By Gordon Nary
Gordon: As we introduce our readers to you and your ministry, they should know that you are lay person and that Brothers and Sisters of Love is your organization, and that you have a strong background in the challenges of and insights into gang violence in Chicago.
Although you have been profiled in several Catholic publications, I suggest that our readers check out Tom Homes’ great article on you on oakpark.com. Megan E. Doherty's extraordinary photo documentary and commentary on your work, and the Chicago Tribune article by Rex Huppke, "Four Who Watch Over the City.
Could you share with our readers some of the studies that have been so instrumental in your ministry?
Brother Jim: L I have a Masters in Divinity from Catholic Theological Union and I spent five summers as the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans. So I am as educated as an average priest.
The History of Black Catholics in the United States by Cyprian Davis. The course and the book made me feel ashamed. However, many of my Black Classmates loved it. They already knew the bad parts, but it showed that Blacks have fought hard to stay in the Church.
For five summers I studied with Black Catholic priests, nuns, and theologians about the role of the Catholic Church in the Black community.
Theology- I have found liberation Theology most helpful when it is based on experience as opposed being dependent upon philosophy or theory. I was in the seminary for three years with the Society of St. Columban. So we were trained to know some of the directions that other countries and the Church's mission there.
From 1987 to 1990, I spent three years: studying theology; working as a hospital chaplain in a poor Catholic, predominately Black hospital on the South-side; and working with street gangs with Br. Bill and a couple of priests. It was wonderful how each fed my understanding of the other two things. The Second Vatican Council suggested that priests should be trained in more urban environments and close to the poor. That is how I got my formation.
Two things have been really impactful.
The first comes from Paul Knitter from "No Other Name." Knitter describes three forms of theology: Ecclesiocentric (spelling), Christocentric, and Theocentric. In other words, Church centered, Christ centered, or God centered.
Church centered is where we look to the church or to church leaders for our salvation. There is a certain security in this that we look to others in how we are to live and be Christian. Good leaders and church laws can be very helpful. Yet Jesus was not afraid to break "church" rules for the greater good. It also makes us susceptible to cults and abuse by leaders.
Still I have found the Church essential to my faith especially the Eucharist which feeds me in my search for the "Kingdom of God."
Christ centered focuses entirely on Jesus Christ. When Paul says that salvation is found only in faith in Jesus. This becomes the entire focus.
As Christians or followers of Christ this can be tempting. However, the gospels show that Jesus was theocentric or God (father) centered. That God worked all through the Old Testament. And that Jesus was tied to the Jewish Tradition. Even the Great Commandment was from the Old Testament not something new from Jesus.
Catholic theology is God centered and more specifically Trinitarian:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So Christ is not denied, but God is more and in discussing God with other religions we have perspectives in finding common ground. Also, Catholic teachings from Vatican II says that God is found in all peoples and all cultures. I have found this to be true with gang members and the unchurched. Grace and God's spirit has been found in the midst of awful tragedies.
The second thing I have discovered in studying theology is Jesus' focus on the "Kingdom or Reign of God". Jon Sobrino in "Christianity Rediscovered"said that when we work with the poor the "Kingdom of God" breaks into our lives. This breaking in gives us glimpses of the "Kingdom" that Jesus talked about. I have found Sobrino to be correct.
I have come to see that working with the poor and love go hand on hand.
The first Letter of John says that God is Love and where there is Love there is God (chapter 4). This leads to the Spirituality of Brothers and Sisters of Love: Love, Trust in God, Forgive everyone everything, and Never Be Afraid. It is finding God in the everyday based on love.
Gordon: Many of our Chicago readers are reminded daily on the perceived increase in gang violence in Chicago, and have seen Mayor Emmanuel’s plan to address the murders and violence in Chicago. If you had the opportunity to make recommendations to his plan, what specific programs would you recommend that could help reduce gang violence?
Brother Jim: Support for programs that help with reading and homework, preschool education, Job Training that actually provides training (stay away from classrooms and talking at people), Jobs that actually do or create something (Do not create jobs where young people sit around for a paycheck and do nothing), athletic programs other than basketball (soccer, volley ball, tennis, flag football, swimming, gymnastics, aerobics, etc.).
There are other solutions, but the biggest problem is poverty.
Gordon: Please provide or readers with your evaluation of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative>
Brother Jim: I read the report hat you gave me and it did not tell me much. I would think that going back decades that there would be information about gangs instead of talking around the issue. Gangs and Delinquency are natural outcomes of social situations. The question, why do young men join gangs? Having spent years in poor and gang neighborhoods, my question would be, why would they not join gangs?
