Kori & Matt Podszus
Where are you from?
Matt’s mom and dad actually met and spent their early married life in Chicago. Matt grew up in Colorado Springs but spent much of his summers during childhood on the east coast (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York) with his mom. His parents got divorced when he was four, and his mom moved to Connecticut when he was seven. Kori grew up on a farm in central Kansas. The name of the town is Greensburg, and it gained notoriety back in 2007 when a tornado destroyed the entire town.
What brought you to Chicago?
The short answer is calling—or maybe an invitation from God. Some might say “work”, but the decision ran deeper than that for us. We were living in Lawrence, Kansas doing work with a campus ministry called The Navigators. Our work was rewarding and fruitful. We’d been blessed to be surrounded by an incredible community. We loved the town and loved our life there. In 2011 our organization asked us to consider a move. We were both surprised by a shared sense of openness to the idea. We at least felt a pull to give prayer to the decision. In fact, we told our organization we would need at least a year to pray through the decision. It was excruciating, actually. There wasn’t anything about Chicago, per se, that attracted us. It wasn’t like we sat around dreaming of moving to Chicago. There were certainly times when the prospect of making the move seemed utterly ridiculous.
In fact, it was by praying through the obstacles—the difficulty of the work, the well-being of our kids, and the cost, specifically—that we felt God asking us to trust him in the decision. There’s a verse in the book of Jeremiah where God addresses his people, “I remember the devotion of your youth. How as a bride you followed me into the wilderness; into a land not sown.” (2:13) If I’m honest (Matt), it seems like that verse sort of hovered in front of me during this process—like the Holy Spirit kept asking, “Does this option resemble that verse?” It was a bit maddening, actually. In the end, we knew it was Chicago. We moved here to start a collegiate ministry largely from scratch. We knew almost no one. We definitely knew nothing about campus life in the city. It was absolutely a step into the overwhelming unknown. We get overwhelmed just thinking back on those days of decision. It was more about meeting a person than doing a thing—more about being invited by God to come and meet him here in a new way. It has certainly been that.
What do you find challenging about living here?
Isn’t living in Chicago an adventure? Chicago is like ailing patient who has been over-prescribed. Her sicknesses are serious; stuff like racism, segregation, corruption, and the abuse of power. But the prescriptions are often superficial, and our city can feel like it is in a malaise. There’s this great interaction between God and the prophet Jonah at the end of the book of Jonah. Jonah has just watched God extend forgiveness to the people of Ninevah, and he’s not happy about it. God makes a little tree grow that gives Jonah shade, but then causes it to die—this also makes Jonah angry. God tells him, “You didn’t do anything to make that little tree grow, but you’re so upset that it’s gone. Should I not care for this great city?” That one sentence always gets me: “This great city!” God had just finished sending Jonah to tell Ninevah how horrible they were, but then he turns around and says, “This is a great city!” Whenever we’re complaining about Chicago, sometimes its OK to acknowledge that it has its challenges—but it is also good to let yourself see what it could be; to say, “This is a really great city” with God.
God had the prophet Jeremiah tell the Jewish exiles in Babylon to settle in and work in their city of exile. He said, “your well-being will be wrapped up in the well-being of the city.” (The word is shalom or “wholeness.”) I mean, it’s ultimately a real pleasure and joy to be here trying to seed this place with wholeness.
Why do you love it?
Firstly, Chicago just lets you appreciate so much. There’s the loop with all of its fun city stuff like Maggie Daley Park, the Ribbon Rink or the Chicago Athletic Association, but then there are all these amazing neighborhoods! We live in Hyde Park, which is wonderful! Little Village, Pilsen, South Shore, Uptown, Andersonville—it’s just an ecosystem of endless places to discover; places with loads of character. We love the lake (a lot). Swimming and paddle-boarding off Promontory Point, riding our bikes to the beaches, even just driving our kids to school up Lake Shore Drive. We always say that looking out on the lake is like giving your soul a deep breath! It’s a different lake every day; different colors and shapes and movements.
Why do you stay?
