TOO YOUNG: On Sept. 24, 2009, Derrion Albert became the innocent victim of mob violence as he walked home from school.
Two years ago, on Sept. 24, 2009, a mob of teenagers attacked and killed a young man outside a Christian community center on the south side of Chicago.
Derrion Albert, 16, had been an honors student at Fenger High School before his death. He died outside the Agape Community Center in Roseland, seemingly caught in the middle of a gang fight that had nothing to do with him.
Two years after Derrion Albert’s death, the youth violence epidemic continues in many inner cities. On Monday, Sept. 12, a family friend of Derrion Albert was shot and killed on the south side of Chicago. Alexander McDonald, 23, was the father of 2-year-old Jaylen. He was shot in the head on his way back from a funeral, cutting short his plans to graduate from college and marry his fiancée, according to ABC News.
The next day, 14-year-old Brian DeLeon was brutally beaten into a coma in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. His horrified girlfriend Dayana Vazquez found him bleeding on the sidewalk. She told the Chicago Tribune, “He didn’t talk to gangbangers. All he did was play soccer. He wanted to be a professional soccer player.”
And yet these stories are only recent examples of the daily gang violence in America’s inner cities, with traumatic repercussions for urban youth.
Ministering amidst gang violence
The Agape Community Center, part of Campus Crusade for Christ’s Here’s Life Inner City Chicago, has been serving the Roseland community for more than 30 years. Their staff came to Albert’s aid after the beating.
Milton Massie, director of Here’s Life Inner City Chicago, declined an interview, explaining that his staff wanted to put the tragedy behind them and move forward.
Massie wrote in an e-mail:
We have sought and have experienced some level of healing. The last two years have been very difficult and painful as you might imagine. I am not really interested in talking more about this tragic and sadly “normal” state of violence in our community.
We still believe God and HIS Gospel is THE ANSWER. We must remain faithful, prayerful, and willing to endure the “hardships” that come with ministry in the “urban context”. His message is not ineffective. We as many in ministry in the U.S. (urban, rural, and suburban) are dealing with the “waxing cold” of “mankind’s heart.”
It is our responsibility to “keep our face to the plow.” His message of love and discipleship found in the “Great Commandment” and the “Great Commission” (Matthew 22:38-40; 28:18-20) [is] still vital, powerful, relevant, and effective (Romans 1:16)! That is how we address plight of our neighborhood and those are my comments.
UrbanFaith has added links to biblical references.
In an interview with UrbanFaith editor Edward Gilbreath in 2009, Milton Massie said youth in the neighborhood were angry and afraid — angry because parents weren’t taking responsibility for their kids, and afraid that they could be the next victims caught in gang crossfire while going to and from school.
“That’s a lot to ask from a child whose primary focus should be just trying to learn, and enjoying being a kid,” Massie said.
Turning to Scripture
Faced with the youth violence epidemic, UrbanFaith turns to the Book of Isaiah for glimpses of peace and redemption during turmoil.
Isaiah 1:15-17: “Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice.”
Isaiah 2:4: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
Isaiah 58:9-10: “‘If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
Here’s Life Inner City Chicago has prayer requests on their website.
How can urban ministries combat gang violence and help youth living in unsafe neighborhoods? What Scripture do you turn to for hope and strength?
Derrion Albert did not die because of a lack of jobs or social programs. He died because we expect more righteousness and leadership from our government and civil institutions than we do from each other.
As I watched the video of Derrion Albert’s beating death, I couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of anger or passion. From the voice of the young person filming the mayhem on his camera phone to the faces of the perpetrators of the violence; there was no hatred, no rage. This was simply a leisure activity. Derrion’s death was not the goal, just an unfortunate outcome.
Those young people were not doing something that they were forced to do; they were doing something they wanted to do.
As director of the Chicago Peace Campaign, an effort to fill the city with peace and drive out violence, I have worked in many neighborhoods across the city organizing and mobilizing churches and other Christian organizations. We have adopted schools, conducted all-night prayer-and-praise meetings on dangerous corners, beautified streets, and conducted activities for young people. But clearly we have not done enough.
I know that there are those who say the solution to our problems in America’s inner cities is that we need more jobs and more afterschool programs. I say not so. We have in this city more afterschool programs and jobs available to youth than we did in 1959. But we did not see young people beating each other to death in the streets back then.
Derrion died just outside the doors of a faith-based community center that would not have turned a single member of that mob away if they were looking for afterschool recreation. As I watched, I realized that it’s time for the church to come forth and lead. Allow me to explain.
In practically every generation prior to this one, the great problems in America had to do with civil rights. From the unjust system of taxation without representation which led to the Revolutionary War to the unjust Jim Crow laws that led to civil rights movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s, we have struggled as a nation to overcome problems that were a matter of public policy. Since those problems were emanating primarily from the halls of government, we struggled to shift public policy discussions, change laws, and elect men and women to national and local government who could make necessary changes and hold the line on previous victories. And as we did this, things improved.
