Culture of Violence

When a loved one dies, we feel the loss both in the shock after we hear the news and in the months and years as the absence continues.

In Chicago, more than 300 families this year have borne the pain of having someone taken away from them by homicide. Leaders debate the cause of the high number of murders. Local and national news articles compare our city’s homicide rate to that of New York or Los Angeles, or the total deaths since 2001 to the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghan­istan. Chicago’s figures are worse in all three cases. Many of those who have been killed were children and youth — more than 600 since 2008.

Faced with such statistics we can lose sight of the magnitude of loss of each unique person and for survivors. Some families will long remember waiting for news outside of an emergency department, listening to anguished sobs when the doctor tells them their loved one has died and carrying clear plastic bags of blood-stained clothes out of the hospital.

On a warm July Friday I joined a group of pastors and lay ministers from across the city in promoting an event the group had planned, Chicago Peace Weekend. As tourists and people on lunch break streamed past, we offered greetings such as “We’re working to end the violence in our city,” and “Would you like to learn more about keeping our children safe?”

Many people gave a closed-lip smile and kept going. Some looked skeptically at our tan and brown hands with black and white photocopied fliers extended toward them. Only a few engaged in conversation with us.

Part of this is understandable. Child-sponsorship canvassers, bullhorn-equipped preachers and paint-bucket drummers alike seek to take advantage of the heavy foot traffic on this street. I have been on the other side of the interaction many times.

Yet, I have sometimes been surprised when I have stopped to talk. In one case, teen­agers in front of a neighborhood train station were raising awareness about how to peacefully resolve conflict at home and on the street. I saw the Holy Spirit at work in moving me to stop and listen to a teenage boy taking time on a Friday evening to build a safer city, and to offer words of appreciation to him and others with him.

Perhaps some of the people who ignored or rebuffed our efforts would have been surprised, too. They would have learned about spiritual activities geared toward keeping children and youth safe. They would have heard about how they could be part of envisioning long-term solutions to the present crisis.

“Everyone is invited to come and take personal responsibility for making peace by working for justice,” the flier stated.

There are many causes of urban violence, and approaches to it need to be multipronged, they require resources from individuals, groups and governments.

Yet we can each give at least a few moments of our lives to lament the lives lost and forever changed by violence, to pray for healing and to encourage the people engaging in more sustained efforts for peace.

One of those people is Jacqueline Clark, director of CROSSwalk, an initiative of more than 50 churches and organizations in the Chicago area, one of which is Mennonite. More partners are welcome.

Wherever we are located, we can be part of efforts to overcome violence. “We all participate in a culture of violence,” she said. “That’s something we all can work on.”

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a minister and community gardener in Chicago.