Nursing Trauma: How One Church Is Responding to Chicago’s Violence Epidemic

This OpEd was originally written for “Sojourners” after I was asked to comment on Chicago’s violence and what I and the church were doing about it. Have you been to the studio yet? Read the original here; the complete text is below:

Chicago: the only city in the world to broadcast a local network in international syndication (WGN, thanks MJ); the Second City of comedy and career launchpad of laugh icons such as Murray, Belushi, & Fey; and the “Windy City,” which is actually the 16th windiest city in the nation, but our politicians have been known to blow a lot of hot air (another topic altogether). We’re known for the ’85 Bears – the definition of DEFENSE in the NFL – and the ’08-’12 Cubs – the definition of LOSING (because by ’08, I meant 1908). Hugh Hefner began his media empire in Chicago, and our other less pornographic entertainment contributions include Kanye West, Common, R. Kelly, and Chess Records.

For people from Chicago, our city is one thing: “The Crib.” That’s what we call it, and we love it despite its problems. Oh yeah, the problems…

For all its deep dish pizzas and –style hot dogs, The Crib is one of the most violent cities in the world. When I say in the world, I mean that 1,976 Americans have died in Afghanistan since 2001, and there have been 5,056 murders in Chicago during the same period. (A specious stat for a number of reasons, but let’s move toward the point people are getting at when they mention this). This is a dangerous town. “How do we stop it?” is the million dollar question, and will net someone a Nobel Peace Prize if they can figure it out.

At this point, I’m ready to throw my hands in the air: “God, it’s CRAZY in these streets.” DO SOMETHING.

The answer I keep getting back is the same as my prayer: Do Something. But what?

Getting to Know Violence in Chicago

How violence begins is mostly understood. Here’s the widely accepted equation:

Poverty + Ghetto-ization  + a Culture of Violence + Gangs + Access to Guns + Drugs = Violence

On the left side of the equation, everything seems true. Many Chicagoans experience a scarcity of resources; many of them are black and poor and live together (if you didn’t know, Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the nation: everybody has a “town,” and the boundaries are invisible but strict). America does seems to have a fixation on Chicago’s rich history of mobbishness and corruption (thank you VH1 for “Mob Wives: Chicago”), and there is a curiously high level of access to guns in IL (perhaps because of too strict gun laws?). Plus, the paradigm of the Street Gang as Corporation began in Chicago, drugs are everywhere, and most if not all of the violent crimes in Chicago are related to one or a combination of the factors on the left side of the equation.

So far, we have tried fixing the right side of the equation by fixing the left side: sound mathematical logic. Rainbow PUSH wants the government to create more jobs (Poverty); lack of affordable housing and racist policies have kept violence in concentrated areas – some people are writing about that (Ghetto-ization); others are boycotting VH1 and its portrayal of reality, which is both wicked and unreal (Culture of Violence); Rev. Jesse Jackson and other church pastors are picketing to close down gun stores, while the Illinois State Rifle Association is looking to ease restrictions, which may kill channels of illegal trafficking and cause us to be more civil with one another (if that old lady has a gun in her purse, you might leave her alone – or so goes the logic). One organization – CeaseFire – focuses on none of these but looks at stopping retaliation. Their basic logic is that “violence begets violence” (MLK, who knew about Matthew 26:52) and if you want to stop the cycle you have to insert someone into the cycle at critical moments (after one violent act and before another). These people are called “Interrupters,” and the documentary on their work is gaining global buzz.

And then there’s Bill O’Reilly, who recently said the National Guard should be deployed into Chicago. Besides him betraying his Conservative sensibilities (He wants the government to help people because they cannot help themselves?), this is a terrible idea. But it deserves mention because nothing else has worked.

For all the success of CeaseFire and “CompStat” – the Chicago Police Department’s latest strategy of turning people into numbers – the murder rate is up 50% in Chicago from this time last year. So how do we stop it? I don’t think we’re seeing the complete picture.

The Real Problem: Trauma

I spent a summer in the ER of a Level 1 trauma center in Chicago. Gunshot victims would come in, and they couldn’t believe what had happened to them. It was traumatic in the truest sense – their bodies were broken and put into shock. But their mind and spirit was as well: it was a jarring experience all around for them. But not only for them. Mothers and aunties and cousins and baby mommas were going crazy too. A lightbulb turned on: This situation is traumatic for them too! They needed care as well. And so the idea of “care” was expanding from physical to psycho-spiritual, and from patient to family. Everybody involved was a victim of trauma here.

I began to look into this idea of “trauma” and found that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the result of unfettered moments of shock that continue to reside in the body: the brain and body never return to “normal,” and will erupt in erratic behavior. (Think of a geyser here). Hot springs are the result of spontaneous combustion of something that happened in a river far away and a long time ago. What if this is true with humans?