We stay because it has become home. The other day we were talking with one of our kids, and she said (this is totally her personality), “You know, it used to be that we ‘moved to Chicago’… but now we just live here. It’s what we know.” That’s true. Any place you live, you build a life. We have good friends. We do important work. We know our way around. In the spiritual realm, we still certainly know there is something here for us—for our whole family. We always pray through our decisions, and like waking up every day knowing that we are where God wants us. It really adds a sense of wonder and expectancy to life—and also resiliency. Maybe someday we will sense that Chicago has given us everything God intended it to give us, but we really feel like we’re just at the start of that.
How has community affected your time here?
Community in Chicago is interesting. It seems like we have a lot of intersecting points: school, neighborhood, church, happenstance. It’s always so funny living in a city like this, because you kind of interview people. (We think everybody does this.) “So. Do you like living in Chicago? Do you see yourself staying here for a while? Ok…” It’s just a reality that people are constantly moving on and you end up hedging sometimes.
We’ve been very blessing to be among a community of people who are stayers. This is so great, because we all get the challenges and joys—Chicago puts you in solidarity, we think. This can be felt so profoundly when you are in need. Our washer and dryer conked out on us a while back, and we were doing laundry at, literally, 4 people’s homes! Our next door neighbors, our friends from around the corner, friends we met through our kids school and a friend from the dog park (fellow labradoodle owner!). That’s a really sweet feeling! It can be a challenge—it requires intentionality and grace—but community is worth the fight. Maybe it’s the lack of community that actually drives some people out? Regardless, our community makes life very rich. I (Kori) would add that building community has taken effort, commitment, and time…lots of time. I think typically it is said that when moving to a new place, it takes about 3 years before you start feeling settled and like you have found your place in community. But in a transient, often disconnected city like Chicago, I would say the time line is extended- more like 5 years- and requires intentionality and perseverance. But it is necessary, rich, and worth it.
Can you speak into the creativity found in the Chicago community? How does it inspire you?
So we work with college students, and, right after we moved here, we started setting up spring break service trips for students from other campuses (like Purdue or Tennessee). Part of that would be hosting a joint open mic night at UIC for the visiting students and the Chicagoans. It was a study in contrast. The kids from the traditional state schools oftentimes got up and did goofy stuff—kind of poking fun at themselves—but the Chicago kids just bore their souls, and it was beautiful! It had a quality of dignity and celebration in one’s heritage and self in an unapologetic way. It was inspiring.
I (Matt) have more recently jumped into a few contexts that are so enjoyable: namely storytelling and improv. Again, these spaces have this unpretentious atmosphere where magical stuff happens. I told a story at a Moth Storyslam last summer. I put my name in the hat, and sat there very nervously. But, after a few storytellers had gone, I was so aware that this was a room gathered around a mutual value of people’s stories. I could literally feel the pressure lifting as I sat there—telling my little vignette that night was very cathartic. That seems like an underappreciated piece of living in a city like Chicago—a release valve! You don’t have to kick the dust and hang your head when you say you’re writing a blog or doing a podcast or acting in a play or starting a community garden—so many people are probing the arenas into which they can offer themselves. That’s part of what we love about Chicago.
I (Kori) feel greatly inspired by the greenspaces and gardens found throughout Chicago- the Lurie Garden is my favorite. To me, it is at once both ethereal and ruggedly beautiful. And it is right in the heart of Chicago; right in the middle of the hustle and bustle! When I am there I am transported to another place—removed and heightened and stilled. And, this is just one of many of the horticulture treasures in Chicago. Walking through neighborhoods and peering over gates into gardens is a favorite past time.
When do you feel most empowered and comfortable in your own skin?
I (Kori) feel most empowered and comfortable in my own skin when I find myself in the position of being able to gather people and relationships together in settings where community and connection can grow and develop. For the first few years when we moved to Chicago, I clearly remember the great sense of loss and feeling of being untethered that came from lack of community. We were not in a position to gather because the dynamics didn’t exist—in fact we were entirely at the mercy of others to hopefully include us! But slowly, we began making connections through school, work, neighborhood, kids, church, etc. And over time, we realized we finally had developed a wide and deep enough circle to host a holiday gathering and bring lots of people together. After doing the planning, inviting, hosting, making the play list, etc., I remember standing in the middle of our crowded, loud kitchen, feeling so full—tangibly experiencing the dynamic community that, by God’s grace, we had built.
