JUSTEN WALLACE: Being shot at by a bunch of people. And I thought I wasn’t gonna make it out, but I got through it.
JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: Thirteen-year-old Justen Wallace and his friend, 17-year-old Armir Lightfoot, come on Saturdays to this local YMCA center. They come to talk.
ARMIR LIGHTFOOT: I was walking home. I guess they thought I was somebody or something. They just hopped out of the car and just started shooting. I was just running as fast as I can to the house.
VALENTE: Justen and Armir meet with men who know what it’s like to be shot at—former combat veterans.
URBAN WARRIORS VOLUNTEER: When I was being shot at in Afghanistan, I was scared too. But you know, feeling scared, that’s what gets you to manage to stay alive.
VALENTE: The soldiers and the teens are part of a 16-week YMCA program called Urban Warriors. But for these youngsters, the firefights don’t take place in an overseas war zone, they explode their own neighborhoods.
Eddie Bocanegra is head of the YMCA Office of Youth Safety and Violence Prevention. He grew up in a neighborhood much like the one where Justen and Armir live.
BOCANEGRA: You leave your home and you’re walking toward school and you’re walking through these war-zone communities, between gangs that are fighting each other from block to block in many cases. You’re looking at these houses that have been abandoned. You see debris, garbage everywhere. You see prostitution on one corner. On the other corner you see the drug sales, and that’s your landscape.”
VALENTE: Bocanegra was once in a gang himself. He served time in prison for killing another teen in a revenge shooting. Now a graduate of the University of Chicago, Bocanegra spends his days trying to keep boys like Justen and Armir out of gangs. But it’s a daily struggle.
BOCANEGRA: The truth is gangs replace social services in many cases where communities or societies fall short in. When people join gangs, a lot of time it’s because of a safety issue, protecting their siblings, for example. And especially when the caregivers are either not present either because they’re at work or because they’ve been deported or incarcerated, I mean there’s a void there that the gangs tend to fill in.
VALENTE: 2016 is shaping up to be another bloody year in Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods. Chicago was already reeling from several high-profile violent incidents late last year. In one that made national headlines, nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee was shot several times execution-style in an alleyway where he had gone to play basketball. Three gang members have been charged with his murder. One of them told police he wanted to kill “grandmas, mothers, kids, and all” in retaliation for his own brother’s shooting death. And last November, after a white officer was shown on video shooting a black teenager 16 times, angry protests broke in the heart of Chicago’s main shopping district. The incident led to the officer’s indictment on a murder charge, the firing of Chicago’s police superintendent, and calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign.
Through it all groups like Urban Warriors and other grassroots efforts have tried to steer kids away from gang recruitment. Increasingly, there are calls for churches to become more involved with at-risk teens, and more active in helping to stem the violence.
BOCANEGRA: I have seen a lot of pastors from smaller churches who would never open their doors to our kids.
VALENTE: Greater Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood is a church that does open its doors. Reverend David Watkins III says he needs to be more than a pastor to his congregation. He has to be a “community preacher.”
REV. DAVID WATKINS III: This community should be better off because as a church we are in it.
VALENTE: Watkins’s church has teamed up with a local elementary school to provide a host of activities on Saturdays through a program called “Paving the Way.”
“Good morning, everybody.”
VALENTE: Activities range from cooking lessons … to creative writing ….
“I want you guys to be heard, okay?”
…to rewriting the lyrics in rap songs that reference violence to give them a more positive message…
Singing: “Everywhere I go I see the kids in the corner, smoking that stuff, trying to sell marijuana …”
Rapping: “Kid in a corner fights for his life and but I know what’s wrong, but I know what’s right.”
…to drumming classes for the older boys … and where the props are sometimes almost as big as these tiny dancers. For some, choreographing their own dance routines becomes a lesson in teamwork and leadership.
REV. WATKINS: So what can be improved?
Boy in class: More practice?
VALENTE: Watkins says he is trying to redefine what it means to be church.
