I have been teaching on the South Side of Chicago for ten years, and yet I have not been an authentic part of the communities in which I work. I have lamented low attendance at family nights, and yet aside from a first communion, a basketball playoff game, and a few home visits, I have not reached out to spend time with families outside of a school setting.
It’s not because I don’t want to, or don’t find it important. I read about Paolo Friere‘s work in Brazil, and about Paul Farmer‘s work in Haiti, and I recognize the importance of working in partnership with communities. I know that for true change to take place, initiatives must be grown organically in collaboration with community members, not generated by academics and imposed upon them. But I never found the right entry point.
One night a few years ago I left school late, probably grading fraction quizzes or setting up microscopes for a lab, when I saw a procession of adults and children, carrying points of candle light, singing. They were turning the corner of 71st and Christiana, a spot usually devoid of magic for me, the site of my daily grind. The procession was mysterious, haunting, and humbling. For what was this vigil? Remembrance of loved ones lost? A protest of urban ills? An appreciation of saints? Why didn’t I have a candle and a place in this line? Would I scold a student for not having homework the next morning, not knowing he had been processing the streets all night? Had I done that many a time? Would my time that evening have been better spent at this vigil, rather than inside the building inserting common denominators? I didn’t see an entry point. I drove away.
I sing in the Chicago Community Chorus. We are directed by a gospel composer, and much of what we sing is religious. I am not religious, but I sing the spirituals and masses and cantatas with my own brand of conviction. The music is my entry point.
Our chorus participated in Urban Dolorosa, a multimedia vigil in response to the 263 young people who have been killed by violence in Chicago over the last three years. The five night “pilgrimage” included vigils at five churches in five different neighborhoods, and I participated in each one. The O Madonnas movement we sang contains these lyrics:
Permit me then to grieve with you
To learn from you
To love your children as my own.
Here was my long awaited entry point.
NIGHT ONE: SAINT SABINA
Saint Sabina is an African-American Catholic church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Their pastor, Michael Phleger, is a controversial social activist. This German American Southsider adopted children in defiance of a cardinal, guided parishioners to provide outreach to prostitutes by buying their time, and erected billboards protesting “disrespectful” rappers such as 50 Cent and Lil Wayne. Father Phleger was not there this night, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel was.
Emanuel stood before the parishioners and other guests, including those in rows reserved for Parents of Murdered Children, and told us of a difficult call he made a few hours before. He had called the mother of a child who had been shot in the leg by a Latin King while trick-or-treating. He lectured to us that “We will be a strong city if we’re one city”, but it sounded like empty rhetoric as I sat in a racially segregated church within a racially segregated neighborhood. We were told that our program, with the names of the murdered youth, had to be updated to include the brother of one of our young performers. I shook my head along with some of my fellow chorus members, and our conversations were just as vague and unsatisfying as the Mayor’s statement. “It’s terrible,” we said. “It’s complicated”, we said. “What can we do?” we asked.
The performance was a bit more specific in its language and imagery. Spoken word artist Mama Brenda Matthews howled at us: “Can you help us catch our falling stars, so they can be bright lights?” Baritone singer Khary Laurent’s voice boomed down the aisles as he picked up shoes of deceased children and placed them on an altar. The photography of Carlos Javier Ortiz’s Too Young to Die project was displayed on a screen, corresponding with the libretto of Susan Johnson and music of Fr. Vaughn Fayle. The text includes liturgy as well as excerpts from Chicago writers such as Carl Sandburg and Alex Kotlowitz:
Beside the Lake, the native grasses bow their heads in hushed remembrance of summers past.
Her children are no longer free; there are no children here.
Yet the city, unmoved, big shouldered- carries on-
is there no balm, no remedy, no physician anymore?
Of course the most powerful performers were the young people who dressed in everyday clothes, chatted in the aisles before the performance, added photos and memorabilia to the altar, and clinked marimbas that manage to sound both woeful and hopeful. After lighting our candles, they they led us out of the church in procession around the block. We sang:
Pour out your heart like water
for the lives of your children-
let justice roll down like waters
righteousness like an everflowering stream.
The mayor and a few citizens made the evening news.
NIGHT TWO: CHICAGO TEMPLE
More dignitaries this night. Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of Chicago Public Schools. As well as many white people, at the lovely First United Methodist Church at Chicago Temple in downtown Chicago. My best friends were in attendance, and from many pews away I saw them wiping their eyes as the names of children were called out. The saddest part of all was when it was said: “If there are any names of young people who have not been mentioned, please say them now,” and names were spontaneously spoken from the pews. This night only two names were called, but that was enough to make my friends cry. Our “vigil” was not a procession this night, as we were in the heart of crowded downtown at rush hour and could have easily disbanded, but a gathering across the street at the Picasso statue. The minister rang a bell for the number of youth who have been killed in this school year (16), and my friends and I later laughed over dinner about how quiet, how weak, the ring of the bell was. An ineffective ding in a noisy city that’s hardly listening. Even the people gathered there, trying to listen, could barely hear it.
