“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”1
© Vincent D. Johnson, OtherVertical Inc.
Beyond the shoreline of Lake Michigan, beyond the soaring skyscrapers of downtown, beyond the museums and shops and attractions that draw scores of visitors every year, Chicago has a serious violence problem. Eight hundred sixty eight children and young people have been murdered in Chicago since 2008.2
Take just a second to think about the people behind that number. It includes the highly publicized murders of young children: six-month-old Jonylah, shot while her father changed her diaper; six-year-old Aaliyah, shot on her front porch on a Saturday afternoon; and seven-year-old Heaven, shot selling candy with her mom in Austin. Then there are the teenagers, who are much more anonymous to the public, though no less important to their loved ones: Cornelius, 15, shot while waiting for his mom to pick him up at a friend’s home; Taylor, 17, shot while riding in a car; Joel, 20, shot while walking down the street.
Our souls are distorted when we wall ourselves off in an attempt to keep those we love safe.
It’s important to think about the people behind these numbers because when we humans are confronted with trauma, our instinct is to deny it. This violence has the potential to threaten our fragile sense of security. And so we turn off the news so we don’t have to hear about it, or we push it to the back of our minds. Or we tell ourselves that it’s the gang members getting shot, that it can’t touch us. News coverage of teen victims often speculates about gang ties. Sometimes there are, and sometimes there aren’t. But regardless of what we tell ourselves, it does touch us. It touches us whether someone we know suddenly and shockingly becomes a victim, or whether our souls are distorted when we wall ourselves off in an attempt to keep those we love safe.
To make matters worse, our violence problem is huge, complicated, and entrenched. It’s the result of many interconnected problems. The strong majority of murder victims are black and Latino youth who live on the city’s south and west sides. In Chicago, one of the nation’s most segregated cities, some of these neighborhoods are pockets of despair.3
The schools are failing. There are no jobs. Poverty, unemployment, and foreclosure rates are high. Children in these neighborhoods struggle to envision any sort of future for themselves. The Rev. Carol Reese, Stroger Hospital Trauma Chaplain, describes how some of the children and teens she encounters have picked out the clothes they would like to be buried in. These problems breed more problems. Young men become involved in crime or gang activity for money or protection and are sent to jail. Their felony records make it that much harder to find employment. The high crime rates in these neighborhoods further discourage private investment.
© Vincent D. Johnson, OtherVertical Inc.
Then, there are the physical, emotional and psychological impacts of violence. The violence compounds the problem. For every person killed, many more are injured. Many others, including family, friends, witnesses, and even perpetrators, find their lives changed or even shattered. Entire communities are traumatized. At an assembly hosted by the community organizing group United Power, a grammar school principal talked about the children walking around the hallways of his school with bullet scars and colonoscopy bags. One young boy was shot while eating ice cream on his porch steps just across the street from the school. He is frequently absent because, while he has physically healed, he is afraid to cross the street.
This amateur diagnosis just scratches the surface, but even so, it shows how complex, intertwined and embedded Chicago’s violence problem is. With no clear way to make a substantial difference, it is that much more tempting to ignore it, or to throw up our hands, and it’s that much more clear how much we need God’s grace.
In the year I spent as the director of CROSSwalk, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago’s effort to address violence, it was my job to engage people of faith in doing something. The question that shrewd people kept asking was—will our efforts matter? Can we really make a difference? Really have an impact on the violence in Chicago?
It’s an important question to ask. We exist in an environment with limited amounts of funding, volunteers, and time. Every day that the violence continues unabated, more people are harmed in a whole spectrum of ways. We can’t afford to waste our time, efforts, or money, and we should be careful about where we invest them.
On the other hand, I am not sure that we can expect to see immediate quantitative results in the face of such an overwhelming problem. And I’m not sure that a lack of such results means that we aren’t making a difference, aren’t answering God’s call to us. I find myself returning again and again to the words of the Archbishop Romero Prayer. “It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view,” Bishop Untener writes. “The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.” This is the unique thing that we, as people of faith, bring to the table. Our world has a different horizon. If we truly believe this, we don’t need to depend on our own efforts. To do so, in fact, is idolatrous. We have hope in what God is doing with and among and through us. As the prayer goes, “This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.” It is not a matter of settling for the world as it is, or accepting powerlessness. The very thing we are about is believing in a God who is infinitely wiser and more loving than us, and offering up our humble efforts for God’s grace, transformation, and use.
If I were God, this is hardly the method I would choose for the salvation of the world. Jesus’ person-to-person ministry seems feeble and foolish in the midst of such a big and broken world.
I think that the life of Jesus offers us a model for following this path, and I hope that it matters. After all, God chose incarnation as the path to salvation, and his Son shared in all of our human limitations– maybe even more than some of us who enjoy relative privilege, given his circumstances. He was born to Jewish teenagers in a small village in the midst of poverty and oppression. His ministry is strikingly local, personal, and intimate. He gathers a group of twelve friends who struggle to understand him. He can only travel so far in a day, and can only speak with so many people. He heals one leper, one paralytic. He talks with his friends, a few villagers, a small group of Pharisees, and sometimes with a great crowd of 5,000. After the resurrection, he appears only to his closest friends. Then, God sends the Holy Spirit upon these confused friends, entrusting them with his mission. If I were God, this is hardly the method I would choose for the salvation of the world. This person-to-person ministry seems feeble and foolish in the midst of such a big and broken world.
