USA

Faith leaders fight their own trauma as they minister to families of those killed in Chicago violence

The Rev. Marshall Elijah Hatch at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Aug. 6, 2020. The stained glass depicts five young victims of recent Chicago violence beneath the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing.

The Rev. Marshall Elijah Hatch at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Aug. 6, 2020. The stained glass depicts five young victims of recent Chicago violence beneath the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

There he stood again, centered in his pulpit, trying to make sense of yet another life lost to violence in Chicago’s streets.

Dressed in a gray pinstripe suit, the Rev. Ira Acree glanced at his notes, then skimmed the crowd searching for the right words to comfort the grieving eyes staring back at him.

“Her life mattered,” Acree said as he gestured to the purple casket where the body of 13-year-old Amaria Jones lay.

“That’s why the city is grieving. Her soul mattered. Her dreams mattered, and her future mattered.”

It was a Friday evening in early July, and Acree assumed the role many pastors must in the aftermath of a killing — being a steady voice in chaos. But this snapshot of a funeral inside the Greater St. John Bible Church barely starts to convey the burden religious leaders carry.

The Rev. Ira Acree attends a funeral viewing in the North Austin neighborhood on Aug, 7, 2020.

The Rev. Ira Acree attends a funeral viewing in the North Austin neighborhood on Aug, 7, 2020. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

With more than 450 homicides this year and counting, Chicago is on pace for one of its deadliest years.

And while the effects of Chicago’s carnage are wide-reaching — devastating families and scarring communities — it also takes a toll on the religious leaders who serve as spiritual guides for those who choose to follow.

For many pastors, ministry extends beyond their church walls and into the streets. And as the cycle of bloodshed unfolds, ministers and priests must also bear a portion of the trauma, as they comfort families in mourning and eulogize the dead.

“To do a eulogy is to give some meaning to the life, focused around some type of Bible verse of theological concept,” said the Rev. Marshall Elijah Hatch Sr., of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.

Their role is often a hybrid of ministry, counseling and activism.

“You put yourself out there and try to be a voice for the voiceless, and you put your heart out there,” said the Rev. Greg Livingston, who has spent three decades as a pastor on the city’s South and West Sides. “You want to connect with that family and their sorrow, so it is a constant (for him). And an ever-constant way of putting yourself out there for people. It’s a life of sacrifice for those of us who really take it seriously.”

It can be a steep cost to pay for the city’s religious shepherds, at times fracturing their personal lives, damaging their health, and leaving some to question how long they can continue with a ministry that requires so much.

Each pastor has a few tragic murders that never leave them.

And without hesitation, they can recite the names like they are taking attendance in a classroom.

Bettie Jones, the 55-year-old grandmother who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer.

Mekhi James, the 3-year-old boy shot and killed while riding in the back seat of a car with his father. Or Heaven Sutton, the 7-year-old girl who was shot and killed while selling candy outside of her home.

Each death is different. But each one takes a piece of their souls.

“The loss of young life, having to minister to families. I call it trying to make sense out of stuff that don’t make sense,” Hatch said.

For Hatch, 2016 was the year he began acutely feeling the stress of his work. Tribune data show at least 795 people were killed in Chicago in 2016, the deadliest year since the mid-1990s.

The 62-year-old pastor said that “2016 shook me up. It was the first time I was on the verge of tears, thinking about stuff all the time. And it was clear to me; I had been traumatized.”

In the wake of Demetrius’ death, Hatch did what he knew best.

“Grieving is a complicated process,” he said. “I find it’s best to give the family some space, but make sure they know I’m always here for them.”

While she is still hurting from the unsolved killing of her nephew, Rochelle Sykes, Demetrius’ aunt, said Hatch, her pastor, was a steady presence for her family throughout the entire process.

"He's just been a big help," she said. "A great support system."

A stained glass window at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church depicts five young victims of recent Chicago violence beneath the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

A stained glass window at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church depicts five young victims of recent Chicago violence beneath the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Demetrius now watches over the sanctuary of his former church home. An image of his face is etched into a colored stained glass window in the church’s sanctuary. Four other Chicago teenagers who were killed also are portrayed in stained glass.

"When they put him up, I had a lot of joy in my heart," Sykes said.

Very few people see as much of the aftermath of the city’s violence as Pastor Donovan Price.

Price is on the ministry team at New Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, but found his calling in being a street pastor.

Price said he began responding to crime scenes in 2016 and estimated he’s been to one-third of all the city’s homicides since, often going out in the wee hours of the night.

In some instances, Price’s work extends beyond prayer and comforting a victim’s friends and family at a crime scene. He has taken family members of murder victims to the Cook County morgue for body identification, organized candlelight vigils and eulogized people at funerals.

"I'll go as far along in the process as I'm allowed or needed in accordance with (the family's) wishes," Price said.

No matter what time of day or night it is, Price is always ready to visit a homicide scene.

"I've been on call for four years technically," he said. "How many times a day, it doesn't matter."

As Price talked about his experiences, like the other pastors, he instinctively lists the horrific scenes he’s witnessed.

Pastor Donovan Price gives a closing prayer as the Chicago police hold an "Operation Wake-Up" community rally to help stop area violence on the corner of 75th and Coles in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood on April 4, 2017.

Pastor Donovan Price gives a closing prayer as the Chicago police hold an "Operation Wake-Up" community rally to help stop area violence on the corner of 75th and Coles in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood on April 4, 2017. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Then there was a man, Antoine Jones, 40, who was shot inside a South Side barbershop in front of children. Seeing a “big pool of blood with a bunch of little footprints” will forever be ingrained in his mind, he said. The man charged with murder in the killing, Martez O’Neal, 30, has not been convicted, as the court case continues.

But Price’s commitment takes a toll. Recently, he began having anxiety attacks at night. His family has implored him to take a break.

"I'll wake up with my heart racing, blood pressure up and dizziness," he said.

"It's getting kind of advanced," Price said of the anxiety attacks. "I'm going to figure that part out. But it's a part of what I do. It's not like the injuries of war are not to be expected when you work in a war zone, and you recognize that."

While some pastors have sacrificed their physical and mental health, others’ personal relationships have been marred.

“I’ve lost marriages being involved in this type of ministry,” Livingston said. “I’ve suffered the loss of friendships and relationships because of this ministry.”

“There are people that don’t want to be around me because they feel that things I deal with are too painful, and I understand that. I really do. It’s a very lonely place.”

Pastor Donovan Price places crosses at Mercy Hospital to remember the victims of a shooting on Nov. 20, 2018.

Pastor Donovan Price places crosses at Mercy Hospital to remember the victims of a shooting on Nov. 20, 2018. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

But in spite of the drawbacks of their ministry, the pastors said they feel this is their calling, and they remain committed to doing all they can to help the families of homicide victims.

“When I see people, literally dying around me, the question I have to ask myself is what can I do to make a difference. If I were a doctor, I would try to heal them. If I were an educator, I’d try to teach them. But I’m a preacher, and my tools are the word, the narrative, prayer and the spiritual approach,” Livingston said.

Price said while there’s nobility in the work he’s doing, he doesn’t want to be applauded for it, because he’s only doing the Lord’s work. And he couldn’t face seeing people at their most despairing day after day without divine help.

“I’m able to do what I’m able to do only because of God,” Price said. “... I’m on some of the frazzled edges that come with this because it makes a difference. Because I need to give pure love. If I become a casualty of that, then so be it.”

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