I (Matt) feel the same way. There’s certainly something so powerful about seeing great people connect and become part of one another’s lives—to play a role in that is energizing. I would also say that I have days when I am sort of boinging between connections with people—students I’m mentoring, staff I’m coaching, friends or colleagues I am learning and engaging with—and those can just be such great days. Sitting across from someone and getting deep into an important topic. There’s this story where a crowd of people are pressing in on Jesus, but a woman squeezes her way through and touches his cloak and is healed. The story says that she feels it immediately, but what is also cool is that Jesus stops and says, “Who touched me?” Of course the answer was, “everybody!” But Jesus says, “No, but power went out from me.” Kind of strange, but also kind of awesome. This lady feels something happen in her. Jesus feels it too. Some days are like that. Hard to explain, but you come home and think, “Something powerful was going out of me, and I think we both felt it.” Also, and this has become almost a liturgy for us, just ambling out to the dog park every morning around 7:30 and then again around 5. There’s just this wonderful gathering of people who all basically like each other. We just stand around talking about our dogs and little life things. It is such a warm and unpretentious crowd. (Especially in the summer. People will linger for well over an hour.)
Beyond that, when I (Matt) am emotionally and mentally buoyant, writing about the topics and thoughts that I’m trying to make sense of can be a pretty zen space. Sometimes (like now) things are coming at us too fast—its like Tetris—and it’s hard to feel like all the thoughts and ideas are more than a cluttered mess. But there are these periods of lucidity during which it is a joy and outlet just to make sense of things through writing. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I’ve read what I’ve written.” That’s kind of true for me.
Has living in the city affected your style and the way you approach what you purchase / invest in. If so, how?
Well. It’s definitely made us more resourceful. Lots of dollars get spoken for! It has taught us the value of great winter wear—you just can’t avoid being outside during these brutal winters, so you’d better buck up and get the warm stuff! For similar reasons, shoes are important. I (Matt) was literally icing my feet every night during our first few months here—I needed better shoes! It’s easy to get a bit swept up in the fashion and style-consciousness of the city, but it seems like you just need to land on a style that is the best expression of you. You could say the city kind of asks that of us. It’s a fair request.
Also, living in Hyde Park is kind of a relief. Let’s just say you can get away with a lot in our neighborhood—maybe the value is on brains over style, but even that is endearing.
How has Chicago affected your worldview, if at all?
Totally. It has been an overhaul. The way we think about values, race, injustice—just learning to place value on the experiences of others in a less critical more charitable way. It’s been profound. Then you think, “Well how does God think about these things?” and that opens whole new passageways. You realize that suburban living is predicated on insulation and, to a large degree, homogeneity. The city may not be a melting pot, but it is definitely a tossed salad. The proximity to the stories and lives of others in Chicago makes it hard to caricature. When you think of dynamics of privilege, segregation, inequality, and power, it darn near forces you to sit up and listen. It is also humbling. So, so many gifted folks lay their lives down for the well-being of the many communities in our city—but there’s so much important work to be done. I think we’ve been disabused of a savior complex, but are trying to stay tender, resilient, available. I (Matt) was at a faith and politics forum with some mayoral candidates a few weeks ago. One of the candidates said, “Nothing for us without us.” What he was saying was that those with power and money and other resources need to start by asking and listening—don’t come marching in with your pre-fab ‘solutions’. We’re learning to live that way. Truthfully, it can be hard to leave Chicago for this reason. The perspectives and conversations and pre-conceptions can feel so inverted in other places. It can start to feel like you’ve assumed a new native tongue. Yeah, Chicago has changed us forever—most definitely for the better. But the process has been hard—still is.
Do you have an experience or a specific encounter here that has moved you/stayed with you that you’d be up for sharing?
Last fall we did a bonfire by the lake. It was a hairbrained idea, but we thought we’d give it a shot. We invited a lot of people we knew from a lot of different parts of our life—it was at a fire-pit on Promontory Point. It was gorgeous—the waves were wild and up over 10 feet tall. We had this big fire and the sparks were flying everywhere. People were coming and going and trying to figure out who one another were. The kids got drenched by this wave that exploded all the way up into the park area. We were all kind of wondering what we were doing or whether it was safe. The city was all lit up in the distance, and we made it work. It was kind of an analogue of life in Chicago. It’s pretty, a bit out of control, an adventure verging on a catastrophe, but you kind of gather people around you for the ride.
