Young people ‘camp out’ to spread peace

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"Increase the Peace" at St. Michael the Archangel

Young people led an all-night camp out at St. Michael the Archangel Parish to promote peace in the neighborhood in the Back of the Yards community at St. Michaels Church, 4825 S. Damen Ave. on Aug. 4, 2017.
Salazar annd Angel Flores play a game of Uno after walking in the march as youth participated in a variety of activities during an all-night camp-out to promote anti-violence in the Back of the Yards community at St. Michaels Church, 4825 S. Damen Ave. on Aug. 4. The "Increase the Peace" campaign is a 7-week summer youth-led violence prevention initiative sponsored by the Resurrection Project to engage residents and help them take direct action to reclaim their streets, create safer spaces, and bring resources to their community to help curb violence. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Omar Valdez from Queen of the Universe Parish assists a participant taking a swing at a piñata. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Luz M. Cortez prepares a piñata ready for a young participant at an all-night camp-out to promote peace at St. Michael the Archangel Church, 48th Street and Damen Avenue, on Aug. 4. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

For 12 hours Aug. 4 and 5, St. Michael the Archangel Parish at Damen Avenue and 48th Street was the place to be for neighborhood residents who wanted to play basketball, watch their kids get their faces painted or jump in a bouncy house or sit down and share burgers and tacos with their neighbors.

Or for those who simply wanted to enjoy a night of peace.

The parish was the site of the fifth “Increase the Peace” event organized by young people who are working with the One Summer Chicago jobs program and have received leadership training from the Resurrection Project.

Increase the Peace, according to its young organizers, gives them the chance to take ownership of their community.

It comes out in the chant they led during the march that kicked off the event — “Whose streets? Our streets.” — and in their protests against the depiction of their neighborhoods as places where nothing good happens.

They’ve seen the violence first-hand, but they want to tell everyone that young people have to be part of the solution.

Samantha Kugel, 18, said she joined because she was looking for something to do over the summer that would help create an atmosphere of peace on the South and Southwest sides.

Kugel, who graduated in June from Jones College Prep High School, lives in Brighton Park, but she said the neighborhoods that Increase the Peace has visited this summer all face similar issues.“There’s always fighting, there’s always gang violence,” she said. 

So she understands why some people are skeptical when the young community organizers knock on doors and explain what they are doing.

“The ones that do open their doors and listen are really positive about the youth trying to change the community,” said Kugel, who starts college at the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall. “We want people to get involved and build their own communities.” 

Maria Benitez, 17, from Back of the Yards, also helped organize the St. Michael’s event. She was skeptical at first too, she said.

“I wasn’t sure it was something that was really going to make a difference,” said Benitez, who is starting her senior year at Horizon Science Academy McKinley Park Charter School this fall and is considering a career in city politics.

After spending weeks working to bring communities together, she said, “I think it’s amazing seeing people connect.”

She was especially proud because the younger organizers took the lead for were among the oldest working on the project.

Other parishes that hosted overnight events were St. Joseph Parish, 4821. S. Hermitage Ave, and St. Ann Parish, 1840 S. Leavitt Ave. Protestant churches and Chicago parks also have participated in the 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. events.

Berto Aguayo, a safety and nonviolence community organizer for the Resurrection Project, mentored the young people who organized the Aug. 4-5 event.

“My primary role is figuring out how to energize young people,” said Aguayo. “How do you make peace cool? And then providing young people with the opportunity to lead.”

He worked with the 41 young people in the summer leadership program. Another 57 who went through leadership training before the summer also participated in some events.

When young people are leading the movement, they bring energy and draw more young people, Aguayo said.

“They feel the power inside them,” he said. “The power of God to do great things.”

Each Increase the Peace event started with a march around the neighborhood and included food, music, recreational activities and a bonfire. All of them also have a break in the action for a period of reflection at midnight and again before the group disperses at 5 a.m.

Each event has been a bit different, Aguayo said. In Brighton Park, there was greater focus on the victims of violence, with marchers carrying pictures of people who have been killed. In Pilsen, participants celebrated their Mexican heritage with folkloric dancers, and in Little Village, they were serendaded by mariachis.
In the week leading up to each overnight, the young people walk the neighborhood block by block, knocking on doors to talk with residents and noting things that need to be fixed and reporting them to the city’s 311 assistance line.

At St. Michael, the overnight also marked the reopening of the parish gym. It used to be open for community use four nights a week, but when the person who supervised it left, the parish had difficulty staffing it. Now, with the partnership of the Resurrection Project, the gym will be open Monday and Wednesday evenings.

“St. Michael has always been a center of youth activity, and I hope this continues,” said Father Thomas Cima, St. Michael’s pastor. “We hope St. Michael the Archangel will protect everyone here.”

The gym has been such a haven that in years past, one young man who had been shot fled to the gym for help, Cima said.

“This is where he was accepted, this is where he was challenged, this is where he was loved,” Cima said, watching a stream of dozens of teens and 20-somethings, damp from the rain that fell on the procession, stream into the gym while volunteers fired up a line of grills on the front sidewalk. 

Parishes like St. Michael are doing what Pope Francis talks about when he says the church is a field hospital for the wounded and that pastors should know the smell of their sheep, Cima said.

“This is what the church should be. This is what it smells like,” he said. “This is the field hospital right here.”


  • peace
  • nonviolence

Related Articles