to Israel to join the army. He says the events were “absolutely horrible,” but that he hopes the United States can now better understand his country’s plight. He thinks we’ll loosen the reins as Israel responds to Palestinian terror.

2) Two middle-aged Orthodox Jewish men, dressed for synagogue, sport full beards, black suits and shawls. One wears a black fedora. They decline to aid me in my work, noting it’s the Sabbath. “Come back tomorrow.”

3) Julia, 17, works in a shop with Russian Jews. It’s been an anxious time for them and their relatives back home. They’ve wondered whether Arabic stores along the street would be the target or source of trouble. Fearing vandalism, they’ve moved their cars from around back so they can watch them.

4) Nona, a Russian Jew who is about 40, is very upset. She says that many of her people came to this country to feel safe, but now they cannot. Having lost many soldier relatives to the Muslims in Afghanistan and Chechniya, their understanding of this conflict is very deep. She says that when we enter Afghanistan, we will “struggle with the shadows,” for the mountainous terrain is a torment to the military.

5) Abdul, 42, a Pakistani Muslim bookseller, gives me an earful. He regrets the terror, expresses some fear of retaliation, and assures me that the Koran forbids the killing of non-combatants. Agreeing that the United States did not deserve this, he still says it could have been avoided had we not supported Israel and left troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. In our 15-minute conversation, he argues that Palestinian suicide bombings are not right but understandable in light of Israeli oppression; that Saudi leadership is a puppet of the U.S.; that Jews have no more right to the land than Muslims have a right to Spain, where they lived for centuries; that a U.S. arms embargo allowed the slaughter of Muslim Serbs; that Osama bin Laden signifies freedom to many people; and that when Muslims won democratic elections in Turkey and Algeria, the military moved in to prevent their accession.

6) Yusef, 29, an Iraqi, says that “everything is sad,” and that it is not a matter of religion, but of sickness. “Some people like to see bleeding.” He believes that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden should be taken out by force. (Incidentally, the Devon Assyrians tell me that their land was the cradle of our faith, for Abraham started there.)

7) Itiha, 43, a Syrian, thanks God that he’s had no problem with threats of retaliation, that he has no enemy here.

8) Mahesh, 42, an Indian Hindu, believes that we will all now live lives of fear. He says the U.S. must be careful to have many nations with them as they act to stamp out terrorism.

9) Alex, 40, is a Roman Catholic from India, a native of Cochin in the state of Kerala. He says that this region was Christian before Europe was Christian, for they believe the apostle Thomas traveled there to plant a church. He says that Devon is an island of safety, unlike some areas of Chicago. After Sept. 11, he regretfully feels that any terrible thing is possible in our country.

10) Raj, 60, holds that neither his own faith, Hinduism, nor Islam teach violence. He explains that there are many branches of Hinduism, but that all focus on the need to identify with God, seek peace and do good. He feels as comfortable and free in Chicago as he did in India, but he has suffered a drop in business since the bombings.

As you talk with these folks, the line between home and foreign missions gets right fuzzy.

A fair number of the storefronts post American flags. One restaurant has seven flying boldly outside. You’re reminded of the Passover, where the children of Israel marked their doorposts with lamb’s blood to escape tragedy. These new Americans want no question of their loyalty and sympathies, and they trust that, seeing the flags, threatening xenophobes will pass on by.

Beyond this issue of safety, you also read in some flags, “We stand as Americans, and though we may not look like Georges Washington and Bush, if anyone wants to hurt this nation, they’ll have to come over us.” It could, in fact, cost them as despisers of America take note of their patriotism.

Have you ever heard someone fault us Baptists for treating the Lord’s Supper as “just a symbol”? There’s no “just” about it. Symbols shout truth and allegiance, and the sound of that shouting is considerable this Saturday on Devon Street.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. Other reflections by Coppenger can be seen at www.listten.com and www.comeletusreason.com.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger