Around 100 people gathered in the pews of the Chicago Temple building Monday night looking for faith-based answers to the gun violence that has ravaged the south and west sides of the city. The panel and conversation they came for portrayed the violence plaguing the city, and the nation, as multifaceted as the stained glass of the temple hall.
The event brought together Cook County sheriff Tom Dart and three faith leaders: Willie Jennings, associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale University Divinity School; the Reverend Otis Moss, of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ; and Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina in Auburn Gresham. Each offered a spiritual response to the violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods and in the U.S.
In a two-hour conversation moderated by former TV news anchor and CPD consultant Robin Robinson, they made the case that people of faith should work in concert with activist groups to decrease violence and connect communities.
“We have to create the type of programming that works with downtown, small activist groups and faith communities in creating the kind of Marshall Plan for Chicago that focuses on areas of greatest need,” Moss said. “We have to begin to look at the most vulnerable communities, focus on those most vulnerable communities, and provide programming and support to those most vulnerable communities.”
Though the conversation meandered—touching on everything from the bond system to the letters Dart has sent President Donald Trump—its main focus was the history of race, racism, and disinvestment in the city.
“We have two Chicagos,” Moss said. “There’s one Chicago that receives a variety of development and growth, and then there’s another Chicago that, if you look on the west and south sides, looks as if all economic activity stopped in 1961. We have to shift from criminalizing everything to [seeing] this is a public health crisis.”
Pfleger, a longtime anti-violence advocate who also lost an adopted son to gun violence, pointed to 15 communities where violence happens most frequently and said that, on top of the economic disinvestment, these communities suffer from “inadequate and underperforming schools, the most foreclosures, high poverty, [and] a proliferation of guns.” The violence, he said, is a result of Chicago ignoring and abandoning these communities.
“If you put two lions in a cage and you don’t feed them, in a month one is going to kill the other—it’s survival,” Pfleger said. “When you cage in whole communities, with no schools, no jobs, no economic development, no way out, you should not be surprised that they kill one another. It becomes survival of the fittest.”
Survival is where the guns come in, Pfleger said, describing the way businesses and lobbyists spend millions of dollars “bamboozling” people into thinking that guns make them safer. Often, Dart said, jumping in, it’s the fear of what awaits some Chicagoans in their own neighborhoods that makes them carry guns.
“I’ll ask them about the guns and the prevalence of them, and they without hesitation say to me, ‘Tom, if I’m walking on my street without a gun, I’m a fool,'” Dart said, attributing some of the fear to the dissolution of gang leadership and the disorder that has taken over. “They tell me over and over again, ‘Tom, if I’m going to come across three guys from another gang without a gun, I’m dead. If I get stopped with a gun, I’m still alive,’ and it’s hard to stop that logic.”
As for solutions, all panelists agreed that to transform communities, restorative justice, not punitive justice, was needed. Pfleger also said titling guns like cars would help lower the number of illegal guns in the city.
In some ways the solutions offered were a restating of solutions offered by politicians or experts—but with scripture attached. Pfleger referenced the Biblical story of the healing at the pool, when Jesus heals a sick man, asking him, “Do you want to be made whole?” For Pfleger, this is a question Chicago should also consider if it wants to address the violence.
“Do we want to be made whole?” he asked. “Do we want to be well, or do we just want to end this cycle and keep Band-aiding it?”
Jennings used scripture to talk about the longstanding relationship between people and guns.
“In the beginning was the weapon, and the weapon was with God, and the weapon was God,” he said, using the opening words of John 1. “Grace and truth came from Jesus Christ—but control, power, and security come through the weapon.”
After an hour and a half of the panelists’ back and forth, the floor was opened for questions.
“In terms of Chicago and faith-based leaders,” a woman who attends church on the north side asked Pfleger and Moss, “what’s happening to work across communities on faith-based leadership? What can we do as churches in different communities to bring communities together around this issue?”
The faith community has to start with itself, Pfleger said, and see itself as “the lobbyists for the poor, the forgotten and the disenfranchised.”
Nneka Jones, a 16-year-old high school student, described her own experiences with the two Chicagos. She moved schools in the fifth grade and now attends a selective enrollment high school. She’s thus able to see the difference between the education she receives and what others in her community receive, she said. She asked what she and other young people could do to erase the divide between the two parts of the city when obstacles prevent many from doing so.
Moss suggested that she form a coalition with her former classmates and organize other like-minded people, not only to raise awareness, but to creatively engage people through a social media or art campaign related to issues of gun violence or resources for education.
Jones took the advice to heart.
“I believe that when we join forces together that we can become so much stronger, especially in our communities,” she said. “Being able to understand that we’re all for one goal, and that we’re not fighting for fame, that we’re fighting for young people to be able to make a difference, that’s when I really believe that young people would be able to do something so much greater than ourselves.”
Solving the violence, the panelists concluded, would have to be a joint effort on all fronts. Chicagoans should reach out to aldermen, the mayor, the governor, and other elected leaders, they said. And for the religious leaders and the religious community, the work to be done would involve joining forces across faiths—Christian denominations teaming up with Islamic and other faith groups. Only together, the three religious leaders said, could they provide solutions to neighborhoods affected by violence.