We already know it is. One study on inner city kids in Chicago showed that children who were exposed to violence or witness a violent act were much more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior within one year of exposure. PTSD also carries symptoms of depression, which contributes to feelings of meaninglessness in self and the world (thus devaluing another human life enough to take it). This is all very scientific and I want to get to the point: Our children are being put into shock every single day. They are experiencing violence as perpetrator, victim and witness, and they are no less exposed to the trauma. The trauma of being poor. The trauma of being hated by your government (if education policy is any indication of this). The trauma of broken families and unresolved relationships. The trauma of feeling foreign in other parts of the city. The trauma of degradation at even the most superficial level: the only popular rappers are the drug dealers/addicts/selfish/near-prostitutes, etc. This unresolved and unarticulated internal shock, combined with the chaos of our world today, builds until it becomes the “hot springs” that is a Chicago summer of violence. It’s not only about access to guns; it’s about not accessing trauma. You can be everything on the left side of the equation and still not be violent. It’s the trauma that I’m becoming more convinced makes the difference.

One Real Solution

Chicago has been called a “warzone” – let’s play with that a moment. Maybe the best thing a small church can do to stop the violence is work with our children like we work with our returning soldiers. (We need to do this better as well). Vets need safe space to talk. They need to give voice to experiences and be able to create new ways of understanding themselves…it’s called moving from “soldier” to “human” again. Our children need to understand themselves not as black or poor or at-risk but as HUMAN first. They need to develop meaning to confront the meaninglessness that surrounds them. This angry and dark world is traumatic for children, and they will grow up angry and dark unless we help them process what they have seen. Finding one’s own voice is critical to meaning-making. Some of them are not soldiers, but they are all in the war.

My partnership is with organizations that are looking to help young adults give voice to what they have seen and done. University Church and the Chicago Wisdom Project have started a program where young adults (most of them high-school dropouts and barely escaping or trying to exit gang/drug culture) now have a music studio where they write, record, and own their own music. This sounds like a record label, but it’s not. We ask them to write about what is meaningful to them; I don’t judge content. After recording, we talk about how they chose to say what they said. Stories come out. Trauma is exposed. It is uncomfortable at first, but eventually they know they are in safe space. We record songs as one way to expose trauma. And it’s been working. Young folks are earning their GEDs and seeing beyond the limited scope of the barrel. They believe in something bigger than their reality, and it is transforming their reality.

Can this work across the city? I think so. It doesn’t have to be hip-hop. You can make pottery or do anything creative that asks young people to tap into their inner voice. Our project is important because it is humanizing: they are finding their selves by articulating themselves. It is also about Justice: what they create they own. Finally, we use language of Hope and Love to help them embrace the past and think of a better future: this is a Christian project, minus the sermon. Our voice leads to the inner voice leads to the voice of God leads us to our destiny.

How do we stop it? By unlocking one voice at a time, helping them integrate their trauma into what they are BECOMING. If we’re going to take care of The Crib, we need to do better at nursing trauma.

Good at Goodbye

Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. Then we would have to say good-bye. I hate good-byes. I know what I need. I need more hellos.

-Charles M. Schulz

The Peanuts creator had it spot-on. We need more Hellos: those lucid, initial moments of meeting someone for the first time, of welcoming them into your space and ultimately, embracing them into a wider community. Hellos are nice. But every beautiful and ornamental hello subtly hints at what we all dread…Goodbye.

That final gong: Goodbye

It’s not that it must happen – and we all understand that every Hello necessitates an eventual Goodbye. No, that’s not the problem: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose,” says the sage poet in Ecclesiastes. But for some reason Goodbye always feels incomplete. In the midst of them we gather the sense that we could have done/said more (the most powerful example of this is the monologue at the end of the movie “Schindler’s List”). And if it doesn’t highlight unfinished business then it alludes that something must have gone wrong: relationships don’t end unless something goes wrong, right? Something bad happened. So when it comes to Goodbye, it is almost impossible to separate closure from feelings of inadequacy or blame. No wonder humans are so bad at Goodbye!!!

There has got to be more than one way to do Goodbye. There has got to be a better way to end something than feeling incomplete or guilty (or making you feel guilty). There has to. Why does every Goodbye feel like an interruption? I believe we have lost the sense of the welcome Goodbye. In other words: we’ve lost the Good in Byes. It’s all bad now.

We’ve got to do better. Learning Goodbye is what it means to live faithfully as Christians. Jesus arrives preparing people for his departure, and he uses a set amount of time to do meaningful work. When he leaves he wants no one to feel sorry, but to ask: “What have I learned by his being here?” June is when everybody leaves this place: McKinna…Garry and April…Glenn…Katherine…Karl…Jessica…we’ve heard a lot of Goodbyes. But instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, or wondering if something is wrong with UChurch, ask a different question: What have you learned from your time with them? Did we do our best to contribute to their Becoming? The lesson of the Gospel seems to be to ask: Did we appreciate these people while they were here? Did we make the most of it?

We should make the most of every season, every person in our lives. Goodbye wasn’t meant to feel bad; it was meant to bring necessary closure and move you to the next phase. Goodbye is a part of our evolutionary process. We ought to celebrate when a person leaves: I’ll miss you, but what an HONOR to be part of who God is making you! I’m so thankful for what you have meant to me!

We may need more Hellos, but we also need to get better at Goodbyes.

