Faith

Have a Little Faith

Father Wolf Werling discusses faith, history, and his South Shore nonprofit

Jordan Jackson

My experience of South Shore was that there was a large change after the old generation that had worked in the mills basically earned enough money to start moving away. There was a transition with a lot more of an African-American population moving in and a greater presence of Hispanic households. By the time I was in school, I think two-thirds of those in my class were Hispanic. A couple kids were still Polish, because the neighborhood where I was in was almost all Polish or Scandinavian or Slovakian. But again, it was really more of a time where the steel mills were winding down, even there, and the writing was on the wall: it was over. You started to see more and more vacant buildings. That was the late sixties through the seventies. By the eighties, we had moved out ourselves, out to the suburbs. However, we had property there [in South Shore] and family and relatives still there. The parish of Saint Michael the Archangel had always been our family parish. My great-grandparents were married there in 1893.

What drew you back to Chicago and to the South Side?

I always wrestle with this because it does seem like things have moved on there. Ultimately, I feel a connection to the people, even though those who are there were not the classmates or people I identify my actual experiences with. Yet, they are part of the future, and I just want to allow people the same excitement about living as I remembered. When it comes to providing them an opportunity to enjoy life—that is important to me, regardless of whatever religious convictions I might have. There’s always the challenge, wondering if it will happen and if I can do this, so it’s a personal question of if the idea can really grow.

Is there a particular part of the LHI program that you’re most excited about?

I’m always interested in the people parts. Buildings come and go, and there are always things you can build in a physical sense. But if I can get some kids to learn the history and become this kind of “docent”—it would be cool to have tour guides all with their own personality and their own beat. They’d describe the history of the past in today’s vocabulary, and they would embody history. In the end, it’s about moral change and character development and being a leader. When you learn the history, you learn the skills that make you marketable, so you can earn a living, but also that help you internally be a better person in a way you can pass on.

The docents would be showing people around the cluster of buildings that are being renovated now?

Yes. You need to have a brick and mortar; you have to have a place where people can go inside to learn, and that’s a challenge in and of itself. How do I come up with a creative way to use the space? But in the end, I just want to see kids running and laughing and jumping and passing that joy on to their friends and parents and classmates. I want them to know that someone cared enough to help.

Has there been a part of the project that has been more difficult than you expected?

People are funny. I think they’re well-intended and they like the idea when they hear it, but it’s like the seed that gets planted on different types of ground—you have to find a place where the roots can grow. People don’t always do what they say they are going to do, which leaves me with a sequence of events that gets backed up. It’s like the image of the plates spinning on the rods, and when one starts to slow down I have to run over and keep it going. In the end, that’s why it’s a real spiritual call to doing this. I’m saying, “Lord, you’re in charge of this whole thing and if it falls down, that’s on you. Let’s find a way to get shepherds to this flock of sheep and send in those people who know how to organize stuff.”

It is too much for one person, and as much as I try, I do realize that I need to scale back. We’ve had one building that’s ready to go with a lot of things, since it was lived in before LHI got it, but it’s been dormant because some piece of the puzzle hasn’t been applied… Needless to say, there’s been some letdown.

Once everything takes off, what is the best possible ideal outcome of LHI?

What I would love is to have people back to the days of hanging out on their porch, walking down the streets safely, trusting each other, and an idea of accountability. Sometimes apathy and sloth creep in, and people think there’s no use in trying. But you’re going to fail at something, and you can always try again. I’ve been thinking a lot about joy, and what joy means at a spiritual level, and that needs to be applied into a mechanism where kids, parents, teachers, and ministers are all focused on the same outcome and the path to get there. That’s where I hope this neighborhood goes. Everyone has a role to play in the building-up, and then it just blossoms.

Do you see this project expanding into other neighborhoods?

I’d love to expand. I have no monopoly on grace; I have no best ideas. If I see something that’s being done, I’ll help and join. This approach is universal, and it highlights the past without trying to live in it. Some parts of the past were better, some were not, but they all teach us something. Parts of the past happened behind closed doors and are kept secret, and that’s unhealthy. I’m trying to bring everything out to the forefront and talk about it, realizing that there are sensitive things that need a place where there’s structured support and proper channels for dealing with that. People say they just need jobs, they just need money in their pocket, but I’ve lived in some pretty poor places around this world, and being poor doesn’t give you the right to steal from somebody or to act out in a harmful or self-destructive way. I’ve seen people who have remained very spiritually centered and self-actualizing. It’s more rewarding in a lot of ways. People think they are facing moral dilemmas and the worst things ever, but I’ll tell them, “Hey, this has been solved in the sixth century.” People have been dealing with the same human problems for so many years. It’s just a matter of reflection, no matter who or where you are.

What’s nice about the neighborhood we’re in now is that on the street, they greet me with “Yo, priest,” and it’s just so fun, because that’s a way of saying they know who I am—they know I’m a priest who’s walking around picking up the garbage. I remember how I was around people who seemed larger than life, and it was intimidating, yet inviting. Like the veterans—one of our programs is to support the veterans—and it seems like they’ve been through their battles.

When I hitchhiked to California at fifteen, following a girl, I didn’t know or care about anything. But that experience is still important. All the difficult parts of my life make sense now. Priests all have gifts, but mine helps with the formation of a person’s soul and with knowing how to love. My experiences give me the credibility to say that I’ve been there too. When you empathize with someone, those are the only answers that really make sense.

My father said to me when I was in high school, “You will either be the greatest success or the ultimate failure.” There is no in-between with me. I think people are afraid to get started because they might look bad or fail, but I’ve learned that fear and anger, which I have felt since I was young, make much more sense when you apply them to service. LHI is all about bringing lights to people and recognizing that they have the light inside themselves. You have to engage with the person and tell them that their light is beautiful. You might not realize how awesome your light is either, until you see it reflected in the other person. I hope people can embrace their fears. It’s worth the effort.

I see these little kids, and they’re looking up at me asking me when we’ll open. I don’t want to overpromise, so I just tell them I’m working at it every day. I’m not just going to do it and leave. The scaffolding has been there for almost a year, and when we open, we’ll be there for a long time.

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