Survivors Of Chicago Gun Violence Struggle To Heal | WGLT

Survivors Of Chicago Gun Violence Struggle To Heal

May 10, 2016

Chicago has experienced a  70 percent increase in gun violence so far this year. What happens to the people left behind --the survivors -- and those who live in daily terror of the cross fires? 

Part Two of our series on Chicago's struggle with guns and gangs explores how a group called Chicago Survivors helps those left behind.

GLT's Judy Valente originally reported this series for the national PBS-TV program, "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly." Part 1 aired Monday. This is the second part of her report.

It's Saturday morning at the Catholic Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation on Chicago’s south side. Mothers from across the city gather for a healing circle, led by Sister Donna Liette.

Sister Donna lights a candle in the middle of a circle where the photographs of recent shooting victims are displayed, as well as one victim's pair of  sneakers.

“We have Damon’s picture there and Jimmy’s, two young boys in the neighborhood whose lives were taken by violence," she said.

Most of the women in the circle have children who were either killed or are in prison. One of them begins by reading a poem titled “Stop.”

“Stop the killing, the drug dealing, the gang banging. Stop the tears falling from our mother’s eyes. Stop the pain in our mother’s hearts. Stop the blood from flowing.”

And then each mother tells her story.

“These are the shoes my son wore," one woman said. "He was a victim of gun violence in the Kenwood community two and a half years ago."

“They took my son’s life for no reason. He wasn’t a gang banger," said another.

“My son is serving life in prison for a crime he committed when he was 13, he’s now 36. I’ve seen gun violence from the other side and I’m kind of heavy-hearted today." said a third participant.

The Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation offers support to the other victims of gun violence -- the survivors.

“I came to the circle hurt, I came angry," said one woman who had accompanied her sister to the circle. "It’s like my nephew didn’t have a chance. He was 19, he had just celebrated his birthday. I don’t know how people go through this without a faith in God.”

Father Dave Kelly is Precious Blood Center's director. He says the center tries to be a place of  “radical hospitality.” 

"Accompaniment is walking alongside. It’s very much a Biblical kind of thing of just accompanying someone on the journey. Being there on that journey. Not necessarily that I know where we’re going, but I’m committed to you as a human being and I’m going to be there for you," Kelly said.

Susan Johnson is a retired American Baptist minister She runs a program called Chicago Survivors from a church not far from where the Obamas have a home on Chicago's south side.

“We have communities and families that are super-saturated with the experience of violence over multiple generations." Johnson said.

Police call in Chicago Survivors as soon as a homicide occurs to help families in the immediate aftermath of a violent death.

“We’ll go with them to the medical examiner’s office to identify the body. We’ll talk with the police with them just to give them that security that they’re not just at large in the midst of this crisis," Johnson said.

Among the hardest cases to handle are incidents of random violence. Louise Buckner’s husband John was gunned down by a teenager who rode by their home on a bicycle  as her husband was unloading groceries from a car.

“Once it was all over and I was getting off the ground heading towards the house, my husband says, ‘I’ve been shot, baby,’” Buckner recalled. “Earlier that day, there was some type of disagreement with some young people and they came back to shoot whatever was moving.”

Buckner said the incident shook her world. “It has changed me forever. My family will never be the same again, you know. Someone coming to take a life from you for no reason, no reason at all, just senseless, unconscionable.”

Johnson said it often takes several months for that the reality of that  kind of tragedy to sink in. "That time, that first six months of trying to adjust to a new normal without a loved one is a very lonely time and about that time somebody may even want to give up. We’ll be the voice that calls on the phone, or if you won’t answer your phone we’ll come knock on your door and just say, ‘How are you doing today? Let’s talk,’” Johnson said.

Ja-Chare Williams saw the father of her three children gunned down last year at their home by an acquaintance, in front of her four-year-old daughter.

“It’s just like she’s a newborn baby all over again. She want to be hugged and loved on now and wants to be reassured that my life not going to be taken away," Williams said.

“I think we grossly underestimate the impact on children in urban neighborhoods where they grow up with an awareness of violence, with a personal experience of violence," Johnson said. "When we look at children who are not performing well in school, whose attendance isn’t good at school, we should ask ourselves, ‘Where’s the trauma in this child’s life and how can we intervene?’”

Williams did not want to remain with her children in the home where the shooting occurred. For months, she found herself moving from one relative’s or friend’s apartment to another. Chicago Survivors proved the one constant in her life.

“I wasn’t able to go out and buy my kids much for Christmas due to the situation that I’m put in, and they were amazing when it came to that part with buying my kids gifts for Christmas. They provided counseling, they also took me around to take care of a lot of business that I wasn’t able to do, that I was afraid to get on the bus and do," Williams recalled.

No arrests have been made so far in either the Buckner or Williams shootings. Father Kelly, the juvenile detention center chaplain, says even if suspects were arrested, incarceration is only partial answer at best to curbing the violence.

“There’s a lot of research that says it does more harm than good. And what it does as well because it’s so costly, is that it takes from the community. So the resources we need in this community – good schools, really good schools, mental health, jobs – those are non-existent because of the cost factor, if you will, of incarceration.”
 

