By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – While an estimated 500,000 individuals are expected to descend on Washington, D.C. on Saturday for March for Our Lives in protest of national gun violence following last month’s Parkland school massacre, students from two parishes from the Archdiocese of Chicago will be making the trek to the nation’s capitol not only to push for tighter restrictions on guns, but also as an act of racial solidarity.
Father Manuel Dorantes, pastor of Immaculate Conception in Chicago’s Brighton Park, and Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina’s in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, are leading the joint initiative, where more than 100 students from both parishes – one a predominantly Latino parish and the other African-American – are marking a rare convergence between two groups where gun violence has “blurred the distinction between black and Latino.”
Father Dorantes told The Tablet that the Sunday after the Parkland shooting – which occurred on Ash Wednesday – he dedicated his homily to the subject of gun violence and the havoc it’s wreaked on both the nation and his parish’s own neighborhood.
“Often people come together in times of pain,” said Father Dorantes. “The pain experienced in Parkland was our pain and it’s our time to unite. It was the first Sunday of Lent and for me, it was part of the journey. The mystery that we live-the liturgical mystery of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, we were actually living in our very own experience…this is a reality that our families have known the last few years.”
“We have been through this cycle of suffering, death, and then resurrection happening in our neighborhood, and it was a time to unite with the suffering people of Parkland through prayer,” Father Dorantes said.
As he concluded his homily, Father Dorantes reminded his congregation that “as Catholics and Christians, we believe that life is sacred and the right to life is a higher right than the right to bear an assault rifle.”
“We as people of faith and people that have experienced the suffering caused by high power rifles, it was our time to speak up also and join the people of Florida,” he said.
After Mass, two of the high school students in his parish approached him and asked what they could do to join in solidarity with the students from Florida. He told The Tablet that while they first considered doing something on a local level, they eventually decided they wanted to be a part of the national movement.
Father Dorantes said the sentiment among the students at his parish was undivided. “For them, this happened in Parkland and it happened to them once, and it has created an entire movement. But, we have had to endure 49 shootings in our neighborhood last school year and more than 30 killed from 2017-2018.”
He assured the students of his support and said he didn’t know how, but they would find a way to secure the funding to make the trip to Washington possible.
You Are Not Alone
One of those students, 16-year-old Diego Garcia, created a video, where in front of a group of fellow classmates, he reached out to the Parkland survivors with one message: “You are not alone.”
Garcia then announced that his parish was raising funds to go to Washington and asked for support from anyone that could offer assistance.
“The Church is where the youth have found a sense of belonging and refuge,” Garcia said. “Our goal is for us to be the voice of those who are no longer with us.”
What happened next, Father Dorantes said, he never could have predicted.
The video was then shared on Twitter by a Parkland shooting survivor and within 24-hours the video had received 250,000 views. Soon thereafter, Father Dorantes received a phone call from his former parish – St. Clement’s -located in the more affluent neighborhood of Lincoln Park, saying they would send financial assistance. Next, he received a call from Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown saying they would cover the costs for the students’ housing in D.C.
And just when Father Dorantes was trying to process such unexpected generosity, he received a phone call from Pilar and Alexandra Peña – the two aunts of Parkland survivor Andrea Peña – saying she had seen Garcia’s video and wanted to underwrite the rest of the trip for the students.
Solidarity Among Survivors
As momentum for the trip to D.C. built, Dorantes reached out to another local priest, Father Pfleger, who has been a long-time advocate for racial justice. Father Pfleger was also organizing a group from his parish to travel to Washington and they decided to join forces.
The priest, in turn, invited students from Immaculate Conception to join students from his parish to meet with survivors from Parkland who traveled to Chicago last weekend for a sharing session.
Father Dorantes told The Tablet that the adults tried to stay out of the conversation and let the students direct the conversation where, through tears, they traded stories of survival in an age of gun violence.
He recalls one student from Parkland reflecting on his experience from the day: “After the entire day, what I feel is pain and what is very difficult to me is the realization that all I went through and the pain that I have suffered as a survivor of the Parkland shooting – all of that happened in a single day, and I’ve been through so much pain, and you guys have gone through this for most of your lives, you’ve lived like this.”
The students from St. Sabina’s and Immaculate Conception experienced a new sense of solidarity with the victims from Parkland, as well as at home within their own community, as they cope with gun violence that has come to define their daily lives.
As another student remarked to Dorantes after the meeting, “When the bullets go through our skin, the color of the blood is the same.”
“Because We’re Catholic”
As the students from both parishes depart from Chicago on Friday afternoon for the 15-hour bus ride to Washington, they will begin with a prayer service at St. Sabina’s and a blessing from Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich.
Father Dorantes says he’s lost 20 young people in his parish in the last two years to gun violence, and is tired of burying the next generation and hopes this is a turning point for both Chicago and the country.
Over the past month, he says he’s been in consistent awe of the indefatigable efforts of young people, the generosity of strangers who have helped to raise over $23,000 to make it all possible, and the enduring faith of his congregation.
“It’s these kids, yes, but it’s our faith that helps us unite,” the priest said. “It’s because we’re Catholic that we’re going there.”
Such a conviction is shared by 16-year-old Garcia, who told The Tablet that’s it’s for that very reason that he turned to his pastor for support.
“Being Catholic, I believe that everyone has a right to life no matter who they are,” Garcia said.
“So many people have been shot and so many lives have been taken-something so small, like a weapon, took their lives away,” he continued. “I’m hoping for a lot of people this whole movement isn’t going to end on March 24, and we’re going to keep it going afterwards.”
Father Dorantes said that many of his parishioners are immigrant families from Mexico and Central America who have lived their lives in fear and in the shadows – but he believes the events of recent weeks have emboldened them.
“They see the injustices in our neighborhood that occur every day and stay quiet, but what’s been powerful is that when I talk to them I remind them that their children are U.S. citizens, they’ve grown up in this community and in this country. One of the blessings that it guarantees us is the right to free speech,” said Father Dorantes.
“To see their kids really put into action their free speech that is inspired by their faith, and that it’s their church that is encouraging them to go out, that’s what we’re trying to highlight,” he said.
“It’s part of our pro-life stance if we really believe life is sacred from conception to natural death,” he concluded. “We need to bring the Church’s voice into this and I want you people of faith to have a voice in this conversation.”