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Why a Chicago church allowed us in to film a teenager’s funeral, and why that’s important

Editor’s Note: On Monday’s PBS NewsHour, special correspondent Chris Bury reports on the uptick of deadly violence in Chicago. One of the hundreds of victims who have died in 2015 so far was a teenager named Vonzell Banks. In this essay, producer Dan Morris reflects on the emotion of attending Banks’s funeral and seeing “a community confronting yet another outrageous murder of one of its young.”

When we asked the Rev. Derail Smith if we could film the funeral of 17-year-old Vonzell Banks the next day, he hesitated — for obvious reasons. His instinct clearly was to protect the privacy of a family in the throes of unspeakable grief over the sudden loss of their child. But the circumstances of the death ultimately outweighed such concerns. “Oh, OK, why not,” he said. “People need to see what’s going on here.”

What’s going on is the killing of hundreds of children in Chicago by gunfire, many of them unintended targets of the shooters. And many of them among the city’s most promising youth, including Banks, an active member of Rev. Smith’s Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer. He was looking forward to a summer job, his senior year of high school and graduation.

“His pastime was Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer, his pastime was bible class,” Reverend Smith said. “Pastime was choir rehearsal. Then outside of that it was school.”

When our crew of four arrived at the church that Saturday morning, we were well aware of our status as outsiders – members of the media at an ostensibly private event, each of us white, amongst a congregation nearly 100 percent black. We were determined to be as respectful and unobtrusive as possible, knowing that resentment towards our presence would be understandable.

And yet there was none. We experienced nothing but warmth and welcome from a community confronting yet another outrageous murder of one of its young.

As we sat in the pews awaiting the start of the service, special correspondent Chris Bury was the first to spot a couple of other obvious outsiders – two guys in suits wearing earpieces, talking into their sleeves — clearly security for someone important.

“It’s gotta be either Rahm or McCarthy,” Chris said, referring to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

The mayor it was, much to our surprise and, to be perfectly honest, our delight. The hard-driving Emanuel’s presence was sure to inject an additional element of energy into a situation already brimming with drama and human pathos.

Suddenly the choir exploded in sweet harmony and gospel rhythm, driven by a crack combo of organ, guitar, bass and drums, the congregation spontaneously on its feet, rocking out in a simultaneous expression of sorrow and joy, the likes of which I have never before witnessed.

As journalists we always try to — and must — keep our emotions in check when confronting the suffering and sorrow of others. It’s the only way to get the job done, the job of telling their story to the world. But sometimes the armor cracks, as was the case that Saturday morning when the music and the emotion of the crowd were as one, the collective focus on the gleaming white casket at the altar. Our crew got the job done, but not without tears.

Nor was the mayor immune. After offering private words of comfort to Rufus and Latasha Banks, parents of Vonzell, he was among the first to address the crowd of mourners. But at first he couldn’t. Eyes and nose red and swollen, voice breaking, he croaked out, “Do you think it’s too much for a city to let its parents see their kids graduate?” Another crack in the armor.

Mr. Emanuel regained his composure, mostly, and proceeded to deliver a fiery, funny, inspiring speech, or, rather, sermon. At times he resembled a preacher himself, relishing a classic call and response dialogue with the spirited congregation.

By the end of the nearly two-hour service we were simultaneously wrung out and exhilarated. Wrung out by the raw pain of the community that had welcomed us into its midst. Exhilarated by the knowledge that the access they’d allowed would result in a powerful portrayal of their tragic story, not least because of the camera work by photographer Gary Levens, who has a sixth sense for always being in the right place at the right time.

What we witnessed that morning at Chicago’s Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer is what anyone should see who hopes to comprehend the devastating toll of rampant gun violence on a downtrodden community. As Reverend Smith said, “People need to see what’s going on here.”

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