There are many beautiful services in many houses of worship in Chicago.
But one at Friendship Baptist Church on the West Side on Sunday was more than beautiful.
It was fearless.
And it was full of love and faith, even in the face of a double murder on those very church steps the Sunday before.
You could feel the bravery in the congregation from the moment they began to sing the great spiritual “I Am on the Battlefield for My Lord.” And you could see the strength of it as the husbands, wives, grandparents and children stood together to sing out their praise for God.
That strength was in their smiles, although some smiles trembled a bit at the edges and some eyes were wet, remembering what happened. And strength and kindness was overwhelmingly evident in their grasp, when they held hands and prayed with a stranger among them Sunday.
“We are always reminded of who the enemy is,” the Rev. Dr. Reginald Bachus told me in his office before Sunday’s service began. “Just about this time last Sunday, we were reminded that the thief comes to kill and destroy, to steal your faith, but Jesus won’t let that happen.”
The previous Sunday, a church usher, Emmanuel Fleming, 34, and another man Michael Swift, 46, were shot to death on the steps of that church as Fleming yelled to his three little children to run.
So this where Chicago is now: Murder on the steps of church.
If silence is consent, then Chicago politicians are remarkably silent about murder on church steps in the city. They must like it that way.
Chicago is a war zone on the South and West sides, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has no answers for the gangs that spread terror. The politicians would rather Chicago focus on some easy outrage, like a ginned up controversy over a monument to a dead Italian fascist.
And with so much other news, there’s a danger that what happened on those 10 gray church steps in the Austin neighborhood are passed over. But it shouldn’t be passed over. Not the blood, and not the church coming together in defiance of evil.
Seven days after the double homicide, they gathered in their church in their Sunday best, the children in Sunday school, the adults in Bible study groups.
I was brought into a room of church deacons studying a vicious persecutor of the early Christians, a man who later became the intellectual foundation of the faith: St. Paul.
“Saul was a murderer,” said a deacon. “He’d point out Christians to the Romans and have them killed. But God changed this man, and he became Paul, and God loved him.”
These were strong, tough men in that room, middle-aged African-American men who had seen much and endured plenty. These men weren’t delicate flowers raised in safe spaces.
They had lived lives, raised families, stayed married, and a few had even run the streets in their youth, and knew about the lure of violence and revenge.
So I asked them: Could they possibly love the men who did what they did on the church steps the Sunday before?
“There is no choice,” said a deacon. “Of course we’d love and we’d forgive. It’s difficult. But who said this was easy? It’s not supposed to be easy.”
Upstairs, in his office, before services began, the Rev. Bachus wanted me to know something about the hurt of it all.
“What hurts is that when the gunfire began, the children hit the ground and flattened out, as if in war,” Bachus said. “We’re in a church, in Chicago, and the children know enough to hit the floor when gunshots begin?”
He looked down at his desk, then up at the ceiling, then looked off to the side, then back to me.
“What has happened to us? What has happened to society when little children know to immediately hit the floor? And what does such knowledge do to them?”
According to witnesses, as Fleming and Swift walked up the gray church steps, two men with faces covered in bandanas came around the side of the church with guns drawn. Fleming shouted at his children to run.
The children ran, the church doors opened and the gunshots echoed inside.
“We heard the shots,” longtime church member Sharon Miller told me. “They went pap-pap-pap-pap-pap!! The men ran out to see what happened and then everyone was praying.”
Fleming was of the streets, too, but he’d changed, trying to live a faith-based life, congregation members told me. His funeral was Tuesday.
In July 2016, Fleming had been the victim of another shooting near the church. Another man with him then, Artivis Gladney, 18, was killed, the Tribune reported the other day. An arrest was made in that 2016 Gladney killing.
So Fleming clearly was a witness to his own shooting last year. He may have been gunned down because of it. Police are investigating that angle, but prosecutors declined to comment.
“Fleming’s children sit in the pew right behind the one where you were sitting on Sunday,” Miller told me. “The children were screaming, ‘I want my daddy, I want my daddy.’ It was horrible, like being in a fog of slow motion.”
Rev. Bachus organized a counseling session at the church a few days later.
“Some people said they wouldn’t come back,” Miller said. “But you were there on Sunday. The church was full. We sang. We prayed.”
Brave church. Brave pastor, brave people, the kind of people Chicago can’t afford to lose.
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