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West Side moms camp outside vacant bank, fast during the Fourth of July weekend to ‘pray against violence’

“We are praying against the violence, the shedding of the blood of our children and families, and we’re here praying against all that for this Fourth of July,” said Erica Perkins, 59. “We are combatting the evil, because that’s what all this is, and we are going to do that with prayer.”

From left to right, Jackie Guider, Jacqueline Reed, Erica Perkins and Valerie Walker pose for a photo near 5200 W. Chicago Avenue in South Austin, Friday, July 2, 2021. The group of women will be holding a fast and prayer vigil outdoors all night at the Laramie State Bank building in response to the rise in gun violence in the neighborhoods of Chicago.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A band of West Side mothers will forgo eating anything this Fourth of July weekend as they seek religious guidance through prayer to stop a historically violent weekend in Chicago – and more specifically, the Austin neighborhood.

The mothers said Austin has been flooded with police officers with no indication that crime is being reduced. Instead, they said, shootings are becoming more frequent - and both offenders and victims are getting younger.

The group has set up a tent and will camp out in the parking lot of the old Laramie State Bank of Chicago, 5200 W. Chicago Ave., until Sunday night. They will take turns sleeping in the tent, hold vigils for those who have lost their lives to gun violence or suicide, lead a march and pray.

They will be doing this while taking part in a religious fast - a spiritual endeavor where a person abstains from eating food and liquids, other than water, in an effort to seek spiritual guidance.

The women began their fast on Thursday and will end their fast Sunday at 6 p.m.

“We are praying against the violence, the shedding of the blood of our children and families, and we’re here praying against all that for this Fourth of July,” said Erica Perkins, 59. “We are combatting the evil, because that’s what all this is, and we are going to do that with prayer.”

Erica Perkins, left, and Jackie Guider show off the tent where the women will be rotating sleeping shifts near 5200 W. Chicago Avenue in Austin, Friday, July 2, 2021. The group of women will be holding a fast and prayer vigil outdoors throughout the weekend outside the former Laramie State Bank building in response to the rise in gun violence in Chicago.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Perkins and the other mothers have been walking the block picking up garbage and speaking with people passing by. At one point they intervened with a mother and her teen daughter who were arguing with each other, helping defuse the situation.

“I just hugged the daughter and held her as she cried because she was so frustrated,” Perkins said. “We are all just so frustrated, and sometimes we just need to hug each other and say, ‘Things will be OK.’”

The fasting and prayer is not to find a solution to the problem – which they believe the community itself can do – but rather to find the means to do it.

Jackie Guider, 57, said there is a sense of hopelessness people feel, and many have become desensitized to the shootings. The bleakness that hangs over Austin, she said, stems from the exodus of resources that date back decades.

Guider said when she was growing up in Austin they had swimming pools to take a dip in during the hot summers, roller rinks to celebrate birthdays and bowling alleys where they had fun. Now, even a grocery store with fresh food is hard to come by.

“It seems that everything that would help raise a child’s sense of value has been stripped from our community,” Guider said. “I can drive up Chicago Avenue and past Austin, and there are beautiful parks, and everything is so accessible and right there. It’s hard to tell a child they need to respect their community when there is nothing in the community for them.”

Jacqueline Reed, pastor at Every Block A Village Church, fought for civil rights in the Jim Crow South generations ago, said it’s tragic the education young students get in Chicago is inferior to the education she had in Mississippi as a child.

“We are trying to mobilize people who are interested in changing the paradigm in our community from focusing on police and victim and crime to focusing on building ourselves, building the talent and the wealth in our community,” said Reed, 71. “It takes all of us believing and hoping together, which is not an easy thing to do when you are constantly being told your neighborhood is not worth a new school or anything else for that matter.”

Jacqueline Reed a Pastor at Every Block A Village Church talks about the effort to change the mindset of younger people to prevent gun violence near 5200 W. Chicago Avenue in South Austin, Friday, July 2, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times