Violence is a plague in Chicago and across the country. It is full of a risk for sudden brutal death or a slow decline filled with stress, grief and pain. Street crime invades kid’s lives like a disease. And for their parents the heartache is incurable.
In response, the church has opened its doors, not just for worship but to care for the wounded.
News of the violence plague reached Rome. Pope Francis took notice and offered his support and prayer in a letter to Chicago.
“Pope Francis was the one who said, ‘The church must situate itself as a field hospital,’” said Cardinal Cupich. “And I think that’s a wonderful image.”
Parishioners come by the hundreds to the food pantry to open at Immaculate Conception Church on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Father Manual Dorantes came to the Brighton Park parish two years ago to serve the mostly Latino community, nourishing it physically and emotionally.
“It is such a complex issue that plagues our community but we cannot stand idle. We need to feel what they feel and walk for just a moment in their pain,” he says.
Father Manny has an MBA from Kellogg Business School and has worked alongside Pope Francis at the Vatican. But neither experience prepared Father Manny for his role in a community gripped by violence.
“As I’m greeting parishioners at the end of mass, somebody says to me, ‘Father what happened?’… This lady said there’s blood all over the entrance, Father,” he says. “So I stopped greeting parishioners and went and grabbed a mop and bucket, filled it with soap and water and had to clean up the blood myself.”
Since coming to Immaculate Conception, Father Manny has presided over more funerals than in his entire career as a priest. While every loss, every family touches him, one stands out in his mind.
From the time he was 7-years-old, David Gonzalez played baseball in Kelly Park, just a block from his house.
“He played for varsity for Kelly and he played the park district,” his sister Julia says. “He had the busiest schedule a teenager can have … so he wouldn’t be out on the streets.”
David, the baby of the family, had four older siblings. He was an uncle to nieces and nephews. But one, Chuckie, was more like a brother.
“There were times when he was in the house and he would not go out. And I would say ‘Chuckie go out have fun. Go play ball. Go meet some friends,” Chuckie’s mother Marisa Dominguez says. “Never in a million years you would think they’re getting harassed in their own park.”
A safe haven for athletics and good health is instead a breeding ground for the sickness in the community.
“It’s hard for boys to be in the park,” says Julia. “The boys tend to get chased, they get picked . You can say ‘No’ and they’ll come after you and after you and after you until you finally break.”
“The day I heard my son was, let’s say, “A gangbanger,’” Marisa says. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to close my doors and not let him in. That’s my son.”
Julia and her sister-in-law Marisa believe the boys had been involved with a gang for less than a year when Chuckie was shot. He died December 16, 2016.
“Often you will find kids who are involved in the gang praying here in these pews for their friend who was shot or killed,” Father Manny says.
David was one of them. He had gone to church to pray for Chuckie.
“And he had a change, something happened in him. He went to his mom and said ‘I want to leave this life gang life. I want out. I’m done.’
But he never got a chance. Just three weeks after Chuckie died, David was killed.
“They took someone very special from me and they left a hole in my heart,” Julia says. “And I can’t seem to move on. He’s buried at 18.”
“I’m afraid to be alone. I’m so scared to be alone in my house,” Marisa says.
Marisa is a mother who lost a son and nephew, dealing with her own depression, trying to keep the pain from spreading like infection as she cares for her other children, especially her teenage daughter in a fragile mental state.
“I don’t want her to see me like that when she went through what she went through,” Marisa says. “I had to put her in the hospital for a week because she was thinking the worst as well.”
“It’s an incredible mental health crisis. It’s one thing after another after another after another, and no resources,” Father Manny says.
It was another deadly shooting that made parishioners flood the streets in Brighton Park. Father Manny called them together to walk in peace to the murder site just blocks from his church.
“We cannot allow any weapon or any division to break the bonds of us being a community,” Father Manny said told the parishioners. “We are a people of hope, people of joy. We are a people of peace.”
“Just because you can’t do anything doesn’t mean you can’t do something,” Cardinal Cupich says.
“What gives me hope is the resilience of my community,” says Father Manny.
One of the stressors of loss is also the lack of resolution. There have been no arrests half a year after Chuckie and David died.
WGN News reached out and Chicago police tell us they are investigating but have had little luck getting witnesses to talk.