I humbly submit to you that those days are over. Public policy and government statute are not the great source of our problems, and the methods of previous movements have been and will continue to prove ineffectual in our time. It is time for a new approach. I do not mean to assert that every law in this nation — or even in this city — is now just; this is certainly not the case. But the law and public policy discussions of our time are not the cause of our problems as they have been in the past.
In the past the law dictated that people of color could not vote. The accepted public policy held that people of color were somehow less human than white people. The clear solution for that kind of injustice is to change that law, to shift that public policy to something more just and humane. This is the basic ethos and methodology of civil rights. Civil rights can be demanded and won from the government.
But today we have laws against drug sales, we have laws against illegal drug possession, we have laws against murder. There is not a respectable public policy professional or organization anywhere in this nation that would make an argument against those laws.
So, why is Derrion Albert not alive today?
Perhaps, the answer is demonstrated better than it can be articulated by the radio DJ who plays endless hours of violence and debauchery, by the policeman who drives 70 m.p.h. the wrong way down a neighborhood street, by the crowd of misguided teens who dispassionately beat one of their peers to death with a piece of wood and their bare hands.
Imagine the impact that we could make if every believer in Chicago truly began to pray for peace in our city, then allowed that prayer to motivate and strengthen us toward action. What if every school in Chicago was adopted by a handful of churches? What if believers in every neighborhood began to take responsibility for a block, a train station, a bus route, and went out to meet the people there, serve them, and act as a presence for peace? What if we turned the power of protest onto the drug dealers by coming to the hottest spots at the hottest times (usually nighttime) and exposing their activities done in darkness with bright lights, singing, and prayer? What if there were a prophetic voice coming out of the church that, through both its words and actions, could consistently afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted? That would be an appropriate movement for Chicago — and for every urban community.
The great problems of our time — and, as such, the violence problem in Chicago — are not a matter of civil rights, but human rights. They are not caused by problems in our public policy and government structures; they are caused by great flaws in our values and cultural structures. The solutions cannot be demanded and won from the government; they must be demanded and won from one another. The challenge is not to turn an unjust government toward justice, but to turn an unrighteous culture toward righteousness.
And that’s precisely why it’s time for the church to come forth and lead.
Photo of Derrion Albert: Wikipedia.
Enola Aird of the Community Healing Network believes too many Black youth have internalized the myth that their lives are not as valuable as the lives of others — and it’s leading them to act out in destructive ways. She’s out to change that.
The horrific beating death of Chicago teenager Derrion Albert has revived the national discussion about the moral and spiritual collapse of America’s urban communities, and its Black communities in particular. But in our shock, are we asking the right questions?
From her home in Connecticut, Enola Aird watched the Derrion Albert coverage with the rest of the nation. But she was not surprised by Albert’s killing, just sadly reminded of how broken our communities are. Like many activist leaders working on family and community issues in America’s cities, Aird is familiar with the kind of societal breakdown and dysfunction that leads to violent crimes among young people. As the founder and director of Mothers for a Human Future, she fights against society’s “commodification of children” and works to empower mothers to raise responsible, emotionally healthy kids.
In 2006, Aird led the launch of the Community Healing Network (CHN) at her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal in New Haven, Connecticut, one of the oldest predominantly African American parishes in the United States. Though still young, the CHN is already sparking a movement of community renewal in the New Haven area and beyond.
Aird, who’s also the wife of author and fellow Yale Law School graduate Stephen L. Carter, recently spoke to UrbanFaith about the CHN initiatives that she hopes will catch on nationally, including this weekend’s second-annual Community Healing Days.
URBAN FAITH: How did you develop the vision for the Community Healing Network?
ENOLA AIRD: I was privileged to serve on my church’s New Beginnings leadership team and had long been interested in finding ways to help Blackpeople work to overcome the myth of Black inferiority — the myth created centuries ago to justify the enslavement and subjugation of Black people. It says that Black people are not as smart, not as beautiful, not as lovable, and not as valuable, as other people. It is still undermining us.
I approached our then-Senior Warden, Jill Snyder, with the idea of expanding the church’s ministries to create a “community healing” initiative to build a movement for emotional healing and renewal for Black people in the Greater New Haven area. Ms. Snyder and I presented the idea to our rector, Rev. Dr. Victor Rogers, who took up the challenge. In October 2006, the Community Healing Network sponsored its first Community Conversation and Healing Service in association with Christian Community Action, a local inter-faith service agency. We followed that first gathering with additional community conversations and healing services in 2006 and 2007.
How did this local initiative evolve into something that’s now getting national attention?
I was inspired by the wisdom of Dr. Maya Angelou, who has said we need to “take a day to heal from the lies you’ve told yourself and the ones that have been told to you.” Taking that to heart, we issued a “Call to Healing and Renewal” that includes an annual celebration of Community Healing Days to build a movement for emotional healing and renewal for Black people everywhere.
In 2008, I was blessed to renew an acquaintance with Dr. Betty Neal Crutcher and to meet Janice M. Jones, and share our plans with them. Betty is a graduate of Tuskegee University, a senior mentoring consultant, and the presidential spouse at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and Janice is a human resources consultant in Montclair, New Jersey. Through their good offices, the idea began to spread — and people in Tuskegee, Alabama, and Montclair joined in the first annual celebration of Community Healing Days.
