2019 Peaceseeker Award: Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church & First United Church of Oak Park

The purpose of the PPF Peaceseeker Award is to give well-deserved recognition to those who have made a serious commitment to working for justice and peace, particularly work that has influenced Presbyterians and the PC(USA). It is also intended to inspire others to get engaged in this work that is central to our calling. In recent years we have also included our non-Presbyterian partners working with us for a more just and peaceful world.

The award is annual, and the presentation of the award happens at the PPF Peace Breakfast during General Assembly in even years.

The 2019 Peaceseeker Award of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship honors the Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church and First United Church of Oak Park, two Chicago congregations, for their pioneering ministries to prevent gun violence. The joint awards will be presented in June 2020 at the gathering of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly in Baltimore, MD.

Read below about Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church and here about First United Church of Oak Park.

The “Tree of Hope” at Lincoln Park Presbyterian

A PPF conversation with Lincoln Park member Gail Russell, friend of the church Marianne Nesler, and Pastor Beth Brown:

PPF: Congratulations on the Peaceseeker Award! Almost 40 years ago, your congregation led an effort for churches to receive handguns that people wanted to turn in, the earliest Presbyterian congregational ministry to prevent gun violence that has been recorded. This week Lincoln Park just completed its fourth vigil and a photo memorial to gun violence victims, on your parkway along the route to the Chicago Marathon. How did it go?

Gail: The vigil was just amazing and very effective. We have it live-streamed on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/LPPCChicago. People came from all over.
The church front lawn displayed a photo memorial to all young victims of gun violence in Chicago in the last year. We wrapped the church trees in orange yarn for Gun Violence Prevention. We made an orange fabric “fence” along the street that represented all mass shootings in America since Sandy Hook. Our front yard display included an orange painted and brightly-lit “Tree of Hope” so that people passing by could write their hopes. The sidewalk was turned into a way for people to write the names of Chicago neighborhoods. We partnered with “Schools Say Enough” Sidewalk Challenge on that part of the display.

Beth: We invited a well-known Catholic priest, Father Michael Pfleger, to speak at the vigil. He is white and his parish is Black and Latino in an under-served neighborhood. He said, “Gun violence is the last thing that happens. Many other things lead up to gun violence. One of them is lack of jobs.” At the vigil we challenged the public to provide jobs. The next day five people called with jobs. In addition, we had two other very powerful speakers, Xavier Ramey and Che “Rhymefest” Smith, and a youth performance group called “Kuumba Lynx.” We hired Jeryl Kirksey-Morales, below left, who was born and grew up on the west side of Chicago, to cater desserts after the vigil. For years she has taken her desserts to fundraisers. Everyone always said: start your own business! Her business became Ettajean’s Cupcakes. Her goal was to get a food truck. She was able to go to the mayor’s office and present the mayor with dessert because the Mayor was ill and couldn’t speak at the Vigil. The mayor’s office is making funds available to women of color to start small businesses.

PPF: You are an example of a small congregation with a large ministry. How have you sustained this work in small church for nearly 40 years?

Beth: We are a small church and we do not let our size limit what we think we can do. With recently cleaned up rolls, we are at 65 members and a lot of friends like Marianne. In worship we have 45-55. No one who saw the vigil would ever think we are that small! The vigil is an important event in Chicago.

Gail: There’s been a lot of passing of torches. People take up where others end. One member, Kathy Zartman, started the Illinois Council Against Hand Gun Violence with a gun turn-in program. Another advocate for gun violence prevention was Monna Ray. She was the first to say we needed to have a vigil for gun violence victims. Her witness was the inspiration for what has become our Vigil against Violence.

Beth: If you live in Chicago, gun violence is a major and continuing problem. It’s different for us in the Lincoln Park neighborhood than for churches in neighborhoods where shootings happen every day. We have the ‘privilege” of coming in and out of it. It’s not on our corner every day. We don’t live with the same fear of whether we will make it through another day.We sustain ourselves by trying to balance the work with the joy of being together. We plan ways to connect with each other. We read and study together and we are inspired by the books that we read.

Why are you drawn to the focus on the young victims of gun violence?

