New Creation

Strength and Serenity: The Women’s Mural Comes to Life

The women of PBMR. Not a phrase you hear often at a Center started by four priests as a safe haven for young men. But over the past few years, the women in the neighborhood have become vital members of the PBMR community. On Saturday, February 3, these women gathered together to christen the new Mother Brunner House – the Women’s Center – with a mural that depicts the strength, serenity, and power of the women of PBMR.

The project included women from three programs at PBMR: the women of the advocacy group Community and Relatives of Illinois’ Incarcerated Children (CRIIC), the women from the Mothers’ Healing Circles who have lost children to incarceration and gun violence, and the Young Women’s Group, the newest program for women.

With the help and direction of PBMR’s teaching artist, Alberto Alaniz, the women gave suggestions of the words and images that come to mind when they think of the women of PBMR. The answers were as varied as the women themselves: unity, strength, love, hearts and stars, peace signs, mother and child. Then representatives from each program consulted with Alberto and together the group came up with the image for the wall. A few weeks later, over 20 women gathered at the Mother Brunner House to paint in the image.

You’d think a room full of 20 women, ranging from ages 6 to 80, painting a huge space with lots of color would be a chaotic scene, but the space had a peaceful, collaborative, and happy feel.

Mrs. Wingard, the eldest and wisest in the group and a member of CRIIC, shared her reflections on the day: “Just to remember that I put a paintbrush on the wall and Fr. Kelly and Julie and Sr. Donna are gonna walk through there and see the mural and I thought ‘Wow, I really feel a part of that’…And then to think about them getting the house and putting something on the wall that actually reaches out to the community. [The mural] shows families coming together and it’s not just one ethnicity. It’s not just black, not just white, not just latino: it’s everyone coming together for a common cause, for our children, for our community.”

Shumeka Taylor, a representative of the Young Women’s Group, said that putting the handprints and quotes on the wall was her favorite part. “The hands was so nice. We all who had been doing the part of the wall and engraving our names and a nice quote and that’s something that’s going to live forever in the house and I like that.” Shumeka added “From the older women to the young women, I truly enjoyed it. The older lady put the French braid in my hair while I painted the rest of the mural because they didn’t want paint to get in my 26 inches. I greatly appreciated everything that went on that day.”

Aldena Brown, a member of the Mothers’ Healing Circles, felt Helen Keller’s quote “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much” captured the essence of the day.  “That day of the painting felt good. Everyone working together, good laughs, music, and food! That moment was like nothing mattered. Painting that mural was everything, just being a part of something so meaningful. That gave my heart joy and peace in that moment.  My mind drifted to a great place pushing that paintbrush. Yes, I must say that will be a day I’ll never forget! I was a part of that painting coming to life! I’m very thankful!”

The women of PBMR are leaving their legacy all over PBMR and the neighborhood, from the relationships they make to the steps they take towards their goals to the beautiful mural that will greet all the visitors of the Center. From now on, every person who walks through the doors of the Mother Brunner House will know that the women in the community are an integral part of PBMR: strong, unified, and here to stay.

 

Good Vibes

As PBMR grows, we require more support from funders and grants.  Grants and foundations demand that we demonstrate our effectiveness.  We do what we do because it is the right thing to do, but, I did go to a meeting where I was hoping to get some ideas on how we could build out more solidly our workforce development project – it needs some funding.

The person who met with us was someone who has some knowledge of PBMR and I would say cares for us.  He truly wanted to help.  He asked me from the start, “can I speak directly without offending you?”  I assured him that was the purpose of our visit and would welcome some unvarnished truth.

He responded to the fact that we are mission driven and live within the community with, “so what?”  He wasn’t being disrespectful, but driving home the point that we need data to demonstrate our effectiveness.

I appreciated his direct talk and was comforted with the fact that we were doing just that.  We are committed to better telling our story through real measurements and outcomes.

