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The increasing violence in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods seems impervious to social programs, but small churches see small changes as they preach the gospel and model better lives

Chicago Police officers and detectives investigate a vehicle at the crime scene where a man was shot in North Lawndale on May 28. Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

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WEST AND SOUTH SIDE CHICAGO—For Chicago’s summer tourists, most travel guides suggest familiar stops: Millennium Park, Navy Pier, Wrigley Field, or one of the boat tours along the winding river through a gleaming downtown.

Less popular: Hot spots in the West and South sides, where scores of residents have been shot this year. Over the Fourth of July weekend alone, at least 102 people were shot. Fifteen people died.

By mid-July, Chicago’s toll rose to 1,924 people shot this year, with 353 killed. Last year, the city endured 762 murders—more than the homicides in New York City and Los Angeles combined. Ask locals what’s happened in the South and West sides, and many say there are no simple answers. Problems like gangs, drugs, and poverty aren’t new, and it’s unclear why violence spiked dramatically in the last couple of years.

But looking at the last few decades offers a glimpse of a bigger picture. Black communities in Chicago endured overt discrimination for a large chunk of the 20th century, and the city’s attempts to address problems were often as destructive as the longtime abuses.

A prominent example: Chicago’s approach to public housing created dangerous ghettos with deplorable living conditions. It also dehumanized many residents by discouraging work for able-bodied adults and marriage for those with children.

Similar problems afflicted other communities and underscored a fundamental need beyond the scope of government: spiritual care for those suffering from the effects of their own sins, the sins of others, or both.

Indeed, if decades of large-scale social engineering brought disaster for thousands of families in Chicago, one way forward may be more modest: smaller-scale ministry that creates pockets of redemption that could grow.

On a summer Sunday in Chicago, it’s not hard to find some of those pockets in hot spots like the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale and the South Side community of Roseland.

In these pockets, they’re toting Bibles—and they’re gathering for church.

THE STREETS OF NORTH LAWNDALE are quiet on an early Sunday morning, as warm sunlight filters onto shady roads with brownstone-style homes built a century ago.

For several months in 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. lived here in a dilapidated apartment building on Hamlin Avenue, attempting to bring a message of racial equality to northern cities. He focused on the area’s housing woes.

Hundreds of thousands of black Southerners had moved to Chicago during a decadeslong Great Migration from Southern states. Black citizens didn’t face the same Jim Crow laws of the South, but they did face entrenched discrimination.

A housing shortage forced many black residents into cramped flats in a packed chain of neighborhoods known as the Black Belt. Those who tried to find better housing met staunch resistance. When World War II veteran Harvey Clark tried to move his family of four into the white suburb of Cicero in 1951, the neighborhood revolted.

A crowd of locals burned the family’s belongings, including furniture, baby pictures, and a marriage license. They destroyed the home’s plumbing and appliances and smashed a piano Clark had bought for his daughter.

By the next day, a mob of 4,000 residents firebombed the entire apartment building. The governor called in the National Guard. A jury handed down indictments—against the realtor and the owner of the apartment building for renting to the Clarks.

In other neighborhoods, realtors urged white residents to sell their homes before black families moved in. The ensuing scramble drove down property values, as white families tried to leave quickly. Local businesses fled too.

A similar scenario unfolded in North Lawndale. King met with local leaders and led a march in Chicago’s Marquette Park on Aug. 5, 1966. Counterprotesters hoisted banners with racial slurs, including, “King would look good with a knife in his back.”

Twenty months later, King died in Memphis, Tenn., from a gunshot wound to the neck.

Joe Atkins remembers those days. The lifelong resident of Lawndale grew up in the neighborhood in the 1960s and watched the community decline over the decades. For years, Atkins declined too.

Joe and Stacy Atkins.

Joe and Stacy Atkins. Alex Garcia/Genesis Photos

On a recent Sunday morning in a North Lawndale gym, Atkins led worship near the home where he attempted suicide three decades ago. He read from Psalm 146: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day, their plans come to nothing.”

Atkins is thankful God thwarted his worst plans.

