[originally published in the 2/11 issue of the Concord, the literary journal of Luther Seminary – St. Paul, MN]
[painting by Alex Roulette]
Driving past that spot became a sort of ritual for me – a litany my body would recite. An act of devotion to a child who had been gunned down on a sidewalk I couldn’t, for the life of me, distinguish from the others around it. A sidewalk I couldn’t distinguish from those I had grown up on two states away.
Weeks earlier the evening news had described details more concretely: South Side of Chicago, 15-year-old African American boy, sophomore in high school, robbed at gun point, fatally shot in the chest. Within hours of the initial report he had a name: Marquell Blake.
In any sensible world these details alone would have been enough to unhinge an average day. Chicago though, like many American cities, has been awash in tragic details all too similar to these in recent years. By April, Marquell Blake was the 32nd Chicago Public School student shot and killed in the 2008-2009 school year. Several journalists had already remarked that the death rate of students from Chicago was 24 times higher than that of soldiers from Chicago serving in combat zones in Iraq.
Even so, it wasn’t until I heard the final detail that something shook loose within me: 7700 block of South Carpenter Avenue. This shooting had occurred a mere four blocks from the church where I had been doing my internship for a Masters in Urban Ministry through SCUPE and Luther Seminary. Something about the proximity to a place that had become dear and personal to me through daily work and connections meant that I couldn’t just excuse this as just another tragedy in another part of town.
In Auburn Gresham I had heard the stories of the diligent work of tireless community members to better their neighborhood, had heard the sermons and the press conferences calling city and church leaders to no longer simply provide the vigils and eulogies after acts of violence but to actively work to prevent violence. This was a community like all of the others I had lived in: people cared for each other and came together to address mutual concerns.
Suddenly, I came to see that I had been sold a false bill of goods. Since childhood, I had been taught that some neighborhoods were safe and some weren’t. It was implied that, as long as I stayed within the respectable racial, cultural, and socio-economic borders I would float through life excused from the impact of violence. This de facto division of the world into safe and not safe, into good neighborhoods and sketchy neighborhoods, was as a veil drawn over my eyes.
In a flood, I recalled the teenager who was shot dead on his bike just up the hill from my childhood home in suburban Minneapolis. I saw the face of the middle school student in pristine Rochester, MN who had taken his own life with his father’s rifle. I felt a pang go up my side like I used to get on long runs with a friend who abruptly ended his own life after returning from active duty to civilian life with his family.
Now I am convinced: there is no safe and no unsafe America. We all breathe the common cultural air of our environment and that air is currently polluted with the toxins of violence. On streets, in families, in schools, at our borders and across the oceans, America has come to rely on the intoxicating atmosphere of violence often as a pathway to power (individual, institutional, international, etc.) but sometimes merely senselessly. As a result, we have lost the creativity and hope to imagine a world that doesn’t opt for violence as a first resort.
Prior to the recent shootings in Tucson, Arizona, faith leaders had been wrestling with concerns over an ever increasing tolerance for violent rhetoric, random shootings, domestic violence, and war zones as they prepared for a conference on violence in March of 2011. The unrest and concerns of these religious leaders have been highlighted by the tragic events in Tucson and the continuing gun and community violence in Chicago and other metropolitan areas.
It is in critical times such as these that faith and community leaders from across the nation will gather at the SCUPE Congress on Urban Ministry to commit ourselves towards Peacemaking in a Culture of Violence. The faith community is finally finding its collective voice on this issue – teachers, social workers, psychologists, and law enforcement have all weighed in – but the church has not. Now is the time for faith institutions to join in action and in voice on actively resisting violence in our streets, in our cities, and throughout our nation.
Theologians and faith leaders like Walter Brueggemann, Shane Claiborne, Renita Weems, James Forbes and Michael Pfleger have answered our call to be prophetic voices of peace at the conference. What is needed now are individuals committed to adding their voice to the growing call for peace by participating in the gathering.
As future and current church leaders will you join leaders from communities all across the nation in taking a stand against violence and discerning a path forward in which our churches can play a vital role in creating a more peaceful future for all people?
We hope to hear your voice at the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry.
For more information please visit: www.congressonurbanministry.org