Later that same day, I got a call from a social worker from Northwestern University.  She was working with a young man who was just released from prison after his case was overturned on a wrongful conviction appeal.  He was falsely accused and put in prison at the age of fifteen for 10 years.  It is part of Northwestern University’s “Innocence Project”.  She asked if they could stop by for a quick visit.

You can only imagine what it would be like to be held in prison for ten years at that vulnerable age for something you didn’t do.  To make matters worse, when he came home to Detroit, Michigan, he was shot.  Apparently, where his mother lives is pretty rough and he was a stranger in his own community.

Because of all that was happening, he decided to move to Chicago to get a fresh start.  He came to Chicago because the only people who really supported him during that time of incarceration was the social workers at Northwestern University’s “Innocence Project”.

He was staying at a halfway house on the south side of Chicago, which provided him housing, but little else.  Due to the status of funding for Northwestern, they have little capacity to help with support outside the lawyers and social workers.

I met them when they arrived and spent about 2 hours talking and, after, gave them a “tour” of PBMR. As we sat back down, Traquan said that “I really like it here; this place has good vibes”.  He went on to share how much he felt comfortable with all the pictures and people at PBMR.  It was a place where people could understand where he was coming from; a place where he was not judged. He said many people, even after they know I was innocently put in prison, think that I got out due to a technicality.  “I get tired of trying to explain to people that even though I was in prison for 10 years, that I am not a bad person.”  He then asked, “Can I come back?  You think I can get involved here?”  Of course, I said yes.

We are definitely going to work on our “values proposition”.  But the real measurement of value for PBMR is that we “have good vibes” for those who feel alone or disconnected.   I am not sure how we measure “good vibes”, but we’re gonna give it a shot.  In the meantime, I thank Traquan for his seal of approval.

 

Changing Narratives

Do you remember December 31st, 1999 when we all waited with fear and expectation of what could be? Some prepared for the worst: would the world come to an end? Well it didn’t, and as the new Millennium began, four Missionaries of the Precious Blood felt challenged to change the narrative of priests and their relationship to community – so they moved beyond their work in parishes to the streets of Back of the Yards. They opened a safe place and PBMR was born!

January is a great time to sit by the fireplace and remember what was and what is becoming, and yesterday I did just that. 2017 was an amazing year of transformation at PBMR! The dream of purchasing and renovating an abandoned house in the neighborhood became a reality and Mother Brunner (MB) House was opened. A few days ago my heart was just bursting with joy as I walked through this beautiful new home (take a walk with me!). There in the first room was Allyson, our social work intern, with a mother searching for affordable housing. In the next room, another mother was working with a volunteer on possibilities for furthering her education; this mother received her high school diploma months ago in our newly created Education Lab with the support of Sister Janet! In the two Mother Brunner kitchens, pizzas were being prepared; in the family circle room, Leah, one of our Precious Blood Volunteers, was preparing for a Young Women’s Circle and Francis (Fr. Denny’s dog) was checking out the activities hoping a morsel of food would fall for his consumption! Then I stopped by Julie’s office, one of the four offices in the MB House. Julie and I celebrated the achievements of her advocacy group, CRIIC; because of their work, Julie and other mothers and fathers now know that their sons—who had originally been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as juveniles—will not die in prison. In fact, some are already free! So, if anyone should think that our “Back of the Yards” neighborhood is just an ugly, violent, inactive community – come and see – the narratives are changing!

On a warm day several weeks ago, Raheem, one of the four young men who helped renovate the MB House, and I planted tulip bulbs around the house (a new experience for him). As he was digging the holes and placing the bulb point up, we talked about how these bulbs need to be in the dark earth for the winter but then we will see new life pop up all over – and we will delight the whole neighborhood! We compared that to our own lives and to our community: out of the dark, new life has been popping up!

Of course you have all heard of our community garden – yes, once in this community, there were no fresh, affordable vegetables, a real food desert—but Sister Carolyn and her team (Mary, Sharrow, several youth, and our friends from St. John of the Cross) have transformed a parking lot into a luscious vegetable garden which produced over 3000 lbs. of food for the community this year.

