In Woodlawn, on the South Side of Chicago, a crowd has gathered on the vacant gravel lot across the street from New Beginnings Church. Women line up under canvas tents to sign their names on bright pink enrollment cards, pledging to spend a few hours every Saturday afternoon on the most dangerous corners of the city.
There is a festive tone at 66th Street and South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where volunteers hunch over card tables registering for Sisters on the Street, a newly launched anti-violence initiative. A DJ spins rap music with Christian lyrics for dancing church ladies. One woman wields a large wooden cross like a drum major’s baton.
Amid the frivolity is a sober reminder of the stakes: Mary Long keeps her sunglasses on in the shade of the tent, her 19-month-old grandson peeking out from behind her shoulder. She holds a cardboard poster: “No more of our sons must be lost,”written in black marker next to the yearbook smile of her departed son, 17-year-old Eric Williams, shot and killed in 2012.
Indeed, more than 1,500 violent crimes have been reported in the surrounding neighborhood this year alone, including 356 batteries, 123 assaults and three homicides.
Pastor Corey Brooks wants New Beginnings Church to become the epicenter for a non-violence movement. And there is work to be done—even if it takes decades.
Brooks launched Brothers on the Block in the beginning of May, an initiative to recruit 5,000 men to stand on the 500 corners the Chicago Police Department has identified as “hot spots” for crime.
“We’re not trying to be combative, ”Brooks says. “We just want our community to be a better place. And so this is part of us taking responsibility ourselves, not waiting for somebody to do it for us.”
They have their work cut out for them. Since young men are most likely to be involved in violence on Chicago’s South Side and West Side, that’s where Brooks decided to focus his attention. About 90 percent of homicide victims in the city are male, 75 percent of them are black, and the majority of them are under the age of 26.
But after men started enlisting in Brooks’ army of peace, the women of his church said they wanted to help, too.
“People started instantly [saying] they wanna be involved,” Brooks says. “We were getting a lot of emails and tweets and Facebook messages, ‘Hey what about the women, Pastor Brooks? You’re leaving the women out. We wanna do something too.’”
A week after the launch of Brothers on the Block, Sisters on the Street was formed. In the first week of signup, female volunteers surpassed men.
“A lot of initiatives have been catering towards men, but girls need mentoring programs as well,” volunteer Nicole Howel says, shielding her eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun with her hand. “You cannot paint one side of the fence… you have to look at both sides, and you have to address all issues.“
Another volunteer, Shonda Williams says: “Not only are we sisters coming together we’re also moms, we’re aunts, we’re friends, neighbors. When you see women coming together as a whole…. This does show unity. We all just need to grab the hand that’s next to us and keep walking.”