A well-built man, commanding in presence and successful in life, is first to admit he did not think walking the streets was the greatest idea ever invented. He did not immediately see the wisdom in approaching gang members, especially the ones who glared menacingly at him as he walked down their block. The fear was tangible. But nevertheless, our board member Bill committed to walking once a week with Brother Jim, and has come to cherish the time with the residents.
Bill always fills his yellow bag with something for the journey—gloves in the winter, water in the summer, and dog bones for the pets in the neighborhood. He personifies generous. On this past walk during Holy Week, however, he revealed something unique: His bag was exploding with chocolate Easter bunnies.
He recounts a moment of truth as we all began to walk South down 51st Street on the Southside of Chicago.
“The first year we did this, I was only planning on giving chocolates to the kids. There were these guys on the corner, and oh man, they did not look inviting. I had said to Brother Jim, “We are not going over there.” Brother Jim wanted me to give them the chocolate bunnies I had for that Easter, and I was sayng no way! Those guys do not want a chocolate bunny.” He was emphatic in his tone.
“But then Brother Jim did what he does best, and started approaching the corner anyway, so I had to follow. And what do you know? Those guys loved those darn bunnies! It was unbelievable!” Bill seemed as though the shock had never faded, even though he was prepared to repeat the now-tradition this year.
In that moment, those who seemed unapproachable became friendly and welcoming. Br Jim and Bill were able to engage in conversation, spanning sports, the news, and the neighborhood, and in Bill’s eyes, the “criminals” transformed into mere companions.
To those who have never spent significant time in the streets, this is in fact an unbelievable story, and goes against our assumptions about gang members. We have images of tough, hardened criminals who have lost the ability to feel and want anything but power.
And yet, inside that hardened shell prepared to defend his corner is still a young boy who was robbed of his childh
ood. He never got an elaborate Easter Basket. He had holiday dinners at the food pantry, not a Norman Rockwell-style feast with extended family and both parents present. The desire to be childlike never goes away; it is only suppressed by circumstance.
Gang members are not spontaneously-created evil-beings. They are boys forced into manhood, while not having any idea what that means. They act to survive, just as we do. They act to feed themselves, just as we do. They act to gain status among their friends, just as we do. They also watch sports, movies, the news, and the shocking TV episode finale, just as we do.
It is not complicated programs and grand schemes that break down barriers in our ministry. Sometimes all it takes to make a connection is to remind one another of these commonalities, even something as simple as a craving for a chocolate bunny.
~Megan Cottam, BSL
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