Victims’ Memorial and music along the route to the Chicago Marathon

Gail: They are the future. We are responsible for them. People are moved more by the deaths of young people. When you have such a big issue, it helps to focus, so we focus on the youth. For adults and gun violence in Chicago it is complex; there are gangs and fighting. But with youth, even when the young person is in a gang, most people say: this should not be happening. Youth draw people to empathy and compassion.

Marianne: We make the young victims visible. We started with just reading the names of the victims in worship. Then we went outdoors with t-shirts. Then we added photos when the websites provide them. When the websites had no photos for a time, we used tennis shoes as a memorial to the victims visible. People who needed them would take the tennis shoes, so now we are back to photos of the faces.

How do you monitor the weekly deaths?
Marianne: There are two newspapers that name all the victims and have a website with a reliable source for neighborhood, name and age.

What have you learned about the intersection of race, poverty and gun violence?
Gail: A while back, a group of us attended an anti-racism training event offered by Chicago Presbytery. Over the last several years we have read, studied and explored these issues intentionally. We try to look at ourselves and at our white privilege and the white supremacy built into the fabric of our country. We try to look at ourselves honestly.

Beth: That’s part of the spiritual growth that comes with working on gun violence: getting honest about ourselves. We are not the creators of white supremacy or the creators of Christian supremacy, but we benefit from both of these systems, so we are responsible for changing them. In Chicago the impact of racism is all around us: red-lining, mass incarceration. Our Lincoln Park neighborhood was once a beautifully diverse community with lots of Puerto Ricans and African Americans. It has been gentrified to more expensive housing and is now more than 90% white. That is a huge loss for Lincoln Park. We are working hard on issues around affordable housing in our neighborhood and throughout the City.

No other church that we know of has engaged with issue of gun violence as long as you have.

Gail: Yes, we keep at it and keep reaching out to other groups and congregations. It’s hard to get people to collaborate. We have found it difficult to get larger churches to collaborate with us as a smaller church.

However, the First United Church of Oak Park has been involved in this issue, especially in legislative efforts. We share similar advocacy approaches — letter writing, submitting witness slips, and other actions. They are right next to Austin, the west side community with high levels of poverty and gun violence. They are about an hour away from us and we are so honored to share this award with them. Our two churches have another unique tie: an annual women’s retreat. We’ve been doing it together for 36 years.

What have you been working on in the legislative aspect of preventing gun violence?

Marianne: We’ve done advocacy on federal background checks and we worked for several years to support an Illinois state law to allow for state-level enforcement of existing gun laws. It finally has passed! We work on a systemic view: what can we do to undo the things that have been done to communities of color? For instance, we have worked on the issue of ending cash bail.

You are one of the few Presbyterian congregations that has a ministry around the elections.

Gail: Yes, we work hard to register voters. Individuals canvass for various issues and candidates.

Beth: I did some research on this and there is much that churches can do to raise the issues we care about during elections. The only thing we can’t do is endorse or oppose candidates and then tell people how to vote.

Marianne: Church members get trained in how to correctly do voter registration. For the last four or five years, we have stood on the street and asked people if they were registered or if they have moved since the last election. We are near DePaul University and lots of students move between elections and do not realize that they may need to re-register.

What are you doing for the 2020 election cycle?
Gail: Our Social Justice Team will encourage people to get involved in canvassing. We will do canvassing as individuals, not in the name of the church. Canvassing means that we get to know our neighbors. We knock on doors and ask the questions from a candidate’s questionnaire: Have you registered to vote? Do you know where to vote? Do you need a ride? Have you decided who you are voting for? Do you have any questions about this candidate or any of the issues in the campaign?

Beth: When you work on legislation and raise issues during the elections, the important thing is to build relationships with elected officials. Our local Alderwoman has been very supportive on gun violence issues, but we differ on the issue of youth offenders. She is hard-line. We study the research on this issue and we stay in conversation with her. The vigil is possible because of the hours we have spent building relationships. You can’t just go to someone and ask them to speak at a vigil. We build relationships. We show up for others. A lot of investment of time and energy goes into this— churches are good at building mutual relationships. We strengthen each other. We all benefit.

Marianne: At the state level, Illinois has passed more laws on gun violence prevention than the federal government, especially to make background checks more effective. Our church has worked with a coalition of over 100 organizations in Illinois on this. We also work with MOMS Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety. We hosted a training session on Illinois red flag laws or the Firearms Restraining Order. When things get out of hand in a family for an individual, this is a way to prevent domestic gun violence and suicide.