Is there any scripture that’s been on your heart / has resonated with you lately?
For me (Kori), Isaiah 30:21 has been an anchor. “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” During a LONG season of seeking new employment options and venturing into the unknown, God would gently remind me of this verse and I clung to it. It was my guiding force. Gosh—there are always so many. A verse we’ve meditated on and tried to live into since arriving is Isaiah 43:18-19: “Forget the former things; / do not dwell on the past. / See, I am doing a new thing! / Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? / I am making a way in the wilderness / and streams in the wasteland.” Firstly, isn’t it wonderful that God inspired prophets to mostly communicate to his people through poetry? But that verse is just like a bottomless pool of clear water. So much of our life in Chicago has been letting go of old things in order to perceive the new. Harder than it sounds! That’s why I (Matt) love the question in this verse: “Do you not perceive it?” It’s as though God is saying, “C’mon now!” He’s been saying that a lot to me lately. It’s almost like the “ways” and “streams” are actually the selfsame as perceiving: when you perceive what God seems to be doing, it shows paths you’d never seen and opens up a flow of joy and hope and excitement. Sometimes when you are stuck in old ways, everything can seem like a barren wilderness.
If you’re in a season of distance from God, what are your questions / struggles?
The longer I (Matt) walk through life, I almost feel like the times of distance and closeness with God intermingle. I’m also kind of a moody person, and can’t always predict which version of me will get out of bed on any given day. I’m grateful for the scripture I’ve memorized during such times—although my memory isn’t what it used to be! Verses like Lamentations 3:22 are oftentimes a lifeline, “Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed; for his compassions never fail; they are new every morning.” Or Psalm 42:11, “Why are you downcast, my soul? Why are you are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God—for I will yet praise him, my Savior and God!” These are both versions of “talking to yourself instead of listening to yourself.” It’s this holy moxy thing that can be pretty inspiring. Chicago developes grit in people, that’s for sure. I do think that verses like these—telling yourself the truth when you are deluged in discouragement—allows me to maintain a level of kindness and calmness even with the grit.
Living in such an unpredictable city as Chicago has caused me to relate to God as Savior in a less apologetic way. We so often feel in over our heads here, and throughout the psalms you see God related to as Savior. The American ideals of “rugged individualism” often make us abashed for needing “saving”—I’m learning to just come into God’s throne room, and say, “Well—we’re needing some more saving.” I think God just smiles back knowingly and says, “Sure thing.”
I’ve also been increasingly helped by re-examining the mode of scripture. Like I said earlier, it’s mostly poems and stories. It is decidedly not tidy or neatly resolved. I think so many of us have grown up in churches and Christian communities that did damage to the nature of scripture by making it a user’s manual or some overly triumphant and straightforward thing. Scripture is like Jesus: exactly what we need, but not exactly what we would have asked for. There is a great joy in taking a deep breath and just receiving God’s self-revelation as it is.
On the contrary, if you’re experiencing closeness with God, how might you encourage our brothers and sisters who are wrestling with believing God is real and for us?
I’m usually better at encouraging people when I’m feeling discouraged, I think. It’s a paradox. Maybe I’m less cavalier in those times. CS Lewis once wrote, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
I can’t remember where I encountered this thought, but it was something to do with how hope rebukes our presumptuousness. Hopelessness is just our way of saying, “I know all the outcomes, and they’re all bad.” We do this with doubts and circumstances and everything, but we’re not leaving room for God’s creative love. I don’t know why, but God seems to be all about surprises. It’s really frustrating sometimes. I’m going to bring it up to him when we meet. But he wants to bring us to these places where our understanding and experience runs dry, and that’s where he meets us. When the people were given manna, they walked out and said, “what the heck is this stuff?” That’s literally what manna means in Hebrew: “what the?” But God told them later that he did it this way so that they would learn that they didn’t survive by bread alone but by the things he’d told them—his words. I kind of love that he actually introduced a new category for them. He is the creator, after all. There are whole categories we’re unaware of: ideas we haven’t had, possibilities we’d never considered, twists and turns we’d never have predicted, healings we thought were no longer available. God isn’t distant from these things in our lives—he’s not toying with us! I think he’s always doing a deep, healing, transformative work—Henri Nouwen would say he is making us “wounded healers”; just like Jesus. I’ve heard it said, “he wastes no pain.” That’s good to remember. But pain is still pain. That’s good to remember too.
