Faith Leaders Call Attention To Chicago Violence Father Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest and long-time community activist in Chicago, says his city's murder rate is a crisis of national concern. Fr. Pfleger explains his decision to protest the violence by hanging an upside down American flag outside his church. And Rev. Marcia Dyson, of the Georgetown's Center for Social Justice, Research, Teaching and Service, explains her call to action. For more than two weeks, Rev. Dyson has been fasting to raise concern about the violence in Chicago.
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Faith Leaders Call Attention To Chicago Violence

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Faith Leaders Call Attention To Chicago Violence

Faith Leaders Call Attention To Chicago Violence

Faith Leaders Call Attention To Chicago Violence

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Father Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest and long-time community activist in Chicago, says his city's murder rate is a crisis of national concern. Fr. Pfleger explains his decision to protest the violence by hanging an upside down American flag outside his church. And Rev. Marcia Dyson, of the Georgetown's Center for Social Justice, Research, Teaching and Service, explains her call to action. For more than two weeks, Rev. Dyson has been fasting to raise concern about the violence in Chicago.


And now we go to two faith leaders who have both taken dramatic steps to call attention to the violence killing young people in Chicago. Father Michael Pfleger is a Catholic priest who has led Chicago's Saint Sabina Parish, a predominantly African-American congregation on the south side of Chicago, for more than 25 years. He is a long time community activist and he's been flying the American flag upside down outside St. Sabina's to protest the violence. That's a traditional signal of distress and that's why he says he's doing it.

He's joining us from his office in Chicago. We are also joined by the Reverend Marcia Dyson of Georgetown's Center for Social Justice, Research, Teaching and Service. She is currently fasting. She is on an 18-day fast. She is on 18th day of a fast to raise awareness of the violence in Chicago. She is on the line with us from Washington. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Father MICHAEL PFLEGER (Community activist and priest): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Father Pfleger, you just heard Tio's explanation of what he thinks is going on. He says that sort of an attitude has taken hold where if something happens to you then you really have no choice but to respond with violence. What's your take on this, do you agree?

Father PFLEGER: Well, I agree. I think Tio's right in the sense that we have this kind of a mindset where violence is acceptable. I think we have guns, it's become part of America's wardrobe right now. And, you know, guns are so accessible to everybody. And I think that we've become immune to the situation of violence, as though we just shake our heads and it's almost that there's something that we have to tolerate, we have to put up with, we have to accept as a common norm of our day.

And that all has to be changed. We have to stop access to guns, we have to help children understand there is ways to resolve our conflicts. And we have to also understand that there is not a norm to become acceptable with children dying in our streets. This is not normal, this is dysfunctional, this is murder.

MARTIN: Why do you think that an attitude has taken hold? Have you talked to kids who've been involved or, what is it that they say?

Father PFLEGER: Well, I think it's a combination of a bunch of things. And I think that's why we're saying it needs - we really need a national response to it. I think in the home with parents, I think the schools, we have to teach, there ought to be a curriculum for conflict resolution across all of our school systems in the city and across this country. I think churches, synagogues and mosques turned their back and ignored it, as if it's going to just go way. I think government has turned its back on it. I think the community has made it acceptable, so there's no kind of standard, no line drawn saying, this is not going to be tolerated, we will not allow children to be shot or to be killed in our community. So, young people then feel the sense of hopelessness, I think lack of vision about what they're going to be or do with their lives, and have fallen into this kind of a cultural setting that almost - that this is the way it is. And you just hope that it doesn't come to your house or your yard. But a lack of value for life or for future.

MARTIN: And Reverend Marcia Dyson, let's bring you into the conversation. As I understand this is the 19th day of your fast.

Rev. DYSON: Right.

MARTIN: What - you're a native Chicagoan, you now live and working in Washington, D.C., you've been involved in a number of social justice issues over time. What caused you to choose to fast at this time?

Rev. DYSON: Well first of all, you know, I choose to fast, I went to hunger strike because for me the hunger strike is a countdown, when people watch you deteriorate. (Unintelligible) because I had to ask God to intervene on my actions and what I would do since I'm a social activist. And I needed divine intervention within myself in order to do that. And yes, I am from Chicago. I was the public information officer for the City of Chicago under the present Mayor Daley.

