A couple weeks ago Mim and I drove to Chicago for the day to attend the visitation for Nita Beran, a good friend from our early years of living in Chicago. The quick trip brought back lots of memories, and prompted me to think about some of the hopes and dreams we had back in those “good old days.”
As many of you know, Mim and I met each other in 1973 at a small group Bible Study. Mim had moved from Minneapolis to Chicago just a few months before, and she was working as a registered nurse at Swedish Covenant Hospital on the northwest side of Chicago. I had just been offered a job as an editorial researcher for The World Book Encyclopedia, and I was staying with a friend for a few days while I looked for an apartment before I moved to Chicago to start my new job. I accompanied my friend to a neighborhood Bible Study one evening, and that’s where I met Mim. When Mim found out I was looking for an apartment, she offered to let me live with her until I could find a place of my own. That was 43 years ago and we’re still living together.
Given that we met in a Bible study, it’s not surprising that we considered it important to go to church. The first church we attended together regularly was Circle Church. The church, founded by David Mains, an Evangelical Free pastor, was very creative, progressive, experimental, and evangelical. The congregation met in the Teamsters Union Hall, southwest of the loop, near the Circle Campus of the University of Illinois. The location is how it picked up the name Circle Church. The congregation was predominantly young, idealistic, college-educated adults with a passion for doing something constructive to improve society, to live the kind of lives God expected them to live.
In 1968, the far west side of Chicago, the Austin neighborhood, had been the scene of extremely violent and destructive race riots. In the early 1970s Austin continued to be one of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in Chicago. Several young couples from Circle Church decided to move into the Austin neighborhood to provide much needed professional services to the community and to become a stabilizing component in the community. They formed a non-profit organization called Circle Urban Ministries that served as an umbrella for some of the services they hoped to provide.
Three young doctors in the church, who were just completing their residencies in a nearby hospital, and a nurse, Nita Beran, got together to establish a non-profit medical clinic, Circle Christian Health Center (CCHC), where they planned to provide wholistic health care services to the community.
Of the three doctors – Emily Bray, Jon Beran (Nita’s husband), and John Payne, I knew Emily the best. She had been my roommate at Wheaton College. Emily and I graduated from Wheaton in 1970.
Mim and I never joined the group of enthusiastic and dedicated Christians who lived in Austin, but we did eventually become involved in their medical ministry.
When Mim moved to Chicago in 1972, she started her professional nursing career at Swedish Covenant Hospital. She worked at Swedish for several years, settling into the Emergency Room as her specialty. She liked the pace and challenge of being able to help people in emergency situations.
In the late 1970s she learned about a program at Rush University where she would be able to get her master’s degree in nursing as a family nurse practitioner. It was a two-year full-time program, which meant she would have to reduce her working hours to part-time and also find other funding to cover the tuition.
She left Swedish Covenant Hospital to work in the emergency room of Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital, a busy ER located just off the Eisenhower Expressway on the near west side of Chicago. After working there full-time for a year, she was able to reduce her hours to part-time while she worked on her master’s degree. She was also able to find the perfect grant to cover her tuition and even provide her a small stipend. It was a federal grant targeted toward developing nurse practitioners to serve in medically under-served areas. One of the grant requirements was that grant recipients would have to provide two years of service in a medically under-served area after completion of the program. Circle Christian Health Center in the Austin neighborhood qualified to meet this requirement. So that’s where Mim went to work after completing her program. Also, as part of her master’s program, her preceptorship was at CCHC, where she was mentored by all three physicians.
Meanwhile, I also decided to go to graduate school, and in 1981 I completed my MBA from the University of Chicago. However, my pathway to paying for it was easier than Mim’s. After two years I left World Book and I got a job with Northwest Industries, a major corporation in the loop. They encouraged me to get an MBA and actually paid for it as long as I took classes part-time and continued to work full-time. I completed my MBA from the University of Chicago in 1981. When I completed the program, my former college roommate Emily knew I would have more time on my hands, and asked me to become a member of the board of directors of Circle Christian Health Center. For the next few years, both Mim and I were deeply involved with CCHC.
Jon Beran was the most low-key of the doctors at CCHC, and he was a good fit to become our family doctor for both Mim and me. (Also, several years later, when neither Mim nor I were working with CCHC any more, my mom came to Chicago to live with us for the last six weeks of her life while she received hospice care. Jon was willing to become her primary doctor. He made house calls to see her, traveling across the city, carrying his doctoring tools in a Jewel Food Store plastic bag so as not to draw attention – and danger – to his identity as a doctor who might be carrying drugs.)
