Summers in Chicago are violent. It’s not the whole story of the City of Big Shoulders, but it’s one no resident can escape. By July of this year there were 1,900 shooting victims, the Chicago Tribune reported, or about 10 per day. Even beyond the city’s borders, gun violence plagues the nation. The American Medical Association, the largest professional group of physicians, names gun violence a public health crisis.
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich says the church needs to speak up. “If we are really going to be a church that’s speaking on behalf of families and life we should identify this as an issue, as well,” he says. He recognizes the issue is complex, involving not just the availability of firearms, but, in many cases, other factors like entrenched cycles of poverty. But in the face of such an enormous problem, we can’t cower in fear. We have to roll up our sleeves and start chipping away. “We can’t do everything, but we should do something,” says Cupich.
You’ve recognized that violence is one of the major challenges in Chicago right now. How is the archdiocese responding to help people who are affected by violence experience God’s grace?
The church needs to be, as Pope Francis has said, a field hospital in which we help people deal with living ordinary human lives.
We want to position ourselves to facilitate that. We’re doing that in a number of ways. For example, here in Chicago we’re involved in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s One Summer jobs program. We cooperated with the
city through our parishes and schools and Catholic Charities and established sites where young people in the inner city could work for an eight- to 10-week period. We think it’s very important to give young people hope and opportunities.
Chicago’s Catholic Charities is the largest provider of social services in Illinois. We have a footprint that’s unparalleled in Cook and Lake Counties. Every 30 seconds somebody counts on Catholic Charities for help. We are there with programs for family support, for child education and childcare, for food, shelter, and counseling.
Our Catholic education system helps as well. We have 79,500 kids in Catholic schools in our archdiocese. Many of them are not Catholic. We educate them because this is part of our mission.
Another area that we’re working on right now is with ecumenical leaders. In June I had a meeting with the leaders within the archdiocese and our universities, our social services, and our other entities just to take an inventory of what we’re doing with regard to violence, how we’re curbing it, how we’re dealing with it. I’ll be in a position to go to the ecumenical and civic leaders and say, “Let’s partner on some things going forward.”
What about gun violence?
This issue of gun violence is very complex. It’s complex because it involves poverty over generations, unemployment, drugs, the availability of firearms and guns that are saturating some neighborhoods, and young people who turn to gangs because they feel as though they have no other option because they don’t have a healthy family life or prospects for the future.
My concern is that people want to step back and do nothing about it because it looks so hopeless. We can’t do everything, but we should do something. I think if we all work together and chip away at it we can get something significant done.
I’m trying to ask the adult community to take this up and embrace it. If people think that the violence is going to be zoned off into a particular neighborhood, they’re mistaken. We are not going to be shielded. There are too many guns out there in the hands of people who should not have them. We need to have sane gun laws. For instance, some are proposing video cameras in gun shops. We know that some gun shops have been broken into. We need to have recordings of what’s happening in those gun shops.
We also need these cameras to record the purchases of guns. We need to identify those people who are getting access to firearms. We also need to make sure that gun shops are regulated in terms of where they’re located. These are just some of the proposals that many people are talking about when they speak of sane gun laws.
Should the church as a whole be speaking out more on gun violence?
Yes. It’s a life issue, isn’t it? It seems to me that it’s a life or death issue on a day-to-day basis in Chicago, where there have been more than 2,000 shootings just in the first half of
this year and people are dying in the streets.
If we are really going to be a church that’s speaking on behalf of families and life we should identify this as an issue, as well.
Black men are six times more likely to be the victims or the perpetrators of gun violence. How do we address that? It’s complex. But would those statistics also parallel the number of black men who don’t have an adequate education? Who don’t have employment, who are suffering from all sorts of illnesses and aren’t treated, who don’t have proper health care?
I think that’s very important to get across. I think, too, that we’re seeing these kinds of challenges in the Hispanic community.
Is there a relationship between pastoral care and social action?
We pray for people, but we also roll up our sleeves and get out there in the neighborhoods.
I think there are systemic issues in the economy, systemic issues in family life, and systemic issues in our education programs that need to be addressed because there are people who are falling through the safety nets that should be there in the system for them. It’s about early childhood education, the availability of health care, the availability of work, and income equality.
Through Catholic Charities and other programs we are providing people with a safe place for their children when they go to work. We’re providing education through our Catholic school system. Our hospitals provide more indigent care than anyone else. Catholic Charities reaches out with counseling for families.
Time and again, the Catholic Church is out there. We have pastors such as Father Mike Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina on Chicago’s South Side, working on reconciliation of rival gang members and priests like Precious Blood Father David Kelly promoting reconciliation through restorative justice. We have women religious like Sister of Mercy Rosemary Connelly challenging the status quo and raising the standards in how we care for those with disabilities. We have hundreds of deacons and countless lay volunteers serving in soup kitchens, organizing youth programs, assisting women in difficult pregnancies, accompanying immigrants, to name just a few examples. We’re in the trenches.
Pope Francis says we have to encounter people, we have to get to know them, we have to walk with them, we have to accompany them. But we also have to integrate them.
We are not focused on temporary solutions. We have programs that really help people understand that they’re part of the wider community. There are a lot of people who feel disenfranchised, who do not feel as though they belong to civic life.
The church has to work to integrate people into the life of larger society. It’s not just a matter of meeting people and walking with them. We have to actively take steps to integrate people into the economy, into really being free with options for education, good health care, and other resources.
There are people who have lived in generations of poverty who don’t have any wealth to pass on in a will like people who have built and passed on equity and opportunity over generations. So many don’t have that, and we have to make sure we integrate people into society so that they can build a life from one generation to the next.
Image: Courtesy of Chicago Archdiocese