‘Taking on violence’ brings out 300 to Wilmington church

 (Andrea Gibbs/WHYY)

(Andrea Gibbs/WHYY)

Nearly 300 people packed the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington on a beautiful Saturday afternoon to seek answers to the ugly gun violence that plagues the city.

The 3-hour-symposium, “Taking on Violence in Wilmington”,  began with opening remarks from the church’s senior pastor, Rev. Dr. Gregory Jones, who thanked attendees for coming out.

“Thank you for being here and thank you for being upset about the violence in our community. Violence is robbing too many of our children and youth of their future. We need to work together to help them find ways to avoid those dangers that are poised to sneer them,” said Jones.

Governor John Carney, D-Delaware, was among the panelists who addressed the audience. As governor, violence in Wilmington, he said, is among the top issues he’s been asked to help remedy. Adding, it’s not just important because it affects the victims and the residents who live in crime-laden neighborhoods but “it affects the success of our city and our state.”

The event, coincidentally, coincided with the recent release of a News Journal, Associated Press and USA Today Network report, which found Wilmington leading the way in gun violence among youth.

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, D-Wilmington, was blunt. “This is our reality and my heavy burden as your mayor. Each shooting, each one is an urgent reminder of our responsibility, my responsibility as chief executive of the city to improve our city in the way that it improves the lives for all of our citizens.”

City Council President Hanifa Shabazz, D-Wilmington, no stranger to gun violence herself, shared why ending violence in Wilmington is a priority to her. “My family too has experienced the plague of violence. My grandson’s father and my grandchildren’s uncles are victims of the gun violence.”

One by one, the speakers talked about efforts underway to combat violence in Wilmington. Governor Carney pointed to education and the creation of jobs. Mayor Purzycki spoke of the need for compassion for victim and perpetrator. And Shabazz highlighted recommendations from the community council, which was commissioned as a result a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that studied the root causes of violence in Wilmington.

The opening remarks all dove-tailed into the message of keynote speaker, the Rev. Gregory J. Boyle, author of “Tattoos On The Heart” and founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, a social enterprise business that employs former gang members.

Boyle, a humble, white hair, bearded man, with a penchant for colorful lanague­-albeit inside a church-entertained the audience with stories of celebrities who have visited Homeboy Cafe. Among them, Vice President Joe Biden, whom he didn’t get to meet, but left him a long voicemail message telling him how he needed to meet his daughter, Ashley, who he met today. She was the final panelist.

Boyle’s message was peppered with faith, compassion and kinship. “We’re called wherever we are in this country to create a community of kinship such that God, in fact, might recognize it. Because no kinship, no peace.  No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no equality.”

Boyle went on to recognize Mayor Purzycki for understanding the importance of kinship. “I have to say that I’ve never heard a public official [mention] having room for our compassion for both victim and perpetrator. That’s kinship. That’s what it looks like,” Rev. Boyle said.

Boyle spoke for nearly an hour on how the “homies,” the name he calls the former gang members who work or associate with Homeboy Industries, have taught him new things and how he’s learned that caring for human beings and helping them heal from hurts is far more crucial than addressing the act of violence alone.

But not all of Boyle’s stories ended with laughter. One in particular was the story he told about José. A man who was beaten unmercifully by his mother during his elementary school years. Boyle said the former abused child, heroin addict and homeless man had finally come to a place of acceptance of his wounds, both physically and mentally, to be able to help others. It’s that acceptance Boyle says is what makes the difference.  “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. For the truth of the matter is if we don’t welcome our own wounds, we will be tempted to despise the wounded and that is what allows you to make room for victim and perpetrator both,” said Boyle.

The event ended with attendees visiting an expo, in the church’s lower level, which featured organizations and programs working to encourage positive youth development.

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