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Religious leaders ramp up anti-violence activity

Jasper Craven
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — – The Rev. Tom Walsh of St. Martin de Porres church in the city’s Austin neighborhood has been a pastor on the West Side for 22 years, and an organizer against violence for nearly as long. He still walks the troubled streets around his church most weeks preaching peace.

“Every hour we are out there is an hour that something is probably not going to happen,” he said. “And also an hour where the seeds of prayer are planted.”

But for all of the small victories Walsh said he sees in his work, the Fourth of July weekend was a reminder that violence is hard to contain. The pastor woke up July 5 to news that four people were shot in front of his church earlier that morning.

At a community meeting a few days after the shooting, the Rev. Steve Epting, senior pastor of Hope Community Church, offered a similar story: Someone was shot behind his church that same Sunday.

“Last week I was very disgusted myself because there is so much to do, but we can’t save the world,” he told the meeting of assembled police officers, block club presidents and pastors. “We can’t save the state. We can’t save the city. But we can do our part.”

Epting and Walsh are among about 15 Austin pastors who participate in 100 Blocks, 100 Churches, an annual summer effort in the Austin police district for officers and religious leaders to discuss and implement alternative ways to fight crime.

“We are trying to come together to strategize,” Walsh said. “We share a lot in common, but we have different ways of attacking things.”

At the meeting, Chicago police Cmdr. Dwayne Betts brought a new idea to the table: a team of on-call pastors who respond to homicides.

The faith leaders embraced the idea and resolved to create a phone tree of pastors willing to accompany officers to crime scenes.

“That’s something I have always wanted to do,” Epting said. “I try to keep a speaker and a mic in the car in case things happen.”

The 100 Churches program lines up with the philosophy in many African-American churches that social justice and community engagement are just as important as Sunday Mass.

“When you look at the history of the church, particularly in African-American communities, it has always been a force and a foundation to build and enhance lives,” said the Rev. Reginald Bachus, a founding member of the Austin program. “When people are spiritually grounded, they aren’t as quick to give up hope and turn to detrimental things, like gangs.”

Walsh and nearly 40 members of the St. Martin de Porres congregation gathered at Laramie Avenue and Adams Street on a recent evening, armed with signs, buttons, shirts and cleaning supplies.

The intersection is known for drug dealing and violence. A handful of deflated white balloons hung on a door, commemorating the death of a 26-year-old man who was shot and killed July 11. Two other men were wounded in the shootout, according to a Tribune report.

Volunteers dressed in red shirts held signs asking drivers to honk for peace, justice or Jesus. Beeps blared ceaselessly for the hour and a half the volunteers were out. While some held signs, others swept up cigarettes and other trash on neighboring blocks.

“We are encouraging the ones out here doing wrong that they need to stop what they are doing,” said Yolanda King, 39. “The more people they see voicing their opinions by signs, they understand.”

As the group wrapped up, Walsh joined hands with his congregation and preached on the street against the self-destructive nature of violence and drugs.

“All we want to do is try to help people who might be searching to see another direction,” he said.