It’s been over twenty years since the journalist Alex Kotlowitz published There Are No Children Here.1 In truth, Chicago has been in an undeclared state of emergency for decades, along with other cities like Oakland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Newark. The murder rate in Chicago in 2012 was over 500, including at least 297 youth age 26 and younger and 79 children age 18 and under.2 The murder numbers are so staggering, and so often cited, that we’ve become numb to them. The problem with declaring a state of emergency is that you have to address it, but we’ve decided as a society that it’s far more convenient simply to ignore it. In this essay, I will discuss Urban Dolorosa — a modest effort organized by Hyde Park Union Church to begin paying attention to the children dying in Chicago — and share the theological reflection that motivated me personally to get involved.
I. What is Urban Dolorosa?
In September 2008, Hyde Park Union began recording the names of children killed in violence in Chicago on a banner in front of the church. This modest act of remembrance has not healed or prevented the violence, but it has changed our congregation. Every month we read the names together in worship, and as the violence became more personal and real, the congregation became increasingly dissatisfied with doing nothing. We also became more aware of our own ignorance about this violence and conscious that we had no idea what we could possibly do to make a difference. In true church fashion, we turned to prayer, and Hyde Park Union began a monthly Taizé practice of ecumenical and contemplative worship on Good Friday 2010. From the beginning, our Taizé worship was connected to our concern for violence, and in the spirit of unity and prayer, we sought both personal and social renewal.
It is in this context of prayer and sacred remembrance that our senior minister the Rev. Susan Johnson and our music director Fr. Vaughn Fayle, OFM, conceived of Urban Dolorosa as a citywide effort to call people of faith together from across our city to notice the children being killed and to commit to supporting community-based efforts to end the violence.3 The name Urban Dolorosa is adapted from the thirteenth century hymn Stabat Mater Dolorosa about Mary standing at the foot of the cross watching her son die.4 The hymn emerged in the context of plague and high infant mortality, when mothers mourning their children was all too common, and the hymn offered not theological justifications or pious platitudes but the incarnational reality that Christ, too, had a mother who experienced such suffering. In a similar, albeit modest fashion, Rev. Johnson and Fr. Fayle conceived the idea of creating a modern Stabat Mater Dolorosa, appropriate to our multicultural and more secular urban context, and yet still an act of sacred remembrance to dignify the children killed and the grief of their families.
Thus began a yearlong effort to connect with community groups and artists engaged in addressing this violence. Our goal was to listen and learn, to get out of our own relatively safe and affluent neighborhood of Hyde Park, to connect with existing community-based efforts in other neighborhoods, and to hear the stories of families and young people experiencing this violence. This outreach culminated in a series of memorial concerts during the first week of November in 2011, coinciding with All Saints Day and Day of the Dead, in five churches in different neighborhoods across Chicago: Saint Sabina Faith Community (Auburn Gresham), First United Methodist Church at Chicago Temple (the Loop), New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church (West Garfield Park), Holy Cross – Immaculate Heart of Mary (Back of the Yards), and Hyde Park Union Church.5 The multicultural and multimedia concerts featured African American and Hispanic youth performers, spoken word poetry, a marimba ensemble, string orchestra and chorus, documentary photography, and original music from Fr. Fayle and libretto by Rev. Johnson.6 The concerts were attended by over 2000 people, including over 150 self-identified family members of murdered children, and civic and religious leaders from across Chicago read the names of over 300 children killed in violence in the previous three school years. At the opening concert, Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared his commitment to helping families heal and to ensuring that the city protect all of its communities and children. We still have a long way to go in accomplishing this.
II. Why Memorialize Children?
Do banners, vigils, and memorial concerts accomplish anything? I believe we’re only beginning to understand the devastation of such complicated grief on siblings, friends, families, and entire neighborhoods. In the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting, the entire nation responded and justifiably so. Now imagine losing your child to violence in a city that hardly notices, and if it does, it’s likely to blame the victim and the parents. Imagine growing up in fear of such violence with unresolved grief and anger and even pondering what your own funeral will look like. Is it a wonder that some kids make bad choices when they have little or no hope for a normal life? Many are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, through no fault of their own, and yet still tainted by the perception that only gang-bangers get shot.
I believe sacred remembrance contributes to violence prevention, but for pastors that’s not the only reason to participate in such work. Even if a vigil accomplishes nothing measurable towards ending violence, it changes us. Such remembrance awakens us to the dignity of every person and the inestimable worth of every child, and we become more aware of how this violence diminishes all of us. In this way, much like memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, such remembrance becomes sacred and prophetic. If we believe that all human persons are created in the divine image then even gang-bangers are worth mourning, but we should also seek to understand why so many urban youth turn to gangs and violence in the first place. When I came to Hyde Park Union Church in the summer of 2010 to become the Project Director for Urban Dolorosa, I didn’t get involved in this work because of any illusion that I could do anything to heal the violence. I got involved upon realizing that I had lived for years on the south side of Chicago while hardly noticing the violence. I got involved knowing that I needed healing and transformation, and I still do.