With the constant coaching of Patrick, we have youth, mothers, and fathers out in the workforce delighted to have a job and the support of PBMR – another changing narrative! Yesterday, Mr. Lewis from Coldwell Bankers delivered our $12,000 check for the startup of our next building and he was amazed when he saw all the activity, and was especially impressed by the youth in the woodworking shop – so engaged in their projects, yet so hospitable and proud of their work under the guidance of Mike!

As always, Restorative Justice plays a major role at the Center. There have been circles of reconciliation, celebration, training, young women, young men, and mothers throughout the year. Pamela has facilitated many of these and introduced circles into the schools and community, along with introducing our young people to pumpkin carving!

I would be remiss if I did not mention the transformative ministry in our jails and prisons. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Frs. Denny and Dave along with Sara and Mike and other volunteers visit our incarcerated children at the Juvenile Detention Center. Mike Donovan goes from one Illinois prison to another, week after week, visiting young men who have been sentenced, offering them support and love.  Many have no other visitors but Mike! More of our staff, including Artrice and Orlando, also provide services for people re-entering society after incarceration. We walk with these people through a very difficult transition.

Our Restorative Justice Café (RJ Café – Art Center) has also transformed and been transformed by the art displays and the many visitors: ministers, police officers, Latino families, and guests from our Fall Barbeque fundraiser! Speaking of the wonderful day of October 1st , our Fall fundraiser–our community joined in prayer and celebration with friends from the north, south, east, and west and suddenly people who were far off  were brought close at the table of Eucharist and roasted pork!

Yes, our staff has rapidly increased and so has our presence in the neighborhood. We have a very eager and energetic group of young volunteers who, along with Jonathan, Lamonte and Phillip, really change narratives and keep the older ones of us on our toes—even Fr. Kelly!

It is a New Year, may we continue to work together, allowing God to transform us and our communities, churches, and families so the old narratives are changed and new life springs up out of the dark!

A Celebration of Remembrance

We had a large gathering of folks here for the celebration of All Souls Day or, in many cultures, “Dia de los Muertos”.  It is a celebration of remembrance.  We remembered all those who have passed on, who were so much a part of our lives.

Hundreds gathered here at PBMR creating small altars of remembrance.  There was a procession through the streets, rituals and blessings.  People came with pictures of their loved ones; mothers clutched the image of their sons/daughters who were killed by violence.

As Catholics, we have a long and deep tradition of rituals that allow us to tell our story of loss and suffering in the context of our faith story.  Rituals allow us to bring near and touch that which is hard to express in words.  In trauma work, we often use rituals and storytelling, poetry and art, to help express and share what so often is hard to verbalize.  So often youth who have been victims of violence and abuse find it difficult to talk about their emotions, but in poetry or art, these feelings are more accessible and more easily shared.

It is probably no surprise to most that I know many who are locked up in our jails and prisons.  I keep in contact with as many as I can through visits, phone calls and letters.  But it is hard to maintain relationships with so many – especially as they are sent downstate to a prison or detention facility. I struggle with a sense of powerlessness because I lose contact with so many who are locked in our prisons.

Yesterday, Joe called from Cook County Jail.  He is twenty years old and has been locked up for almost a year now.  Joe was a constant at PBMR.  He would go often with me to give talks – he had an outgoing personality that allowed people to come to know what we see in so many of youth – a deep respect and a desire for a better life.

When you receive a collect call from jail or prison, you have to wait for a long and repetitive recording to tell you that it is a collect call from an “inmate”.  The recording is more annoying because it takes away from the short amount of time allowed for the phone call from the “inmate”.

As soon as the recording ended, Joe blurted, “Fr. Kelly, are you ok?”  I responded that I was fine, tired, but fine.  He went on to say he had been trying to reach me, and because there were so many failed attempts at connecting via phone, he thought something happened to me.   While I appreciated his concern, I knew that much of his concern was that PBMR is his only connection to the outside world.  Phone calls are expensive and most family members cannot afford to “keep money on their phone”.

