Today I walked the streets of a neighborhood in South Chicago with a man who goes by the name of Br. Jim. Br. Jim doesn't walk for exercise or to see the sights. He walks to speak with people who live in a poor neighborhood where gang violence is a common reality. Today I walked with him . Together we walked through three neighborhoods. Some of them are called " projects". As we walked we encountered people who immediately recognized Br. Jim and we began to have some very good conversations. One man told us that he had recently been released from prison serving twenty years for murder. It was a retaliatory killing. Now he wanted to find a job and asked us repeatedly to help him. " Just give me a chance!" This was his mantra. Another woman we met shared that she was doing alright. Br. Jim later told me that two of her sons had been killed by gang violence. Wherever we went we encountered people who have lived and are living through the other side of American life - the side that American media doesn't really understand and does not cover in depth. The killing fields of Chicago's south side are a testimony to the growing gap between rich and poor in this country, to a persistent racial prejudice, and to the general apathy of the American people and of our government.
In these neighborhoods there is also tremendous fraternity. The struggle of the poor in this country has sometimes created a strong bond of community among those in poverty's grip. People sit out on the front lawn together and hold conversations and joke about just about everything. A group of young boys stopped to tell Br. Jim about their summer plans to work and raise some money. Real pride on their faces and real praise from Br. Jim. One expression of solidarity and the need for a positive identity is the formation of gang life. It does both. Of course gang life also brings with it some negatives including violence and addiction to drugs. There is much to understand and no one has all the answers.
Br. Jim has his own approach. First he dresses in a monastic robe made by himself out of blue jean patches. He sort of resembles a modern day Francis of Assisi. It is an outward sign of solidarity. He follows his retired predecessor Br. Bill who began this work among the poor. Br. Jim also follows Br. Bill in a four-fold rule which is well worth considering. 1. Fear No one and Nothing.
2. Trust God Always and for Everything.
3. Forgive Everyone Everything.
4. Love. You are forbidden to do anything but Love.
As we walked together I could see this four-fold rule of life in action. He becomes a friend to everyone he meets...to children and adults. There have been times when Br. Jim and before him Br. Bill walked in between warring gangs when bullets were flying. Close calls gave ampl;e opportunity to practice all four parts of the rule.
We spent the whole day together and I felt grateful for the opportunity to meet all the people in these neighborhoods. I expect to return and continue the friendships.
Tomorrow I leave for a festival that is focused on poverty in America. It's called the P.A.P.A. Festival. It stands for People Against Poverty and Apathy. Three days of conversation, music, and expanding the growing network of people who want significant change in this country.
On the Streets of Chicago with Love,