Atkins—now the associate pastor of Lawndale Community Church—grew up with eight siblings in a Lawndale home with his mother and an alcoholic father. When Atkins was 9, his father died from injuries sustained in a fight. The young boy grew into a depressed teenager. He turned to marijuana and to alcohol, and eventually to cocaine.

Many others in Chicago and cities around the country also turned to cocaine during the drug epidemics of the 1980s and 1990s. And as Lawndale deteriorated under gangs and drugs, so did the public housing projects nearby.

CHICAGO OFFICIALS began building high-rise public housing in the late 1950s.

The largest complex, Robert Taylor Homes, was a string of 28 buildings, 16 stories high, with 4,400 apartments in the South Side. Another major high-rise complex—Cabrini-Green—once housed 15,000 residents in 3,600 units on the North Side.

Robert Taylor Homes in 1987.

Robert Taylor Homes in 1987.

In 1969, Congress passed a portentous change to public housing policy: Instead of paying a fixed rent, residents would pay a percentage of their income.

That meant families on welfare paid little and had little incentive to try to earn more money. For couples with children, getting married would raise rents too, since both incomes would count, and welfare policies favored single parents over married ones.

By the time officials began dismantling Robert Taylor Homes in 1998, 96 percent of the residents were unemployed, including many single mothers.

As rents fell with income, housing officials neglected maintenance, and the buildings fell into disrepair. Crime and gangs took over large swaths of the complexes full of school-age children. Drug dealers traded openly. Authorities added chain-link fences to upper levels when residents threw objects off the balconies.

The towers looked like prisons.

Some mothers kept their children inside. Other residents tried to form patrols, but the dangers grew. In 1991, snipers killed a police officer from the balconies of Robert Taylor Homes. By the late 1990s, Chicago officials decided to dismantle the high-rise units across the city, as other cities made similar changes.

When residents started moving out of Robert Taylor Homes in 1998, a New York Times report captured the chaos inside:

“Lenzie Jones packed his grandchildren’s clothes for the movers but did not know what to do with their mother’s belongings. She had fled a few days before, after the drug gang she hawked heroin for accused her of stealing and beat her with a baseball bat and a two-by-four.”

In the Cabrini-Green complex, photos of vacated units bore signs of other families who had been striving for productive lives. One apartment wall still bore a handwritten chart of after-school chores: “Set table/Help Mama with dishes!/Homework/Set out clothes/Bathtime.”

Cabrini-Green (foreground and mid-photo high-rises) in 1996.

Cabrini-Green (foreground and mid-photo high-rises) in 1996.

Families scattered to different parts of town over the course of several years, with many using housing vouchers to find different homes. Many ended up staying near their dismantled complexes in homes or apartments on the South and West sides.

As Chicago dismantled the high-rises, the city became one of a handful with housing authorities that now have work requirements for public housing residents. Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has discussed expanding the Moving to Work program to more cities.

In Chicago, employment rates have risen among public housing residents and those receiving housing vouchers, though in some cases the rules require 15 to 20 hours of work.

BACK IN LAWNDALE, Joe Atkins was working in the 1980s, but his drug habit was growing.

He fathered a child out of wedlock and couldn’t bear the thought of being a dad and a drug addict. Late one night in April 1987, Atkins drank liquor to thin his blood, crawled into a bathtub, and slit his wrists. Seven hours later, he woke up.

“And I was depressed that I woke up,” he remembers. “I felt worthless because I had even failed at that.”

Atkins entered rehab. He relapsed, ended up in jail, and was homeless for a time. Finally, he discovered a Christian recovery program in another part of Chicago. He stayed for a year. His understanding of the gospel grew. His relationship with Christ deepened. And this time he stayed clean.

After reconnecting with longtime friend Wayne Gordon, a white pastor who founded Lawndale Community Church, Atkins helped start the Hope House as a ministry offshoot of the church.

The 50-bed facility serves as an intense discipleship and rehabilitation program for men. Twenty years later, Atkins still leads it, and he works as an associate pastor at the church. He’s married and has four children. He still lives in Lawndale.

And he is thankful for churches and ministries that stick it out in tough places, even when results aren’t immediate or easy.

Living in Lawndale still isn’t easy.

