Religion and Violence in a 21st-Century City

Heath Carter

This morning at 7:30am the Reverend Corey Brooks will depart Bedford, PA, and will walk some 32 miles to Boswell, PA, where he hopes to be by dinnertime.  For the Chicago pastor, it's the latest leg of a planned walk across America, a journey that began in New York City and will end in Los Angeles. Brooks' aim is two-fold: to call attention to the alarming levels of violence in Chicago and to raise money for a community center in his south side neighborhood (for more on those plans and/or to follow his journey, check out the site for Project HOOD).  His transcontinental ambitions have garnered the attention of major news outlets such as Good Morning America, making his one of the more celebrated religious responses to rising gun violence in the Windy City.

The Reverend Corey Brooks on his walk across America
There has been all-too-much to respond to in Chicago of late.  Two sentences in yesterday's Daily Mail (UK) put a fine point on the matter: "Over the course of the war since 2001, around 2,000 US troops have died in Afghanistan compared to the 5,000 gunfire victims in the Illinois city.  Since the start of the year, 144 US soldiers have been killed on duty in Afghanistan, while at least 240 people have been shot dead in Chicago."  The point here is not to diminish casualties abroad, of course, but rather to underscore the ongoing war in urban streets: nearly 900 Chicagoans wounded by gun violence so far this year; the casualty numbers for the last three weekends, starting with the most recent, are 42, 54, and 32.  Such figures do not begin to tell the story of hundreds of (disproportionately) young lives - including, for example, that of 6-year-old Aliyah Shell (pictured below) - cut short. 

6-year-old Aliyah Shell was shot on her front porch in the Little Village neighborhood in March 2012
The Rev. Brooks is one of many within Chicago's religious communities who have responded in force to the violence.  St. Sabina, a vibrant African-American parish in the south side's Englewood neighborhood, sponsored a march last week during which its well-known pastor, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, declared, "It is time for the righteous to stand up."  The church has moreover called for persons of faith to fast and pray every Wednesday throughout the summer for an end to the shootings.  At another large interfaith march back in early April space was created for the parents of victims to share stories and memories of their slain children.  The group that organized that event continues to create opportunities for local residents to get involved in the struggle against violence. 

A photo from the April march against violence in Chicago
But any account of the religious response to rising gun violence must also consider the spontaneous prayer services and make-shift memorials that have materialized in neighborhoods across the city.  When a 13-year-old boy was gunned down on his front porch a couple of months ago, some six blocks from our home on the southwest side, my family attended one of these services.  I passed by that same house on a walk through the neighborhood last week: the icons and candles were still there. 

In the years to come, historians of religion and violence will have a complicated tale to tell about early-twenty-first-century Chicago.  In the meantime, I count myself amongst the many ordinary folks who long for peace.


Curtis J. Evans said…
Thanks, Heath. Attention must also be paid to the Urban Dolorosa project by Hyde Park Union Church, with pastor Susan Johnson as the leading voice. There is a yearly vigil where the names of youth killed by gun violence are read. I suppose these will be difficult stories to write about in so many ways. Since living in Chicago beginning in the fall of 2007, nothing has more profoundly affected and saddened me as the pervasive violence in the city. And that so much work is required to highlight this overwhelming problem.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks as well, Heath. I recently took a group of students on a walking tour of Little Village and met with a pastor at La Villata Community Church. We also spent time with the INTERRUPTERS, and they had great things to say about the work that churches are doing to stand for peace and reconciliation.
Unknown said…
I read a blog post somewhere, i think at GetReligion, that offered a great critique of the INTERRUPTERS for completely ignoring the religious dimensions of this work. Especially since one of its main characters, Ameena is a devout Muslim.
Mark T. Edwards said…
I agree, Chris. That's why I was surprised by Kobe's enthusiastic response, when we met with him, that the churches supported Ceasefire's work. I'm guessing he was talking about churches in Little Village, Engelwood, etc., and not, for instance, the suburban churches like James Macdonald's. I stand ready to be corrected, but I'm pretty cynical about white evangelical responses to racial issues since reading Emerson and Smith's DIVIDED BY FAITH.

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