After talking a bit, he asked about everybody at the Center: Fr. Denny, Sr. Donna, Jonathan, Pamela, Sr. Carolyn, etc.  He asked about everyone at PBMR, as though he had a list and was checking off the names.  Since I was at the Center, I asked him if he wanted to talk to some of them.  One by one, people got on the phone and spoke with Joe.  You could hear laughter, words of encouragement, and expressions of love.

As the time drew near for the phone call to be terminated, I got back on the phone; Joe’s voice was so full of life; you could hear the joy of being reconnected.  “Man, Fr. Kelly”, he said, “I feel so much better.  I was wondering if people were thinking of me or if everybody had forgotten me.”  I assured him that we thought of him regularly – he was still very much a part of the Precious Blood Center.

The phone call abruptly terminated.

In many ways, that phone call was a ritual of remembrance.  We didn’t create an altar, but we celebrated Joe’s connection to his community, and in that connection, he came alive.  Moreover, it was not just Joe who came alive; each of us at the Center came alive as well.

Loss is a familiar feeling here; we lose so many to death, jail, mental illness and the streets.    It can take its toll.  These simple rituals are important moments to celebrate.

“But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ”. (Ephesians 2: 13)

 

South Side Hospitality

As part of my second year of Novitiate, I had the opportunity to learn, meet and share more closely in the Reconciliation Center of the Precious Blood in Chicago (PBMR).  How can I describe my experience during these three months?  PBMR is a special and unique place; the first thing that you notice is that every person is welcome!   When people come into the center there is always a cup of coffee or tea to offer them.  This is a very nice way to welcome each person and make each one feel special and honored!  Sitting down then at the welcome table  usually a very pleasant conversation is initiated with some of the young people who attend the program or one of the mothers or some other visitor, this gives a warm feeling and a feeling of being at home.

During my 3 month summer time experience, I had the opportunity to interact with many different people in various activities. One of the activities was helping in the garden, being there I began to realize how the people marvel at seeing the garden with so many fresh vegetables. It was very nice to see people leaving the garden so happy with their vegetables and talking about how they would prepare them. The garden and flowers located in the center of the Reconciliation Center offer the neighbors a nice and healing space to meet and contemplate      the beauty of God in nature.

I was able to realize that the needs that comes each day to PBMR are diverse and often times   are difficult to hear.  However it is the offering time to listen, just being present, providing  a safe place where stories can be told and youth can share their fears and concerns in circle with others who understand.  It is about giving a helping hand, and encouraging our youth to discover their talents and to dream of living beyond 25.  This type of presence may not be noticeable to the naked eye but so helps our youth feel supported and motivated to continue making their way toward a better future.

It is very exciting for me, as a native Guatemalan, to see PBMR inviting the Hispanic families who live in the neighborhood to a closer relationship.  Because I speak Spanish I was able to assist with connecting Hispanic families with PBMR.  As I became more acquainted with the neighborhood, I could welcome our Hispanic neighbors to the Restorative Justice Café’ at PBMR.   There we had space and time to talk about of different topics and the many struggles that they have to face.  We gathered and shared stories, food and laughter, showing solidarity with each other but also celebrating our joys and having such a welcoming place.

The opportunity to share with the mothers that participate in PBMR made me think a lot about God’s love because when someone asks, how much can a mother love her child? The answer could be a mother has a huge heart to love into infinity. But truth is that their love does goes beyond to the infinite because they walk with their children regardless of the circumstances.  Some of the families have children incarcerated, murdered, caught up in the streets and they remain steadfast in their love for their children It is such an example of unconditional love, the same love God has for all of us!

This has been an experience of Faith and Action because the Amen that I profess in the Eucharist and I will profess on December 9 when I profess my first vows as a Sister of the Precious Blood invites me to meet my brothers and sisters who suffer in different ways in our society with that same unconditional love.   I feel my main call is to love, to serve and walk with the suffering even when it is not easy.   It is Christ who unites us through his Precious Blood and invites us to be Eucharist, to be givers of life in our broken world, to bring hope, healing and hospitality especially to those who feel “far off”.