Nita Beran, whose visitation we drove to Chicago for, was Jon’s wife and one of the clinic founders. As the first Nursing Director, Nita was the one who designed the nursing and administrative processes that enabled the clinic to treat patients with loving care, as whole people, not just as ailments to cure.
When Mim stepped into Nita’s role as Nursing Director, Nita continued to work part-time with Mim while she also took care of her young, growing family. Nita and Jon had two children. Peter became an architect and still lives in Chicago. He spent the last couple years living with and helping his parents. Becky became a family practice doctor, like her dad. She and her family live in Tulsa.
For Mim and me, driving back into the Austin community, was a trip back to our past in more ways than one. Despite the faith and efforts of the idealistic young people who moved into the neighborhood in the 1970s, many of whom are still living and working there, Austin is still a very poor and violent area. Circle Urban Ministries and Circle Christian Health Center are still in operation. Jon still works at the clinic, although he has reduced his hours to about 3/4 time (half-time on paper, he said).
As we drove down Madison Avenue looking for the funeral home and the parking lot, Mim and I made a quick decision. The two parking lots across the street from the funeral home where we were told we could park looked too unsafe. The two lots were separated by one storefront, a liquor store, we think. Several guys were leaning against the chain link fences surrounding the empty parking lots, which had weeds growing up in the cracks of the broken concrete. Not a place where we wanted to leave our car, and not a place where we wanted to even walk across the street. We decided to drive around the block and look for street parking on the same side as the funeral home. Fortunately, there was a spot right in front of the funeral home. And even more fortunately, Mim was driving at the time, and she’s better at parallel parking than I am. An elderly black gentleman opened the door of the funeral home for us and showed us where to go for the Nita Beran visitation. Then he went back to his perch – looking out the window at the street, keeping an eye on guests and their cars.
Once we were inside the funeral home, we were comfortable, and had warm hugs and good conversations with Jon, his children, and a few other people. The trip was an amazing step back in time. Friendships and hope truly survive. Unfortunately, the challenges of a far-from-perfect world survive, as well.
Nita had been living with ovarian cancer for a few years. Despite her personal challenges, she lived with hope and appreciation for each day. At the visitation, Jon gave us a sheet of paper that contained Nita’s thoughts on living with ovarian cancer, written last fall. This is the first paragraph of what she wrote:
This week I hung up a fall wreath on our front porch. Just a small action, probably being repeated in many households across the country. But for me, it brought a memory of December 2014, when I found that wreath at Aldi, marked down to a quite reasonable price. I debated whether I should buy it because I was thinking, “You probably won’t be alive by next fall.” After a short time of deliberation, I put it in my shopping cart with the thought, “Someone else can enjoy it.” So now it is early October 2015, and my emotional response to finding it in the basement was mild surprise that I’m here to enjoy it! I share this as a small example of how the knowledge of a life-threatening illness pops up in my thinking in ordinary, sometimes humorous ways. Now when I see that wreath, it makes me smile.
“Hope” is defined by the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as, “to desire with expectation of obtainment.” Nita hoped that the wreath she bought on sale in December 2014 would bring joy to someone the next fall – whether that someone was herself or someone she loved. Back in the mid-1970s a group of idealistic young doctors and nurses at Circle Church hoped that they would be able to provide good quality health care services to the marginalized people living in the violent and economically depressed Austin community of Chicago. That hope came to fulfillment with the creation of Circle Christian Health Center – which is still meeting the health care needs of this community nearly 40 years later.
Memories and Hope. Mim and I feel very fortunate that we could share in this hope with these wonderful old friends. Our day trip to Chicago was a trip down memory lane. Like Nita, we have fall decorations to put out come October. Now I have a new memory along with renewed hopes to contemplate as we decorate for fall.
One more thought of Nita’s… Further down on the page we received at her visitation, she wrote about living with uncertainty.
It is hard to plan ahead when I don’t know how I will be feeling or what variables will hit. My challenge is to walk in faith, trusting God for whatever this day holds. So I want to be … living with hope and appreciation for each day.
Nita ended that thought by citing Romans 15:13 –
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. [NIV]