In recent days, members of the juvenile justice community, accompanied by friends and family, gathered at Monastero’s Ristorante for the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation’s annual fundraiser. The intent might have been to raise money, but the point was establishing connections to break from many of the troubling situations with which youth sometimes get entangled.
The Back of the Yards organization, which is dedicated to reducing violence among Chicago’s young people, has created a safe space for victims and offenders to mend broken relationships and share experiences. The funds they raise are used for everything from clothing and bus passes to college tuition for at-risk youth. The organization currently funds college expenses for five young men.
The Rev. Dave Kelly, executive director of PBMR, insists the organization is not a helping hand so much as hands connecting one to the other, and they are as much about accompaniment, as they are about hospitality.
“We don’t just say ‘go to that school’. We will go with you to the principal’s office and if we do or don’t get in, we go home, together,” he said.
About 150 people showed up for the annual fundraiser, which consisted of a silent auction, a reflection on this year’s theme: Living into Possibilities, and a celebration of PBMR’s accomplishments over the past year.
Auctioned items included an autographed White Sox baseball and a Florida getaway – but it was the artwork that really caught attendees’ attention. Some of the prints for sale were originally painted by 37-year-old Adolfo Davis, who was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole as a teen and was recently granted a chance for retrial by the Illinois Supreme Court. His case sets a precedent among Illinois juvenile life without parole inmates to argue retroactivity can apply to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v Alabama that ruled mandatory juvenile life without parole, even in the case of homicide, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
“Most of the art here is made by incarcerated people dealing with their trauma,” PBMR Sr. Donna Liette said. “They can’t speak their hurt but through art, they can express it.”
Using circles to bridge the gap
In one of the opening remarks, Liette called on the audience to partake in a PBMR tradition: the peacemaking circle.
She says PBMR uses circles as a way to connect individuals and provide a structured space for them tell personal stories and empathize with strangers. At the event, there were a handful of painted stones on every table. Each one was a work of art by the boys of PBMR and embodied a particular PBMR value; “Faith”, “Love” and “Peace” were three of dozens. Attendees of the fundraiser passed these stones around their tables as a “talking piece,” taking turns to share relevant stories.
Timika Rutledge, who attends PBMR’s regular peacemaking circles for mothers, lost her 15-year-old son to gang violence just less than a year ago. She says she participates in the circles not only for herself, but also to tell mothers of offenders that their children are deserving of forgiveness.
Liette says PBMR believes in accountability as well as second chances: It isn’t in the ministry’s interest to shame, but rather to understand young offenders and mediate conflict. She cited a line from the Bible, “Be reconciled with each other,” in summary of PBMR’s mission to bridge the gap between families of offenders and victims.
“I’m helping others because Precious Blood is helping me,” Rutledge said. Although her life has been struck hard by tragedy, she finds joy and security at PBMR. “Walking into Precious Blood is like walking into a hug; once you get upstairs, you know someone is going to hug you,” she said. “Those smiles aren’t phony. They make you feel good inside.”
Rutledge first became acquainted with PBMR when her son landed in legal trouble and was sentenced to community service. She requested that he do so in a church environment, and so they stumbled upon PBMR.
When Rutledge’s son died, PBMR not only paid to reserve space in a church for his funeral but also listened to and consoled her. She recalled, “They helped me through the transition of losing my baby.”
The Boys of Precious Blood
The atmosphere in Monastero’s Ristorante was one that acknowledged tragedy, but celebrated the vast potential that lay ahead for the youth of Precious Blood.
Sixteen-year-old Joe Montgomery stood at the lectern and urged attendees to donate to the ministry. He spoke of how PBMR “took (him) from a little boy to a young man.” Although he acknowledged his “background may look bad,” he was adamant that “what’s in front of (him) will make him stronger.” He ended his speech with, “When I get older, my dream is to be another Father Kelly.” As he fell silent, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Rutledge said although Kelly often deals with rowdy boys, he always seems laid back and easygoing. As the priest took his turn at the head of the audience, poised in a black suit, he joked it was more his style to intervene in a gang fight than to give speeches.
Kelly said it’s the youth of PBMR, like Montgomery, who keep him and the organization on track. In his speech, he told the crowd that it was PBMR’s mission “to create an environment where people believe [they] belong, and aren’t just tolerated. Then they become co-creators, living into possibilities.”
Friendship in Service
PBMR also honored Anthony Suarez-Abraham, Director of the Archdiocesan Office for Peace and Justice, and Home Depot with Kinship Awards. According to Kelly, Suarez-Abraham helped PBMR establish a crucial connection with Cardinal Francis George.
Milton Torrence, an assistant store manager for Home Depot, spoke on behalf of the company. He told attendees how an email from Home Depot’s executive leadership completely transformed the way he saw his work. The email said to make sure to have an emotional connection in the community, and he found that connection in Liette – to whom he now goes running to whenever she enters the store.
Liette says Home Depot is putting “neighbor back in the hood,” attributing them with beautifying PBMR’s grounds and providing the ministry with heavily discounted prices on their products.