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January 18, 2009

Young people share gang-life realities with Cardinal

By Michelle Martin


On a chilly winter night, about 50 people — mostly men, mostly young — gathered in the upstairs gymnasium at the Boys and Girls Club in Logan Square.

They came from Englewood, from Humboldt Park and West Humboldt Park, from Little Village and other neighborhoods. They looked at one another and at Cardinal George, who came on a snowy night to pray with them for peace, and to listen to them talk about their lives.

In a conversation moderated by the Rev. Calvin Morris, chairman of CeaseFire, the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention and executive director for the Community Renewal Society, the young people spoke of their efforts to overcome violence in their own neighborhoods and the challenges they face.

Few safe places

In gentrifying neighborhoods, basketball courts are disappearing in favor of dog parks, one said, and open areas for football are gone. When there is a recreational facility that welcomes teens, it can be too dangerous to go to if it means crossing gang boundary lines.

Others spoke of the effort it took for them to leave a life of violence behind in a world where it seemed the adults didn’t care what was going on around them, and older siblings pulled them into gangs as they grew up.

What they want, most of them said, is a chance to do things in a safe environment, where people will listen to them.

The young people spoke after a short prayer service that included a reading from the Gospel of Matthew — a passage from the Sermon on the Mount that included the Beatitudes.

Sacrifice for love

In a reflection after the reading, Cardinal George said the Beatitudes “don’t make much sense” — unless, that is, you look at them from a perspective of love.

If you love someone, the cardinal said, and they are mourning, mourning with them can give you a measure of joy because you provided comfort. Being meek when we love someone also can make us happy.

“It is a joyful moment when you can sacrifice for someone you love,” he said.

What we need to remember, the cardinal told the group, is that God loves each and every one of us.

“We don’t know how good we are because of the love of God,” the cardinal said.

And what God wants for us is to love other people like he loves us. If you can’t quite do that, he added, then act like you love other people, and sooner or later, you might actually end up loving them.

The cardinal did not speak to media after the event, but Morris did, saying the event had a dual purpose: giving the cardinal the opportunity to hear directly from and pray with the young people, and to allow young people to see that their peers from other communities face the same issues they do.

CeaseFire works in several communities in Chicago, using outreach workers — many who have lived the street life — to head off violence before it starts, as well as mobilizing community action in response to acts of violence, and Cardinal George has supported its efforts since its inception more than 10 years ago.