What are the primary goals of the network?
First, we want to raise the Black community’s awareness of the destructive, present-day effects of the myth of Black inferiority. Second, we want to share the resources of faith to help people in our community free themselves from the burden of this myth, once and for all. Third, we’ve got to create safe spaces for popular education, community dialogues, and story sharing workshops and trainings to help people work together toward healing and wholeness. And finally, we want to foster the development of a nationwide Community Healing Network, a diverse group of individuals, faith communities, and civic organizations working together to promote healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, so that our community can be renewed.
What kind of Community Healing Network events will be taking place this year?
Well, this weekend people in more than 15 cities will join in the celebration of the second annual Community Healing Days. We have chosen the third weekend of every October for the annual observance.
Also, we have a huge event planned for November. After hearing about our Community Healing Days last year, through our board member Janice Jones, Dr. Maya Angelou agreed to serve as chair of CHN’s Board of Advisors. Together with hip-hop artist Common and national radio personality Tom Joyner, Dr. Angelou will lead what we believe will be a groundbreaking intergenerational gathering on Saturday evening, Nov. 7, at the Riverside Church in New York City. The event will introduce CHN nationally, launch a global movement for intra-racial healing, and call the world to interracial reconciliation.
UrbanFaith is based in Chicago, where Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student, was literally beaten to death by other Black students. And, of course, Chicago isn’t the only place where youth violence is happening. What does this kind of incident say about the state of our communities?
It says that our communities, our people, are urgently in need of healing. Joseph Walker, Derrion Albert’s grandfather, told reporters, “I don’t know where all this anger comes from [in] these people today. That’s just too much anger for someone to have in their heart.”
Where does that kind of rage come from? At CHN, we believe that a lot of it comes from living in a world that devalues the lives of Black people. Too many of our children have internalized the myth that their lives are not as valuable and worthy as the lives of other people — and it is causing them to treat themselves and each other carelessly and violently.
How do you speak hope into disheartening situations like the Derrion Albert tragedy?
We can speak hope into seemingly hopeless situations by declaring that it is time to get to the root of what is ailing too many of us and our children. It is time for us to deepen our understanding of the impact of our history on our emotions. We need to come to terms with the fact that our past as a people has a powerful effect on our present. As psychologists Brenda Lane Richardson and Brenda Wade have put it, “our history didn’t just happen to a group of anonymous people. These people were our ancestors and, in many respects, they are part of us.”
So, you believe our African and African American ancestors’ legacy is having a direct effect on our situations today?
Many of the feelings, beliefs, and attitudes of our enslaved ancestors have been handed down to us — like family heirlooms. Much of what they passed on to us is good. Their legacy has enabled the Black community to make extraordinary strides in the 40-plus years since the official end of segregation. But many of the beliefs and attitudes we have inherited continue to hold us back. Even in the year 2009 it is not unusual for a Black person to let slip some statement about “good hair,” or a remark describing light skin far more favorably than dark skin, or some self-deprecating comment about what Black people cannot do intellectually. These and other negative beliefs will not disappear by themselves. We must be intentional about working to free ourselves — and our children –from them.
At this late hour, it’s probably too late for an all-out celebration, but how can people reading this interview participate in this year’s Community Healing Days?
Individuals and churches can visit our website at www.communityhealingnet.org, and click “How?” for ideas on celebrating Community Healing Days. Your celebration does not have to be elaborate.
For individuals, the key is to take the time to take care of themselves — by nourishing their bodies, minds, spirits — and relationships. Faith communities can celebrate by praying for emotional healing and renewal in the Black community, sponsoring special Scriptural studies on healing, and holding special healing services or musical programs. They can launch a community healing book club or movie club with a focus on one of the books or movies listed on our website. We also would be happy to consult with pastors, youth workers, and Christian leaders seeking further information. They can contact us at [email protected].
A growing number of people in communities across the country and the world (Panama, Togo, Burkina Faso, for example) are expressing interest in the celebration of Community Healing Days, and we expect many more communities will join the movement in 2010.
About Community Healing Days
Community Healing Days is an annual observance held on the third weekend of October [Oct. 16, 17, and 18 of this year] to celebrate healing for Black people and to focus on the work needed to overcome the myths keeping them from reaching their full potential. The celebration of Community Healing Days is about putting “time for healing” on our calendars. It is about doing the work of “seeing ourselves in a whole new light.” What began in 2008 as a call to Black people in the Greater New Haven community has led to celebrations in more than 15 communities in 2009.
“People can celebrate Community Healing Days wherever they are in the world. All they need to do is to acknowledge the need for healing — and start by engaging in simple acts of healing,” says Community Healing Network founder Enola Aird. She offers these suggestions for the observance of Community Healing Days:
• Pray for healing for you, your family, and your community.
• Focus on eating right and exercising.
• Pay close attention to your thoughts. Try to substitute a positive thought for each negative one.
• Make a commitment to say more encouraging words to those around you.
For more information and celebration ideas, visit the website for the Community Healing Network.