“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” a small brown-skinned man in a bright orange jacket greeted us as if we were walking into his living room and not onto a cracked sidewalk under a lowering sky. The street was lined with brick row houses, some with boarded windows that looked like blackened teeth. He stuck out his hand, pumped my arm.
“Where are we?” my 12-year-old son Tommy leaned over and whispered in my ear as I smiled and nodded and said hello in return.
It was a fair question. We had only been in the car for twenty minutes, headed a dozen miles up the Interstate from our home in Newark, Delaware to Wilmington, a place that was not supposed to be unfamiliar. In the annals of our traveling family, this was hardly a blip. In fact, I take Tommy and his 10-year-old brother Teddy to Wilmington every week to a tree-lined street for their music lessons. Sometimes we go out for ice cream before or dinner afterward, just a mile or two from where we now stood. Just a mile or two – and an entire world – away.
“Wilmington,” I replied.
“This doesn’t look like Wilmington,” Teddy chimed in. “I’ve never seen this before.”
I’ll admit I had pulled a bit of a bait and switch. On a muggy, drizzly April Good Friday I simply told the boys we would be participating in a Stations of the Cross walk outdoors instead of attending a church service. I didn’t explain that this wouldn’t be the Wilmington they knew. I didn’t tell them that we would be venturing into the most blighted neighborhood in the city. None of us knew that the following day, two people would be shot, one fatally, just four blocks away.
This area is awash with gun violence, racial discrimination and poverty – all things that a social justice lawyer from a site like Lawtx.com fight against. The fight for justice is sometimes a losing battle, however, and it may take years before any real improvements are seen here. Much of the problem is institutional, ingrained in society like a trap that is almost impossible to escape from. People are trying, however, and they’re trying with all of their might.
To put things in perspective, this was a far cry from what they were used to on a Sunday morning, from the historical, picture-perfect Episcopal church we attend with its box pews and velvet kneelers.
But what I really noticed was this: How quickly and warmly we were greeted, asked our names handed programs and signs (Am I My Brother’s Keeper? mine said). There were members of the Wilmington Peacekeepers in those bright orange jackets. There were Unitarians wearing name badges. The Communications Director of the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence introduced himself. A choir from the nearby Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew appeared in their robes.
Everyone smiled and chatted in equal measure. Tommy and Teddy were the only children in the procession. We milled around for a while and then started walking slowly away from the community center where we had congregated.
We moved a block or so up the street across from an empty playground and then stopped. One of the Peacekeepers, a more imposing man with than our greeter, read in his booming baritone about Jesus being condemned to die and then the choir started to sing “I’ve Been ‘Buked'” (the program specified that all songs were “Negro Spirituals”). We all joined in. Tommy and Teddy, veterans or our church choir, knew this drill and their voices joined with the adults.
“Dere is trouble all over this worl’, Dere is trouble all over dis worl’, children.” The ground was littered with paper and broken glass. Faces appeared in windows, on stoops.
I later learned that each stop was the scene of past violence, a place where blood had spilled and run into the street.
And so we moved through seven stations. We prayed and sang, reminded each other that it was our duty to care for our brothers and sisters. We sang of trouble, of cruelty, and of wounds. I watched as the boys took it all in, how quickly they understood how unfair it is that so close to our own safe and comfortable home others were living in such ominous uncertainty. The presence of Wilmington’s mayor, pictured above with me and the boys, meant that we were surrounded at all times by an honor guard of police on foot and motorcycle. It was safe for my children to walk these streets.
Safer than it is for the kids who live there. According to Wilmington’s local paper The New Journal, as of September 2015 there have been 91 shootings in Wilmington, many of them in this very neighborhood. Twenty people have died.
Peace and justice are so hard to come by even so close to my suburban home where my children ride their bikes to the neighborhood pool without thinking twice. But of course that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Just a few weeks later and fewer than 100 miles away, Freddie Gray would die in a police van in Baltimore. And we’ve all seen pictures of the tens of thousands of migrants are washing up on the shores of Europe, desperate to escape the war in their own countries; we’ve heard the cries of the oppressed in Honduras where gangs rule the cities and where violence is so endemic that children have traveled hundreds of miles without their parents to make it to the United States in hopes of a better life. We know of governments that bomb their own people, corrupt officials who are indifferent or worse, and racial and economic inequalities that persist around the globe.
So what is there to be done?
The Wilmington Peacekeepers know. They know that answering violence with peace, that getting out into the streets and caring about the community is the first step in reclaiming justice and peace for all in the city.
The United Nations also knows that without peace and justice, sustainable societies are not possible. That’s why they’ve identified creating Peace and Justice and Strong Institutions as one of their Global Goals.
The United Nations (UN) has identified 16 other Sustainable Development Goals, intended to set the world’s agenda for the next 15 years. The 17 goals will be officially adopted at the UN Sustainable Development Summit from September 25 to 27, 2015 in New York City.
These goals are meant to be a framework for concrete actions, a global to-do list that makes the world a better place for everyone. And since the UN is trying to tell 7 billion people about this important work before the summit, you too can help, by sharing your stories and finding like-minded people working for change. Here’s how:
- Follow #GlobalGoals or #SustainableDevelopment on your social media channels;
- Follow @UN and @TheGlobalGoals on Twitter and pass on the messages they share;
- Like Global Goals on Facebook;
- Follow The Global Goals on Instagram and share a Global Goals selfie;
- Check out the myriad materials on the #GlobalGoals website including films (here’s an animated one for kids), and a comic book. There are even lesson plans for your kids’ teachers.
I offer shout-outs to the organizations in northern Delaware who are working on Goal Number 16 without thinking twice about it, who hope to shine the light of peace and justice in dark and dangerous corners. We can all look for and support the people doing this work in our own communities, or communities just up the road, give money, time, or vocal support to their efforts.
Giving up hope isn’t an option.
The last station on our walk took place in the sanctuary of the church where we were invited to pin our petitions to a cross at the front. When I asked Tommy what his prayer was, he said “Peace Mom. I prayed for peace.”