Rev. Charles Cairo, Vietnam vet, adult probation officer for Cook County, former drug-user turned street preacher and bishop and a Forest Park resident since 1979, has never been politically correct.
You may spot him around Forest Park helping clients with addiction or life counseling over an early breakfast at Amelia’s or Mom’s restaurants, or find him giving training to a group of spiritual counseling volunteers who work at Madden Mental Health Center in Maywood.
But Cairo didn’t start his adult life on a holy track.
On being discharged from the Air Force in 1968, he went counter-culture in a negative way. Not able to find a job or fit into a society that was not appreciative of military veterans during those Vietnam War years, Cairo fell into the life of a street person and joined a gang. “I became kind of a bad boy, got some ink [tattoos] and was heavily involved in drugs,” he confessed.
A sensei at a Buddhist temple helped him get clean. He became a Buddhist and began working on a doctorate in East Asian Culture. In his thesis on the influence of the Judeo-Christian culture on Buddhism in the U.S., he attempted to discredit Christianity, which he considered phony, by undermining the historicity of the Bible.
Ironically, it was his attempt to discredit Christianity that converted him to it. “That challenged me to read the Bible,” he recalled, “and I found more and more truths in it.” Now, he says, “I believe the Bible, cover to cover.”
After a stint as a member of the “Tribe” (the Jesus People USA intentional community in Chicago, where he met his wife, Jane), he earned a Doctor of Theology degree and was appointed a bishop in the Evangelical Free Baptist Church (now Evangelical Free Bible Convention), an association of about 80 congregations and ministries.
That, however, doesn’t mean he ever went mainstream. He and Jane practice a kind of freelance, independent approach to ministry.
In addition to his administrative duties as a bishop, he has been the guiding force in the Fire Escape Ministry in this area for the last 37 years, almost as long as he and Jane have lived in Forest Park. Fire Escape Ministry is, in his words, “an interdenominational church outreach to the streets, cults and institutions. We serve the Proviso and greater Cook County areas.”
The ministry was born in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City in the early 1960s, where followers would climb a fire escape to attend a Christian coffeehouse in a third-floor apartment, Cairo said.
But the analogy goes further.
The mission statement of Fire Escape Ministries reads: “Have mercy on OTHERS as to SNATCH them from the FIRES, hating even the garments soiled by the flesh” (a direct quote from the book of Jude). “To do that,” said Cairo, “one must go where the fire is. Fire Escape goes where other ministries don’t go.” That includes prisons, mental institutions and pornography shops.
Perhaps the most controversial thing Fire Escape did locally was to rent space on a bench on Roosevelt Road, perhaps 20 years ago, on which they had printed a quote from 1 Corinthians 6: “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards, liars nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Although Cairo insists that “the message was that all have sinned and fall somewhere in that category,” many in town believed it was aimed specifically at the patrons of a gay bar two blocks down the street.
The women in the ministry also try to share the gospel with sex workers and by resisting the porn industry. In the days when there were a lot of “massage parlors” and porn shops on Mannheim Road near O’Hare, a group of them entered a pornographic bookstore. While one of them distracted the guy behind the counter with conversation, the rest of the group slipped Christian tracts into the magazines on the shelf.
The biggest way in which Fire Escape serves institutions where other ministries have not gone is through the 30 volunteer chaplains Cairo has trained to serve the patients in psychiatric hospitals in this area like the Madden Mental Health Center at the corner of Roosevelt Road and First Avenue.
Cairo remembered how the administration at Madden initially worried that these “religious people” would do more harm than good and undermine the hard work of the staff. “What sold the staff on the value of our ministry,” said Cairo with a smile, “is that they found the patients easier to handle after Sunday worship.”
The Cairos have not gotten rich doing ministry outside the box. He jokingly said of his income following his retirement four years ago, “My retirement money is so small that when I take my retirement check to the bank they ask, ‘How do you want it, heads or tails?'” He has gone to work for the Circuit Court of Cook County Adult Probation Department as a compact coordinator, i.e. an officer who coordinates the movement of people on probation from one state to another and between counties within Illinois.
Even in “retirement,” it seems, the bishop emeritus ends up going where the fire is. He has slowed down considerably from his younger days when he was winning martial arts competitions. Afflicted with spinal stenosis, scoliosis in the spine and accelerated degenerative bone disease, he walks with two canes but, in addition to his day job with the court system, he is still involved administratively with Fire Escape and the EFBC and does some counseling and speaking.