Religious leaders from Chicago were invited by the governing board of the National Council of Churches in Christ (NCC) for a discussion about the escalating violence in Chicago. The session was held at the conclusion of a two-day meeting of the NCC governing board in Chicago at the Lutheran Center Nov. 18 and 19. Kathryn Lohre, director for ecumenical and inter-religious relations of the ELCA, is concluding her two-year term as NCC president.
"The ecumenical movement cannot be divorced from the local realities our churches face. Violence increasingly afflicts and degrades our communities. Meeting here in Chicago we wanted to hear how the churches and people of other faiths are creatively challenging this culture of violence,” said the Rev. A. Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA and NCC chair-elect.
The Rev. Marcenia Richards, pastor of the Life Center and founder of Fierce Women of Faith, said, “The common thread is a lack of hope. This generation has no knowledge of faith life, and we need to have more presence and let them know there is hope.” Fierce Women of Faith is an interfaith, multi-racial group working to bring peace to communities in Chicago.
“It’s not just an inner-city problem; it’s everyone’s problem,” said Imam Matthew Ramadan, deputy executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. “These are children, and too many people make the assumption these aren’t human beings anymore, that they’re gang members.” Ramadan emphasized the importance of “engaging people” in the community, providing opportunities for education and jobs. He said often the solution is found in the neighborhood.
“When I walk on the streets and see a group of guys, I walk up and offer something. Let’s fix up this (vacant) house – let’s train you to fix up the house and pay you so you can buy the house. Then this becomes your house, your neighborhood,” said Ramadan.
The Rev. Robert Biekman, pastor of Maple Park United Methodist Church, said, “The real issue is poverty. Violence is an outcry of the poverty impacting our city.”
“We at United Methodist Church asked, ‘How can we make a difference? What do we want (the neighborhoods) to look like because the United Methodist Church is there?’” said Biekman, staff coordinator for the Urban Strategy of the Northern Illinois Conference for the United Methodist Church. He said the conference was designed to help Chicago area churches address the issue of violence in their neighborhoods by focusing on areas of community safety, education, restorative justice and food security.
“The African American communities are communities in desperation,” said the Rev. Dr. Marshall Hatch Sr., pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and co-convener of Leaders for Empowerment, Advocacy, and Disaster Relief Network. As he talked of the challenges of passing “sensible gun control” Hatch recalled the Old Testament passage about moral living. Just as it’s “morally wrong to put a stumbling block in front of blind person, you don’t put guns and drugs in front of a desperate people,” he said. “We need to own this as religious leaders. Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers. Someone has to be about the peace – it’s our (job together).”
As the newly elected general secretary/president, James Winkler asked those assembled, “As the National Council of Churches focuses on mass incarceration, what advice do you have for us and how can we bring you as part of this together?” The NCC governing board has listed the issue of mass incarceration as a top priority.
“We need to push back against the war on drugs,” said the Rev. Alexander Sharp, acting executive director, Community Renewal Society. “Keep people out of the criminal justice system who don’t need to be there.” Sharp said it is important to see drugs in our society “as a health problem” instead of a criminal act.
“The violence in the city of Chicago, and its interconnections with poverty and race, is a reality that unfortunately shapes far too many on-the-ground lived experiences in this country,” said Lohre following the discussion.
“The National Council of Churches desires to link arms, once again, with those on the ground who are working to address the most dire life and death issues of our time. This is our calling as ambassadors of the Prince of Peace,” she said.