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August 16, 2009

Violence on our own turf Parishes in areas of Chicago that see high rates of shootings and homicides have some advice for saving youth

By Michelle Martin


There were 511 homicides in Chicago in 2008, and nearly four times as many shootings. While the Chicago Police Department has released crime statistics showing murders are down slightly this year, you couldn’t tell it in certain neighborhoods where the violence is worse.

Fifteen people were shot in a single night — from July 28 to the early morning hours of July 29 — on Chicago’s South and West sides. On July 17, three young people were wounded in a shooting outside a teen activity night at St. Sabina Parish.

On June 1, a Chicago Police Officer Alejandro Valadez, dressed in plain clothes, was shot and killed as he investigated reports of gunshots in the West Englewood neighborhood.

CeaseFire, the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, produced a map showing where the shootings and murders took place in 2008; the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Peace and Justice added in the locations of Catholic parishes.

Some of the church sites are almost completely obscured by the symbols of violence and death that crowd their neighborhoods. The Catholic New World talked to some of the pastors working in these areas about the violence in their communities.

Among them is Immaculate Conception Parish, 88th Street and Exchange Avenue, where Father Mike Enright served for 17 years. Now on sabbatical, he will take up his new assignment as pastor of St. Paul Parish, 22nd Place and Hoyne Avenue, in January.

Immaculate Conception has been in a tough neighborhood for over 100 years. Its history of violence stretches back to when the steel mill operators sent people out into the streets to shoot union organizers.

Now the neighborhood is largely Latino, and young people are shooting one another.

‘A straight-line connection’

Enright reopened the parish school in 2003, inviting religious sisters from Mexico to teach to keep expenses down and establishing a stewardship model of support, which allows the children of parishioners to attend without paying tuition.

“We opened the school as a response to the violence,” he said. “There is a straight-line connection between not being able to read and write and being in a gang. If they can’t read and write, then where else do they go?”

The school and youth programs are good, Enright said, but they cannot be the way the church responds to violence.

“You have to deal with evil. You have to deal with anger and outrage. You have to pray a lot,” he said. “The most important thing we do is get people together on Sunday and pray and ask the Lord to heal them. That’s way more important than youth programs and other things.”

It’s never easy

“We had five people killed in front of the school in the last school year, on the block. One of the people who was killed, I knew the kid. I knew the family,” Enright said.

The paramedics wouldn’t let Enright anoint the boy before they rushed him away.

When he returned to the church, Enright said, he knew what would happen.

“There’s this rolling wave of rage among everybody: the parents, the teachers in the school, the students. Everybody ends up eating at each other. You end up with a whole bunch of really angry people in that situation.” He said that as a pastor he has to remember not to get caught up in the anger. “I can’t tell you how difficult it is for people to not get caught up in it, and we’re talking about people of good will.”

The church helps by offering healing and showing people a way to forgiveness, Enright said. There are spiritual practices and rituals in place to help the families heal, which seem to make a difference, he said.

“Some of these people who are in my church every Sunday have buried their own children, and you would think they would be filled with rage, but they’re not, because they encounter Christ,” Enright said.

Talking about what’s going on makes a tremendous difference for people.

“We are weak and wounded by sin. The thing about anger is if you’re in a room full of angry people, you usually get angry,” he said. “The only real answer to this is conversion. It’s a one-by-one deal. It’s not being revved up and chewing on people.”

More than consolation

Augustinian Father Anthony Pizzo has buried a few young people who were shot to death in his three years as pastor of St. Rita of Cascia Parish, 63rd Street and Fairfield. And he has made dozens of visits to families after a loved one was hurt in a shooting or other violent incident.

But for Pizzo, ministering in a community plagued by violence means that the church must do more in addition to offering the sacraments and consolation.

It means reaching out to the community in ways large and small, providing opportunities for young people to be safe, to cross racial and ethnic boundaries and working to make the church a “symbol of peace” for the neighborhood.

“My ministry here at St. Rita’s is not confined to the sacraments,” Pizzo said. “If our sacramental life does not propel us out into the community to know the issues and get involved with the issues, what is it doing?”

So in addition to visiting families and celebrating the sacraments, the parish participates in a prayer vigil or march every time there is an incident of violence, taking the church to the streets. And when Pizzo celebrates Mass on Sunday, he talks about the issues his people are facing, whether violence, home foreclosures or the “broken” immigration system.

“When we gather together for the Sunday Eucharist, we are called to put our lives in the context of the Gospel,” Pizzo said. “It would be irresponsible for me as a pastor or preacher not to invoke it, and put it all in the context of the Gospel message.”

‘Safe zone’ at St. Rita’s

The parish also is involved in community efforts to bring peace and safety to the area.

“St. Rita’s is in the middle of what we have designated a ‘safe zone,’” said Pizzo.

What that means is that violence- prevention outreach workers, who are part of a project of the Southwest Organizing Project, respond every time there is an incident, finding out if it was gang-related and, if so, talking to gang leaders to try to stop the violence from escalating. The safe zone is roughly between 59th and 64th streets and between Mozart and Rockwell streets.

SWOP also operates a transitional house for men who are coming out of jail for gang-related crimes and for gang members who want to leave that lifestyle behind them.

During the summer, the group offers activities nearly every Saturday, closing the street on a different block each week and holding a basketball tournament and cookout. At the end of the summer, on Aug. 22, St. Rita will host a rally for all participants with awards and a cookout.

“That’s a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious event,” Pizzo said. “The whole summer program is really about being relational. How can you stop violence without being in relation to one another?”

Funding these programs isn’t always easy since money for violence prevention goes up and down, Pizzo said. When he arrived at the parish, the violenceprevention project was run by CeaseFire, with SWOP and the financial officer. After the state of Illinois cut the project’s funding, SWOP managed to keep three people on staff. Then last year, in December, the state made more money available, and SWOP was able to hire 10 more outreach workers, but they lost their jobs when the state fiscal year ended June 30.

The parish’s work with SWOP includes collaboration with other religious and community groups.

Everyone’s mission

Much more work and help is needed in a world of increasing violence and Catholics should be aware that as faithful members of the Body of Christ, they too have a responsibility to end the violence — even if it’s not in their neighborhood,” said Precious Blood Father David Kelly, who directs the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The goal of the ministry is to bring healing to all parties following an act of violence and to provide safe places in the community for healing (see

Kelly sees this as the work of all Catholics.

“The church needs to be more aware. We can’t close our doors on kids who are causing the problems. We have to get to know these kids and know the families and understand them as human beings,” Kelly said.

Churches can build relationships with youth in at-risk communities, he said, so “we are there at the moment when they are ready to make changes.”

That means devising programs for youth and actively welcoming them. Churches – Catholic and otherwise – have some advantages in this area.

“They are already a presence in the community,” Kelly said. “There’s a sense that they are a safe place, a caring place – even if the young people don’t feel welcomed there. We need to utilize that more.”

“We may not be able to build gyms for every community, but we can create safe places where young people feel safe.”