Diocese To Host National Conference on Racism, Poverty, Gun Violence

When participants in a national conference on fighting gun violence take to the streets of Chicago next month, they will be led by Bishop Jeff Lee and Dent Davidson, the diocese’s associate for arts and liturgy, who have developed a public liturgy that will include a prayerful procession from the Lutheran School of Theology in Hyde Park to the Midway Plaisance and back.

Lee and Davidson, both veterans of the diocese’s CROSSwalk processions in 2012 and 2013, are putting together a similar service for Unholy Trinity: the Intersection of Racism, Poverty and Gun Violence, three-day conference grounded in scripture, liturgy and theology and sponsored by Bishops United Against Gun Violence.

The conference is expected to draw nearly 200 participants, including some 30 bishops, for workshops devoted to helping participants work with police, young people, legislators, anti-violence advocacy groups and other constituencies to reduce gun violence.

“Liturgy is putting our prayer into action,” Lee says. “We are walking our prayer as a way to practice taking action,” Lee says. “The whole theme of the conference is to go home and put your money where your mouth is.”

“Helplessness leads to apathy,” Davidson says. “’What can I do about it?’ Well, I can put one foot in front of the other.”

The conference includes a “three-note” by a panel of African-American leaders: Natalie Moore, South Side Bureau reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation,” the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, professor of religion at Goucher College in Baltimore, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and author of “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” and the Rev. Julian DeShazier, senior minister of University Church in Chicago and hip-hop artist. The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies will moderate the panel.

Inspired by the CROSSwalk processions that brought hundreds of Chicagoans into the streets to focus prayerful attention on the city’s surging epidemic of gun violence, Bishops United staged a similar public procession that included 1,500 participants at the 2015 General Convention in Salt Lake City. Davidson and the Rev. Lester McKenzie of the Diocese of Los Angeles developed that service which included readings, storytelling and song and marchers chanting to the rhythm of drums.

The group will be staging something similar on a smaller scale on Friday, April 21. “We will begin with some singing and storytelling and scripture and then a charge, ‘Go forth to put our prayer into action,’” Davidson says.

The service will include remarks by the Rev. Michael Pfleger of the Faith Community of St. Sabina, and several Episcopal bishops.

During the three-note panel, Moore will provide social and historical context regarding gun violence on Chicago’s south side, Douglas will frame the issue of gun violence in theological terms, and DeShazier will discuss the grassroots steps that churches are taking—or failing to take—in fighting gun violence.

Holding the conference in Chicago, which has become synonymous with urban gun violence and last year had the eighth-highest murder rate in the country, is important, Douglas says. In January, President Donald Trump tweeted that he might “send in the Feds,” if the city could not “fix the horrible carnage.”

“This new administration has given attention to Chicago in a way that I think is not helpful,” Douglas says. “It focuses on the violence that actually is a consequence of the systemic and structural violence which has created a culture that actually nurtures death and not the ‘abundant life’ which God promises to us all.  In order to curb the gun violence that has impacted the lives of various neighborhoods in Chicago, one has to address the violence that is the realities of social economic injustice.”

But reducing gun violence in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods and others like them is not the only gun violence issue challenging the country, Douglas says. “We’ve got to get these guns out of the hands of various people who feel threatened every time they see a black body on the street. Because the threat to black life is not just going on in what I call these ‘enclaves of death.’”

Douglas says Trump’s presidency has raised both racial tensions and the awareness of racial tensions in the United States. “Such awareness perhaps will help even more people to understand the realities of racism that actually contribute to issues such as gun violence, and began to understand that these issues do not exist in a vacuum,” she says.  “It is my hope that we will began to recognize the disproportionate impact that gun violence has on communities of color does not result from violent people, but rather violent systems. Far too often we focus on the people as if something is wrong with them—playing into racist narratives—when in fact our focus should be on the situations and conditions in which people are forced to live—which themselves are products of racism. We have to begin to name the violence that is white racism.”