Category: news

This American Life on Gun Violence in Chicago

“Is this a safe neighborhood?”  It’s a question Maggie and I can expect to hear when friends from out of town visit our home in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.  In fact, our neighborhood is quite safe.  The nearby presence of the University of Chicago ensures the streets in our neighborhood are regularly and obviously policed.  Our son plays in the park across the street and we walk for groceries and other errands at all hours of the day or night.

Hadiya Pendleton Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Sun-Times, January 31.

Despite the safety of our specific neighborhood, the question is not surprising.  Gun violence and murder is well-known in our city; the news from the south and west sides of Chicago is grimly portrayed on a nightly basis.  Last month the young Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in a park one block from where our church gathers for Sunday worship.

Talking about this violence can seem futile: conversation does little to honor the dead and wounded nor are most of us interested in the long, complicated discussion about the systemic and historic causes for the bloodshed.  It’s easier to turn away or propose simplistic solutions.

It was refreshing then, to listen to This American Life’s two-part series (part 1 & part 2) on gun violence in Chicago.  For five months reporters – including the legendary Alex Kotlowitz – spent time in one high school that has experienced far more than its share of death.  The perspectives from administrators, students, parents, teachers, and support staff go a long way toward a more nuanced and humble conversation.  Their stories invite the rest of us to pay close attention.

“So I had more of a safety net.”

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The President visits the Becoming A Man group at Hyde Park High School. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Now, this is what I had a chance to talk about when I met with some young men from Hyde Park Academy who were participating in this B.A.M. program. Where are the guys I talked to? Stand up you all, so we can all see you guys. (Applause.) So these are some — these are all some exceptional young men, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. And the reason I’m proud of them is because a lot of them have had some issues. That’s part of the reason why you guys are in the program. (Laughter.)

But what I explained to them was I had issues too when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren’t as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. (Applause.) So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me, and we had that conversation about what does it take to change. And the same thing that it takes for us individually to change, I said to them, well, that’s what it takes for communities to change. That’s what it takes for countries to change. It’s not easy.

-President Obama speaking on Friday at Hyde Park High School.

Out of everything he said at the public school down the road from our church and home, it was these two paragraphs from President Obama’s speech that grabbed my attention.  I noticed not because the President said something new but because he acknowledged the systemic injustices that are rarely mentioned in public.  So much of the commentary about the violence in our city ignores the surrounding circumstances not to mention the troubling history that has led to this constant crisis.  And while he just barely eluded to it, the President is right about the systemic inequity that provides a safety net for some while leaving others to fend for themselves.

The day before the President delivered his speech at Hyde Park High School, Chicago Public Schools announced the list of 129 schools that are on the preliminary list of schools to be closed.  Most of these are on the city’s south and west sides, in the neighborhoods that already lack much of the safety net the President referenced.  And so it goes.

Actually, Segregation Matters

Rod Dreher is a conservative whose writing I often find insightful.  However, his recent criticism of a New York Times article about Chicago gun violence is an adventure in missing the point.

The New York Times reports today that the over 500 killings in Chicago last year were primarily gang members killing other gang members. The Times frames the story as — surprise! — racism.

In fact racism isn’t mentioned explicitly in the article, the focus instead being on the segregation in our city.  But by so quickly and cynically employing that blunt word, Dreher does the thing we white people often do around issues of race: he quickly dismisses the author’s premise as too simplistic and offers instead his own read of the situation.  No matter that plenty of smart people have shown the connections between segregation, poverty, and violence in Chicago.

Chicago Race Riots

Policemen during the Chicago race riots of 1919. Segregation and violence have a long history in our city. (Photo credit: Chicago Daily News, CC.)

As disappointing as his quick disregard for these connections is his alternative explanation for the violence plaguing predominately African-American neighborhoods.   “The problem’” he writes, “is rooted in the breakdown of the family.”  Two things are especially bothersome about this explanation, typical among certain commentators and pundits.  First: The neighborhoods profiled in the Times piece are filled with families, churches, mosques, block clubs, and other community organizations doing everything possible to protect and empower the family.  I meet community leaders and clergy all the time whose social values are at least as conservative as those of Dreher.

Second: Are we to understand that only African-American families are breaking down?  Is gun violence so much less in the predominately white Chicago neighborhoods because white people are better at keeping families together?  I doubt this is what Dreher has in mind, though I’m not sure how else to interpret his point.  Far more relevant to the murder rate are the resources available in the white neighborhoods.  These families also experience family turmoil – though external pressures are less than in poor neighborhoods – but have access to the resources that help keep families together.