Though many in attendance this night seemed less affected by urban ills like gang warfare, drug abuse, and youth violence, they were an important audience. People should be exposed to the issues of marginalized communities, and not just by the evening news. Perhaps someone there has the resources or influence to do something about the problem. And though the ding of the bell sounded weak in the roar of the crowd, people came to listen, and they heard something this night.
NIGHT THREE: NEW MOUNT PILGRIM MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH
No dignitaries this night. And hardly any white people. And many, many, many names of unlisted victims spontaneously spoken from the pews. Tonight’s procession felt different. I felt in it. Trash swam around our ankles as we walked around the block. Pit bulls behind fences sang along to our song, truly in tune. A processing woman fell into a hole. A hole, yes a hole in the sidewalk, the diameter of a leg, as if the street was swallowing her up. But she was quickly pulled out. No complaints were issued about the hole; folks just laughed at the absurdity and processed onward. The singing stopped momentarily, and a teenager lamented, “Dang, I was really feeling that,” and so the singing started up again. We were all feeling it. There was no mayor, no CEO, no media– just grieving, resilient people affected by a violence regarded as a common cold.
The amazing new documentary The Interrupters tells the story of three “violence interrupters” who protect Chicago citizens from crimes they themselves used to commit. They work for the highly effective Cease Fire organization, which operates on a public health model. Cease Fire classifies violence as a learned behavior that can be prevented using disease control methods. The film explains that people in communities historically plagued by violence are “infected”, and from a young age imagine themselves dying from the “disease”.
With it’s garbage streams and leg-sized holes and singing pit bulls, the Garfield Park neighborhood felt infected. But it also felt charged with strong people ready to sing new words, laugh at absurdity, and pull people out of holes, while barely missing a note. At one point a woman from my chorus and I became separated from the procession. We were about thirty paces behind, delayed as we tried to relight our candles that were burned out by the wind. We kept singing, but our voices sounded so solitary. This gave me just the tiniest taste of the isolation people in marginalized and neglected neighborhoods must feel. Where singing about pouring out your heart for the lives of children feels farcical, ridiculous. Eventually we rejoined the line, and thanked one another for the support during that brief time of isolation. Why wouldn’t a young person in a fractured neighborhood cling to a group, a family, a gang for protection and support? Who else is going to pull you out of the hole?
NIGHT FOUR: HOLY CROSS – IMMACULATE HEART OF MARY
This night was throat-choking sad. It’s not that crushed crying of recent immigrants is actually sadder than the resilient laughter of generational poverty-stricken folk, it’s just that it SOUNDS sadder. When you hear crying, you tend to cry yourself, like a contagious yawn. You can fill in the blank of the narrative: We escaped the drug cartels of Durango and arrived here for a better life, and it was a little bit better, until Juan was shot.
Holy Cross is in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, a now predominantly Mexican-American community that was named for the former union stock yards depicted in Upton Sinclar’s 1906 novel The Jungle. Four years ago, former mayor Daley yelled at residents after the shooting of a pregnant woman. “You know who did it. Don’t be blaming the police. Look in the mirror and say, ‘I can do better.’ …If you don’t turn these individuals in, you’ll be marching [against violence] for the rest of your life.” I haven’t read The Jungle yet, but I will. Wikipedia says it “depicts in harsh tones poverty, absence of social programs, unpleasant living and working conditions, and hopelessness prevalent among the working class, which is contrasted with the deeply-rooted corruption on the part of those in power.” No dignitaries attended this night’s event.
NIGHT FIVE: HYDE PARK UNION CHURCH
This was the final night of the pilgrimage. We were conscious of being recorded, wanting to do justice to the victims and their families with each note we sang.
We processed down manicured streets past stately homes, as this is what is called the “nice” part of Hyde Park. Unlike in Garfield Park where curious residents peeked out of windows yet stayed inside, Hyde Parkers casually exited their brownstones and tudors to inquire about the vigil. I spoke to some people my friend knew, a kind family whose parents are deeply involved in improving urban education. The two children in the family were concerned that our candles had burned out. They asked us if they could run inside and fetch the propane lighter for us. Protected by a pleasant neighborhood and nurturing parents, they felt safe enough to perform an act of kindness to strangers. They returned from the house to light our candles, and when the flame first flickered the girl exalted “Yay!”. We thanked them and continued on. “Have a nice walk!” they called.