The Common Good

Nursing Trauma: How One Church is Going After Chicago’s Violence Epidemic

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Dolores Walker leaves the Cook County ME's office after identifying her slain 16-year-old son. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Editor's Note: This piece is part of a longer series on the wave of violence hitting Chicago, with murders for the year reaching the 250 mark this week. Some think the solution is purely over-policing or sending in the National Guard. Mayor Rahm Emanuel may legalize small amounts of marijuana so police can focus on violent crime. We asked some contributors—people who are on the ground in Chicago working for change—to discuss real, creative solutions.

Chicago: the only city in the world to broadcast a local network in international syndication (WGN, thanks MJ); the Second City of comedy and career launch pad of laugh icons such as Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Tina Fey; and the “Windy City” — which is actually the 16th windiest city in the nation, but our politicians have been known to blow a lot of hot air (another topic altogether). We’re known for the ’85 Bears – the definition of DEFENSE in the NFL – and the ’08-’12 Cubs – the definition of LOSING (because by ’08, I meant 1908). Hugh Hefner began his media empire in Chicago, and our other less pornographic entertainment contributions include Kanye West, Common, R. Kelly, and Chess Records.

For people from Chicago, our city is one thing: “The Crib.” That’s what we call it, and we love it despite its problems. Oh yeah, the problems …

For all its deep dish pizzas and –style hot dogs, The Crib is one of the most violent cities in the world. 

When I say in the world, I mean that 1,976 Americans have died in Afghanistan since 2001, and there have been 5,056 murders in Chicago during the same period. (A specious stat for a number of reasons, but let’s move toward the point people are getting at when they mention this). This is a dangerous town. “How do we stop it?” is the million dollar question, and will net someone a Nobel Peace Prize if they can figure it out. 

At this point, I’m ready to throw my hands in the air: “God, it’s CRAZY in these streets.” DO SOMETHING. 

The answer I keep getting back is the same as my prayer: Do Something. But what?

Getting to Know Violence in Chicago

How violence begins is mostly understood. Here’s the widely accepted equation:

Poverty + Ghetto-ization  + a Culture of Violence + Gangs + Access to Guns + Drugs = Violence

On the left side of the equation, everything seems true. Many Chicagoans experience a scarcity of resources; many of them are black and poor and live together (if you didn’t know, Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the nation: everybody has a “town,” and the boundaries are invisible but strict). America does seems to have a fixation on Chicago’s rich history of mobbishness and corruption (thank you VH1 for “Mob Wives: Chicago”), and there is a curiously high level of access to guns in Illinios (perhaps because of too strict gun laws?). Plus, the paradigm of the Street Gang as Corporation began in Chicago, drugs are everywhere, and most if not all of the violent crimes in Chicago are related to one or a combination of the factors on the left side of the equation.  

So far, we have tried fixing the right side of the equation by fixing the left side: sound mathematical logic. Rainbow PUSH wants the government to create more jobs (poverty); lack of affordable housing and racist policies have kept violence in concentrated areas – some people are writing about that (Ghetto-ization); others are boycotting VH1 and its portrayal of reality, which is both wicked and unreal (Culture of Violence); Rev. Jesse Jackson and other church pastors are picketing to close down gun stores, while the Illinois State Rifle Association is looking to ease restrictions, which may kill channels of illegal trafficking and cause us to be more civil with one another (if that old lady has a gun in her purse, you might leave her alone – or so goes the logic). One organization – CeaseFire – focuses on none of these but looks at stopping retaliation. Their basic logic is that “violence begets violence” (ala MLK, who knew about Matthew 26:52) and if you want to stop the cycle you have to insert someone into the cycle at critical moments (after one violent act and before another). These people are called “Interrupters,” and the documentary on their work is gaining global buzz. 

And then there’s Bill O’Reilly, who recently said the National Guard should be deployed into Chicago. Besides him betraying his Conservative sensibilities (He wants the government to help people because they cannot help themselves?), this is a terrible idea. But it deserves mention because nothing else has worked. 

For all the success of CeaseFire and “CompStat” – the Chicago Police Department’s latest strategy of turning people into numbers — the murder rate is up 50 percent in Chicago from this time last year. So how do we stop it? I don’t think we’re seeing the complete picture.