GLORY TO THE BLOOD OF JESUS!

Stars in the Making

Into my 14th year volunteering at the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center, I thought I had seen it all, but last week an 18 year old resident charged with first degree murder came after me with a pair of sharp scissors.  Not to worry, since Freddie is a student in the newly established STAR (Standing Tall Against Recidivism) Barber College at the Detention Center, and I volunteered to have him give me a haircut.

Admittedly, we were both a little nervous. This was only Freddie’s second week cutting hair, and his previous customers were African-Americans or Latinos who just needed their hairs lined up and trimmed. He didn’t know what to make of the full head of hair on this 63 year old white guy who had not changed his hairstyle in 40 years.  Well, it turned out great, and I could tell that Freddie was very proud of his work.  I was too.  Other than their hot towel massage, Sports Clips has nothing on the STAR Barber College.

In the past, lack of productive programming was one of the major criticisms I had with the Detention Center operations.  The facility served as a warehouse for the detained youth, with residents playing endless hands of the card game Spades, and watching daily episodes of Jerry Springer.  The prior administration often emphasized that the Detention Center was “Temporary,” so there was little need to implement programs because of the short term duration of the residents’ stay.  Tell that to the many juveniles charged as adults, since their stays often last one to two years as they await adjudication of their cases.

That lack of programming appears to be changing.  There are now programs in storytelling, where youth write and perform in plays; classes in music composition and performance; a commercial painting program; and an excellent writing and poetry program.  The recently established Barber College was a welcome addition, as evidenced by the fact that over 100 youth applied to participate, 20 were interviewed, and 8 were accepted into the first class, including 1 girl (there are only about a dozen females incarcerated at the Detention Center). The course is rigorous, with the students attending class 4 days a week, 5 hours a day.  Those who complete the course can earn their State license, and go on to a successful career as a Barber.

I don’t know what Freddie’s long term future holds, but he can count on me as a repeat customer next month.

(Mike Donovan is volunteer staff person with PBMR)

The Real Scream

My name is Magdalena.   I come from Poland.   I appreciate my country but I never feel that Poland is my place in the world. I hope to find this place someday, so I am open to learning about new cultures and about the world in general.

I grew up in a wonderful family.   My parents’ love is the most beautiful love I have seen in this world;    I always know I am wanted and that my brother and I are the fruits of this beautiful love.  I have had a very blessed life.

In Poland I study Psychology.   As part of my program, I was required to complete an internship. I did not know that my placement would combine everything I had been dreaming about, such as, practicing English, spending time in a beautiful place, and experiencing the spirituality of the Precious Blood on another continent.

As always, G

od has taken care of my desires and me.  He gave me the opportunity to come to the United States and Chicago’s Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. I had no idea what my internship would be like or what I would do there, so my travel was full of fear. Fortunately, God is also in America, and put so many wonderful people in my path (especially the CPPS sisters with whom I live!) so that my fears disappeared in the blink of an eye.

So what do I do in the Center? I am present and I participate. My responsibility at PBMR was to walk with the people I met and get to know their way of living, their mentality, and their stories.  Therefore,   I was entrusted with the most beautiful duty in the world. Before my arrival, I thought that my psychology background would be helpful in some way and that I would be serving people more than receiving services from others. So when I found myself at PBMR, I felt lost because it was completely the opposite of what I imagined before I came here.

Exactly a month ago I flew to Chicago and now I am already experiencing what I had read and thought about in Poland – living the spiritual life deep in my heart.

Many times in my life I heard the answer to this question: “What is the spirituality of the Precious Blood for you?” The most beautiful answer I heard at PBMR this July: “This is the spirituality that gathers people. Those who are more open invite those who have less courage to come.” This remark refreshed my outlook, because I know it’s not just joining the community, but inviting everyone to join in this common path to the most beautiful place of peace and safety.

