No ‘us and them’ is cure to violence, speaker says

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 24, 2019

More than 800 people gathered to hear Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle speak during the third annual “You Are My Neighbor” event on April 11, 2019, at St. Barnabas Church in Beverly. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in east Los Angeles, the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The cure to violence in Chicago is simple, according to Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, rabbinical student Tamar Manasseh and other speakers at the third “You Are My Neighbor” gathering April 11 at St. Barnabas Church in Beverly.

The cure is kinship, seeing — and acting on the belief — that there is no “us and them” because we are all one.

Boyle, founder of Los Angeles’ Homeboy Industries, said only that by standing with one another, as opposed to trying to minister to one another, can we find kinship. The very posture of being a service provider or a service recipient creates distance, he said.

“The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to those on the margins but on our willingness to stand with them,” said Boyle, who also spoke at a Theology on Tap gathering April 9 and at schools and universities while he was in the Chicago area. “We stand with the demonized so that the demonization will stop. We stand with the disposable so that we will stop throwing people away. No kinship, no peace. No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no equality.”

Tamar Manasseh, a rabbinical student who founded Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings in 2015, started her group by taking a lawn chair and sitting on a corner in Englewood. Soon others joined her, bringing a grill and offering food to the teenagers who hung around.

Manasseh said there was nothing special about her.

“I was just a mom who didn’t want to lose a kid,” she said. “What can someone like me do? You mom. You get out there and mom them. You teach kids who have never been anybody’s kids how to be a kid.”

That means showing up and caring, and doing it consistently. It means listening and getting in their business, Manasseh said, and, yes, feeding them.

Crime fell in the neighborhood, she said, and more adults began showing up to help, whether by doing art projects or teaching the kids to throw a football. New initiatives have been started in other Chicago neighborhoods and in other cities.

When Manasseh wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in 2017, the editor she was working with kept emailing her, asking, “But what do you do? You just sit on the corner and crime goes down?”

“Nobody can believe it’s that simple,” she said. “It is that simple.”

Jahmal Cole, founder of “My Block, My Hood, My City,” talked about the need to change the expectations of people who live in communities that are plagued by violence. His group takes young people from underserved neighborhoods on field trips around the city.

“I work with kids who have never been downtown, never seen the lake,” he said. At the same time, they have accepted that crime-scene tape, gunshots and trash-strewn lots are a normal part of life in their neighborhoods, and so has the rest of the city.

“I don’t think you are a product of your environment,” Cole said. “I think you are a product of your expectations.”

Your environment affects your well-being and feeds into those expectations, and it’s up to everyone to change that, he said.

“They say we work with at-risk youth,” Cole said. “I think the integrity of the whole city is at risk.”

Precious Blood Father David Kelly explained the work of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, which brings together people who have committed crimes, crime victims and family members in peace-building circles.

The ministry grew out of a situation where Kelly knew and was ministering to both a shooting victim and the young man who shot him, sometimes traveling directly between the hospital and the jail.

When the case came to trial, the shooter was sentenced to 27 years in prison. Throughout the process, no one focused on how to help the victim and his family, or how to change the path the shooter was on.

“It was all about, ‘How much can we punish him?’” Kelly said. “I said, ‘We can do better than this.’”

The Ministry of Reconciliation creates “spaces and places in the neighborhood where people feel safe enough to speak their truth. In those spaces and places, there is weeping, but there is also laughter and connection. We work really hard to create a space where people feel safe enough to be themselves. Like Tamar said, it’s not that complicated.”

The ministry has also started a couple of small businesses — screen printing and woodworking — to help young people earn both money and work experience.

Such social enterprises are the backbone of Homeboy Industries, which now has nine businesses in which its “homies” can work, from electronics recycling and silk screening to the Homegirl Café, a catering business and the bakery that started it all.

It has also become the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, serving over  7,000 Los Angeles-area residents with needs from tattoo removal to mental health services last year. More than 400 men and women participated in the 18-month employment and re-entry program.

Boyle spoke after two of the organization’s “homeboys,” Larry Stewart and José Ecchevaria, told their stories. Stewart, 40, was released from prison about seven months ago after serving 20 years. During his time in prison, he said, he found God and turned his life around.

Stewart said that when he was growing up, he simply followed what he saw in the neighborhood.

“When I was growing up, if you would have told me that the lifestyle I was living wasn’t normal, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said.”

Ecchevaria, 36, was kicked out of his home by his father when he was about 10, turned to a gang for support and began using drugs shortly thereafter. He was in and out of juvenile detention and prison, but it wasn’t until his wife was ready to leave him that he decided to get clean.

“I went to the police station to turn myself in,” he said. “And they took me because I had a warrant.”

The judge agreed to sentence him to a three-month drug program, and when he got out, he asked his wife to take him to Homeboy. He’s been free of drugs for 18 months, he said, and now he works in Homeboy’s drug rehab program.

The first You Are My Neighbor gathering in 2017 had talks from Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders. The 2018 event focused on immigration.

Boyle looked at the full church and said, “There is so much goodness in this room, and you want the world to look differently than it looks, and you want your city and your hood and your block to look different. What you all want to do is go to the margins, because if you stand at the margins, they disappear.”



  • anti-violence

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