And one thing I know about growing up there in Chicago (unintelligible) even though my job as POI was to say that Chicago was the world by the lake, (unintelligible) as the communities, those worlds was divided by cul-de-sacs and speed bumps. And I know what separated a lot of our young people and made them feel isolated, whether it's on the south side or the west side or the 'hood or various communities within the city of Chicago itself.

And also, you know, I had just come back from City Soleil, the country of Haiti, which I am now going and visiting and working in once a month. And when I came back the headlines for the international news was that City Soleil, the Sun City was the dangerous city. But then I found out the city that works, my hometown was also, the youth was lying on the ground because of bullets. I think that, you know, we like to throw out the adage that it takes a village to raise a child.

But when the village becomes depleted of its moral virtue and its integrity, then the children have nothing in which to wean upon in order to grow. I think that when I get testimonies from people, young men and women in juvenile detention centers, often they come back with that aggression that Father Pfleger and others are feeling there in my hometown, because they feel if they're isolated. No one has their back and they are on their own. So they have to be very aggressive to protect themselves because they are now the man because of the service that they've done within the court system.

MARTIN: But, you know, but as a I said, Reverend Dyson, that these conditions exist in other places that…

Rev. DYSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: …aren't experiencing the same level of violence by youths upon youths. And in fact, Father Pfleger, there is this terrible story the other day where a 15-year-old who apparently was, you know, beaten to death for no reason that anybody can determine.

Rev. DYSON: Well, you know, this is when I tend to disagree Michel…

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Rev. DYSON: …Michael Erick Dyson and hip-hop culture. When you constantly said and this is not just hip-hop culture, this is violence that permeates the general media as well. There's an aggression that these children, especially children in the age of 20 have been fed every day. And then when you do tie it into lack of employment, lack of social services, then that pumps up the volume as well. And so what you have to do is first, you have to look at the governmental agencies that are supposed to be helping children, whether it's an educational system.

I don't know what quite the dropout rate is there now, but if you can't retain employment or hope for employment or economic development, then yes, we're going to go back the way…

MARTIN: We - forgive me Reverend Dyson. We need to take a short break. In a moment -we're going to continue this conversation in a moment. We're going to talk more about why this outburst of violence is going on and what you and Father Pfleger think can be done about it. But we'll have that conversation in just a minute. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News, I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will look at how credit cards are marketed on college campuses and how students should handle them. We'll also talk about those prepaid cards some celebrities are pushing. That's in our Money Coach segment and that's in just a few minutes. But first, we're going to continue our conversation about gun violence in Chicago. We're talking with two faith leaders, activist and political commentator the Reverend Marcia Dyson of Georgetown's Center for Social Justice, Research, Teaching and Service.

Also with us is Father Michael Pfleger, a community activist and a priest at Chicago's Saint Sabina Roman Catholic Church. They're both here with us. Thank you both for staying with us. I have a question for both of you. The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert suggested in a column just a few days ago that the race of the victims plays some role in the lack of attention and commitment to resolving this. And he, harking back to days and he was a reporter for a New York newspaper and a question of sort of some incident came up and they were discussing whether to cover it or not. And he said the race of the victims was a factor. Do you think that the race of the victims is a factor, Father Pfleger?

Father PFLEGER: Oh absolutely, there's no question about that. I mean, we have 36 children, and this is CPS students that we've counted…

MARTIN: You mean Chicago Public Schools.

Father PFLEGER: Chicago Public Schools student. We really don't know how many students or young people have been killed since August. This is just the count of the Chicago Public School students. We had 250 students came through Cook County Hospital in three months with bullet wounds. What's interesting about these 36 students is they're all black or brown. If there was 36 white students killed in the Northwest suburbs, there would be a national outcry and every resource would be given to it to stop this.

And I think this is one of the things that have told us that this is such an anger thing, the community, is black and brown life not as important as white life in our city, in our community? Swine flu, which thought was going to be something that was open to everybody, caught a national response and a national consciousness. But black and brown children being shot down and killed in our city streets has called people to kind of turn their way and yawn and move on and shake their heads.

MARTIN: Reverend Dyson, Chicago is your home. It is the adopted home of President Obama. Is there something that you would like him to be doing at a time like this that you think would be helpful?