How did you know Chicago was where you wanted to move your family?
“Wanted” is really the wrong word. In fact, that was the last thing we wanted. Similar to what we said above about how God challenges our finite categories of thinking about things, it seemed like we were able to move our family here when we were able to admit that God could do things that we categorically couldn’t predict—that he is in the business of doing this! It took much prayer before we finally said uncle on this one. Part of this was also letting our kids childhood be different than our childhood. We can both be a bit nostalgic. We both had some sweet times growing up in rural Kansas and Colorado. So that’s our story. Our kids will tell a very different one.
Truthfully, this has remained a difficulty for us. Life is very complex and very expensive in Chicago. Sometimes we still feel saddened by our inability to provide our kids with opportunities that seem to come so easily elsewhere. We sometimes say that if we lived in the suburbs or a small-town we would live under the pleasant illusion that we knew exactly how things were going to go—the path before us would be fairly straightforward. Of course, it would be an illusion—you never really know what’s coming! But it’s a pleasant illusion; you spend less time fretting. But in Chicago you live every day knowing you don’t know what is coming. It’s an opportunity to let go of this illusion and instead stay present—“who of you by worrying can add a single day to your life?” It would be nice to have more trust in God though. Sometimes you can feel the unknown putting you on edge. That’s definitely something we’re always working on. That didn’t answer your question. Sorry.
I (Kori) would add, that in terms of “wanting” to move our family to Chicago, what Matt and I always try to discern together is what God wants and then align ourselves with his that. Sometimes that is easy and sometimes, like in moving to Chicago, it is hard. When we were moving, a longtime Lawrence friend that was sad to see us go, but added, “There is no safer place to be than in the will of God.” Of course, you have to expand how you view “safe” in terms of God, but our friend was right. This is the posture we try to have toward God’s calling. If we are confident we are where he wants us to be, we can face whatever lies ahead.
What were some challenges in that?
Oh dang. We already told you the challenges!
About three years ago during Matt’s sabbatical, you both expressed your desires to work on being “for one another” Would you mind expounding on that / speaking into your intentionality in partnership?
If you go to almost any church class on marriage, you’ll hear the phrase “leaving and cleaving”. That comes from the Genesis 2 passage where God says that man will “leave his father and mother and be united to his wife”. We think both of these things are long-term processes. You leave a lot of your own heritage and the culture of your family. You leave old strategies for making life work. At the same time, you cleave or cling to one another—you build a united life together. Paul wrote to husbands that, “whoever loves his wife loves himself.” Much of life can put people at odds with one another; we can behave as foes instead of allies. This is always unfortunate, but it’s especially so in a marriage. We actually went and saw a marriage counselor for a while. During one meeting we were both expressing the anger we were feeling toward one another. He said, “That’s good, because it means you’re both trying to connect.” Connect is an evocative word, in retrospect. We’re trying to fuse together—to become one—but it isn’t always working. Sometimes the anger is more about a mutual yearning for connection than dislike for this other person. In truth, this has involved some very delicate passages in our marriage. I remember riding our bikes down to the Promontory Point to sit and discuss some things we’d been trying to get un-stuck in in our marriage. We got about one sentence into our conversation, and it derailed into anger. (This was why we could never read and discuss marriage books together.) We sat there in this tense, frustrated silence for what seemed like hours. Finally, we were both able to admit how damned hard it is to be genuinely vulnerable—the slightest nudge against that exposed nerve can just be immobilizing. Just admitting that to each other was powerful. (Sometimes in anger we each give off a false strength that hides fear. We were able to name the fear in that moment.) Scripture uses the most wistful phrase to describe marriage: “They were naked, but they were not ashamed.” Its wistful because it makes us yearn so much for that way of being—but it can be so out of grasp.