Who are the people who have more courage to invite others to this common path? A month ago I would have said they are very well-established Catholics.   Today’s words: they are all those who have experienced being invited, wanted, accepted.   I have personally experienced how the people who get hurt so badly can beautifully invite others.

I thought that as a well-established Catholic, coming from a wonderful family, having a psychology background, I would initiate a joint trip down this path. I guess I thought I would be a guide, someone important. I had made my best plan to spend time here and I had specific expectations, and it turned out very differently!

I found myself being a psychologist then a patient, student and teacher, sheep and shepherd helper, the one who listens and the one who shares, the one who gives hope and the one searching for hope.

I was a psychologist when I talked to people about their lives, problems, and successes, especially when I was just listening; a patient when the listening was too overwhelming and I needed support myself.

Student: all the time, when I had language problems, when I was asking about culture and customs, when I wanted to understand the stories of people I met, and when I did not know what to order in a restaurant.

Teacher, when people asked me: “How is it in Poland?”, “What is your story?”, “Does your nation still feel the effects of war?” and finally: “Where is your Poland?”  I was a sheep who knew she was in the right place and in the right flock, who felt good about other sheep, regardless of whether they were black or white, young or old….

I was a shepherd’s helper who was sitting at the back of the clearing and watching the sheep, thinking intensely about what exactly was missing and helping to see what at first sight I missed. I was also the one who listened when people shared their stories: stories of a brutally murdered beloved child, of a 17-year-old boy being sentenced to death in prison, of a newborn who died after not receiving proper care after birth because of his race and whose body was put in a peanut butter jar.

I heard the story of a black father who loved and cared for his son but whose rights to see his son were taken away by the white mother. I listened to the stories of many people who are constantly traumatized, boys who have been shot several times by the age of 15, who at the same age have become fathers bravely educating their children, boys who have seen so much blood shed that this image will never disappear from their eyes.

I heard the story of a woman whose husband was murdered and she asked the court for the smallest amount of punishment for the perpetrator and the story of a Puerto Rican man who had been shot 15 times, paralyzed, and today is walking once again on his own legs and working to make the area safer.

I listened to the story of a young man who participated in a brutal murder and today is considered a member of the murdered boy’s family. I listened to so many stories of people who have gone so far and have come back hopeful.

I was also the one who shared – with what I had, whether I considered it rich or poor. I was trying to be the one giving hope: hope that life can be beautiful, that not every man/woman/child need struggle with such pain and fear, that everyone deserves a good life because we were called to it, because God created all people to share the beautiful and the good and know happiness.

And finally, I was at PBMR center when two people who were shot in a nearby alley and lay bleeding on the ground. Their cry was not a metaphorical “blood scream”, which we try to hear in Poland. Their sound was the voice of true, untreated suffering, which resulted in surgery and prolonged paralysis.

I experienced all this at the age of 23 by participating in the life of PBMR. I experienced the strength of suffering and realized that it is an extraordinary wealth. I experienced joy, which has its roots in the pain, which makes it only more beautiful and true. I experienced love despite weakness. I experienced a life of reconciliation, which will not be forgotten until the end of my life.

Magdalena Stasiak

Being the Village it Takes

Rayshawn (nearest/left) and Shawn preparing a meal for the youth at Precious Blood Center. (photo by Sr. Donna Liette, CPPS)

We have all heard the phrase, “It takes a village…”.  It is usually in reference to community support for young people who do not have the structure or oversight that is needed.  The axiom has persisted because we know that the breakdown of family has been, and continues to be, a contributing factor to many of our societal problems – in particular among our youth.

Even after all these years of working and living in communities plagued by extreme poverty, I am amazed at the ability of our young people to maintain some sense of daily life.  There is, truly, a great deal of strain and struggle in the lives of so many youth.

Larry is a kid who participates in almost any program he’s invited to take part in.  Even as others might balk at an education program or a “community clean-up day”, Larry is always willing to join in.  He is so cooperative and easy-going, that often we overlook the depth of his loneliness.  Our attention seems to focus on those who obviously cry out for support and intervention.

