Photo/Sarah Severns

Robert Torres is co-founder and president of Parents for Peace & Justice, a care and advocacy organization in Chicago and an MCC partner. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way his organization works, but it hasn’t stopped their mission of supporting families who have lost children to gun violence and creating peace for children in their community.

Parents for Peace & Justice

For Robert Torres, co-founder and president of Parents for Peace & Justice (PPJ), the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way his organization works, but it hasn’t stopped their mission: creating peace and advocating for justice.

A big part of PPJ’s work in Chicago centers on supporting parents and families that have lost a child to gun violence, particularly mothers. According to Torres, mothers are now experiencing added trauma with the current pandemic in addition to dealing with the grief of losing a child.

Some have family members or they themselves have become sick with coronavirus. Social distancing has cut off some forms of emotional support on which they depend. Many are dealing with the financial implications of the crisis.

“In these times, they are grieving more than ever. Their current trauma, and then to have the coronavirus pandemic on top of that, is really putting these moms in a bad situation with depression and anxiety,” said Torres.

Typically, PPJ provides counseling, therapy, retreats and support group meetings for these mothers and family members. But the shelter in place order that has been in effect in Illinois since March 21 has meant that gathering in person is not currently an option.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Chicago, PPJ staff and board quickly held a virtual meeting to figure out how to use technology to continue their mission in the community. “The sad part is, we’re still seeing violence. People are still dying due to the violence,” says Torres.

It became clear that counseling during this crisis was key. The monthly support groups that mothers identify as a lifeline have started meeting via Zoom. Kim Snow, counseling professor at Governors State University, is joining each of those virtual gatherings to offer support and follow up with one-on-one counseling sessions.

PPJ is looking to create a comprehensive therapy program for grieving mothers. The goal would be to build a team of 10 additional counselors who can join Snow in providing therapy to any mother who needs it.

Corniki Bornds Corniki Bornds sits on the bed in the room of her late son, Fontaine "BJ" Sanders. BJ was shot and killed as he walked to Franklin Park to play basketball with his friends in 2017. In the wake of her son's death, Bornds found support through other mothers who have lost children to gun violence in Chicago in a support group run by Parents for Peace and Justice, an MCC partner in Chicago. Photo/Sarah Severns

For the past two years, PPJ has held a weekend retreat in May, made possible by a grant from MCC Great Lakes. “The retreats have been unbelievable,” said Torres. “We get them out of their daily routine where we can focus on self-love.” The retreats include trauma healing trainings, counseling sessions, grief workshops and times for fun and relaxation.

With 25 survivor families typically attending, a retreat for May 2020 has been put on hold. But Torres looks forward to offering this retreat when it is safe to do so, because he has seen the impact it has on grieving mothers. “At the end of the last retreat, one parent said, ‘I’ve never been around counselors that we can connect with. You are not counselors; you are our family now.’”

While much of their work focuses on supporting grieving families, another effort of PPJ is creating peace for children in their community to reduce violence in the first place. One of those ways is through after school sports programs.

“We are fighting for peace,” says Torres. “What peace looks like for us is creating programs for kids in our community. We want to hook them, grab them and mentor them.”

With opportunities for in-person programs off the table at the moment, PPJ knew they wanted to do something for kids who have lots of extra time on their hands stuck at home.

A PPJ board member brought up the idea of a virtual sports camp with professional athletes that kids could join after their e-learning. Torres jumped on the idea and got to work reaching out to his contacts in the sports world.

Three former NFL players joined the first session where they answered questions about challenges growing up, important people in their lives and what it was like to play professional football.

The half hour weekly sessions are completely free and focus on teaching kids to see the value of their teachers and coaches while learning about discipline, resilience, diligence and integrity in a fun way. The kids get a chance to ask any questions they’d like at the end.

“How cool to have a professional athlete right in their living room?” said Torres. “It was a homerun!” They are currently planning for four weekly sessions and hope to include professional athletes from other sports like baseball, soccer and hockey.

“These are times that we have to get creative in the midst of a crisis,” says Torres. “We have to be creative, but we don’t stop. Our mission continues. We do not stop. They need us more than ever.”

 

Brighton Park Neighborhood Council

MCC has also partnered with Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC) by providing grants to fund their teen leadership programs, bringing together teens from neighborhoods across Chicago to work collaboratively and build relationships.

While specific group programs like this are currently on hold, the work of BPNC is broad and includes community-based services and programs to empower local residents. They recently undertook a process of calling over 800 families in Brighton Park to check in, link them to services and get an overall sense of how COVD-19 is impacting them.

According to Sara Reschly, director of community partnerships, the findings are grim. Over 58% of respondents’ employment status has been impacted by the virus. As a result, 59% are concerned about paying their bills and 55% are concerned about paying their rent or mortgage.

While these numbers are staggering, most troubling is that over half of the families are not eligible for unemployment or federal stimulus assistance due to their immigration status.

“Our families are in crisis and we are working to help support them,” said Reschly. “One of our efforts is to advocate that our local elected officials set up a special fund to provide assistance to undocumented immigrant families.”

BPNC has launched the Community Response Fund in an effort to provide 500 families with $500 cash assistance, rental assistance or food support. “These are people who are not eligible for any other form of assistance,” explains Reschly. “For these families, this assistance might be the only support they receive.”

“May we all have the strength, generosity, and creativity that we need to help support families and residents in most need,” said Reschly.

 

Living Water Community Church

Another beacon of generosity and creativity comes from Living Water Community Church (LWCC), a long-time partner of MCC in developing vocational opportunities within their largely refugee community.

Like many congregations, LWCC is struggling to find ways to cultivate a sense of community while unable to meet face-to-face during the coronavirus pandemic. Located in Rogers Park, one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods, over seven languages are spoken within their congregation. “We have worked over the years to intentionally find ways to acknowledge power and worth in the different cultures that make up our body and neighborhoods,” says associate pastor Stephen Lamb.

Many of the congregation’s programs are built around the idea of community – sharing meals together, visiting one another’s homes, bumping into neighbors at the park or while grocery shopping. “Moving to phone and online ways to communicate eliminate some of the non-verbal ways that help us to be a body together,” said Lamb. “There is an even more natural tendency to be with those who use your own tongue and cultural framework.”

A big step was backing the efforts of people in their neighborhood in the creation of The Rogers Park Community Response Team. When LWCC heard about the group forming to check on neighbors and provide assistance with things like food deliveries, they wanted to follow their lead and offer support. With the gift of so many languages spoken within their congregation, members have been able to help non-English speakers on the volunteer hotline.

The Community Response Team has established a food pantry to which LWCC, along with many others, has donated money and resources. “It is a way for us to work with our neighbors,” said Lamb. “To see the strength and wisdom of neighbors, many who do not attend Living Water, and work alongside them. We think that type of partnership is important to the Gospel.”

Members of the congregation are also finding ways to personally help others. Hafashimana Obedi filed for unemployment after losing his job, and then went on to help others navigate the same process. Sue Ormesher works with a neighbor to make sure a local family receives their school meals and is able to access e-learning materials. Francine Maombi, an elder at LWCC, helped families stay financially afloat while waiting for government assistance money to arrive.

Pastor Olak Sunuwar holds nightly virtual prayer meetings with Nepali congregants and helps coordinate care for folks experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. He is also coordinating with the Midwest Nepali churches as they navigate the pandemic and support 70 families back in Nepal who are struggling with food access.

Above all, LWCC remains committed to their community. “Living Water is called to the corner to participate in Christ's work of reconciliation in our church, neighborhood and world,” says Lamb. “We believe that when our neighbors do better, we do better.”

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