The Real Problem: Trauma

I spent a summer in the ER of a Level 1 trauma center in Chicago. Gunshot victims would come in, and they couldn’t believe what had happened to them. It was traumatic in the truest sense – their bodies were broken and put into shock. But their mind and spirit were as well: it was a jarring experience all around for them. But not only for them. Mothers and aunties and cousins and baby mommas were going crazy too. A light bulb turned on: This situation is traumatic for them too! They need care as well. 

And so the idea of “care” was expanding from physical to psycho-spiritual, and from patient to family. Everybody involved was a victim of trauma here. 

I began to look into this idea of “trauma” and found that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the result of unfettered moments of shock that continue to reside in the body: the brain and body never return to “normal,” and will erupt in erratic behavior. Think of a geyser here. Hot springs are the result of spontaneous combustion of something that happened in a river far away and a long time ago. What if this is true with humans? 

We already know it is. One study on inner-city kids in Chicago showed that children who were exposed to violence or witness a violent act were much more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior within one year of exposure. PTSD also carries symptoms of depression, which contribute to feelings of meaninglessness in self and the world (thus devaluing another human life enough to take it). This is all very scientific and I want to get to the point: 

Our children are being put into shock every single day.

They are experiencing violence as perpetrator, victim, and witness, and they are no less exposed to the trauma. The trauma of being poor. The trauma of being hated by your government (if education policy is any indication of this). The trauma of broken families and unresolved relationships. The trauma of feeling foreign in other parts of the city. The trauma of degradation at even the most superficial level: the only popular rappers are the drug dealers/addicts/selfish/near-prostitutes, etc. 

This unresolved and unarticulated internal shock, combined with the chaos of our world today, builds until it becomes the “hot springs” that is a Chicago summer of violence. It’s not only about access to guns; it’s about not accessing trauma. You can be everything on the left side of the equation and still not be violent. It’s the trauma that I’m becoming more convinced makes the difference.

One Real Solution

Chicago has been called a “warzone” – let’s play with that a moment. Maybe the best thing a small church can do to stop the violence is work with our children like we work with our returning soldiers. (We need to do this better as well). Vets need safe space to talk. They need to give voice to experiences and be able to create new ways of understanding themselves—it’s called moving from “soldier” to “human” again. 

Our children need to understand themselves not as black or poor or at-risk but as HUMAN first. They need to develop meaning to confront the meaninglessness that surrounds them. This angry and dark world is traumatic for children, and they will grow up angry and dark unless we help them process what they have seen. Finding one’s own voice is critical to meaning-making. Some of them are not soldiers, but they are all in the war.

My partnership is with organizations that are looking to help young adults give voice to what they have seen and done. University Church and the Chicago Wisdom Project have started a program where young adults (most of them high-school dropouts and barely escaping or trying to exit gang/drug culture) now have a music studio where they write, record, and own their own music. This sounds like a record label, but it’s not. We ask them to write about what is meaningful to them; I don’t judge content. After recording, we talk about how they chose to say what they said. Stories come out. Trauma is exposed. It is uncomfortable at first, but eventually they know they are in safe space. We record songs as one way to expose trauma. And it has been working. Young folks are earning their GED’s and seeing beyond the limited scope of the barrel. They believe in something bigger than their reality, and it is transforming their reality. 

Can this work across the city? I think so. It doesn’t have to be hip-hop. You can make pottery or do anything creative that asks young people to tap into their inner voice. Our project is important because it is humanizing: they are finding their true selves by articulating themselves. It is also about justice: what they create they own. Finally, we use language of hope and love to help them embrace the past and think of a better future: this is a Christian project, minus the sermon. Our voice leads to the inner voice leads to the voice of God leads us to our destiny. 

How do we stop it? By unlocking one voice at a time, helping them integrate their trauma into what they are BECOMING. If we’re going to take care of The Crib, we need to do better at nursing trauma.

 

Julian DeShazier has served as the Senior Minister of University Church in Chicago. A native of the city, he graduated from Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Prior to his current position, Julian served as Teen Pastor at Covenant United Church of Christ, and has also worked with the Coca-Cola Leadership Program and Fund for Theological Education. He is also an award-winning musician and songwriter, known to many as “J.Kwest.”

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