How can Christians respond to the epidemic of gun violence sweeping our country? Michael Allen and David Dillon join us to share their inspiring work with Together Chicago. They are an unlikely pair in a racially divided city torn by violence: Michael is a former black pastor and David is a white business executive. Starting with their own friendship, Michael and David have led an innovative and inspiring campaign to counter the evil of gun violence with collaboration and hope.
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
MICHAEL ALLEN: The gang members we work with, or tribe members, as they refer to themselves, have very, very low trust. They trust hardly anyone outside their gang.
And one of those gang members who now works for us, LaVonas Troupe, has testified publicly in multiple venues throughout the city, where he says, “When I first heard about Together Chicago, and when they came into my neighborhood where I grew up, I was very skeptical. I’ve seen other organizations like them come into our community, get all this funding, and they just enrich themselves. They make all these promises and break every promise they make. They don’t do anything to improve the community.” Then he says, “But I decided to give Pastor Allen and Together Chicago a chance – to watch and see if they would keep their promises. And I can testify today that every promise that Pastor Allen and Together Chicago made, they kept. And that instilled in me a trust for this organization.”
He’s a former chief of one of the gangs in the areas that we serve and now he’s the biggest proponent of our organization. I like to share that story when I’m asked how we instill trust, because it’s a very good question, and it’s one that needs to be answered.
CURTIS CHANG: Could you say more about your visitation program? It seems to be a very concrete expression of rebuilding trust after an incident of gun violence, which naturally rips a community apart, right? So what are you trying to do with this visitation program? Describe it, and describe what results from it.
MICHAEL ALLEN: Well, as you know, our hearts have all been captivated and broken when we see the overreach of police officers who kill unarmed black men and women. And those videos have come across all of our screens – social media, the news media, et cetera – in the last several years. That’s been heart wrenching for us. Those incidents, as few as they are across the country, have added to the distrust between many of the black and brown communities and the police departments that work in those communities.
So this program was adopted by the Chicago Police Department and many other police departments across the country. It has, in part, been able to help rebuild broken trust in many of the black and brown communities where acts of violence against citizens had taken place. Together Chicago is an official partner of the Chicago police in six of our twenty-two districts to help run this program.
In a nutshell, the commanders in those police districts will call us up. One of the pastors that we’ve trained to do this work will go out with the commanders and other officers to visit the top five to ten most violent people in their district. Sometimes they’ll call and make appointments, but most of the time they go unannounced. They know where these people live because they’ve arrested them many times over the years. In some cases, they’ve seen these young men grow up from the time they’re 13 or 14 years old – in and out of prison and still engaged in gun violence into their twenties.
So we go and visit these folks. The police give them a warning and then they introduce us so we can give them a message of hope and help.
The police basically tell them, “Put the guns down or else we’ll bring the heat on you and the other members of your community. But today we’re not here to arrest you. We’re here to introduce you to someone in your community who can offer some help.” The police then step out of the way, oftentimes even stepping outside the home. Then the pastor’s left in the home to build a rapport with that individual to say, “Hey, we love you. We care about you. God loves you. God cares about you. Let us help you. The police will stop you if you make them, but we will help you if you let us.”
After three or four minutes, we give them a card, say, “Hey, all you have to do is make one phone call. Connect with me, your local pastor in this neighborhood, and we will provide whatever resource you need to help you make different decisions. Could be finishing a GED, could be job training, could be a job, it could be groceries for your baby. It could be relocating to a safer neighborhood. It could be mental health counseling. It could be whatever resources you need.” We then work to begin providing those resources through case management.
And it’s been quite effective. About 50% of those who receive that offer do not recommit another offense with a gun. And about 15% of those guys that we offer those resources to will reach out for help.
CURTIS CHANG: Michael, when we’re trying to make sense of gun violence sociologically, which I think we are called to do, one thing you seem to be saying is that hopelessness and isolation drive gun violence – that guns are the last resort of the hopeless and isolated. And you’re trying to address those root conditions. Is that right?
MICHAEL ALLEN: 100%. Curtis, you have understood this correctly. We’ve done hundreds and hundreds of these interactions, and all of these individuals are repeat gun offenders, sometimes starting as young as 13, 14, 15 years old. When we’re talking to them, they’re in their mid twenties. They’ve been to prison many, many times. They’ve got holes in their bodies, and they’ve put holes in many other people’s bodies. These young men have lost hope in America. They do not believe that the American system of economics works for them.
They still have to pay rent, eat, and feed their kids. So they decide, because they’ve lost hope in the system of justice and economics, to go about earning their keep in the shadow illegal economy. So this program works alongside our street outreach program, where we hire former gang members into our organization. We train them to go back out like we go out with the police.
These guys have street cred because they’re older. They’re the original gangsters from 20, 30 years ago who have survived prison and gunshot wounds. They now take their credibility and history and knowledge of the street life to the younger guys. They try to convince them to put the guns and drugs down and enter into the pathway of peace and prosperity in the legal economy – to leave behind the illegal economy. It’s really all about restoring hope and faith in the American way of life that you and I participate in and believe in.
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