What would you say to other congregations that are not yet involved in gun violence prevention?

Creating the “fence” of fabric representing mass shootings across America

Beth: As you do this work, it is also important to do work around white supremacy (doing this work is not just for white congregations because we all need to understand how to change systems built on white supremacy) and Christian supremacy because that heavily impacts gun violence in some contexts.

Gail: The main thing is: don’t be afraid of making mistakes. We have made them. The point is to do something and to learn from our mistakes.

Marianne: These are people’s lives that are ended or overwhelmed by gun violence. They are God’s children like us and we should care about everyone. This is very simple: these are children and young adults who are victims of tragedy. The basic teaching of Jesus is to love your neighbor and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Beth: Also, have persistence. Our first vigil was a great success and the second was a flop. The third was OK. We are still at it and we enjoy each other and the new groups and people we work with on it. As a congregation, we work well together.

What else?
Beth: It’s important to tell our failures as well as our successes. We hit some major walls on gun violence prevention and had to turn 180 degrees. Here are some failures we recovered from: We thought that an answer to gun violence and spreading compassion in Chicago was to create a bond fund for poor people of color so they would not have to wait in jail for their trial. Sometimes people were not convicted but they had to wait one to two years in jail because they could not pay bond. They would lose their homes, their jobs and their families. We spent eight months on this bond fund idea. We met with the sheriff to talk about how to implement the bond fund at the jail. The staff there said, “Do you know about the Chicago Bond Fund?” So we contacted them and met an amazing group of young people who had already created a half-million-dollar bond fund that was up and running for two years. We knew to stop because they didn’t need our help as a partner. They were so incredible.

Our second annual vigil failed. It wasn’t big, only about 30 people compared with the first vigil of over 100 people. But we are adaptable. We decided to have another vigil about violence against immigrants. We collaborated with other groups and hosted that immigration anti-violence vigil for about 150 people. Most who came were from immigrant communities in Chicago.

Marianne: The point is to do what you can and learn from it and keep going.

How has nearly 40 years of Gun Violence Prevention ministry impacted your faith and how and where you see God?
Gail: We see God in the faces of the victims. Each face we displayed on the lawn was the face of God.

Marianne: My faith has been changed by this issue by causing me to look more inward. This is something we do alongside our action.

Beth: We see God in the community of activists. We have partnered with people and organizations in everything we do: St. Sabina Catholic Church, Justice Informed, Protected by Faith, Illinois Council Against Hand Gun Violence, MOMS, Everytown, Schools Say Enough Sidewalk Challenge.

Gail: Over time there has been a small decrease in the Chicago number of deaths from gun violence. The numbers of wounded are still extremely high. We won’t stop until the violence stops.

What’s next for Lincoln Park?
Beth: We continue to be in conversation with St. Sabina Church about ways to partner. We are having a follow up dinner with people who attended the Vigil who want to talk about what actions steps to take. We are hosting an author talk on the book An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz. The book is stories about people who were shot and their families over a three month period in 2013. We are partnering with Rhymefest to host monthly gatherings of people to see different parts of Chicago and have conversation with each other. We just keep taking small steps, one after another.

Learn more about Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church at www.lppchurch.org and in their Case Study in The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s Gun Violence Prevention Congregational Toolkit in the section on Action. For a free download, see www.presbypeacefellowship.org/gun-violence/congregational-toolkit

Photos: Oct. 6. 2019 Vigil Against Violence. Victims’ Memorial and music along the route to the Chicago Marathon; creating the “fence” of fabric representing mass shootings across America; Jeryl Kirksey-Morales of Ettajean’s Cupcakes; the “Tree of Hope;” young victims named; the sidewalk challenge; the vigil service participants, including Pastor Beth Brown, bottom p.4; people looking at gun violence victims’ memorial; the orange tree painted for gun violence prevention; Social Justice team moderator Gail Russell near the church’s “No Guns” sign, bottom p. 5; Pastor Beth Brown and Marianne Nesler reviewing the list of victims to be read aloud at the Vigil; last photo: 600 donated balsam tree saplings for attendees, tagged with action information and hope for gun violence prevention.