More could be said about Dreher’s too-simple analysis such as the history that led to our current segregation and the barely visible systems that keep old dividing lines in place.  Again, I appreciate much of what Dreher writes and will continue to follow his blog closely while hoping this sort of analysis remains the exception.

Grieving Every Slain Child

We welcomed a guest preacher at New Community this morning, so I took a few minutes before his sermon to reflect on the violence of this past week before we spent time in silence and prayer.

Stained Glass Window in 16th Street Baptist Church.

Stained Glass Window in 16th Street Baptist Church.

Early on a Sunday morning in September 1953, four members of the Alabama Klu Klux Klan placed dynamite under the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  A few hours later, when the church was full, the bomb exploded killing four girls, ranging in age from 11-14.  Three days later Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stood before their families and community to eulogize the victims.  Towards the end of his sermon he said the following,

Life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.

For many families in Newton, Connecticut, the past few days have been as hard as crucible steel.  The sheer magnitude of this crime threatens to overshadow the unique grief of each parent, each grandparent, and each friend.  What happened in that school on Friday was demonic, an expression of a present evil we would prefer to ignore but cannot avoid.  This week we are reminded that our enemy knows no distinction between race or class or geography.   Like a lion, he prowls around looking for someone – anyone – to devour.

So while our country mourns the lives devoured in Connecticut, we, the reconciled people of God, cannot overlook the lives devoured in our own city.  488 lives taken so far in Chicago in 2012, many of them young men and young women.  Our nation is shocked that such evil would be visited upon Newton: an affluent town, 95% white, that has known only one murder in the past decade.  But we, the reconciled people of God, must know and speak aloud that murder and violence anywhere – including the neighborhoods within our city where outsiders crassly expect such things to happen – that any such violence is an act of profound injustice, a stench to a holy God in whose image these children are made.

Reverend King was right about the bleak and difficult moments of life and he was also right about the God who walks with us, “who lifts you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.”  This is what we remember during Advent: that the Son of God, for our salvation, stepped into the grief of our world.  So we do not need to rush past this pain.  We don’t need to medicate our lament with distraction or entertainment.  The man of sorrows who bore our sin allows us to stop and grieve.  The same one who ensures our hope and our future, the one on whom all evil was brought to bear, the one whose body could not be held by our ancient enemy, death, He grants the courage this morning lament this present evil age.  He is our example of righteous living for the advancement of God’s kingdom.  And He too gives us the hope that one day, such grief will be a fading memory and nothing more.

Endurance in Christmastime

Advent, the weeks leading to Christmas, is a time of anticipation- remembering the Israelites awaiting the Messiah and acknowledging our own waiting for his return.  It’s a season with enough heft and depth to evoke and hold our grief.  We remember the Israelits waiting and waiting for their deliverance.  We remember the massacre of the innocents when word reached Herod of the infant King’s birth.  And, in days such as these, we can’t ignore the incompleteness, the waiting-to-be-restored nature of our world. We also wait.

Most of what passes for Christmas music sounds vapid to my ears after the news from Connecticut.  Instead, I’ve been listening to the beautiful and sad album from Hymns from NinevehEndurance in Christmastime.  This is Advent music.  Here’s the title track, with lyrics that seem tragically prescient .

We’ve lost our fathers. We’ve lost our mothers. We didn’t quite think it would be this hard to endure the christmas time. We’ve lost our siblings. We’ve lost our children. We didn’t quite think it would be this hard to endure the christmas time.

Who can defeat the time we live in? Who can defeat the time we die in? Where shall we go with all the memories of you in the christmastime?

We’ve lost our story and we’ve lost our glory. We didn’t quite think it would be this hard to endure the christmas time. So we carry our heavy load-lights and hang them on the tree and we didn’t quite think they could shine so bright so bright in this christmas time…

A Phone Call on Behalf of Our Poor & Hungry Neighbors

The news this morning is all about the storm wreaking havoc on the East Coast.  It was good to get a text from my parents in New Jersey this morning letting us know they’re doing well, but I know others are in still in the thick of it.  Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are suffering.

Some of us around Chicago this morning are turning our attention to a different crisis, one that has received far less attention.