Yet, there is something particularly holy about these local, personal, and intimate encounters with the living and risen Christ. And Jesus teaches his followers to go and do likewise. He challenges us to respond to the person right in front of us in the parables of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the Good Samaritan, and the Sheep and the Goats, to name a few. In these person-to-person encounters, we invite God to work with us and through us, raining down grace on our fumbling efforts. We may not see immediate effects in rates of violence, but they do offer the possibility of transformation.
© Vincent D. Johnson, OtherVertical Inc.
I know because I have been transformed by my friends in this work—particularly by two mothers. These mothers spoke at our first CROSSwalk procession, sharing their experiences of losing a child to violence, many of whom were standing up for the very first time. These mothers were moved that so many people came, and so many people cared. And I was moved that our showing up, which seemed like such a meager offering, made such a difference to them.
I’ve also heard others’ stories about the transformational power of personal encounters. Last spring, I drove down to a church in Roseland for a rally for peace. One of the speakers was a man named Arno. As an angry, young man, he’d become a white supremacist skinhead. He began working the graveyard shift at a bad job. He lived on ramen noodles so that he could afford beer. But once a week, on pay day, his friend would pick him up from work and they’d treat themselves to a Big Mac. Arno looked forward to it all week. One week, he walked in, and there was a new woman at the counter– an older black woman. He said that she was one of those people whose smile just radiates joy. And she smiled at him when he walked in. She said, “Hey, how are you? Did you just get off of work?” And Arno, this man who walked down the street and beat people regularly, who had hate coursing through his veins, just wilted in front of his small, older woman. The next week he went back, and there she was again. And this time, she remembered him. She said, “Good to see you again. How are you? Another Big Mac this week?” And again, he wilted, mumbled back, and got out of there as fast as he could. On the third week, he went back again. But this time was different because, in the intervening time, he’d had gotten a new tattoo: a swastika on his middle finger. He begged his friend to go to a different McDonalds, but his friend laughed and refused. So as he walked in the door, he shoved his hand in his pocket. Once again, the woman smiled and asked how he was. As he dug his hand into his pockets and pulled it out to pay her, she caught a glimpse of the tattoo. The woman looked him straight in the eye and said, “That’s not who you are. You’re better than that.” Arno says he never forgot either the kindness of that woman, or her faith in his worth, even in the midst of his hate. He didn’t change immediately, but seeds were planted. Years later, he attended this rally as a peace activist.
It was a literal and metaphorical first step.
In the year and a half since CROSSwalk began, we have probably not made an impact on the violence in Chicago. What we have done is taken a few steps and prayed for God’s grace to make something of our efforts. We began with a Holy Week procession from the St. James Episcopal Cathedral to Stroger Hospital with scripture, stories, song and prayer. More than 65 secular and ecumenical partners and more than 1500 people throughout the city and suburbs joined us. For us Episcopalians, who are largely white, highly educated, and affluent—the kind of folks who have the option to turn away from the violence—the procession offered a kind of holding place where people could look straight into the face of the violence, to hear the stories of those harmed by it, and resist the urge to turn away. The CROSSwalk procession laid the foundations for a relational bridge connecting devastated, violence-plagued communities with more affluent ones. It was a literal and metaphorical first step, and is now an annual event.
Then, the CROSSwalk leadership took some next steps. At both processions and in the intervening time, they invited participants to commit to doing something. This past May, they sent buses to Springfield to advocate for legislation aimed at cracking down on “straw purchasers” who buy guns with the intention of reselling them on the streets. CROSSwalk has been connecting folks with opportunities to volunteer with youth, parent support groups, and other organizations working to address violence. Finally, CROSSwalk piloted a youth jobs program this summer to provide income, mentoring, and opportunities for young people. There is every reason to believe that, in time, they will produce measurable results: fewer trafficked guns on the streets, increased capacity for organizations that offer support to bereaved parents or provide programming for teens, more youth who attend college.
In the meantime, these efforts are steps—seeds—yeast for the Kingdom. They are an attempt to offer up what we can and invite God’s grace to do the rest. And already, there has been transformation. Unlikely relationships have been built across racial, economic, religious and geographic lines. These relationships challenge us to work through difference and discomfort, and they make us richer people. They make it much harder for those of us with the luxury of choice to turn away from the reality of violence. The violence is no less complicated and overwhelming and seemingly impossible. But CROSSwalk offers a manageable way to respond. And these small transformations we are already witnessing reaffirm our faith that God is working with and through and among us.
For more information about CROSSwalk or to get involved, contact Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Director of Networking for the Diocese of Chicago, at 312.751.3577 or email@example.com.
Join the Conversation:
What relationships or encounters in your life have made it harder for you to ignore the realities of violence and poverty?
In what ways might your congregation engage the theological depth and liturgical profundity of Holy Week to connect with the suffering in our city?
- ^From the Archbishop Romero Prayer, by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers/archbishop_romero_prayer.cfm.
- ^“Tracking homicides in Chicago.” Redeye, A Tribune newspaper website. Web. 7 August 2013.
- ^Glaeser, Edward and Jacob Vigdor. “The End of the Segregated City: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010 Civic Report 66 (January 2012). Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Web. 7 August 2013.
All photos © Vincent D. Johnson, OtherVertical Inc.