The Chicago Tribune reports the neighborhood ranked fourth out of 77 neighborhoods for violent crime in the month of June 2017. Nearly 40 percent of households are below poverty level.

On a Saturday night ride through North Lawndale, longtime pastor Phil Jackson leans out the window to chat with residents hanging out near a vacant lot on the corner where Martin Luther King Jr. once lived. At a nearby intersection, a hand-painted sign bears the names of people who have died in custody or during encounters with police: “Freddie … Sandra … Tamir … Akai.”

Despite the turmoil, Jackson is thankful he’s seen encouraging outcomes both at the Lawndale church and “The Firehouse,” a ministry for youth he runs nearby. Local kids have gotten scholarships, gone to college, and found good jobs. His lament: “It’s probably 3 percent of the people in Chicago shooting everybody, but those 3 percent cause so much havoc.”

Atkins is familiar with the havoc. One of his duties at the church is to provide funerals for families in the community. Since 2000, he’s conducted scores of funerals, many for victims of violence.

Does the ongoing turmoil in Lawndale discourage him?

After all, the church has worked for nearly 40 years, and the ministry has grown to include a major healthcare clinic and a wellness center that completes thousands of medical visits a year. There’s a legal-aid organization for locals and a learning center. A nonprofit development corporation offers affordable housing.

Still, problems abound. Poverty persists, businesses struggle to take root, and within 24 hours of my conversation with Atkins, three more young men would die in overnight shootings in Lawndale.

Atkins says he doesn’t fixate on results. He says the church and its ministries have seen progress, but they ultimately trust God for the fruit of their labors: “It ain’t our tree.”

Gordon, the pastor of the church, admits it’s harder to live in Lawndale today than when he moved in 40 years ago. The neighborhood has seen at least 32 murders this year.

But like Atkins, Gordon says he focuses on what the ministries have accomplished, not how many problems remain. Four decades ago, he says, he probably dreamed the church “could save all of Lawndale.” But Lawndale is big, problems are systemic, and progress is block-by-block.

He’s seen drug addicts become deacons, neighborhood residents embrace Christian faith, and local kids go to colleges across the country. “The most encouraging thing I can tell you is that the Bible is right,” he says. “If we live Biblically, it works. That’s what we’ve tried to do here.”

Atkins agrees, and as he leads the church’s 10:30 a.m. worship service, he finishes the same Psalm he read earlier in the day: “The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and widow. … Praise the LORD.”

LAMAR SIMMS thinks a lot about the fatherless.

Lamar and Sade Simms outside their home in Roseland

Lamar and Sade Simms outside their home in Roseland Alex Garcia/Genesis Photos

Simms grew up in Englewood, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago, without his dad in his home. These days, he lives in the South Side neighborhood of Roseland, with his wife and four small children.

Roseland ranked 12th among 77 Chicago neighborhoods for violent crime in June. When Simms moved here with his family 18 months ago, he says the neighborhood was everything they thought it would be: “A gang war on this block … a shooting two or three times a week.”

One death especially shook them: In April 2016, gunmen opened fire on a car four houses down, shooting three people getting out of the vehicle. The gunfire killed Tiara Parks, a 23-year-old college graduate and single mother.

Why did Simms move here?

The answer is found on a small sign he’s pounding into a patch of grass in front of his house on a late Sunday afternoon. It announces that Legacy Christian Fellowship meets here.

Legacy is a Chicago church network that aims to plant churches in neighborhoods around the city. More specifically, the network wants to plant churches in homes. Simms thinks that’s especially fitting in neighborhoods where broken homes abound.

A little over a year ago, Simms, 28, and his wife, Sade, purchased a home in Roseland for about $15,000. Outside, the house was a wreck, but inside it had beautiful hardwood floors, arched doorways, and a new kitchen.

The price proved real estate isn’t in high demand in Roseland, but Simms was convinced the neighborhood needed a Christ-centered church with Biblical teaching and consistent Christian fellowship.

He knows because that’s what changed his own life.

After becoming the parents of two children out of wedlock, Simms and Sade embraced saving faith in Christ nearly a decade ago. They married two months later, and eventually encountered Legacy Church.

