"Just last year Chicago had over 600 caskets/ Man killing's some wack s***/... Do you know what it feels like when people is passing?"
These are the heart-wrenching lyrics of Kanye West's "Everything I Am" from his 2007 studio album, Graduation. The Chicagoan's musings, now several years removed, retain relevance as Chicago continues along its seemingly unrelenting pace of homicides and violent crime. Although, overall, homicides are down this year, a recent holiday weekend in the city witnessed more bloodshed as 70 people were wounded and 12 people were killed, raising the city's homicides above 200. In 2012, Chicago recorded over 500 homicides.
Chicago's violence is attributed not just to the alarming accessibility of handguns but also to the dismantling of the hierarchy of street gangs, a result of so-called "street corner conspiracy busts" by police. As Tracy Siska, founder and executive director of the Chicago Justice Project noted in his paper "Gangs, Violent Crime, and the Unintended Consequences," "There is a significant increase in leaderless cliques of youths on the streets lacking any local affiliations to structure or restrain their actions. Cliques and individuals that once were affiliated now fight against each other as well as against other gangs."
In essence, young gangstas have been left to raise themselves while the O.G.'s (Original Gangstas) are away, either serving lengthy prison sentences, or dead, themselves the victims of violent crime. The dismantling of this criminal, yet structurally effective leadership apparatus has resulted in "orphaned" gangstas. Without O.G.'s to indoctrinate them with a street code of ethics, these youth have increasingly created deep factions among fellow gang members now warring with each other for control of the streets.
For close to a decade, I have served as an inner city pastor. I love my job, and I have witnessed God's transformative power in myself, our congregation, and the South Dallas community in which we live and serve. At times, however, my ministry context has been one of brutal violence. I have witnessed unthinkable acts of violence unleashed with unquenchable rage and malice. There was the mob of 50 people that spilled out into traffic from an apartment complex wherein a man pushed down then repeatedly kicked a woman in the face. Upon witnessing this tragedy, I threw open my car door to render aid. Suddenly, a stunning strong grip grasped the back of my clergy collar, halting my exit. My wife reasoned with me and suggested that we contact the authorities, instead.
She likely saved my life.
Other troubling scenes replay in my mind with vengeance. There is the young man being stomped in the face amid a crowd of onlookers; the young man who repeatedly slammed a young woman's head against a van; the young man who stopped his car, exited, then collapsed after being shot a few blocks away; the young man being jumped by six or seven other young men in front of a liquor store; the young man dragging a young woman by her hair across the street and into a parking lot. Their faces have become blurred, but I still see these young men's eyes. Their eyes were filled with an empty darkness emanating from deep-seated pain.
In these young men, I find neither courage nor strength, instead reverberations of great fear, scared young men hiding behind big guns. For all of their disturbing acts, these violent perpetrators emerge for me as toy soldiers without a clear mission or direction, fighting in an inexplicable war for honor they do not deserve, to control turf they do not own.
Yet, this war has real casualities.
I was invited to address a Stop the Violence Rally in one of Dallas' most violent zip codes. Before I offered my words, four mothers spoke. Each mother had a son who was killed within the past year. Each murder remained unsolved. The ages of the deceased: 17, 15, 14, and 11. The death of children speaks powerfully to the insanity of recent violence. This year, our national consciousness has been held captive by the murders of two Chicago youth: Hadiya Pendleton, 15, shot and killed in a Chicago park days after performing for President Obama's second presidential inauguration, and Jonylah Watkins, six months old, shot five times as her father changed her diaper.
Chicago has received national attention as a result of its alarming murder rate. Nevertheless, a proper treatment of violence cannot be limited to the inner city. Violence is not merely a Chicago problem or a South Dallas problem. It is an American problem. America's killing fields are not regulated to urban streets, for as we have tragically witnessed, toy soldiers and America's killing fields extend from suburban Colorado movie theaters and Wisconsin Sikh temples to Arizonian grocery store parking lots, and many places, in between. Yes, the world's most industrialized nation has a violence problem, and dare I say that like toy soldiers, fear, including xenophobia, abides close to the heart of America's blood addiction.
In lyric, Mr. West also laments, "The church won't tithe, so we can't afford to stay." In years past, churches established orphanages to care for the twice bereaved. Today, this important ministry continues, albeit most prominently in foreign countries. In order to save an entire generation and turn the tide of youth violence in our nation, it is incumbent for the church to renew its commitment to help raise orphans; especially these new orphans, toy soldiers engulfed by fear and hiding behind guns, and help transform America's killing fields into reservoirs of hope and realized potential. It will be painstaking work, but if we fail to do it, we will find the mounting cost of lives lost more than unaffordable.
It will be unbearable.