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Paul Takahashi and Danny Yadron/MEDILL

After the beating death of Derrion Albert, members of Lilydale First Baptist Church responded with a predawn vigil.

Church sees youth violence as crisis of faith

by Danny Yadron and Paul Takahashi
Oct 22, 2009


Danny Yadron/MEDILL

A group of Lilydale First Baptist Church members gathered Saturday for a sunrise prayer at the entrance of Fenger High School where Derrion Albert was a student.

Paul Takahashi and Danny Yadron/MEDILL

Members of Lilydale First Baptist discuss the need for male role models at their annual Men's Day.

After the beating death of Roseland teen Derrion Albert last month, City Hall promised $1 million, nearly 200 cops on the after-school beat and a slew of programs for the neighborhoods surrounding Fenger High School.

That would be a waste, said the Rev. Alvin Love at Lilydale First Baptist Church, which sits across West 113th Street from Fenger’s campus. The church held a male leadership retreat Saturday that began with a pre-dawn vigil around the school.

“We’ve got a generation of young people, probably the first generation particularly in an African-American community, to grow up without a concept of church,” he said. “Anytime you’re disconnected from a moral center, you’re going to find violence.”

Albert’s death, blocks from Fenger on Sept. 24, rehashed a long-standing divide over how to solve urban blight. Some want public funding to correct inequalities, others want a family-based reawakening and most fall somewhere in between. (To read what State Sen. James T. Meeks of Chicago proposes, see related link.)

For Love, declining church attendance among teens – in concert with other factors – has translated into a lack of role models, especially for black males. A decade ago, Love saw anywhere between 100 and 150 teenagers attend Lilydale's youth programs. For the past three years, that number has hovered around 30.

The lack of male guidance is a problem Fenger administrators have at least tacitly acknowledged: Two of the first posters past the main entrance’s metal detector feature the slogans: “Change came to the White House. Change is coming to the Titan house,” and “The Dignified Men of Fenger.”

“Obviously we need more men to stay on their children so they won't fall into the gang life, selling drugs,” said Terry Harper, a junior at Percy L. Julian High School, 10330 S. Elizabeth St., who said he knew Albert. “If you have a positive male role model, I feel like you'll be all right. You will be able to stay in school, stay on the right path and pursue whatever career or goal you want to go to do.”

Harper’s lament is nothing new, said Horace Hall, an associate professor of educational policy at DePaul University. Religious groups have long sought to reassert their segregation-era importance, and family life can take on a heightened emphasis in African-American communities, Hall said.

But the violence isn’t going away.

There have been 222 index crimes within a half mile of Fenger since July 18, according to Chicago Police Department data. The index includes murders, rapes and robberies, and is often used to diagnose community safety.

The efforts might be blunted by a lack of coordination, said Hall, who specializes in adolescent development and youth advocacy. Interviews with church members, community organizers and academics revealed that in many instances, such advocacy groups are competing for the same population and the same pool of grant money.

Rather than trying to bring prayer back to public high schools, as several suggested Saturday, church members might try to coordinate one of their mentoring programs with school administrators, Hall said.

Love, who has spent the past month meeting with block clubs and principals, seemed to agree.

“With every individual doing their own thing, sometimes it’s like a mosquito sticking an elephant. It’s really hard to tell what’s going on,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is pull together all the resources, to determine what are the resources, so we can bring them to bear collectively on this issue.”