As Chicago hit its 500th homicide recently, a beautiful act of love and resistance spread light on the South Side.
Almost 300 men, most from Trinity United Church of Christ on the Far South Side, stood with members of the Black Star Project, Nation of Islam and teachers from Oglesby Elementary School in the Auburn Gresham community. The community has been devastated by gun violence and lack of economic opportunity and investment. The backstory to this beautiful act of love is wrapped in the serendipitous vision of Oglesby Elementary School Principal Kimberly Henderson, collaborating with Trinity.
Recently, my message to the village of Trinity was titled "Rebuilding the Black Community." The theme focused on the tools, values and action necessary for Trinity to rebuild broken pieces of our community, brick by brick. Meanwhile, Henderson, a Trinity member, had been praying for a miracle. She had a vision of 100 men, black men, lining each stairwell and entrance of her school, welcoming students back from summer vacation.
I received an email from Henderson in which she shared her vision. I added her request and prayer to one of my sermons. I also called for men to help rebuild the walls in less fortunate communities, and more specifically, to join me at Oglesby on the morning of Sept. 6. I asked the men to "fill in the gap" and become metaphorical bricks for this particular community. Then, it happened: Not a handful of men, not 100 men, but by the end of the day almost 300 men poured through the doors of Oglesby. Fathers, uncles, sons, cousins and brothers were at the school to help fulfill the vision of one of Chicago's stellar leaders: Principal Henderson.
The children entered the school to cheers and salutes. Every stairwell and entrance was flanked by men, from the basement to the third floor. The men cheered and high-fived students, and before the day was over more than 100 men agreed to volunteer monthly for a literacy program called "Real Men Read" and to be mentors at Oglesby. It is not an exaggeration to say that teachers shouted, cried and danced in the halls as they witnessed this powerful sight and commitment.
In a neighborhood gripped by violence, lack of opportunity, neglect and fatherlessness, this show of force was important.
"This is possibly the first time that all of these children here have seen that powerful a group of men, and it wasn't a street gang," said Black Star project founder Phillip Jackson.
It is not just Oglesby that needs men and faith communities to join forces. Chicago needs sacred and secular warriors to take action. If we choose to simply accept the unnatural condition of violence, economic neglect and educational apartheid, the walls that I spoke of in my sermon will forever stay broken in our city.
Investing in the most vulnerable communities is key to transforming Chicago. We can invest in these areas by implementing restorative justice practices in our public school system and comprehensive tax incentives for all entrepreneurs who set up shop and hire in the city's most vulnerable communities. We must also invest by doubling youth employment opportunities, prioritizing the hiring of youth from the most vulnerable neighborhoods. And we must work at increasing home ownership in marginalized communities. All of these things are key to replacing missing bricks in the broken walls of Chicago.
That morning, almost 300 men presented a picture of Chicago that is rarely seen or acknowledged. Some will say that day was an anomaly. I say it was the reality of many black men, not in the frame of most TV cameras and in the margins of most news stories. Real men love, lead, serve, pray, play and show up to help when they hear a principal offer her prayers and vision in church.