A staff member recently called and asked if I could help Larry with some food.  It was a Saturday and she wasn’t in the office that day.  Of course, I agreed.

Within a few minutes of the call, Larry was at the Center.  One of the young men, Shawn, who is training to be a chef, was in the kitchen preparing a meal for our Mass and event the following day.  I asked Shawn if he would help me get some food out of the pantry for Larry.  We packed up a bag of soups, pasta, cans of ravioli, and other items that would be easy to heat up and cook.   As we were leaving, you could tell Larry wanted to take some cereal as well, but not much good with no milk.  I told him I would take him home and on the way, we would pick up some milk.

On the way to Larry’s house, Shawn, Larry and I stopped at “Food for Less” to up some milk and a few other things – peanut butter and jelly, etc.  During our “shopping spree” I asked Larry about his upcoming graduation from 8th grade.  He almost immediately asked Shawn and I if we would like to have a ticket to the ceremony.  Apparently, no one in his family was going.  Shawn immediately said, “Sure, Bro”!    I was not as quick, but said if I could, I would.

Shawn thought about his own graduation and, then, asked “What about those shoes?”  He said it in the way a big brother would watch over his younger sibling – with care and concern.  It was obvious that Larry didn’t have shoes or any of the clothes necessary for a graduation ceremony.  So, sure enough, from Food for Less, we are off to the local shoe store to get some shoes and a few other necessities.

While shopping is certainly not my thing, I was both grateful and proud of Shawn.  I was grateful that Shawn took Larry on as a “brother” and became the “village” that he so needed.  I was proud, too, that with all his own stress, Shawn took great care to ensure that Larry had the support and care he needed.

We might not be able to move mountains or change systems, but this was a day to rejoice.  It was an honor and privilege to be a part of the “village it takes”.

Disconnected

For the young men I visit in Illinois adult prisons, the struggle most often spoken about during my 90 trips in 2015 and 2016 was their disconnection, separation, and detachment from family.  I call it the loneliness of the long distance inmates of Chicagoland. That loneliness leads to stress, anxiety, worry, depression and anger.  Without that loving, supportive lifeline back home, their re-entry into society becomes that much harder.

The separation starts with distance.  17 of the 22 correctional centers in Illinois are over 3 hours from Chicago, with most being 4, 5, 6, and even 7 hours away.  For 22 year old Dez,  incarcerated at Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro 4 hours from Chicago, he has had no family visits in the 4 years he’s been locked up.  His Mom has no car, can’t afford to open an inmate telephone account, and my attempts to call her after I’ve finished my quarterly visit with Dez go unanswered.  Dez is very frustrated, and does not understand the lack of contact from his family.

Jose, 18, is housed at Shawnee Correctional Center, near the Kentucky border, 7 hours from Chicago.  His Mom has a car, but it’s not reliable enough to make the long trip.  Even if the car could get her there, she couldn’t make the roundtrip in one day, and couldn’t afford a hotel room to stay over.  Like Dez, his Mom also can’t afford a phone account.   Although she has written Jose, he wants to hear her voice and hug her in person.  Jose views himself as the “man” of the family, so he is constantly worried about his younger siblings.  While he appreciates my quarterly visits, I’m no substitute for family.

To Juan, I am his family.  He lists my relationship to him as Uncle. He’s had only 2 family visits in his 7 years of incarceration.  He’s “only” 3.5 hours away in Danvile on the Indiana border, but his Mom is too sick to travel, and his sister moved to Florida.  He is really angry at her, because she promised that when she returned to Chicago to visit her Mom, she’d make time to visit Juan.  She’s been back twice, but did not visit.

Stressed out is how I’d describe Sammy, incarcerated at the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg.  No one in his family has visited, yet he recently heard that his Mom visited his brother in California.  What about him, he worries?

