Last April, during two particularly violent nights in their community, hundreds of people from Chicago's Roseland neighborhood spontaneously gathered outside the emergency department at Roseland Community Hospital.
Gunfire had fatally wounded their neighbors, a young woman and young man, and they were trying to make sense of it, explains the Rev. Phillip Cusic, the hospital's chaplain. He called on his team of 38 volunteer chaplains to pass out bottled water and "walk and talk" among the crowd. Police and security guards were there, too. "So many people filled the streets," he recalls." It looked like Mardi Gras."
Cusic estimates about 200 people showed up the first night and more than 400 the second. It wasn't the first time he's seen the hospital serve as an impromptu public square.
"All I can say is, it happens at Roseland," Cusic says. "We'll see between 40 and 60 people when a person dies. Usually those are just family members cousins, aunts. But when someone dies in the community who's well known, they all show up. The people see the hospital as a place of hope and safety, as a place where they can get support."
In 2011, with the number of gunshot victims coming to the ED on the rise, Cusic and other hospital leaders helped start an anti-violence campaign called Arms Around Roseland. If they could help decrease violent crime and get people talking about what's really going on in the neighborhood, the thinking went, "then we could take those hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to try to save somebody's life when they've been shot and use it for prevention," Cusic says.
The central event was an annual prayer vigil held in July, historically one of the most violent months of the year. But after the April shootings, Cusic, a former community organizer, couldn't sit back and wait. He confided in Larry Mitchell, M.D., the medical director of the emergency department, that "we need to do something immediately."
Mitchell agreed that fixing the neighborhood required more than scalpels and sutures. "This use of guns, hatred, misery and pain, young people shooting each other with no remorse whatsoever we're affected by that," he says. "Our first line is to take care of these kids, do the best we can with them. But it's also important that we give back and do things with the community."
Leaders from more than 50 churches attended the Sunday vigil and accompanying press conference. To keep the momentum going, Arms Around Roseland started biweekly anti-violence walks around the community. About 40 people, distributing anti-violence literature and talking and praying with residents. Having a critical mass of peaceful marchers outside makes the neighbors feel safer, too.
"We go out at 10, 11 o'clock at night, hoping to talk with young people," Cusic says. "When they see us, they come outside the doors." Some feel comfortable enough to talk about their addictions or chronic illnesses. "They'll tell you about their diabetes or blood pressure and you'll see that they're overweight," which can be an opening to share information on healthy behavior and where to get help.
One woman was so excited to see the marchers that she woke her whole family to come outside and pray. "I'm always impressed by that," says Cusic, who spends 30 percent of his work hours outside the hospital, ministering to the community, "that people are stakeholders in the community and don't want to be isolated. We know that sociologically speaking a lot of people are isolated. A lot of them don't go out of a four-block radius. But the need and desire to be connected, that's always amazing to see."
Cusic says that, anecdotally at least, the hospital has seen a decline in gunshot deaths in the ED since the first prayer vigil. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently cited Roseland Community Hospital, along with two other groups, for efforts to pull together the community to reduce violence.
"There's so much we need," says Cusic of his neighborhood. "But the spirit of the people is alive, and when that happens, there's hope."