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Praying, marching and cooking out: Violence prevention workers fan out for Memorial Day as shootings continue to rise in Chicago

“This is our city that we love, and there is loss of life, and it should make us weep and roll up our sleeves,” said John Fuder of Chicagoland United in Prayer.

Dozens join 18th District Chicago police officers for a “faith walk” on the Near North Side, Friday evening, May 28, 2021.
Dozens join 18th District Chicago police officers for a “faith walk” on the Near North Side, Friday evening, May 28, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Cook-outs, prayer circles, marches, pony rides.

As police step up patrols in Chicago’s hot spots to contain violence this holiday weekend, community workers will fan out to some of the same places to draw people out of the line of fire.

“This is our city that we love, and there is loss of life, and it should make us weep and roll up our sleeves,” said John Fuder of Chicagoland United in Prayer, whose group is sponsoring prayer marches across the city this weekend.

The city has been relying more and more on violence prevention groups like Fuder’s in its strategy to reduce shootings. Their help is more crucial than ever.

Shootings are up 36% this year compared to the same period in 2020, according to Sun-Times data. Homicides are spiking in areas long afflicted with gun violence.

Dozens join 18th District Chicago police officers for a “faith walk” on the Near North Side, Friday evening, May 28, 2021.
Dozens join 18th District Chicago police officers for a “faith walk” on the Near North Side, Friday evening, May 28, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Eight neighborhoods have seen more homicides this year than at this time last year: South Shore, 9 last year and 12 this year; North Lawndale, 6 and 16; West Garfield Park, 11 and 13; Near West Side, 1 and 4; Grand Boulevard, 1 and 8; Austin, 17 and 23; Englewood, 8 and 17; East Garfield Park, 9 and 14.

Last year, the Lightfoot administration released a report titled “Our City Our Safety” that relied heavily on violence prevention groups in the community to connect with people caught in the cycle of violence.

“Gun violence is a reflection... of a lot of things — racial and economic injustice, high incarceration rates, high unemployment rates, poor neighborhoods and under-resourced schools,” said Jahmal Cole, founder of My Block, My Hood, My City. “If you have those five things, that’s the perfect conditions for gun violence.”

For the second year in a row, the nonprofit is funding dozens of events over the long weekend on the South and West sides, investing nearly $50,000 in community groups.

“I feel like the more positivity we put out in the streets this weekend, the more we can create ripples of hope,” Cole said. “I don’t expect to end 400 years of disinvestment with one weekend of giving out grants. But at the same time, I love seeing good stuff happening in the communities.”

Dozens join 18th District Chicago police officers for a “faith walk” on the Near North Side, Friday evening, May 28, 2021.
Dozens join 18th District Chicago police officers for a “faith walk” on the Near North Side, Friday evening, May 28, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

This weekend, religious leaders in Chicago will lead prayer marches Saturday and Sunday along major economic corridors. “We feel the urgency that on our watch as faith leaders ... we need to take this personally,” Fuder said.

There are also weekend-long “Hand’s Across Chicago” events held in coordination with the Chicago Police Department, with some officers leading prayers.

“Police (have) got to keep the peace … the church has to make the peace happen,” Fuder said.

Earlier this week, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown announced the department was canceling days off for the weekend and putting officers on 12-hour shifts.

“From a historical perspective, [it’s] better to prepare for the worst ... than, you know, not be prepared,” Brown said. Last year, 10 people died and 39 others were wounded in shootings over the Memorial Day weekend, the deadliest since 2015.

Arne Duncan, founder of the CRED violence prevention group and former U.S secretary of education, told the Sun-Times he was “very concerned” about the months ahead and was implementing “an all-hands-on deck approach.”

Chicago CRED, CP4P, READI and other organizations have again partnered this year for the FLIP program — Flatlining Violence Inspires Peace — where people with influence in neighborhoods canvas hotspots and work to mediate conflict.

Dozens join 18th District Chicago police officers for a “faith walk” on the Near North Side, Friday evening, May 28, 2021.
Dozens join 18th District Chicago police officers for a “faith walk” on the Near North Side, Friday evening, May 28, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Duncan said they aim to have up to 400 Chicago CRED members working as extended outreach workers under the program this summer, targeting 77 hotspots across 12 neighborhoods.

“It’s so important for our city to understand that our men who are in these cycles of violence, they are also the solution… the only solution, to moving us out of these cycles of violence,” Duncan said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”

Steve Perkins, director of outreach at Metropolitan Family Services — which oversees CP4P — said their frontline FLIP workers do not work with Chicago police but have a “professional understanding.”

“We stay away from yellow tape or red tape ... we understand that’s police business, and we also want that same level of respect when we’re in community and we’re working with community,” Perkins said. “We allow them to do their job, we do our job, and our methods may be a little different.”

Many of the programs by CP4P and Metropolitan Family Services had to shut down last summer due to the pandemic. This summer, Perkins said they aim to bring back large-scale events, through their Light in the Night program.

“We’re being deliberate and intentional ... we’re trying to get in front of it,” Perkins said. “All of our outreach workers are on call.”

For many anti-violence workers, it has been that way since last summer.

“I’m not sitting by my phone to get a call from the mayor’s office to ask me, ‘What are we going to do this weekend to minimize the gun violence?’” READI senior director Eddie Bocanegra said. “Every weekend in Chicago since last year it’s been like a Memorial Day weekend.”

Last weekend, at least 12 people were killed and another 42 were wounded in Chicago, the deadliest weekend so far this year.

Nearly all of the violence happened in neighborhoods on the South and West sides identified by the city last fall as “priority community areas” where police and other resources were to be boosted.

According to “Our City, Our Safety,” 15 community areas have accounted for more than 50 percent of all shootings over the last three years.

“We’re anticipating the worst (this holiday),” Bocanegra said. “But the worst ... it’s been like that for over a year already, every weekend.”

Jesse Howe contributed to this report