Everytime I bring the subject of family up with Allen, he gets angry.  For awhile, he completely wrote off his mother and brother as “dead to him.” His father was faithful about visiting him for years, but during my last two quarterly visits, Allen said that he hadn’t heard or seen from his father since Christmas. Allen tries to block the hurt out of his mind, with no success.

Lonny is only 19, and was sentenced last year to 38 years.  He’s serving his time at Menard, one of Illinois’ three maximum security prisons, 6.5 hours from Chicago. So far, his Mom hasn’t been able to visit, but she is looking forward to joining other families who will be making their annual bus trip to Menard, sponsored by Communities and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children (CRIC), a partnering agency with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.  Larry can’t wait.  He misses his Mom so much.

There are many more stories I could tell, all with the same theme.  My purpose in relating them is not to  judge these families.  They’re not responsible for the location of these facilities.  Most are poor, and many lead very complicated lives of their own back home.  I might add that there are many families that do make the effort and have the resources to visit as often as possible.

Added to the many other hardships these young men endure daily while in prison,  you’ve got a recipe for many mental health issues, especially depression.  I thank God for the opportunity to visit these young men, listen to their stories, and work for healing and reconciliation in the midst of their loneliness and isolation.

An Awakening

Much of the world is celebrating the joys of Easter.  The earth is awakening with newness of spring: flowers, smell of cut grass, the appearance of the sun after a long and dark winter.  Easter is in the air.

For those who have traveled amidst the pain and the confusion and trauma of Good Friday, the hope-filled message of Easter is critical and welcomed.

We celebrate Easter with eyes wide open.  We do not gloss over or minimize the crucifixion; we remember and touch our wounds and the wounds of others.  As a society – and as a church – too often we are tempted to gloss over the wounds in order to quickly move to peace and tranquility.   The Paschal Mystery (suffering, death and resurrection of Christ) is central to a spirituality of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

Just as we cannot reach the resurrection without the crucifixion, we cannot remain in the brokenness of Good Friday.  We cannot embrace a stance of the impossible.  We must willingly do what is uncomfortable and frightening while embracing a stance of hope.

Cardinal Blasé Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, joined others on Good Friday walking among the cries and tears of the violence on the south side of Chicago.  At each station, names of the 163 already killed in 2017 were read aloud.  Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who had lost a loved one gathered and walked alongside Cardinal Cupich and a community of people.  Young people, who, themselves, were victims of violence, joined their stories with the stories of others.  One child, only 10 years old, spoke of the violence and how it had caused him so much fear and pain.  The silence of the moment was only broken by a thunderous applause and words of support.  The message was clear, you are not alone.

Holy Saturday, brought together mothers, grandmothers, sisters, girlfriends who, like Mary,

had lost a loved one to violence.  Our community of men, ministers and children gathered with them, walking and praying at places of violence and bloodshed.  Our youth, shared stories of their friends and support persons gunned down right before their eyes.  Even after a year they still feel the loss, remembering the moments, the sounds, the weeping.  Every day they live over and over Good Friday, Holy Saturday, while hoping life will get better and they will come to their Easter!

As we walked through the community and shared our stories with one another, hope began to emerge and overwhelm the violence of Good Friday. Stories of triumph emerged amidst the tears.  One mother shared how she had been reborn; the death of her son opened a new beginning for her as she turned away from addiction and toward a God who was so very close.

In her telling of her Good Friday story standing by her son’s bloody body, covered in the white cloth, she never neglects to tell the ending of her story – her son’s death gave her new life.

Our final stop was at our “Healing Fountain’ in out Peace Garden.  There Father Denny blessed our new statue of the pieta and one of our local ministers closed with prayer for healing.

Easter Sunday mass here at PBMR was filled with friends and community members – young and old – celebrating the gift of new life.

We know that Good Friday moments will continue, but so, too, does the promise of the resurrection.  Violence will not have the final word.

Easter is among us. It may not come with the pageantry of alleluias and shouts of joy, but be seen in the simple, and yet profound, recognition that you are my brother or sister.