The Ramonat Seminar #1: Urban Religion and Identity

dto1-wabash-avenue-ymca

When I signed up for the inaugural year of the Ramonat Seminar, here at LUC, I didn’t imagine it would shape up in the ways it has so far. Granted, I’ve only been in class for a week now having attended two sessions. Nevertheless, my mind had created a false image of what this course will (hopefully) offer, and I can’t say I’m not happy about that!

The full title of the course (Ramonat Seminar: Immigrant Catholics and the Making of Nineteenth-Century Chicago) is all at once a mouthful and straightforward. I believed we’d be solely tracking the rise of Catholic immigration (from the Polish, Italians, and so on) in Chicago point blank. However, I’ve been challenged to throw into this equation my definition of what religion means in an urban setting, and how my various identities have impacted my reading of this phenomenon.

Being a young, Protestant, African-American female from the East coast, having grown up in the depths of suburbia, my perceptions on what it means to be an immigrant Catholic in the city is largely jaded and filled with conclusions fed to me from my youth. Despite Loyola being a Jesuit Catholic University by nature, I have little to no connection with that heritage and rather came for the scenery and pockets of diversity I found in a predominantly white institution. I’m very involved on campus, but at heart, I’m an introvert that prefers to cozy up with a good book then a night out.

With all that said, my knowledge of Catholicism is limited to my theology classes, mass media, close friends, and Saint James Saint John elementary school in the distant past. The city of Chicago has been mediated to me through tourist visits, weekends at mass attractions, and the constant stream of violence on the news. How then, with my own biases, am I to understand the people, places and events we will be covering in this class? For that, again, I have to turn to the authors presented to me and draw upon what I’ve been taught and have experienced “Urban Religion” to be in a general Christian sense.

Wabash_Avenue_YMCA_Chicago_IL

The diversity alone in Rogers Park and the Edgewater areas surrounding Loyola University also reflects the divides still present in modern day Chicago. While not as extreme in the North side as the images Robert Orsi evokes of the South Bronx, I find interesting parallels to the moral panic of then and now. Orsi calls on us to do many things, but what was most interesting to me was the opening in which he challenges us to answer which case of urban religion is most authentic. In the case of the Franciscan nuns and monks, he comments that their vision was to have “[n]ew Christians…begin their spiritual journeys amid the debris of the old world/lost Eden/the South Bronx in disrepair, and then move through the waters of rebirth to the garden — and a revitalized South Bronx — beyond” (Orsi 3). Liberation theology teaches us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, but he asks the readers to see if this solidarity isn’t just our ideologies speaking over the people there.

While both images I’ve used in this post are showing the YMCA located on Wabash Avenue, this story of the Great Migration of African-American’s from the South, though not entirely Catholic in nature, mirrors my experience with urban religion. The Y and various other enclaves were meant to ward off the evil influences of the city (big and small), which appeared to crusaders of that day as “…caves of rum and Romanism, mysterious and forbidding, a threat to democracy, Protestantism, and virtue alike” (Orsi 6). While I do believe what is perceived as bad has shifted, this view of the city as predator rather than home of various people remains.

Musing on the words of the Christian theologian Paul Tillich, his so-called “ontological question”, Tweed confronts how space and time influence our experiences of religion shared or not. Instead of “Why is there something; why not nothing?”, Tweed thinks everyday people are more likely to ask “Where do I belong? How did we get here” (Tweed 86)? Cuban Catholics experience of Urban religion became the parish as “…the displacement of transnational migration had disrupted their sense of time and place” (Tweed 86). This becomes startling clear to me walking down Devon and seeing the various ethnic groups largely displaced and having to resettle, and recreate their culture in a foreign land. This too is similar to the immigrant Catholics of the nineteenth century, or the African-Americans seeking opportunity in the recently antebellum North.

I finish with why I called this blog Mustard Seed Catholicism. Past needing to find a title not already in use, I tend to remember this parable very clearly from my childhood in the various bible boot camps I attended to put it crudely. I pass this very same parable everyday on my way to the mail room, to get fast food, and any number of things along Devon Ave. Just as Robert Orsi and Thomas Tweed grapple with the consequences of bias and migrations effects on our understanding of urban religion, I hope that my views can blossom, and a new understanding of this city and subset of immigrants that came to it can bear fruit.

“He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches” (Matt. 13:31-32)

  • Robert Orsi, Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape
  • Thomas Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (2007)
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