-Pastor Julian

Slave Shoes: The REAL Behind Adidas’ Big Oops

Slave Shoes: The REAL Behind Adidas’ Big Oops

Black America may be ready to pull the plug on me after saying this, but it must be said: The JS Roundhouse Mid – aka “The Shackle Shoe” – is NOT an allusion to slavery. It only takes someone who was GROWN in the 80’s to think otherwise. A younger generation (those of us reaching 30 now) who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons knows that the latestcancelled Adidas design is a throwback – not to 1863 but 1986 – when “My Pet Monster” first hit the airwaves. It was a wildly successful show, and like G.I. Joe, My Little

Pony, and Pound Puppies, My Pet Monster quickly gained a cult following. The main character was a blue bear that wore orange chains, and at certain points in the show it would break the chains as a symbol of strength. So not only is the shoe not profiting off the global slave trade (which continues), shoe designer Jeremy Scott (an 80’s geek himself)’s allusion to MPMactually promotes the opposite: the show was empowering children around ideas of FREEDOM, and the shoe – the shackle shoe – was a nostalgic laud of an obscure and now-forgotten moment in popular culture.

The doll from “My Pet Monster.”
All the cool kids had them!

A lot of people don’t know this history because Adidas doesn’t own any licensing on “My Pet Monster”, so when they made the statement they couldn’t say EXACTLY what they were pointing towards, but it’s this. Now you know. Tell someone else and maybe we can cure ignorance one…(wait for it)…sole at a time. Too easy.

The lessons I have learned through watching and subtly participating in the process of having Adidas’ shoe taken down are many. First, the gap between the Baby Boomer and Hip Hop Generations is severe. We Hip-Hoppers (and shoe culture) love ironic fashion that makes subtle references to obscure things that only 15 people (MAX) understand. What my parents call “stylish” we now call “fresh,” meaning “You Ain’t Up On This.” So a would-have-been $350 pair of shoes that sports chains is totally worth it if even ONE person comes up to you and says, “Whoa! My Pet Monster!”

I know you don’t get it; it’s not for getting. Just take this lesson.

The fact is, Adidas forgot about the Parents of the Hip Hop Generation – those who walked around back or had to hold their tongue in the presence of a white person, lest trouble come; those for whom the names Emmitt Till and Medgar Evers returns painful memories; those whose parents were a part of Reconstruction and had grandparents who migrated from the Deep South. Adidas wasn’t saying anything about slavery, but they forgot that “perception is reality.” The decision to release the shoe was a move of deep insensitivity and ignorance to the still painful and still broken race relations in this country. And you know what made Rev. Jesse Jackson so mad? He knows what we know: black boys are the main purveyors of sneaker culture.

And it’s bigger than slavery. It’s about the shackles young men wear into courtrooms every day. Those look like these. And the ways other fashion statements and corporate branding strategies make degradation popular. It’s hard for our generation to see it because we’re in it.

What exactly are you trying to say by giving a black boy a pair of shoes with chains on them? Forget the freedom not to buy (the Conservative retort): for all this time we’ve been having a conversation about the clandestine process called Prison Industrial Complex, and now you are going to physically chain black boys’ ankles? I too would be upside down. Adidas should have known better.

Hip Hoppers: I know YOU don’t get that. It’s not for getting. Thankfully, we didn’t live it.

The biggest generational difference this kerfuffle highlights is that the shackle has lost its significance with young people, while it remains vivid in the hearts of our parents. We need a conversation about images and the power of symbols. Jeremy Scott is outrageous – he designs for Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Nikki Minaj – but he wouldn’t have designed a swastika on a shoe. Because Jewish groups have made it a point to keep the symbolism vivid: Black America has not. That is why I am GLAD Rev. Jackson spoke up so urgently. Sure, he doesn’t know about My Pet Monster, but he knows about shackles. Our children need to remember. We have lost the space for moral outrage. We must continue to remain indignant at injustice and degredation.

And there remains a conversation about Adidas’ production processes (I’m talking about sweat shops now). Is it okay that children are in chains behind the scenes IF they do not emerge on the final product? We ought to push sneaker culture to be more demanding for transparency – you are paying enough to demand fair labor wages and dignity for your brothers and sisters in Asia.

And one more word beyond shoes: If Adidas thought they could get away with it, what does that say about what they think about you? Black people will gladly wear shackles again, because it’s FRESHThey won’t make a big fuss (for over a year they were right). The fact they thought they could get away with it says more than we can handle right now.

Have we become so medicated on name brands that we are now numb to cultural significance? Has our Internet identity taken over our true selves? How much does real oppression matter if you can log onto Facebook and find safe space again?

Why did the gatekeepers of Hip Hop culture not demand this be taken down? Why did it take Jesse to make us look at ourselves? Why were some of us so angry that it was Jesse? Can we have important conversations and offer critique without sounding like Riley from The Boondocks?

Unfortunately life does raise more questions than answers. But one thing the Slave Shoe taught me is our generations don’t talk enough. We are all missing the meaning of “shackles” one way or another. Good riddance to the shoe, but we still ain’t free…

—Pastor Julian