Years ago a college professor came across a book on gang research. Since she could get it for free, she asked me if I would like it. The only article in the whole book that gave me any insight was an interview with the rapper/actor Ice T. He was the only one who described how gangs and their neighbors lived. Ice T talked about different levels of involvement of gang members. Like for instance, (my experience) a former gang member changes his life, but a friend is killed. The former gang member wears gang clothes, cocks his hat, and gives gang signs to others at the funeral. He may never again sell or use drugs and may never again use a gun, but he will show respect for his comrades.
Gordon: What is the impact of racism on gang violence?
Brother Jim: Racism is a factor, but it is combined with poverty. Gangs prey upon the unaffiliated and the vulnerable. Racism has caused poverty in our country and around the world. Gangs and organized crime have always flourished among poor immigrant communities. But immigrant communities create infrastructures that help pull themselves out of poverty and away from the power of gangs. The history of the Black community is that much of the Black infrastructure was destroyed by racism and the infrastructure is now not being built.
Gordon: There appears to some that our society has been losing respect for the dignity and value of human life. If you concur, what are the factors that have been contributing to this challenge and what can we do to help address this challenge?
Brother Jim: Martin Luther King said somewhere that White America had committed more atrocities than any other country in the world. He was referring to Viet Nam, the KKK, the treatment of Native Americans, the Atomic Bomb, the enslavement of Black people, Lynchings, Gang Wars during prohibition, Witch burnings, and the list could go on. In the 1968 presidential election Robert Kennedy showed that we had children dying of malnutrition in the Mississippi Delta and on Indian Reservations.
Violence has always been a part of the American Experience. We have almost always neglected and exploited our poor.
Gordon: Do you have any suggestions on what parishes in areas not affected by gang violence can do to help reduce this violence?
Brother Jim: 30 years ago I knew a Catholic Parish Youth Minister who took the parish youth group to help out at a soup kitchen. The youth loved it, but the parents put an end to it because the neighborhood was too dangerous. Parents are horrified by the attraction of youth to Hip Hop culture. Hip Hop culture rejects many Christian values. So while we may want to love areas affect by gang violence, we also want our distance.
Most gang members and the poor in gang neighborhoods are unchurched. The values of the Church that lift people up are rejected. So while ministers like to speak for the poor, they are separated like most Catholic parishes. Now most of my experience is with African-Americans. The Catholic has always kept its distance with the African-American poor.
Pope Francis says that the Church has to leave its four walls and take the Good News to the poor. Easier said than done. Parishes would like to be a "Light in the World." So we will have to address poverty and to break down the walls that separate us.
Gordon: Loving our neighbor is one of our primary commandments, How can we better demonstrate our youth in neighborhoods so deeply affected by poverty that there are people who love them and who are willing to help them?
Brother Jim: Loving our neighbor is our primary commandment. Gangs do not believe that outsiders love them. And what is help? The poor and gang members look for help as money. They often size people up on what they can get from them. Good hearted people often get hurt and disillusioned when they try to help the poor. That is why it is so hard and poverty in our country never leaves us. Yet when we Love, God’s grace enters into our lives in profound and interesting ways. Those who are not poor are afraid of the poor, but loving them casts out our fear and as we come to know the poor. opportunities present themselves. So we can only demonstrate our love, by loving them.
Gordon: What insights into Christ’s love has you work in helping the disadvantaged taught you?
Brother Jim: I find over and over that I walk into tragedies and that God’s grace is there. In the Gospels, Jesus did things for people, but did not do everything for them. After Jesus fed the 5000, he criticized them for only coming to be fed. He wants us to discover the "Kingdom of God" breaking into our midst. This happens when we are pulled out of ourselves in the service of others. Now often when we serve others we get treated as servants. This can be disheartening, but if we develop appropriate boundaries and love- the grace pours in.
Fr. Daniel Berrigan, SJ said that the problem with the peace movement was that it lacked a spiritual basis. It fell apart when the individual crisis was over. I have found that in working with the poor and with gangs spirituality is needed. Brothers and Sisters of Love’s Spirituality- Love Everyone (as best I can), Trusting in God, Forgiving Everyone, and not being afraid in dangerous situations is powerful. I also find that I have to be nourished by the Church to keep going for the long haul.
Gordon: Thank you for your leadership in addressing gang violence, commitment to the poor. and to and helping us better understand some of the challenges which you are addressing every day. I hope that our readers will consider supporting your work and learning from your leadership.