On a rainy Monday night in Chicago, 300 people congregated in the Chicago Temple to discuss a faith-based response to the rise of violence throughout the country.
In partnership with the Chicago branch of the Association of Yale Alumni and the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, the Yale Divinity School hosted a two-hour panel discussion entitled, “Violence: A Faithful Response to the Plague in our Neighborhoods and Nation.” Moderated by Robin Robinson, a journalist, broadcaster and the current director of communications at the Chicago Police Department, the panel was composed of community and faith leaders based in Chicago as well as Divinity School professor Willie Jennings, whose work focuses on systematic theology and African studies. The conversation, which followed a Q&A format, explored the current problems of gun violence, mass incarceration and poverty in Chicago and the greater United States and proposed community- and faith-based solutions to end this “plague” of violence.
“We face a national problem,” Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling said at the panel. “From the Divinity School perspective, we’re interested in asking what can communities of faith do to address this issue.”
According to Sterling, the inspiration for the event came from a discussion he had had with Chicago-based Yale alumni last September, who shared their concern for the rise in violence in the city and asked Sterling and the Divinity School to help facilitate a discussion on the topic. In an interview with the News, Jennings emphasized the value of the work of Divinity School alumni in trying to encourage the greater Chicago community to think creatively on topics of violence and incarceration.
Michael Pfleger, a Catholic pastor of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina in the South Side of Chicago, called Chicago “a tale of two cities,” highlighting that the majority of the violence in the city is concentrated in 15 of Chicago’s 77 community areas. Pfleger said this violence was in large part due to the inequality and poverty within these primarily black communities, referencing underperforming schools, the proliferation of guns and double-digit unemployment rates, which are exacerbated by the mass incarceration of these communities.
“Chicago has ignored and abandoned those 15 communities … Because the number one victim is black and brown in this city and this country, it’s not a priority in America,” Pfleger said.
Otis Moss III DIV ’95, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, said the best way to end violence is to provide people in these 15 communities with jobs. According to Moss, small activist groups and faith organizations need to institute “a Marshall plan for Chicago” that provides programming and support for the most vulnerable communities in the area, especially because existing programs are creating significant impact despite operating with limited resources.
Thomas Dart, Cook County sheriff, observed that during his 11 years as sheriff, the demographics of Cook County Jail have not changed: Regardless of the prisoner population, 80 percent are black, and 10 percent are Latino. The majority of incarcerated people are good people who need help, not jail time, he said, adding that the jail has successfully reintegrated ex-prisoners back into society by connecting them with people in a faith community and getting them engaged in a church-based program.
“We need to remove this from the political world and get it back to where it should be: in the heart of people of faith … we can do something here, and it’s very, very doable,” Dart said.
To this effect, both Dart and Jennings discussed the importance of reform in the U.S. justice system so that it carries out restorative rather than retributive justice. Dart argued that it is in the country’s best interest to help former criminals become productive members of society. He also urged audience members to fight against what he called “the criminalization of poverty,” because according to Dart, a large number of people is incarcerated because these people cannot afford good lawyers and are not able to pay bail bonds.
Though Pfleger said he thought the conversation brought diverse and unique perspectives on the topic of violence, said that he was concerned about whether action would follow the discussion. He encouraged faith leaders to put together concrete agendas to bring to institutions such as law enforcement.
Jennings said that this panel, the second of such events related to political or social activism sponsored by the Divinity School, is part of the school’s attempt to be a voice for progressive Christianity, which speaks against the idea that Christians only speak out in support of conservative policies — such as President Donald Trump’s policies — as well as to engage in conversation about the place of religion in society.
“We understand that our role in helping to shape the conversation in religion and morality and what it means to strive for the common good is at the heart at what we’re doing here, and of course it is an indispensable part of the University,” Jennings said.