I believe every act of violence is also a message that needs to be understood. Violence should not be answered just by greater violence but by real understanding. We must ask: ‘Where is the violence coming from? What is its meaning?’”
― Jean Vanier
Senseless violence. Tragic loss. Despair. Grief. How do we cope with the acts of violence we have seen across our country in places like Colorado, Portland, and Connecticut? Troubling trends in youth violence. Communities shocked and shattered by destruction. Precious young lives taken prematurely and undeservedly. This is not how it should be.
Yet, this unimaginable tragedy is an all too familiar reality in neighborhoods in Chicago where I live and other cities where Mission Year invests. By now everyone knows, we had 500 homicides in Chicago last year alone. I went to a vigil with our teams last year where they read the name of every child whose life had been taken in the last three years. Hearing the names of over 200 children and youth read aloud was enough to make me want to shout out, “Enough!” How many more names do we have to read before we are moved to action?
I’ve marched for peace in the streets with neighbors, community groups, concerned churches, and family members who have lost their loved ones to gun violence. Our team members attend funerals and grieve alongside communities who experience this personal trauma on a weekly basis. This past year a 6 year old, Aliyah Shell, was shot by a stray bullet while playing on her front porch. There was a huge community rally following her death and Pastor Victor Rodriguez, one of our Mission Year church partners, passionately pled for the violence to stop. He called on the churches to get outside the walls of the church. He even asked for forgiveness from the young people that we had not worked harder to connect with them.
We have a lot to learn from communities who endure this kind of sorrow and death daily. They have to find ways to remember lives lost and keep hope in the midst of agonizing loss. Communities find ways to memorialize the youth so that they remain names and faces rather than just cold statistics. T-shirts are made and worn in remembrance, street shrines of candles, signs, and stuffed animals are setup, tattoos with the names and faces are imprinted, peace marches organized, and political action taken to not let their memories fade with the media cycle. Diane Latiker, founder of Kids Off the Block where one of our team members volunteered last year, constructed a physical memorial with a stone for every youth killed in the Roseland community to raise attention (she has over 300 stones).
Perhaps, we can use this moment of empathy to connect the violent dots. All life is precious. Whether it’s happening in suburban Colorado or inner-city Chicago, Portland or Palestine, Connecticut or Calcutta. Amy Williams, an urban youth worker who specializes in gang affiliated youth, says “all youth are at-risk youth.” All youth need support, love, mentoring, counseling, and opportunities. A recent study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab in partnership with Chicago public schools shows that mentoring and counseling dramatically decreases violence among high risk students. Yet, youth programs, social services and guidance counselors are constantly being cut from our schools and communities. The violence in the city and in Connecticut is telling us that our youth are hurting, suffering with alienation, anger, depression, and a host of mental disorders. We can’t pretend this is an isolated incident. It’s systemic.
The day after Newtown I drove through the city and I saw flags at half mass outside all the public schools I passed. I was touched with the solidarity. Our city understands sorrow and suffering and we stand with others who are experiencing it. I hope this marks a larger solidarity. That when children and youth in Chicago and other parts of the country and world suffer those in Connecticut, Portland, and Colorado will stand with us.
If there is a message in the violence for us I believe it is this: we are one human family and every one of our lives matters. Every child counts and deserves to experience abundant life. We need to invest in our youth. Investing in youth saves lives. In the city, many churches can’t afford to hire youth pastors. Many urban youth workers do it on a volunteer basis. Many community organizations are reaching out to youth out of their homes operating on shoestring budgets. All this while gun lobbyists are spending billions to convince our political representatives to ease up on gun restrictions. Every one of us needs to be a lobbyist for children and youth in this country and the rest of the world.
The documentary “The Interrupters” came out last year highlighting the work of Ceasefire, a gang violence intervention organization here in Chicago. They call themselves violence interrupters because they purposefully go into high conflict situations to keep things from escalating into violence. To work for peace means we have to enter into the violence. Daniel Berringan, a Jesuit priest who spoke out against the Vietnam War in the 60s asked, “Are peacemakers prepared to take the same risks to make peace as soldiers are prepared to take to make war?”
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Jesus entered into the violence. The cross that we see every Sunday in church should remind us of our radical call to witness to peace in a violent world. Most of us like the idea of peace but we don’t want to have anything to do with violence. But the reality of violence gives us the opportunity and responsibility to embrace our unique call to peacemaking.
One of my friends has made peacemaking part of her vocation. Tiffany Childress is a committed Christian and teacher at North Lawndale College Prep in the neighborhood I live. She is also a certified trainer in Kingian nonviolence. She takes King’s principles of nonviolence and teaches them at her school so youth are empowered with alternative ways of dealing with their problems. Students are now finding creative ways to work for peace in their school and community. While many in our city are decrying the violence among youth in the city, Tiffany is creating a culture of nonviolence and peace in the place she lives and works.
Christ came to bring peace to the world. This peace is not the avoidance of conflict or violence. Peace enters into the violence and seeks to understand, mediate, and advocate in the midst of the madness.
What if we all became violence interrupters? What if we all looked for ways to increase peace in our everyday lives, communities, and cities? Jesus came to teach us the way of peace. Peace may be our most credible witness to the world.
Shawn Casselberry is the National Program Director/Director of Recruitment for Mission Year, a national urban initiative introducing 18-29 year olds to missional and communal living in city centers for one year of their lives. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: M. Spencer Green/AP