In the days after the upcoming presidential election there will be significant cuts made to the federal budget.  There are some in congress who are looking to cut funding to programs that aid poor and hungry people at home and abroad.  This is not a theoretical issue for our church.  Some of us have benefitted from SNAP, WIC, and tax credits for the working poor in the past.  Others have relied on these programs during the recession.  Our church is a part of a neighborhood that straddles two congressional districts which rank first and third in the state when it comes to food insecurity.  Cuts to these programs would have a devastating impact on many of our neighbors.

Can you spare five minutes today?  Please sign the petition asking Illinois Senator Dick Durbin – who is in a position of leadership and has a history of advocating for these programs – to fight for our poor and hungry neighbors.  And if you live in Illinois, please call Senator Durbin’s office at 1-800-826-3688. (If you do not reach a live person, and if you are not able to leave a voicemail, please hang up and call Sen. Durbin’s Chicago office to deliver your message: 312-353-4952.)

Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”  I tend to focus on big events like the upcoming presidential election when I think about participating in the political process.  But taking a few minutes to make sure our vulnerable neighbors are not overlooked in Washington DC may be just as important as who we vote for next week.

Presidential Politics: Good VS Evil

The following is a guest post from Lory Mishra who has been a friend to our family for a few years.  She’s a recent college graduate with a witty sense of humor, legit cooking skills and, as you’ll read, a mind for insightful analysis. When Lory is not getting upset at the news, she’s usually obsessing over a new comedy show or experimenting in her kitchen. Check out her recipe blog for a taste!  

I’ve not had the energy to dive into politics this election cycle so I’m especially glad for this post.
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Elections always bring out a little bit of self-righteousness in me and this year even more so. I find myself becoming more and more cynical, disengaged, and frustrated than in any other election cycle (granted, I’ve only lived in the States since 2000 so that’s not very many election cycles) for multiple reasons, the most important one being a lack of pragmatism when discussing the candidates, their proposed policies, and the supposed importance of the Presidential election.

Photo credit: Hiperpato

Maybe it’s nostalgia clouding my memory but Barack Obama’s election into office in 2008 was perhaps one of the more inspiring times in American politics. A record number of eligible voters came out to vote for Obama, who seemed to have the the ability to work across the aisle and bring together people from all sorts of backgrounds to rally behind his message. Alas, this political high was short-lived and the man who was to be the biggest uniter ended up facing one of the most divided electorates of the past few decades. There are some obvious reasons that led to this division. The housing market crash immediately after the 2008 elections and Obamacare were probably the biggest culprits but I’d argue that the reactions in the years following, and especially during this election cycle, have been much more aggressive and and emotional than I anticipated. Just log onto any social network following a major news story about the election – debates, economic news, campaign gaffes – and you will see what I mean. I realize some of the most vocal participants on these platforms tend to be people who have already pledged their allegiance to one party or another but the lack of true political discourse is still disheartening.

“One of the most amazing narratives to have evolved out of this election cycle is that of good versus evil.”

Conviction can be a good thing. Knowing what you believe and why is something we encourage as a society but if that conviction starts to get in the way of examining reality honestly and truthfully, then it can be the biggest hinderance. Of course, I did click on a Washington Post article titled “The benefits of free contraception” today because it supported something that I already believe in, but I still think making a conscious effort to expose ourselves to uncomfortable pieces of information is a worthwhile pursuit. As we move closer to election day however, it seems our ability to do so as an electorate is waning and we are setting a pretty bad precedent for future elections as well.

One of the most amazing narratives to have evolved out of this election cycle is that of good versus evil. Voters seem so polarized that we’re talking about the two candidates as good or bad people. Mitt Romney, thanks to his vast personal wealth and private sector background, is more often the target of these accusations. He is often painted as someone who does not care about poverty, wants to stomp all over women’s rights, and wants to let the free market run wild, at the expense of human rights. All he cares about is the bottom line. On the other hand, Obama is the candidate who is apparently such an idealist that he is willing to give government handouts to anyone and everyone; he is the Robin Hood of this election, stealing from the rich to help the poor. Maybe this is cynical of me, but oftentimes presidential candidates will build a certain narrative to rally their base and oftentimes, these promises will fall by the wayside thanks to the checks and balances in the form of the legislature and the judicial system. Both sides seem too busy attacking the bleak future the other promises to truly examine what each of these candidates is proposing and to what extent these propositions are even achievable.

The other curious thing about this election is the uniqueness of candidate Obama. I’m inclined to believe that our expectations were set so high after the 2008 elections that his fall from grace was inevitable. Among the many conservatives and independents he had initially won over, Obama seems to be have lost all credibility and those voters are unwilling to give him a second chance. Many are so decidedly against a second Obama presidency that they cannot even bring themselves to accept legitimate successes of his administration.

