Walking up the street, something did not feel right. Stares felt interrogating; silence seemed heavier. We approached 54th and Laflin on a typical Wednesday walk through the Back of the Yards neighborhood and were met with an unusual dynamic. Groups of young men lined the streets, kind but pre-occupied.
We entered a dear friend’s home, catching up on the news of the week, when shots that sounded like firecrackers rang outside. Opposite of one’s typical reflexes, Brother Jim bounded out the door towards the gun shots to see what had happened. A car had driven past, fired about ten shots, and drove off. No one was injured, but the groups of young men were darting in and out of alleys, arming themselves and gathering together to form a plan. Brother Jim remained as a sign of God’s love and peace.
To most, this would be enough of an extraordinary day, but it was just the beginning for Brothers and Sisters of Love. In the evening, we drove to the Near North of the city, where several incidents had left two young men killed and others injured in the start of a new gang war. We went to find the victims’ families, knowing very little information about names, places, and events.
We started by visiting our friends, who kept sending us from one door to the next. The night was getting darker and we were running out of options. We showed up at several apartments asking for information and were turned away. With some determination and courage, we decided to find one of our friends, known for hanging out in the apartment that doubled as a drug haven. Brother Jim and I took a deep, heavy breath, and walked forward. We had prepared ourselves for various unpleasant scenarios on the opposite side of the door, but not for the eyes of four gruff police officers in full armor staring at us with cold, suspicious eyes. We hesitated. Thankfully, one of the officers recognized Brother Jim. The tension eased just enough to let us remain in the complex. We did not find the person we were looking for, and continued on our journey.
As we crossed the parking lot, we heard shouts from the windows above. “Are you a priest?! We need a priest!!” Brother Jim replied, “No, but we are from the Church.” We went upstairs to see what was happening. A family of women, several generations deep, were gathered in one room, petrified of the outdoors. They explained, as others had done consistently that night, that a gang had issued a vow to take 50 bodies in retaliation for a killing of one of their members. They spoke in hysterics of rumored threats on Lincoln Park High School. We prayed with the family, and mostly listened as they pleaded for some type of large scale intervention, begging us to bring in Church leaders and even the National Guard to stop the street war. We promised to return the next day, and returned to the original mission.
We were out of networking options, so we began a series of cold calls. We had a description of the building of one family—no more that a street name and size of the building—so we made our best guess and entered an apartment hoping for the best.
We gave what was sure to be an unconvincing introduction of ourselves to the front desk. We did not know this mother’s name, nor her apartment number, and she was not expecting us. I was bracing myself for another rejection, but it did not come. The guard was sympathetic to the circumstances and appreciative of our work. He let us upstairs, where we were met by several men standing outside the apartment, serving as their own security force. After answering several rounds of “What do you do?” we were told to return the next day because the mother was busy visiting with others.
Walking around the corner and back to our car, a young man shouted after us. The family had changed their minds, and we were escorted up to see the mother and fiancé of the victim. The apartment was crowded, and we prayed with the family members, exchanged information, and promised to return for funeral information.
There was one final stop to make. Through the grapevine of communication, we discovered we knew the cousin of the second victim, and went to her apartment. As we walked through the row-houses, one man shouted into his cell phone: “These […] preachers are fittin’ to get themselves shot up!!!” It was the typical sentiment behind the stares we experienced, but we approached the home anyway.
Inside, four girls were playing cards and handing us information in spurts. They, too, spoke of threats at the high school, the new war, and the killings happening in their neighborhood. We put the bits and pieces of information together and came up with a plan. Eventually, one contact at a time, we were able to get first and last names, addresses, and funeral information for all parties involved.
There were so many things that could have gone wrong during this day. However, despite the warring atmosphere on the streets, Brother Jim and I are able to navigate these neighborhoods remaining safe and welcomed, grateful of the abounding grace. It is days like this where we are certain of God’s presence steering us towards those who are hurting most and remaining with Chicago as it struggles for peace. With trust in God, love continues to cast out fear, and the work of peace can be done. May we all pray for that peace to come, and have faith that with the perseverance of all God’s servants, the Reign of God can reach Chicago’s streets.
~Megan Cottam, BSL
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