From the archives: Take it to the Streets

Author’s note: Between July 2010 and February 2011, I wrote a series of posts for the old Underblog of the Chicago Underground Library, now the Read/Write Library. “From the CUL Stacks: Take it to the Streets” was originally published October 8, 2010.

Chicago in the mid-1980s may still have been the City of Big Shoulders, but those shoulders definitely ached. The inner city festered with poverty, gangs, and drugs. City and county government, already legendary for the amount of business they conducted under the table, took another hit when the FBI’s Operation Greylord nabbed forty-nine judicial and law enforcement personnel for fixing everything from tickets to divorces.

Meanwhile, when they weren’t getting indicted, elected officials in the unsettled interim between the two Daleys spent most of their time ferociously jockeying for position. They earned Chicago an unflattering sobriquet: “Beirut on the Lake.” 

In the midst of the turmoil, a group of local Protestant pastors—white, black, Latino, poor, well-heeled, from different denominations—had a “light-bulb” moment. If they could unite, then maybe Chicago, cracking loudly along so many fault lines, could unite, too.

The result was an ambitious urban mission called Operation Harvest. Joan Bauer tells its story in her self-published 1987 book Take it to the Streets.

She starts in 1983. That year, Pastor Al Smith from Faith Tabernacle believed God was telling him to march around City Hall with his flock, blowing a trumpet. This was supposed to be a stand against corruption that would renew the city’s soul.

Smith did it, and four thousand people joined him, many from congregations other than his own. He paid careful attention to that, and by 1986 Smith felt ready to ask clergy from a variety of churches to join him in a massive, month-long evangelizing outreach.

The message was traditional and conservative—“Jesus Saves”—but this time denominations were going to put aside most doctrinal differences, traditionally a fertile source of mutual sniping, and work together. They would also make a point of crossing traditional cultural, ethnic, and class lines. They would unite in faith and encourage Chicagoans to do likewise.

Lasting from July 1 to August 15, 1986, Operation Harvest gathered more than a hundred congregations to spread the Gospel at 171 events, with the goal of reaching one million people. Outreach ranged from the traditional (distributing religious tracts on street corners), to the whimsical (clowns putting on puppet shows), to the downright quixotic (a minister driving up and down Michigan Avenue, evangelizing by megaphone). And Bauer, a devout believer, was around for most of it as both fly-on-the-wall and participant.

She provides an insider’s look at people, many of whom were totally unaccustomed to street evangelizing, learning to do things they never thought they could do with people they never expected to meet. That includes Bauer herself. Whether or not you share her faith, there is a certain charm in watching Bauer shed her awkwardness and take to the hustings, one day rehearsing with a dance troupe, and another day witnessing in Cabrini-Green.

Secular readers should be aware that Take it to the Streets is as much a religious work as a journalistic one. Bauer’s text can devolve into opaque “Christianese,” replete with references to how “the Lord did this” or “God did that.” She writes, to borrow a term from my theology professors, “from faith to faith,” and not so much for the unconvinced. Also, Bauer uses the term “Christian” almost exclusively for the charismatic and evangelical beliefs reflected in Operation Harvest—pointedly leaving out Catholics, Orthodox, and most mainline Protestants, who did not participate in the outreach.

That said, Take it to the Streets is still a time capsule—perhaps the only time capsule—for a watershed moment in Chicago’s religious history when a diverse, fractious group of people abruptly came together, trying to heal the wounds of the city. They cured nothing, but left an ideal of which everyone, devout or not, could dream. As Bauer described it:

“To unite in love, then, is the point. Perhaps the greatest lesson to learn from the people of Operation Harvest is simply to try.”
— Justin Sengstock

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