III. Our Vision Problem
The problem of youth violence in our city is a vision problem. Like the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time, today in Chicago, we have eyes but do not see, we have ears but do not hear (Jer. 5:21; cf., Isa. 6:9 – 10, Ezek. 12:2). Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the prophets admonish the people of God for their persistent failure to see the poor and the oppressed, to recognize the personhood of even the most vulnerable, and to understand that true worship of God loosens the bonds of poverty and injustice (e.g., Isa. 58). The Torah, the Prophets, and the prophet-rabbi Jesus, all bear witness that we cannot love God and ignore our neighbors.
There is a compelling illustration of the restorative power of transformed vision in the narrative in Acts 3 of the healing of a crippled beggar outside the temple gate. It is important to recognize the dysfunction of this situation. This man is outside the temple gate, begging church-goers, so to speak, for his livelihood. It is difficult to imagine a more demeaning existence. True, he is not completely forgotten — there are the people who carry him each day — but his life is an endless loop of menial subsistence. He begs for his bread in a culture that assumes persons with disabilities have nothing of value to contribute, and this outside the temple, separated from meaningful communion with God and others.
This is not the first miracle that occurred in the early church, but this is the first account of a specific healing. Luke gives this miracle a prominent position. More importantly, his telling emphasizes vision and relationship, and for me the real healing miracle begins when “Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us’” (Acts 3:4). How many passersby stop to look intently at this poor beggar? It is far easier to give money. Just as important, Peter asks the man to return his gaze — “Look at us” — clearly signaling the shame of this beggar. He sees Peter and John, but he does not truly see them, for he keeps his eyes upon the ground, away from their faces, no doubt afraid to meet their gaze, ashamed of his unseemly poverty. Peter could have just given money, or walked quietly by, but instead he sees this man and his loneliness, makes eye contact, and invites relationship.
The Jewish moral philosopher Martin Buber identifies two fundamental types of relation with others. We can relate to others as persons (the I-Thou or I-You relation), or we can relate to others as things or objects (the I-It relation). More importantly, the way we relate to others impacts how we relate to ourselves. When we objectify others, we impoverish ourselves. The “I” in an I-It relationship is less authentically human — less of a person — than the “I” in an I-Thou relationship.7 This miracle in Acts well illustrates the difference: healing occurs when this beggar is invited into an authentic I-Thou relationship. In the moment of mutual recognition, Peter and John are healed, as well, and all three enter the temple together, experiencing genuine communion with God and one another through the power of Christ’s reconciling love.
The ever present danger for us was falling into the presumption that we were healing and saving the impoverished persons and broken communities in our city and forgetting our own dysfunctional poverty. Even in our best efforts, our vision fails us.
For those of us in ministry especially, we must be careful not to overlook our own need for healing. The ever present danger for us with Urban Dolorosa was falling into the presumption that we were healing and saving the impoverished persons and broken communities in our city and forgetting our own dysfunctional poverty. Even in our best efforts, our vision fails us. We objectify others whenever we seek to remake them in our own image — when we assume that Hyde Park or Lincoln Park has nothing to learn from Englewood or Auburn Gresham. Paternalism never achieves genuine communion. A genuine I-Thou relationship is mutual. Reconciliation begins with the recognition that we all need healing.
Most of us in Chicago have a vision problem in at least three respects. (1) We still do not see the children dying or the young people traumatized by grief and fear. We do not recognize these children and their communities as our children and members of our community. We think instead in terms of segregated neighborhoods, and as long as the violence does not touch our neighborhood, then we hardly even notice. (2) We do not recognize how this crisis impoverishes all of us. We may not know what to do when disaster strikes our family or our home, but we know we must do something. Again, it is easier to ignore someone else’s problem. Youth violence is tragic; our failure to notice is appalling and diminishes us. (3) We underestimate ourselves. We feel powerless and do not see what we might do. Even when we notice the violence, we do not know what to do or we make excuses — perhaps thinking the problem is too overwhelming, that there is nothing we could do to make a difference — and so again we suppress our vision and do nothing.
Urban Dolorosa began as a modest effort to notice the children dying in our city. Such noticing may not appear to do much, but this violence will not end until we as a city — all of us — begin to see these children and their families, for then our hearts will break, and we will know that we must do something to dignify and protect all children in our city. The root causes of this violence are complex and include systemic racial, educational, and economic inequalities. Any solution will be equally complex and difficult, but if we are to protect our children, then we must work together as a city. We must begin to care together and to build collaborative partnerships across neighborhoods that overcome our deeply rooted divisions.
IV. A Call to Action
When we officially launched Urban Dolorosa in October 2010, Fr. Michael Pfleger from Saint Sabina challenged us to do something, anything, to get involved in this undeclared state of emergency. He cited Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon on the Good Samaritan. We have to do more than help a neighbor on life’s roadside, for “one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”8 Far too many children in our city walk to school in fear of their lives, but we cannot even begin to think about the Jericho Road unless we first see the men, women, and children constantly beaten down. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King challenges the church to be a headlight and not a taillight, to be a thermostat and not a mere thermometer.9 Our challenge as pastors is to call the church to reclaim its prophetic role — to light the way forward and become catalysts for social transformation. That’s truly a high calling, but it begins — like all meaningful, heroic action — with the modest commitment to do something, anything, to challenge the complacency and disrupt the status quo.
