In this deadly year of gun violence in Chicago, the tragic became the routine: Teens carried the caskets of friends down church steps. Sobbing mothers huddled at candlelight vigils, praying for an end to the shootings. Police unfurled more yellow tape to cordon off another murder scene.
The city recorded its first fatal gunshot victim just a few hours into 2016. Month after month, the numbers mounted. More than 100 homicides in January and February. Around Labor Day, another milestone: 500 deaths. By mid-December, Chicago had recorded 740 homicides.
Most were on the South and West sides. Most victims were young black men. But Chicago’s epidemic of gun violence — more than 3,400 shootings and about 4,200 victims in all — scars a much wider circle.
Three people with close-up views — a pastor, a doctor and a congressman — reflect on the lasting and painful impact.
When the Rev. Marshall Hatch arrived at the scene of a double homicide one spring afternoon, he saw one of his parishioners running down an alley toward him, calling his name and clutching a Bible. It had belonged to her son — the pastor had signed it when the young man was baptized at his church.
She said it was one of his cherished possessions. Now her 23-year-old son, Demetrius Tolliver, was dead. He’d been shot after four gunmen stepped from a van across the street from an elementary school and began firing. A woman standing nearby was killed, too. A 17year-old reputed gang member has been charged with murder. The motive is unknown.
Hatch prayed with Tolliver’s mother near her house. Later, he wrote a eulogy for her son. In the months ahead, he would do the same for several other young gunshot victims.
Hatch, pastor of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, says this year’s bloodshed has left him reeling.
“I’ve been at it 30 years, and I don’t know that I can continue at this pace emotionally,” he says. “The only way I can really deal with it is see myself as an outsider. This is not my way of life. It’s not my family’s way of life. It’s not the way of life of a lot of people that I know who are close to me. But I live in the neighborhood . ... I have to have some sense of detachment in order to serve.”
Hatch’s towering limestone church — one of its stained glass windows features a slave ship — sits in West Garfield Park, home to one of the city’s highest homicide rates. In his office lined with books, African sculptures and civil rights mementos, the pastor ponders that reality, sifting through glossy funeral programs of young victims. He glances at snapshots of them as happy little boys and family recollections of their sons’ modest dreams — to attend senior prom and graduate from high school — now denied.
There was Tolliver, a former high basketball superstar; gym shoes were atop his casket. There was Elijah Sims, whose family moved to nearby suburban Oak Park to escape the constant gunfire. He was shot in the head while visiting friends in his old neighborhood — a day before his 17th birthday. “You had big plans, but God had one better,” his mother wrote in a note. “Sleep well baby boy. Momma.”
And there was Demetrius Griffin Jr., known as “Nunnie.” A diminutive 15-year-old who loved dogs, he had started high
school just weeks earlier. His body was found in a garbage can. His aunt is the church secretary.
Some funerals are more than sad; they’re tense, too. Hatch presided at services for one teen who had been known as a “bad kid.” He’d been shot on a Friday, four days after his best friend’s funeral. Rumors spread that gang violence might erupt at this funeral. Police were outside. Inside, Hatch’s security force, called the “Mountain Men,” kept watch. The ceremony was peaceful.
Hatch rejects the African-American tradition to regard these funerals as festive “homegoings,” marking the deceased’s journey to heaven. “I don’t consider it a celebration,” he says. “It’s sad. It’s traumatic. It’s abnormal, and we need to do something about it.”
And although Hatch worries that the violence has gotten so bad that some in his congregation “don’t see a future for themselves in these communities,” he says his church remains a refuge. “Our doors are still open,” he says. “We provide holy ground in the midst of chaos.”
A man holds a woman at the scene of a Sept. 5 double shooting in Chicago’s Ogden Park. Forty people were shot in Chicago this past weekend, and the city’s death toll stands at 740 for the year so far. Erin Hooley, Chicago Tribune file
The Rev. Marshall Hatch of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church says this year’s gun violence in Chicago has left him reeling. Charles Rex Arbogast, The Associated Press