Sister Stephanie Baliga no longer runs for herself, but for her community and for God. So she was undeterred as the predawn thunderstorm rolled in.
The thunder roared, the sky flashed a bright blue and the obliquely falling rain whipped across her glasses. But she didn’t flinch. She only smiled.
“Why wouldn’t I smile?” she asked. Running gives her time to meditate, an opportunity to clear her mind and talk to God.
It’s a form of prayer, she said.
That’s why she doesn’t listen to music when she runs outside. This early Sunday morning, the falling rain and her thoughts were her soundtrack.
And just before 5 a.m., with an American flag bandanna tied around her head and an Illinois track and field jacket shielding her from the rain, she took off running through the Chicago streets.
Each practice run is precious as she prepares to lead the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels charity team in the Chicago Marathon. Baliga is the organizer and co-founder of the team, which has run in the Chicago Marathon since 2011 to raise money for the mission and raise awareness of its community work.
This year her team is running to raise money to complete the renovations for the three-story school building adjacent to the church. The team, which includes more than 100 runners from across the country, is hoping to raise more than $200,000, Baliga said.
Six decades ago, a tragic fire swept through the Catholic school and killed 92 children and three nuns. Today, the mission uses that building to provide social services to the community, including a weekly food pantry, free community meals, after-school programming and emergency assistance.
“Jesus asked us to be able to help our neighbor and treat others the way we want to be treated,” Baliga said. “And we believe that’s what we’re doing here in West Humboldt Park, being able to bring the hope of Christ through the love of Christ to a neighborhood that’s in much despair and difficulty and incredibly difficult circumstances.”
There have been at least 24 homicides in the Humboldt Park community area so far this year, more than any other area except the adjoining Austin community area, according to Chicago police data.
“We’re trying to bring the presence of Jesus to this neighborhood that needs a lot of hope, and a lot of love,” Baliga said.
A SANCTUARY IN A VIOLENT NEIGHBORHOOD
One recent Saturday morning, dozens of neighborhood residents filled the wooden pews of the church sanctuary. Every week the mission holds a prayer service followed by a community lunch.
Baliga led the service this morning, with peace as the focus.
Dressed in her religious habit, she read Scripture to the crowd before posing a question.
“When you hear the word ‘peace,’ what do you think of?” Baliga asked.
“I think of no gun violence and no killings,” a young girl answered.
“I think of love,” Kelly Longstreet, 51, chimed in.
Longstreet, who said he’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, said the value of the mission goes beyond the services it provides. Amid the chaos, it’s a place where people can find “peace and tranquility” and not worry about anything, he said.
“Look what you’re surrounded by,” Longstreet said as he gestured to the saints etched into the blue stained-glass windows.
FROM RUNNING TO SERVING
The cosmic shift in Baliga’s life started with an identity crisis.
As a University of Illinois distance runner, she measured her self-importance on her running and academic achievements.
But when she broke her foot sophomore year, she was forced to reevaluate who she was.
“I started to contemplate my life,” she said. “Who am I? What am I doing? My main identity could not be running anymore.”
During her sophomore year on a spiritual retreat, she had an awakening.
It took Baliga a few years to figure out exactly what God was asking her to do, she said. But soon after graduating college in 2010, she joined the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels.
And through the Catholic Church, Baliga discovered the answer to the one question she had been searching for.
“I learned my identity is a daughter of God, and I’m loved by God,” Baliga said. “And as I discovered that, I found that God was calling me to dedicate my life to the church, and I discerned that was by becoming a sister.”
Now, Baliga has merged her passion for running with her love of God to serve her community.
When the fatigue inevitably kicks in, and the finish line beckons during the 26-mile run Oct. 13, she’ll draw inspiration from within.
“All of the work that we’re doing is for the greater glory of God, so when we’re running, and it starts to hurt, we’ll make that last charge to not slow down for the mission and for Jesus.”