Rev. DYSON: Yes, from the president in the White House, to the local alderman in the city of Chicago, I think that, you know, sometimes we talk about the deterioration of the African-American community when there was black migration following white tracking to the suburbs, that maybe all the hope that Obama's campaign left and came to D.C. And that maybe he needs to go back out (unintelligible). The first lady to come back and plan a tree of peace, along with some of the church people there.

With Father Pfleger and the school community and the mothers of childrens who have died. And the mothers and fathers who are concerned about their children to please come back with that hope and that campaign to the city of Chicago. Because it is about black bodies. You know, when white children are murdered it is about pathology, you know, I mean when black children are murdered it's about pathology. When white children are murdered, then it's some sort of social dysfunction within itself that can be easily attained to, they're given counseling.

And I think we need that same kind of intervention within our community as well. But there are some hopes, that you have the Cares Mentoring Program that Susan Taylor(ph) is trying to get a coalition around nationally. But our churches, I mean, our churches are supposed to be a symbol of light. And I tell you, I thank God for Father Pfleger because whenever there are things popping off around the city of Chicago or when it was in the Gulf region post-Katrina, you could call on him because he understands as a Christian the dictates of Christ.

And for those that I work with in synagogues and mosques know that as well. And this is really an indictment upon the church that those people who want to have prison ministries, don't want to have pre-prison - ministries to get out there and do something.

MARTIN: Father Pfleger, can I ask you about this, I mentioned earlier in our conversation that you've been flying the American flag upside down, which is a traditional distress call to call attention to the gun violence. What has been the reaction in the community to this? I can imagine that…

Father PFLEGER: Well it's kind of mixed.

MARTIN: …be controversial.

Father PFLEGER: It has certainly Michel, raised a lot of attention. There was initially a group of veterans called Growing Thunder, in Illinois here, who were very angry about it. They felt very disrespected by it. And we tried to explain to them that this is not a disrespect to veterans or to the flag. In fact, the code says that when there is a fear of danger to life or property, the flag can be flown upside down. We're sending out a signal. This is not just a Chicago problem, and it's not going to demand just a Chicago response. We want a national response. We want the president of United States to call for a national task force to look at this violence, to address it with the same aggressiveness that we did with the swine flu. Say, we need help from - as Marcia Dyson mentioned, from the white House down to the community, the churches, the schools.

That we're trying to send out a national signal to say help us. When someone dials 911, they don't argue about, well, why did you dial 911? They say, what can I do to help you? We're saying, help us. Our children deserve a future, our children deserve a chance to achieve their dreams and their God given destiny. So we're looking for help from across this country.

MARTIN: And finally, Father Pfleger there's only about a minute and a half. I asked Reverend Dyson this question. So I need to ask you, what kind of help do you want? What do you think would make a difference?

Father PFLEGER: We want a national address to the issue so that at every school we're dealing with a curriculum of conflict resolution in dealing with the violence. We want churches, synagogues and mosques to address it from their pulpits. We want after-school activities. We want jobs for youth. We want alternatives for young people that have dropped out of school. And we want a better education in our schools so our children are wrapped around their vision and their future rather than feeling like they're just going to school and getting nothing out of it. I think there's a whole list of things. Help to our parents, help for a parent who says, my child is in trouble. Where do I turn to? If they don't have a church or a synagogue or mosque, where do they turn their children to?

MARTIN: And finally Reverend Dyson, how long do you plan to your maintain your fast?

Rev. DYSON: I don't know. I thought might be 21 days but my health is still great. I'm in no ways tired, so I'm just going to be praying about it…

MARTIN: All right.

Rev. DYSON: As long as I can…

MARTIN: All right.

Rev. DYSON: There is a spark of hope for Father Pfleger and his activists and then the city of Chicago.

MARTIN: The Reverend Marcia Dyson is a Chicago native. She is a professor at Georgetown's Center for social justice, research, teaching and service. She was kind enough to join us on the line from Washington, D.C. Father Michael Pfleger is a community activist and Catholic priest who leads the Community of Saint Sabina on the south side of Chicago. He joined us on the phone from Chicago. I welcome - I thank you both so much for joining us.

Father PFLEGER: Thank you Michel, thank you Marcia.

Rev. DYSON: Thank you Father Pfleger.

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