Rev. Marshall Hatch, New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church; Rev. Lindsey Long Joyce, St. John United Methodist Church in Oak Park; Rev. Alan Taylor; Rev. Cy Fields of New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church; and Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church.| PROVIDED

For several years after coming to Unity Temple, rarely did I look far enough outside Oak Park’s borders to become aware of what was happening in areas nearby. 

Then members of my congregation began listing, in our Book of Gathering the Prayers of the People, the names of individuals who were killed each week in the city of Chicago, and the names of soldiers dying in combat around the world. 

Each Sunday, I began reading these lists aloud. It was a powerful experience for all of us to hear the actual names of individuals — young and old — who had lost their lives through violence. I started tracking down information about these victims and, in doing so, I began to understand the serious problems facing our close neighbors in Austin and the greater West Side. 

So I attended a training session in faith-based organizing, where I met the leaders of Ceasefire and others from the West and South sides of Chicago. Thus, I began building relationships among people of faith in Chicago’s West Side, including several pastors.

As I listen to these good people, I hear four primary concerns: 

Lack of economic opportunity and economic investment; 

Profoundly poor education; 

Rampant gang violence, and 

Police misconduct. 

They are, of course, interrelated.

I’m particularly heartbroken by the increasing violence where children are growing up, in what amounts to a war zone. Last week, The New York Times published a front-page story on the escalating violence among our direct neighbors. [“Violence Surges in Chicago,” Monica Davey, March 28] 

The article extensively quoted Rev. Ira Acree, who serves in North Austin at Greater St. John Bible Church.

The Saturday before Palm Sunday, Rev. Acree officiated at three funerals, including services for a grandson and a grandniece of two different parishioners. These were young people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of the violence is gang-related, yet many of the victims want no part of gangs, including a 13-year-old victim, who had pleaded in a video to reduce gun violence.

Four other youth were recently shot and wounded at Washington and Waller — just 1/3 mile from Austin Boulevard. I joined Rev. Acree and other pastors and laypeople for a prayer vigil lamenting the inexplicably violent reality they should not have to grow up in.

We live in a location where there is a tremendous imbalance of resources and opportunity. Doesn’t God call us to pay attention, engage in some way, grow and speak the truth in love? And sometimes act?  What can we do as pastors, deeply concerned individuals, or a wider community?

These are challenging questions, not always welcomed in our comfortable faith communities. Yet being aware of others whose children are growing up in a war zone, isn’t remaining neutral or oblivious part of the problem?

As I get to know people of faith in the Austin neighborhood, I am enriched and hopeful. I’ve encountered tremendous resources of heart, resilience, good humor, and unflagging determination.

Last June following the Charleston massacre, I joined Rabbi Max Weiss, Rev. Sally Iberg, and Rev. Lindsey Long at a Call for Unity hosted by Rev. Acree and other pastors who lead the West Side Leaders Network. Since then, friendships and mutual projects have flowered. The network is partnering with the Community of Congregations. I pray that together we will catalyze engagement among congregations on both sides of Austin Boulevard.

Rev. Alan Taylor is senior minister of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation and president of the Community of Congregations.

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