Death in Chicago: Tribune story shines in reporting nuns' response

While most media obsess over the primaries, people are still dying on our streets -- one of them in front of a monastery in Chicago.

But he didn’t die forgotten: The resident nuns plan to lead a peace walk tonight.

Nor did the Chicago Tribune overlook this wound dealt to a community: It produced a gentle, heartfelt newsfeature that at once captures the grief and serves as an advance for the event.

Written by Godbeat veteran Manya Brachear Pashman, the story first sets the Benedictine nuns in their neighborhood, then quickly gears up to the emergency:

Neighbors of St. Scholastica Monastery in the Rogers Park neighborhood occasionally see the Roman Catholic sisters who live there, either gardening or leaving to run errands or go to work. They wave and take comfort knowing the religious women have them in their prayers.
Then last weekend, one of the nuns showed up on their doorsteps. Shaken by news that an 18-year-old man had been fatally shot steps from the sisters' home, she put fliers on doorknobs and fence posts and chatted up passers-by, urging neighbors to help the sisters reclaim the crime scene as a place of peace.
On Wednesday, the nuns and their neighbors will gather at the corner of Seeley and Birchwood avenues to walk silently toward the scene of the crime and pray for Antonio Robert Johnson, the man who died there.
"It's important to have our neighbors know we're an oasis for peace in the area," said Sister Benita Coffey, the sister in charge of promoting social justice for the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago. "We've been on this property since 1906 and we are not getting up and leaving the neighborhood. We're going to support our neighbors in whatever ways we can."

The Tribune backgrounds us on similar actions by the Benedictines: "The Chicago women have been outspoken against excessive military spending, capital punishment, human trafficking and torture."  They also held a vigil in September 2014 when a man was killed across the street from the monastery.

We learn that the march route was suggested by a police sergeant, who retraced the victim's likely last steps. In a vivid passage, we read that the nuns didn’t see the shots -- just the results:

All Coffey knows is that her sisters heard gunshots that afternoon and saw Johnson's body lying in the street right before they entered the chapel for evening prayers.
"I don't know what his affiliations were or whether he was a totally innocent bystander. It's not important to me," Coffey said. "That's not why I'm doing it — because he was a good boy or a bad boy. A young man was killed."

That's a strong blend of scene setting and insight into the Benedictines' beliefs.  I wonder if a non-specialist in religion writing would have brought that out?

We also hear from a neighbor, April Gutierrez, who says she's glad the nuns are organizing a way to grieve together and to stand against violence. The woman, who is training to be a Methodist minister, sounds rather courageous herself: "While going outside now makes Gutierrez nervous, she said it's absolutely necessary to make her two children safe. She purposely has arranged chairs in her front yard as an invitation for neighbors and children to gather there."

The Tribune is less sharp-edged in the nuns' attitude toward guns. It has Sister Coffey saying her community opposes gun violence as a form of torture. But the focus for the peace walk seems to be on violence and alienation in general.

I would have also liked to read the reaction of the Archdiocese of Chicago to the planned procession. Maybe Archbishop Blase Cupich would be sympathetic toward it. Maybe he'd want to distance himself from it.  Would have been interesting to know.

None of the above takes away from the article's qualities as a poignant parable on what a neighborhood goes through after a shooting -- and how people of faith can share that grief and perhaps turn it into something better. A specially touching part will be when the procession reaches the shooting site: "the sisters will pour holy water near where his body fell and pray for peace."

I hope the Chicago Tribune covers the walk tonight. It might well yield some gripping photos, video and interviews.

Photos: Handheld gun, by Jesper Noer via

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