Among liberals, Obama either inspires exasperated sighs of what could have been or defensive arguments about what a tough plate he was handed and how he’s still better than someone like Romney. From personal conversations, some Obama supporters will sheepishly admit his controversial use of drones in counter-terrorism efforts or his lack of focus on the housing market as it first began to collapse were missteps but they would still rather vote for him. Others will simply jump to making excuses on his behalf, as if they are personally responsible for making sure he wins a second term. In either case, what I can’t grasp is the unwillingness to assess him (and any other candidate) as honestly and fairly as possible. If an elected official is not meeting your expectations, why wouldn’t you just cast your ballot for another? Why do so many voters feel this loyalty to politicians they themselves will admit are imperfect in important ways?

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Romney brings out a similar cognitive dissonance among his supporters as well. The general take on Romney as the Republican nominee seems to be that he was the best available option at the time and that there are very few conservatives who are legitimately excited to vote for him in November. However, they would rather cast a vote for a Republican, as opposed to consider the Democrat or a third-party candidate. Yet again, I’m not sure I understand voters who are willing to settle for someone who maybe does not capture their values or offer solutions to problems they care about. This is best seen when you look at the current tone of the discourse: both sides are unenthusiastic enough about their own candidate that they use most of their bandwidth simply attacking the other side and trying to convince themselves that a future with this uninspiring option is better than one with the other.

The failures of either candidate do not have to be a reflection of the their supporters. Whether one chooses to vote for Obama or Romney in November, casting that ballot and also truthfully acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate do not have to be mutually exclusive. It isn’t very pragmatic to sit here and think about one candidate as the epitome of all that is good and the other as the epitome of all that is bad; this approach is much too simple to fully capture the complexity involved in solving any public policy issue. The other harmful side effect of this type of thinking is the unfair conclusions we draw and the assumptions we make about the people who support the other candidate. Making a huge generalization about someone because of the how they voted a) hinders us from having a honest conversation about our differences and learning from each other and b) is usually a mischaracterization.  I would argue that the public policy issues we have solved most effectively have been a result of a partnership between the two opposing sides. If we suddenly become unable to listen to each other all we are doing is hurting our ability to prosper as a society.

“The failures of either candidate do not have to be a reflection of the their supporters.”

My other beef with the current state of affairs is the lack of room for any other candidate to join the conversation. It’s a real tragedy that casting a vote for a candidate other than the Republican or Democrat is seen as a “wasted vote”. Americans’ political views cannot be captured by two extremes; it falls on a spectrum from left to right and it only makes sense that we would consider that candidates who perhaps capture those nuances better than the two options presented. I’m not advocating for Obama, Romney, or any third candidate; I am advocating for there to be more candidates who are serious contenders. For a country that so fiercely believes in the choices that the free market offers, we are surprisingly limited when it comes to elected officials.

Recently, NPR’s Planet Money team (which puts together some of my favorite podcasts) broadcasted a story about six policy solutions economists from all over the political spectrum agree on and why pursuing any of them would be political suicide. This supposedly no-brainer platform could solve a lot of our issues around debt, rising healthcare costs, various types of government waste, etc. but none of these are very marketable ideas when it comes to an election. I realize it’s naive to expect anyone to run on a lot of these issues and win the election but I do think it’s reasonable to expect us to talk about these solutions, among the others. Limiting ourselves to only considering two options inevitably limits the number of solutions we are considering. In fact, we are rarely even considering real solutions because of how thoroughly we have dumbed down the conversation to trite talking points.

To a great degree, local and state elections have much more of a direct impact on our daily lives than do the national elections. Now that I have finished my short novel about the state of the national election, it is only fair to consider exactly how much the President really matters. To further expose my podcast addiction, Freakonomics radio re-ran a really interesting piece about the very topic. Many political commentators and economists argue that the President has a very limited effect on the state of the country and that oftentimes, their biggest role is serving as the public persona for one side or the other.  Of course, the ability to wage war, sign treaties, or veto bills are hardly insignificant but we may be ascribing too much importance to this position nonetheless. It is really easy to get caught up in the details of a national election because of the widespread coverage they tend to receive but one cannot lose sight of the importance of the less sexy elections in our own cities, towns and states.

Political candidates are elected to serve the public and if they are not meeting our expectations, we should not have to settle. So whoever you decide to vote for next month, I hope you will consider their platform reasonably and fairly.