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James CapplemanMay 19, 2023
Chicago police crime scene tape is posted at the scene of a shooting July 26, 2020. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)

I arrived in Chicago in the 1980s from Houston, a Franciscan friar studying to be a priest. Though I eventually left the order, in 1986, I decided to stay here because I loved the diversity that I found within this city. Now, nearly four decades later, I am completing my third term as an alderman representing Uptown, one of the most diverse communities in the United States. And while this neighborhood faces challenges common in many cities, during my 12 years representing it on the city council, I’ve learned how personal connections can transform lives and communities.

When I left my religious community, I was drawn to a life of service and started down the path toward becoming a social worker. My first job involved resettling refugees within the Uptown community, where over 90 different languages and dialects are spoken each day. The community is a mini-United Nations! It’s not uncommon for me to greet a group of Buddhist monks walking by Muslim women in hijab, or to wave hello to Russian women out for a stroll, speaking to each other in their native tongue. If you love diversity, Uptown is the place to be.

Now, no community is perfect, and that is certainly the case with Uptown. Three warring gang factions have contributed to gun violence in the neighborhood, which led to my increased involvement in neighborhood organizations aimed at improving public safety in the area. One day, a friend asked me to run for alderman, something I had never considered. To everyone’s surprise, mine included, I was elected in 2011, and I was re-elected for two additional 4-year terms.

People voted for me because of my background in social work. Their hope was that I could use my skills to put a dent in the gang violence occurring in the community.

People voted for me because of my background in social work. Their hope was that I could use my skills to put a dent in the gang violence occurring in the community. I got to work, organizing meetings with neighborhood groups and involving local businesses and nonprofits, along with the police, to come up with plans to improve public safety. The organizing skills I had learned as a social worker helped reduce violence, and after a couple of years, violent crime dropped in Uptown to its lowest rate ever recorded.

But the real work of reducing crime also involves addressing its root causes. Those caught up in gang activity needed help to get them on a better path. I made it a habit of keeping literature about job opportunities for people with felony histories on me at all times. As I spoke with gang members, I would talk about these valuable resources, and then I would hand them a flier. While a few took advantage of these resources, there were still gang members who refused help, and they came up with all kinds of excuses for not accepting the assistance that was offered them. As years passed, the gang activity and shootings were still occurring, albeit a lot less frequently. Still, one shooting is one shooting too many.

I remember once walking with a group of guys from one particular gang, and while we were talking, they would frequently look back as if they were on high alert. I pointed that out to them. One guy who seemed a little irritated by my observation told me they had to make sure no one was following them who might try to shoot them.

Why were gang members not taking advantage of these job opportunities that could lead them on the path of establishing a career? Why were they knowingly risking their lives—and the lives of others?

I was both baffled and angry that despite the many challenges some of these men faced, they refused my help. Why were gang members not taking advantage of these job opportunities that could lead them on the path of establishing a career? Why were they knowingly risking their lives—and the lives of others? It made no sense, and it was hard to hide my frustration with them. After some soul searching, I came up with this: What doesn’t make sense to me makes perfect sense to them, and I’m simply not seeing what they’re seeing.

I believe each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, and every person who crosses my path has a message for me to hear. These guys were yearning for respect, as all people deserve, and taking the time to understand their perspective would help me connect better with them. Gaining a grasp on their perspective was God’s lesson for me.

Our conversations with one another continued, but now with a little more patience on my part. Over the course of time, they understood that voters wanted me to crack down on open drug markets, but they still didn’t like seeing me on the street. So, every day when I would pass them on the sidewalk on my way to work, I’d say hello and ask them how they were doing. Their answers were often rather gruff, and some were irritated that I even asked. But I started noticing that they were becoming less hostile each time they saw me.

As a politician, I come across some very angry and judgmental people on a regular basis, and it’s easy to feel defensive. But they are also God’s gift to me.

One day earlier this spring seemed to signal something of a breakthrough.

One of the gang members came up close to my face and started yelling at me, asking me what I could do to heal his broken heart after the love of his life left him. He told me it felt like someone had reached into his heart and yanked it out of his chest. This was a guy who had barely tolerated me, and now he was opening up to discuss his deep pain.

I responded the way any human should interact with someone who is hurting: I acknowledged his grief and I told him I was sorry it was so painful for him. The stern look in his eyes suddenly softened and it became clear we were connecting with one another.

We ended our conversation with me telling him that he was lucky to have loved deeply, so it made complete sense that the pain would be intensely felt as well. In spite of all that pain, he was a better man for taking the risk of giving his heart to someone he loved. With that, he gave me a little smile and a fist bump.

We connected, and given the amount of hurt and anger these men experience on a daily basis, it will always be one day at a time as I interact with them. As a politician, I come across some very angry and judgmental people on a regular basis, and it’s easy to feel defensive. But they are also God’s gift to me. Our paths cross to allow me another opportunity to learn a lesson about witnessing the presence of God in each person that crosses my path. I retired on May 15 from elected office, but I expect many more opportunities for other lessons to learn.

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