Shame is a type of self-dislike. Whenever we let anyone near our self-dislike, it’s risky. Anyone! But what is the alternative? It’s something stale or dying. We hate to think that there may be more such days ahead; days of seeing our defenses go up or getting stuck in antagonism. But we are building a history of seeing the benefits of slogging through those times together. Most research suggests that people who fight through the challenging seasons of marriage end up reporting a much stronger relationship on the back end.
I guess that’s where the Bible can be so troublesome. Just when you both agree that you’ll just learn to tolerate one another, you end up reading your Bible and realize that’s not the option. Marriage is supposed to look just like Jesus’ dying love for his people and their unreserved love for him—that’s the point of it. So, you have to go back to work. In Revelation 2 we read Jesus’ lament for the church in Ephesus: “You’ve forsaken the love you had at first!” His instruction is that they repent—which is to say, “admit this isn’t good”—and “do the things they did at first.” It’s tempting to read this as Jesus asking them to pretend they still love him as much as they used to. But this does reveal something profound. We tend to think that affection begets devotion. This is probably true. But devotion also begets affection. They are meant to beget one another in love relationships. This seems to be what Jesus is getting at.
Do you have any encouragement you can offer readers who are in the trenches of growing and stewarding a family, especially in a city like Chicago?
Maybe keep coming back to “why”. If you can answer “why,” you can persevere and keep discovering joy. Apart from that, it can become discouraging. This assumes a level of privilege, no doubt. The “why” could mean the difference between leaving or staying, but that isn’t always an option for everyone. The “why” is just as much about how you stay as it is about if you stay. As a follower of Jesus, it seems like we need to keep involving him in that conversation. Sometimes his why shifts and transmutes. Ok, maybe keep coming back to the “who.” We mentioned earlier that Jeremiah 2:2 was such a crucial verse for us in moving here, but it was more meeting God in a place than anything else. If we can keep finding God, knowing him more deeply, allowing him to form and shape us in our place, this is everything. The psalmist says, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And the earth has nothing I desire besides you.” I mean, God is everywhere; but the point is you need to keep encountering him. That said, I do think God is in the habit of inviting his people into specific encounters—he wants in on the decisions of where and what and how.
God also seems to really get families—to give us permission to wrap our kids into our hopes and prayers. “He gently leads those with young.” Chicago feeds into this panicky subplot of doom for families. When you go to CPS testing days, you can see it on people’s faces: If my kid doesn’t get into… You have to step back from that. Love your kids. That’s most important. Dream up ways to spend time together. Pray and trust God as a family (full disclosure, our family stinks at praying together). Talk through how you need God to come through, so that you can rejoice together when he does.
Also, bring people around you. It takes a village! There’s solidarity here. Ask people how they are making it work. There’s always another trick or opportunity or possibility—so ask lots of questions. (Also, share the wealth!) Find people you can lean on in all kinds of ways and become someone who others can lean on. The narrative of cities is that they can be harsh, unforgiving places. That can be true, but people freakin’ move to them for a reason. The bible gives an interesting phrase about cities—it describes certain cities as “cities of refuge.” One way or another, cities ought to provide refuge. It’s about people pooling resources and looking out for one another, but this doesn’t happen on accident. Little overtures, little initiatives to be your brother’s and sister’s keeper are very powerful. This involves giving and receiving. If you’re too proud to receive help, you may be preventing some pathways from forming. God called Abraham into a new land and said, “I will bless everyone who blesses you, and everyone you bless I will bless.” It’s a compelling promise: bless others, and I’ll bless them. Let them bless you, and I’ll bless them. It’s almost a way of saying, “just be interdependent, and I’ll make sure you don’t regret it.” It seems like Chicago can tend to force your hand on this—bring people to the end of themselves so that reaching out becomes their only option.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your time in Chicago?
It’s been a walk of faith—God coming through in the eleventh hour. We’ve told him again and again that we would be happy to have our life here be more boring—that our faith has been stretched plenty!—but he seems pretty set on his crazy brinksmanship. Truth be told, he always shows up.