By Mark Schmeltzer
“The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal
wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness,
proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”
~ Pope Francis in America Magazine, September 2013
Violence affects every class, community and corner of our country. The sheer magnitude and breadth of the problem tests our resolve to find solutions.
But as Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich told an anti-violence committee meeting last month at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls: “Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something.”
Cardinal Cupich created the committee in 2016 to organize the Chicago Archdiocese’s resources for addressing violence and its after-effects. Co-chaired by Mercy Home President Fr. Scott Donahue and Catholic Charities President Monsignor Michael Boland, the group brings together representatives from several Archdiocese agencies and parishes, other faith communities, area universities, and local government offices.
At its meeting in May, the group assessed the progress it has made to date, discussed future action, and heard a presentation from the Archdiocese’s new Director of Violence Prevention Initiatives, Phil Andrew. Andrew leads the strategic planning and direction of the Archdiocese’s anti-violence programs through coalition-building, increased charitable presence in distressed neighborhoods, and development and revitalization of programs that fight racism, poverty, and despair in Chicago.
Andrew brings a unique, first-hand perspective to the task. Exactly 30 years earlier, Andrew was a victim of a violent rampage that captured national attention.
On May 20, 1988, Andrew was a 20-year-old college student on summer break from the University of Illinois. He was in the kitchen of his family’s Winnetka, IL, home when an armed stranger named Laurie Dann burst through the door, her clothing stained with blood. Dann took Andrew and his parents hostage.
Earlier, Dann had set fires at a Highland Park elementary school and at the home of a family for whom she babysat. She attempted to poison several people. And she shot six children at Hubbard Woods elementary in Winnetka. One of the victims, eight-year-old Nicholas Corwin, died.
Andrew convinced Dann to release his parents, but she kept the young man at gunpoint. When the police surrounded the home, Dann shot Andrew in the chest before killing herself in an upstairs bedroom. Andrew was critically wounded and lucky to have survived. But the experience would inspire a career in preventing and defusing violence.
He spent 21 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), serving as a special agent with a focus on gun violence, counterterrorism, counterintelligence and crisis management. His responsibilities included managing high-risk hostage negotiations, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force Investigations, training of special agents and serving as an adjunct instructor and presenter. He also served in the FBI’s New York and Kansas City offices, where he focused on general criminal activities, gang violence, crimes against children, counterterrorism, and crisis negotiation. In his time with the FBI, he trained hundreds of law enforcement officers in de-escalation and crisis negotiation.
Andrews’ harrowing personal encounter with violence occurred in an affluent community with one of the lowest crime rates in Illinois, and was the climax of an astonishing day-long spree, the likes of which seem to occur more frequently in the decades since.
During his presentation to the committee, however, Andrew noted that such events like school shootings, including last month’s massacre at Santa Fe High School in Texas, still represent just one percent of all gun violence. In contrast, he reviewed Chicago’s “unique violence problem,” noting the stark concentration of violence in just a small number of impoverished community areas. His presentation explored some of the factors that help fuel violence in those neighborhoods, which include racism, disinvestment, and disconnectedness. Yet, he noted, these are also communities that hold great potential within them to address violence.
The committee continues to build on its efforts. In 2017, Cardinal Cupich formally announced the Archdiocese’s coordinated anti-violence initiative at a press conference in the city’s Austin neighborhood. There, he outlined a plan to expand the capacity of outreach programs already in place that address the root causes of violence in our communities, while investing in new approaches and partnerships with groups, businesses, and individuals to break the cycle of despair, racism, and poverty that fuel violence.
“The causes of the violence we are seeing in our city are complex and deep-seated,” Cupich said. “But I have a strong belief, based on the good will and the many dedicated efforts of our civic and religious leaders, that these causes can be addressed and the suffering can end if we all work together.”
The announcement made headlines across the country and enjoyed support from Pope Francis, who encouraged Chicago’s peacemakers in a letter, which Cardinal Cupich read at the press conference.
Cardinal Cupich also announced the creation of the Instruments of Peace Venture Philanthropy Fund to support and expand violence prevention programs.
In describing the urgency of this and in other outward-facing Archdiocese initiatives, the Cardinal has cited Pope Francis’ depiction in 2013 of the Church as a “field hospital” for the wounded and the needy.
“Medics are useless if the wounded cannot reach them,” Cupich wrote in an essay earlier this year. “Those who have the bandages go to those with the wounds. They don’t sit back in their offices waiting for the needy to come to them. The field hospital marshals all its institutional resources in order to serve those who most need help now.”
A few weeks after announcing the initiative, on Good Friday, Cardinal Cupich, civic, educational, and religious leaders, and individuals of good will from across greater Chicago marched for peace and prayed the Stations of the Cross in the Englewood neighborhood. A similar event was held this Good Friday, March 30, through Brighton Park.
For more information on peace initiatives in the Chicago Archdiocese, visit: archchicago.org/news-and-events/peaceful-summer.
Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer
who works in non-profit communications.