REV. WATKINS: Church for us is really service and commitment in the community. Making a difference, sharing God’s love in tangible ways not just on Sunday, but more importantly, Monday through Saturday.
VALENTE: Often these programs do lead kids back to church. That’s what happened to Antonio Davis, who coordinates “Paving the Way” and personally mentors about 50 boys. Davis joined a street gang when he was six years old.
ANTONIO DAVIS: It felt like finally that father figure that I was looking for, you know, they played that role.
VALENTE: By the age of 19, Davis wanted out. He was facing jail time for aggravated battery. His grandfather insisted he go down to Watkins’s church. And there was another pressing reason. He had an infant son.
DAVIS: I had my guys around me, and they was dropping like flies. Everybody was getting killed and everything, and so when I had him, you know, it was like I’m responsible for a life now, you know, and I didn’t want him in that life that I lived.
VALENTE: Davis says in recent years gang life has become less structured and more violent.
DAVIS: Now it’s the little boys that’s, you know, out here, and, you know, you can’t even call them gangs because it’s one corner against the next corner, you know, saying there’s little factions. And, you know, they’re killing each other over Facebook, Snapchat. I mean, it’s ridiculous out here.
REV. WATKINS: When Antonio came to us as an angry black man making $5,000 a week doing drugs, we said look, man, you can help us around here. We can only pay you $100. Whatever he needed, we were willing to do whatever it took to get it.
VALENTE: A seemingly insurmountable problem is the constant flow of guns into the city. Cook County Juvenile Judge Colleen Sheehan says many of the youths in her courtroom are there on gun charges. She recalls asking one young man with no prior record what he was doing with a gun.
JUDGE COLLEEN SHEEHAN: He looked at me with sort of surprise, like what do you mean, how did I get this gun? I just got it from a friend. It was that easy. It was as if I asked, where’d you get that candy bar?
VALENTE: Father Dave Kelly is the chaplain at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.
FATHER DAVE KELLY (Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation): You have a 14-year-old carrying a gun because he knows life is short. He knows he’s at risk, and he knows adults won’t protect him. So he has a gun.
VALENTE: That message has been taken up by Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, seen here at an ecumenical sunrise service to pray for an end to the violence. The archbishop wrote an open letter to children in the community after nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee was killed.
ARCHBISHOP BLASE CUPICH: I said to the young people you should be upset. The adult world has failed you.
VALENTE: In addition to seeking a ban on assault weapons, Cupich is calling for stricter background checks and holding both gun sellers and manufacturers accountable. He is urging Catholics to consider gun control a “pro-life” issue.
ARCHBISHOP CUPICH: We have to take this in hand and put aside various divisive and political arguments that serve no one’s purpose at all. We have a crisis on our hands. It is a death epidemic, and we can stop it if we take action. But we need to come together, and the first step is enacting proper gun safety rules.
VALENTE: Leaders from the archbishop to Watkins of Greater Bethesda Baptist Church to the YMCA’s Bocanegra recognize that their efforts, while important, are but stopgap measures. They say what’s needed is a comprehensive approach to many complex social and economic problems.
BOCANEGRA: We just don’t have a real clear understanding of how to address the root causes of violence. We come at it from a very punitive approach to address those issues as opposed of thinking about a way where we could identify those individuals and find ways to support them and their families.
REV. WATKINS: Fatherlessness, education. We want to talk about jobs. What we know about black men right now is 50 percent of them don’t have access because they don’t have appropriate training. We need job readiness.
VALENTE: Do you ever feel what you are doing here in Washington Park, that what you’re doing is a drop in a big ocean?
REV. WATKINS: Sometimes the issues, the concerns, and even the pain that’s resident in the community, it can be overwhelming. However, part of the hope of the gospel is that even in the midst of despair you always have a way out, there’s always a new way. There’s always hope at the end of the day.
VALENTE: And, Watkins says, it will also take a long-term effort and plenty of partnerships to stem the flow of violence.
For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Judy Valente in Chicago.