Simms was struck by meeting a group of young Christians serious about their faith. He says growing up in local churches, he didn’t learn about the practical outworking of saving faith. For example, Simms says people in his church knew he was promiscuous, but their counsel was: “Be careful.”

After attending another Legacy location for a few years, and learning from mentors like founder Brian Dye, the church leaders asked Simms to consider leading a church group in his home.

Initially, Simms was reluctant to be an elder, and he was reluctant to buy a home in Roseland, but he couldn’t ignore the opportunity and the need. About half the people at church on Sundays come from the neighborhood.

Worship time during a Legacy Roseland house church service at the Simms’ home.

Worship time during a Legacy Roseland house church service at the Simms’ home. Alex Garcia/Genesis Photos

He says meeting in a house is particularly powerful in this community, where many deep-rooted problems start in homes: “The house isn’t stable, so they go to gangs looking for family. The ladies go to guys—looking for family.”

He wants to model a Biblical family and believes loving his wife and raising his children well is one of the most crucial witnesses he can have to the neighbors on his block.

Before church begins on Sunday afternoon, Simms offers a tour of the surrounding area, and he explains some of the realities of living in a neighborhood with gangs.

For example, a standard, unspoken rule: If you can’t walk to a store from the house where you live, you shouldn’t go to that store. Simms says gangs often “take ownership” of a store, and residents who don’t live in the gang’s territory should stay away.

Why has the violence become so bad recently?

One possible factor Simms points to: When the city tore down the high-rise projects, residents scattered across the city, including some of the gang members. Violence spread, even as gang members scrambled for power.

Tensions in Chicago have grown worse since a video revealed a police officer shooting Lawndale native Laquan McDonald 16 times during a 2014 encounter. Officer Jason Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder in the shooting, and three other officers face charges of lying about the incident.

Meanwhile, officials in Chicago and Illinois have grappled with infamous cases of government corruption from convicted governors to local aldermen and a slew of mismanaged funds.

The problems are complex, and Simms says there are no simple solutions. Programs abound, and plenty of churches are reaching out in some of the worst neighborhoods. Pastors and prayer groups meet on a regular basis.

Simms believes much of that is good, but he says lasting help is more basic. It comes from Christians being good neighbors who get involved in each other’s lives and show Biblical hospitality and discipleship: “Your house should be ministry.”

Back at Simms’ house, we walk to the end of the street: Bullet holes riddle the front of a home on the corner. Simms’ small backyard seems like a good place to grill hamburgers on a summer afternoon, and he talks about plans for renovating the back porch to host neighbors. But he also points to the spot a few feet away where a man died in January.

After a man ran through the pathway between the two houses, Simms says, gunmen in a passing car opened fire and struck the victim while he fled through the backyard. When Simms approached him, he was still alive.

Despite such a heart-wrenching experience, Simms is optimistic about his block. Though the January death was brutal, he says they’ve gone several months without a shooting. Since they moved in, the block went from a shooting two or three times a week to two shootings in a year: “That’s still sad, but it’s remarkable growth.”

Simms does teach his kids to stay away from windows at certain times, and they know they can’t play at the park directly across the street. But more people have been willing to linger outside, and the street has grown closer. That’s what he’s focused on now: “My goal is to reach my block.”

Some people on the block did wonder why the family moved here when the dangers were especially acute. Simms says he told one woman: “Because my Savior and my Lord made His home in a world that hated His Father, and He came into enemy territory, and He lived and He loved people. And they killed Him. He died on that cross. But He rose from the grave.” Simms prays for safety, but he remains confident “there is a resurrection.”

It’s time for church to start, and inside the Simms’ home, a dozen people mingle over plates of jerk chicken and homemade macaroni and cheese. After fellowship, they gather for singing and preaching. The group sings along with the accompaniment of Christian songs playing through a television in the living room:

“When darkness seems to hide His face / I rest on His unchanging grace / In every high and stormy gale / My anchor holds within the veil / … Christ alone, cornerstone / Weak made strong, in the Savior’s love / Through the storm, He is Lord / Lord of all.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for The Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C.



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