Urban Dolorosa is one modest example of a diverse collection of churches and community groups beginning to do something to address the violence. Another is the CROSSwalk prayer vigil and procession organized during Holy Week the last two years by the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. The challenge moving forward is to connect such public acts of sacred remembrance to ongoing partnerships, relationship-building, and social action. In this, those of us from more privileged backgrounds and communities must continue to recognize our own need for healing, for we have come late to this issue and have much still to learn. Urban Dolorosa was possible because we had partners doing truly heroic and sacrificial work, who have been involved in this issue for far longer than we have, who were gracious and patient enough to work with us. Three of our host congregations — Saint Sabina, Holy Cross – Immaculate Heart of Mary, and New Mount Pilgrim — live daily with this violence and have long been prophetic beacons of hope and justice in their communities and Chicago. We have learned a great deal about the prophetic power of sacred remembrance from these communities.
Soon after the memorial concerts in 2011, Urban Dolorosa developed into a new partnership with the secular nonprofit Chicago’s Citizens for Change (CCC). This group was formed by Joy McCormack after her own son, Frankie Valencia, a senior honors student at DePaul University, was shot and killed in senseless violence. CCC’s mission is to reduce youth violence by supporting families and youth who experience violent loss, and CCC is currently developing a citywide program called Chicago Survivors to respond to every homicide in Chicago with compassionate response and grief support. CCC’s challenge is convincing potential funders, not only to recognize the human value in such support, but also to see that healing traumatized families and youth is necessary to prevent future violence.
Through modest acts of prayer and worship we position ourselves to receive divine grace.
For far too long, far too many churches in our city have sat on the sidelines doing nothing while children die almost every day. We need to reclaim our prophetic role, to lead on this issue, and to call our city to notice and to care. We need to begin doing something, anything, to disrupt our complacency and to reclaim our own humanity. Even if we don’t know what to do, we can still begin with small, modest acts of faith, remembering that “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed… it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matt. 13:31 – 32, NRSV). At Hyde Park Union Church, we began by recording the names of murdered children and remembering these children in worship once a month. I encourage you to ponder and to pray about what small acts you might do in your communities to begin noticing the suffering in our city. I’m tempted to say that prayer is not enough, but through modest acts of prayer and worship, we position ourselves to receive divine grace, and from this begins the healing and transformation that is necessary if we are to come together as a city to end this violence.
Join the Conversation:
In what ways does the murder of children outside of our field of vision diminish us?
What small acts might we do in our communities in order to raise awareness and visibility of the suffering in our city?
Post your thoughts on our Facebook page.
- ^Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (New York: Doubleday, 1991).
- ^Our primary source for names and statistics is the Redeye’s Tracking Homicides in Chicago project. Unfortunately, no list is ever exact, and we continually discover errors and omissions, and every year at least one or two children remain unidentified and very likely runaways. We remember them as someone’s “unknown son” or “unknown daughter.” http://homicides.redeyechicago.com/
- ^See the text of Rev. Susan B. W. Johnson’s presentation on “Urban Dolorosa” for the Divinity School at the University of Chicago in Criterion 49.1 (2012): 2 – 7. http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/criterion/criterion_spring_12.pdf
- ^The hymn is featured prominently in Catholic liturgy to Our Lady of Sorrows and has been set to music hundred of times, including famously by Palestrina, Pergolesi, Haydn, Dvořák, and Poulenc, and more recently by Arvo Pärt and Karl Jenkins. See the late Hans van der Velden’s catalog and collection of musical variations on the Stabat Mater. http://www.stabatmater.info/
- ^Manya A. Brachear captures the community-based ethos of the concerts in her article “‘Sorrowing City’ Laments Chicago’s Slain Children,” Chicago Tribune, November 1, 2011. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-11-01/news/ct-met-urban-dolorosa-new-20111101_1_clergy-pastor-funerals
- ^The artistic collaboration included the Johnson College Prep Choral Program, the Youth Choir and Marimba Ensemble from Holy Cross – IHM, the Chicago Community Chorus, the Chamber Soloists of North Park University, photography from Carlos Javier Ortiz, spoken word poetry from “Mama Brenda” Matthews, and artistic direction by Steppenwolf for Young Adults. http://hpuc.org/mission/urban-dolorosa/concerts/
- ^Martin Buber, Ich und Du (1923), I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner, 1970).
- ^Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” (sermon, Riverside Church, New York, NY, April 4, 1967), American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm.
- ^Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963), reprinted in Christian Century 80 (12 June 1963): 767-773. http://www.christiancentury.org/sites/default/files/downloads/resources/mlk-letter.pdf