Visiting Lower Wacker Drive
Back in 2001, Pastor Sean Sweetman and a friend from Southern Lakes EFC in Elkhorn, Wis., began driving to downtown Chicago once a year to deliver donated clothes and sleeping bags to the homeless.
Their destination was Wacker Drive—one of several double-decker streets downtown. In northeast Chicago there’s Upper Wacker (for local traffic) and Lower Wacker (for through-traffic and trucks that must access loading docks). And for one small stretch, the street becomes a triple-decker, with Lower Lower Wacker Drive.
In the world of multi-level roadways, especially in a cold northern city, the warmest ones are often down below, away from the biting wind and closer to the warmth of grates.
Sean had learned of Lower Wacker Drive back in the 1990s, while involved with homeless ministry through Moody Bible Institute. He decided to get involved again, as a way to push himself outside his comfortable, small-town Wisconsin environment. So he and his friend, Jess, started making plans.
“We collected clothing through the church, and then the two of us would fill up a van and drive down together,” Sean says. “I remember the van being so full of clothes that we couldn’t see each other between the driver and passenger seats.
For two years, from 2001 to 2003, Sean and Jess drove those two hours to the city once a year to help people who had found a comparatively warm, dry place to sleep along the subterranean streets. Then in 2004, they invited the high-school youth group to join in.
“They immediately responded with enthusiasm,” Sean says. “We have always been at the limit of the number of students we can accommodate.”
Moved to tears, moved to action
Over the last decade, the itinerary for the annual trip has evolved into a full weekend of service. One Friday night each December, two vans full of students and adults drive to their downtown host church, First EFC, for the weekend. From there, they take the “L” train into the city, to meet up with two other vehicles full of clothes, food and barbecue grills.
Once on Lower Wacker Drive, the Southern Lakes teens distribute clothes and sleeping bags, and then invite everyone they’ve met to join them for a cooked meal. They interact, as well, with others who more regularly serve the area’s homeless.
The next day, before returning home to Elkhorn, the youth group participates in another service project. (For the past three years, they’ve wrapped Christmas gifts for the Children’s Hunger Fund.)
Photo: Jason Eeten. In December 2012, Southern Lakes EFC youth visited the Children’s Hunger Fund Warehouse in Chicago, where they joined other volunteers in wrapping gifts for children in need around the world.
“Each year the response is pretty similar,” Sean says. “I see students bringing clothing and food to a homeless man or woman and then coming back to where we have the remaining clothes to be distributed and saying, ‘We need some socks’ or, ‘We need a sleeping bag.’
“They let themselves care for an individual, and they make the effort to come back and try to find the one thing that person may need and then bring it to them.
“Normally, at some point during the night, you will see a dozen students standing in a circle listening to a homeless person tell his or her story, and our students are absolutely captivated, some moved to tears.
“The clothing and food donations are valuable,” Sean says, “but the conversations are priceless. When we leave, we feel as if we are saying goodbye to friends.”
Jason Eeten agrees. As pastor of student ministries, Jason took over coordinating the trip four years ago. He also organizes a clothing drive before the weekend of service, and younger students get involved in the outreach by sorting and bagging the clothes. These junior-high students are then eager to be part of the trip when they reach senior high.
Jason loves watching stereotypes disappear as his students interact one-to-one. “Usually every year,” he says, “there is someone we encounter on the streets who knows far more about the Bible than most of us do,” he says.
True enough, that was the experience of Jessica Swedberg, a ninth-grade student who took her first trip to Lower Wacker Drive this past year. She describes meeting one individual who invited each of them to share a favorite Bible verse: “Then he prayed for the rest of the trip to go well.”
Clearly, the time in downtown Chicago is making a difference. “The students learn quickly that the homeless have a story to tell,” Jason says, “and sometimes their stories aren’t much different from ours except that one day they became homeless, for whatever reason.”
“As is often the case,” Sean adds, “we responded to a need for others and then discovered there was an equally great need in us that God saw fit to meet in an unlikely place.”
To hear one man’s story of his unplanned descent into homelessness, also on Lower Wacker Drive, read “Homeless in Chicago: The (not-so) Magnificent Mile,” by Bob Harris.