Kelly says there are other ways to hold kids accountable for their actions, especially those involved in non-violent crimes. He’s a proponent of an alternative known as “restorative justice.”
 

“Basically I look at crime or violence as a violation of relationships. Some people are harmed, some people do that harm. So the role of restorative justice is to repair, as best we can those relationships.”

Kelly has gained a powerful ally in Cook County Juvenile Judge Colleen Sheehan. Sheehan says she believes in the benefits of restorative justice.

“I think it seeks answers as to why someone has done something. If you know why someone has done something, if you know why you’ve done something, you can go about changing behavior.”

Sheehan says she realized in her first year in juvenile court that she needed to look for innovative ways to rescue kids from the cycle of violence.

“When I came to juvenile court after the first year, there was a tally of five children who were on my probation that had been murdered. By the second year, the number had risen to twelve. It had a big effect on me. It was like, “Hey, what’s going on here and what are we doing about this?’”

Sheehan began meeting with teens from troubled neighborhoods on her own time, trying to understand what their lives were like and figure out how to keep them out of court.

“I said, you know, what would it be like if you could walk wherever you wanted to walk without fear of being jumped on or being attacked in any way. And I asked them this question and it was kind of funny because you should have seen their eyes light up. It was as if I was saying to them, ‘What would it be like if I was taking you to Disneyland, or if I was giving you a thousand dollars.”

Sheehan began looking at alternatives to traditional courts. She has proposed establishing a series of Restorative Justice Community Courts. Instead of a traditional courtroom, young defendants would go to a place like the Precious Blood Center for Reconciliation, and participate in a Peace Circle, similar to the ones held for mothers struggling with the death of a child.

Both Kelly and Sheehan say a key component of restorative justice is that community members must be involved.

“If it’s going to be a sustained effort it cannot be a policing strategy. It’s got to be a community strategy. It’s got to be the community kind of coming together and really dealing with the issues," Kelly said.

“Those community members who are not part of the system hopefully will gain the trust a little more easily of someone, of a defendant who actually lives in their community and they can be of service. They can provide mentoring, they can provide accompaniment." Sheehan said.

Sheehan already has ordered juvenile defendants to attend restorative justice Peace Circles. She’s even convened Peace Circles for police and teens. She admits she was surprised by the reaction she got from a defendant in her courtroom when she proposed the idea.

“I said would you be interested in sitting with the police in a safe space, not invested in being a victim or blaming, but actually invested in solution? What if I gave you credit for those community service hours, I said. Would you be interested? He just looked at me, he stood back and just looked at me and said, ‘I’ll do it for free.””

Chicago Police Lieutenant Laurel Bresnahan,was  at first skeptical.

“At first I thought my worst suspicions were going to be realized and this would turn into just another opportunity for the community to bash the police, tell us what a terrible job we do and how we’re always quick to over-react," Bresnahan said.

It did not turn out that way, for either the police or the teens.

“She flipped the tables and asked us as police officers how we felt when we interact with community some of the things we deal with, and I thought wow, maybe someone is actually to listen to what we have to say as well. It was a very empowering thing,” Bresnahan recalled.

One young man who attended the event with police said afterward, “The one thing I’m going to take away from today is to be more understanding, to see everyone as not just a uniform but to see people past that, that they’re human and we’re human and everyone is not out here on the wrong track, but trying to make something of ourselves.”

Said Sheehan, “I mean there were police officers who said ‘I’m sorry, there were children who said they were sorry and it was, there were real connections going on.”

In another of her initiatives, Sheehan sponsored a photography contest for police and teenagers, called “Bridging the Divide,” another idea that sprang from her courtroom experience.

“If you sit in juvenile court you start to hear a lot of negative things. It comes at you so frequently you have to say sometimes, is anything right?" Sheehan said. "I actually thought what if we could create a contest, if we could create a contest in which police officers were taking a picture on their tour of duty of something positive.”

Teens from the community responded with equal enthusiasm, and some of their photos are still on display at a local YMCA center.

Nearly all who work with those whose lives have been affected by violence say it is a deeply spiritual experience.

“I talk about the compassion that we see in the community of survivors, the fellow feeling, the empathy and the forgiveness," said Johnson of the Chicago Survivors group. "It comes out of a spiritual searching that people who haven’t had a firsthand experience don’t have to go through.”

“Sometimes it feels as if I keep trying to do things differently and trying to push innovative ideas because I see something in front of me and I feel compelled to act," Sheehan said. "And sometimes it feels as if there is a certain divinity that happens.”

Kelly, of the Precious Blood Center, says his with survivors clearly has religious meaning. “My work is between Good Friday, which is death, and Easter." he said. "Too often as Christians, we want to move from Good Friday to Easter and we forget about Holy Saturday, which is the real work of the church, because most of us are living in the shadow of the crucifixion, wanting the resurrection, wanting that new life, that freedom, that liberation, and we’re not there yet.  And so we work in this, this Holy Saturday moment.”

It is that hope of something better that continues to inspire survivors -- and those working to stop the violence.