CHICAGO – The 264 names read like the role at a commencement ceremony. Brothers and sisters, cousins and close friends, black, white, and Latino, one by one they were read, except the names were not those of honor students and graduates. They were the names of victims.
Since the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year in Chicago, the country’s third-largest city, 264 children age 18 and under have been killed by violence. It is an alarming number and one that continues to get worse by the day.
A group of churches in the Windy City is leading the charge to take a stand against the violence with a program called Urban Dolorosa — the term originated in a 13th century hymn that means “the sorrowful city”. This week, five different churches are hosting five candlelight vigils honoring the fallen children of the city and hopes that the message resonates throughout the city.
“I had a mom call me and say ‘My baby was 19 and he just graduated from high school and was on his way to college and he was shot and killed,’” said Rev. Susan Johnson, senior minister at Hyde Park Union Church on Chicago’s south side and founder of Urban Dolorosa.
“I went back and went through all of our records and if I include 19 and 20-year-olds who could still be in high school — many of them are — the number goes from 264 to 397. We have a very serious problem in Chicago.”
Johnson started Urban Dolorosa in October 2010 as an answer by the religious community in the wake of the increase in youth violence in the city. The programs, which are open to people of all races, ethnicities, and faiths, are held in churches around the city each night as a method of honoring the dead as well as presenting a very upfront look at the problem at hand.
“What our congregation discovered as we became more involved in the issues and really trying to find ways to make a difference is that a lot of churches are paralyzed by this,” said Johnson, who has been at Hyde Park Union for 29 years. “Sometimes they’re very fearful themselves.
Other times, they either hunkered down, or even developed a superior attitude amidst the chaos of the streets. The kids here are really feeling it.”
Johnson, who is openly critical of the lack of response from the city’s clergy, has lead what she calls “peace table” conversations with fellow pastors in the city and teens from some of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
“The kids said to us that the clergy are hypocrites,” Johnson said. “They’re not caring about us. They’re not coming and inviting us in. So part of (Urban Dolorosa) has been to educate us as religious leaders.
“Sometimes, religious leaders are out there perpetuating urban myths about where this youth violence is coming from rather than really helping to resolve some of the critical factors.” Johnson knows that help at a governmental level is not likely to come, so she feels it is up to the citizens and churches to help take a stand.
“We recognize that you need a certain level of expertise in order to do this work,” she said. “We think a lot more people can be involved and this isn’t a time where we can count on government dollars.”
The entire vigil is a combination of spoken word poetry, instrumental classical music, choral performances, the reading of all the names of the deceased, and a candlelight vigil outside of the church at the end. During the spoken word on Thursday night at New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, poet Brenda Matthews said “Has Chicago become Iraq and Afghanistan?,” as she led the youth choirs of Holy Cross Parish and Johnson College Prep to into the main sanctuary.
After the youth choirs finished their performance, during with they lit candles, they proceeded to walk down the aisles, blow out their candles, and hand them to parishioners before removing their shoes — which symbolizes the death of another child in the city — and walking out. The children then return with pictures and candles to create a shrine to the fallen kids.
Shortly thereafter, the solemn role of names is read, one by one, making sure that every child is given their moment. It took six readers nearly 30 minutes to go through each name of a fallen child, including instances of siblings either being murdered at once or in consecutive years.
“I think the immediate surrounding communities feel that,” Johnson said. ”(Wednesday) night, we were down in the Loop, down in the business district across from the city council. Our audience was smaller, more reserved, and people were very moved.”
The reading of the names moved many people in the congregation to tears. Yet the reception has not been completely positive from everyone in Chicago.
“But (NBC affiliate WMAQ’s website) has a way you can register which stories you liked and which stories moved you and that sort of thing,” she said. “Well, 29 percent of the audience that saw the coverage that (WMAQ) did of our first night, which was beautiful, said that they were bored. You are bored with 270 of children dying?
“That’s what we’re up against. That’s the complacency and willful ‘I don’t wanna know, my part of the city’s working’ attitude that we’re up against.”
Like other major Midwestern cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, the youth violence is a byproduct of societal issues such as racial polarization, poverty, unemployment, and poor school systems. A majority of violent crimes in Chicago — which also has one of the country’s lowest graduation rates – are committed on the south and west sides of the city, with the west side being especially susceptible to violence due to the large number of street gangs.
“It’s concentrated in certain neighborhoods,” Johnson said. “Nearly every single child we remember is either African-American or Hispanic. Many of them come from low income communities and communities that have not had any serious reinvestment in the last 40 to 45 years.
“Most of these communities were decimated after Dr. Martin Luther King’s death (in 1968) and they still look the same today. So when I think about the roots of youth violence, I think of things like poor public education and rotting infrastructure. We’re really up against it.”
The violence is thanks largely to illegal guns ending up in the wrong hands. After nearby Wisconsin passed a concealed carry law earlier this week, Illinois is now the only state that does not allow its residents to carry concealed weapons.
“There are a lot of firearms out there,” Johnson said. “They’re in the hands of young children who don’t have the same sense of hope about their own lives.”
Johnson sees hope in Chicago’s future. Before Thursday night’s performance she was showering praise upon the kids in the choirs and constantly giving them positive reinforcement as they have spent weeks rehearsing for their performances and diligently finishing their homework after long nights performing this week.
“I think we’ve forgotten the children,” she said. “These are wonderful young people who are in our concert,” she said. “They’re no different from any of the other wonderful young people in any other community, and these are children who are mostly from the Englewood community and from Back of the Yards which are two very high homicide rates amongst young people.”
“If the people who are doing the funding think that 14, 15, or 16 is too old to turn around, then I might not be here. We’ve got to concentrate on developing our youth and giving them a reason to care.”
On Tuesday night, when Urban Dolorosa held its first vigil at the St. Sabina’s Catholic Church, newly elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke to the congregation. Emanuel makes it a point to call the families of any and all Chicago children that are injured or killed in gun violence.
“It is the loneliest call I do as mayor,” said Emanuel, who had to make one on such call on Monday night to the family of a 10-year-old boy who was shot in the leg while trick-or-treating. “I do it as a parent, not as a mayor. You are not alone in this moment of grief and this moment of doubt.”
The mayor’s appearance gave voice and credence to the movement, which is also starting to gain traction in Philadelphia and Baltimore, but Johnson knows that this is still a very long process.
“Parents seem to be very grateful,” Johnson said. “Parents of murdered children are happy that we are keeping the memory of their child alive and not allowing the city to forget, and that’s an important theme for us.”
The Urban Dolorosa vigils conclude on Sunday evening at Hyde Park Union Church. Johnson knows that while the message of the vigils is reaching the city and the country, changing the culture of gun violence in Chicago is going to take some soul-searching by the residents.
“The other part of it is to give people a reason to hope,” she said. “Your child didn’t die in vain in the sense that it’s going to go on and on after this.”
“One of the things that Father (Michael) Pfleger, who is the pastor at St. Sabina, has said in the past is that ‘If this had happened to one white child on the North Shore, we’d be all over it.’ How is it that this city can lose its black and brown children and it not register that something’s got to change?”