On Thursday afternoon, Gov. J.B. Pritzker visited Chicago’s West Side to meet with local faith leaders for a roundtable discussion on funding for violence prevention, gun reform and support for on-the-ground anti-violence organizations. He also shared his intention to work alongside faith leaders and community-based organizations to reduce gun violence statewide.

“When I came into office, my predecessor had decimated funding for violence prevention, violence interruption,” Pritzker told The TRiiBE in a one-on-one interview after the roundtable.

“So investing in violence interruption, violence prevention, youth, year-round job programs, are things that maybe don’t come out in a press conference somewhere, but that I’ve been doing steadily,” he continued.

Pritzker and eight faith and community leaders convened at Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin. Although Pritzker’s intention was to dialogue with the group about developing solutions for reducing gun violence and investing in community-run anti-violence programs, there weren’t enough chances for participants to fully engage in conversation with Pritzker.

For nearly 30 minutes, Pritzker spoke at length about the investments he’s already made in violence prevention programming and policies he’s enacted on gun violence and gun reform. Throughout his speech, there was no mention of any actionable steps or even next steps to address the issue of violence in communities. Pritzker’s talk came off as a report of achievements that his administration has made instead of the governor taking pause to listen to the specific concerns of the leaders in the room there at his invitation. 

Because of a time crunch, Pritzker’s team only allowed each leader one turn at sharing feedback or asking a question. The group consisted of Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin; Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit in South Chicago; Dr. Marshall Hatch of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park; Rev. Leslie Sanders of Hope Church Chicago in West Englewood; Pastor Cy Fields of New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in East Garfield Park; Rev. Lindsey Joyce of Grace Church of Logan Square David Cherry of the West Side-based Leaders Network; and Rabbi Ike Serotta of Makom Solel Lakeside in Highland Park, Ill.

Their comments and questions ranged from the state’s witness protection program and the need for an assault weapon ban to how the governor would ensure that community organizations receive the investments they need for violence prevention programming and if there’s been a success elsewhere for gun buyback programs. 

One leader, Cherry, didn’t get a turn because of time. After, Pritzker’s team gave The TRiiBE 10 minutes for a one-on-one interview before he headed to his next appointment.

“I think the governor is sincere in all the things he wants to do. I wanted to make sure that he understood that I think state laws make a difference when it comes to fighting poverty and breaking the cycle of trauma that goes from generation to generation. So those things take government dollars, and I’m glad he’s committed,” Rabbi Serotta said in a follow-up interview with The TRiiBE

Pritzker announced $113 million in funding for community organizations working on violence prevention and interruption statewide in May. Money will be awarded to those that apply for grant funding. The grant applications are a part of a series of funding opportunities to reduce gun violence. That same month, he also banned the sale and possession of ghost guns, which are untraceable and don’t have serial numbers. They can be bought online and put together at home.

In 2021, Pritzker signed legislation to expand background checks on all gun sales in Illinois and modernized the Firearm Owner’s Identification Card System. His administration also launched the Office of Firearm Violence Prevention, which provides investment in community-based violence prevention programs for communities most affected by gun violence.  

The governor has also advocated for an assault weapons ban following the Fourth of July mass shooting in Highland Park. “​​I think all of you around the table in your communities and among your congregations have experienced the horrors of gun violence,” Pritzker said. 

“This is a challenge that has gotten worse over time, not better. We can all talk about the more recent challenges that have made it worse. But let’s just say that this [gun violence] has been a long-term problem, and we have to treat it like it’s a long-term problem with long-term solutions,” Pritzker continued. “If we can’t address poverty in communities where people have been left out and left behind, we’re not doing our jobs.” 

At Thursday’s roundtable, no young people or Black women were present. When asked about the makeup of the roundtable, Pritzker said the meeting was one of many conversations he’s had with different groups in and outside the faith community over the last few months.

“I asked Rev. Acree to put a group together that are among the leaders and trying to address this in their communities,” Pritzker told The TRiiBE. “This isn’t the only kind of group that I meet with.”

For many religions, the church historically has been the pillar of the community. During the Civil Rights Movement, leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King mobilized people by using the church as a vehicle to get the message out. The Black church, specifically, was the base of operations for the movement. Black churches used their space to “host meetings and rallies, demonstrations, and offered emotional, moral and spiritual support,” according to a PBS short documentary on the topic.  

Today, however, the influence of the Black church has waned. Younger generations are not as religious as their parents or grandparents, and many marginalized communities feel ostracized by the church. 

“Anti-LGBTQ+ teachings in the church give way to increased anxiety, suicidal ideation and depression among LGBTQ+ people,” wrote TRiiBE Contributor Derrick Clifton for thetriibe.com after the United Methodist Church split over LGBTQ+ rights.

RELATED STORY

TRiiBE general assignment reporter Matt Harvey explored where Black churches stand in the Black liberation movement following the summer 2020 uprisings and the disconnect between youth organizers and the Black church. 

“Chicago is exceptionally conservative in terms of its church makeup, which is very different from say Atlanta, Charlotte or even New York,” said Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in 2020. “I would say, young people on the front line are deeply faithful, spiritual and have a serious commitment to the faith community, but do not want to be a part of conservative, disconnected churches in Chicago.”

Still, Pritzker sees engaging with the faith community as a way to address the many challenges communities are facing when it comes to violence. But he said it’s not enough to only engage with the faith community. 

“Younger people are less likely to attend church. They’re less likely to be affiliated with a religious organization. Today, that’s true in every religion across the board,” Pritzker said. “So, just going through faith-based organizations isn’t nearly enough. But this meeting happened because you can’t ignore the fact that there are many people in the community who do affiliate with a church. And so we want to make sure we address it everywhere we can.”

Although there wasn’t much opportunity for more dialogue at Thursday’s roundtable, some faith leaders had great ideas about addressing the root causes of violence and how they’re working to engage with young people in their communities.

“The bottom line is we have to reimagine church,” Acree said. “But nevertheless, the church has to be creative in its engagement and that’s why we have summer camps. That’s why we have events. You can’t gauge the effectiveness of the church’s outreach based upon who’s sitting in the seats on Sunday.”

Acree said about 100 young people are members of his church. He said that attending service could mean meeting at a basketball court, not just sitting in a pew. 

“Young people are not ready to sit in church for three hours like their parents,” Acree said. 

RELATED STORY

To get at the root causes of violence, Cherry said there must be long-term and short-term approaches. 

“We need long-term and short-term approaches to address the violence. The short-term thing that he [Pritzker] talked about, the ban on assault weapons, is critical because those weapons of war have no place on city streets, in schools, churches, and synagogues, at movie theaters, Cherry said. He’s the president of the Leaders Network,  a collaborative of faith and community leaders working together to organize, strategize and mobilize to improve the quality of life for the West Side communities and Chicago. It was founded in 2006 by Acree, Hatch and Fields. 

Cherry added that poverty and access to housing, employment, and more must also be included in discussions about how to combat violence. He said he was pleased to hear Pritzker make those connections during the roundtable. 

“As you continue to have these conditions, you’re going to continue to have people struggling. So people who live in poverty often go through a lot of the trauma of trying to pay the bills. They feel stressed out a lot of times. And so it is very hard to grow in this environment and it is very hard to develop in this environment,” Cherry said. “So we live in a heavily armed nation of underdeveloped people.”

The alternative to violence, Cherry said, is human development. 

“If you can reach some young people and offer them opportunities, it’s not about just trying to make them be good. It’s about how can you offer them opportunities in which they can have fun, in which they can unlock the potential, in which they know people love them and care about them,” Cherry said. 

One of the newest initiatives from the Leaders Network is a credit union that will be housed on the West Side. Community members can get personal, auto and business loans through it. This is a solution, he said, to help poor, working-class and middle-class people so they won’t have to depend on paying high-interest payday loans. 

According to a Chicago Sun-Times news report, the Woodstock Institute analyzed 2019 borrower loan data and found that the top Zip codes for payday loans, excluding the Loop, were majority Black. The Woodstock Institute is a nonprofit research and policy organization that examines fair lending, wealth creation, and financial systems reform.

West side zip codes such as 60624, which includes parts of West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park and Humboldt Park, had 15.8 payday loans per 100 people, the Sun-Times wrote. Zip codes with fewer payday loans were white. 

Acree said they’ve raised more than $300,000 toward the credit union. The Leaders Network intends to launch the credit union in 2023. 

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.