Today heartbreak seized our community upon learning of the gunshot murder of an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior, Elijah Sims. He was fatally wounded last night in the Austin neighborhood.
Initial news accounts noted that Elijah was visiting friends from his old neighborhood—among the most violent and murderous in a violence-and-murder-ravaged Chicago. Shortly beforehand, Elijah had assured his mother, by phone, that he’d be home soon.
If we could turn back the clock, as he ended his call with his mom, we would all urge Elijah (and the 15-year-old he was with, and who was seriously wounded) to sprint across Austin Boulevard and back into Oak Park.
That same inclination to flee from danger, or to steer clear of it in the first place, was reflected by a reader of the story about Elijah’s murder on the Wednesday Journal’s website: “Oak Park kids: don’t go over there!!”
It’s an entirely understandable remark. It’s a reflection of “using your head” and “having a heart” to protect our loved ones. After all, the murder rate is exponentially higher “over there,” on the east side of Austin Boulevard, than “over here,” in relatively safe Oak Park.
Shortly thereafter, another reader voiced a common sentiment in the Wednesday Journal comments section: “So terribly sorry about this.” Then, she continued with a direct response to the previous commenter: “But staying away is not the answer.”
Again, a “heart and head” comment—a heart that anguishes over others’ incomprehensible loss and a head that knows we cannot all simply side-step Austin, and through our well-intentioned thoughts and prayers simply wish away this scourge of violence.
It’s a tension that many of us must face. It’s a tension that is right in my face.
In the “micro”—as for me and my own famly—there is a part of me that worries deeply about my wife and our teen-aged children being in Austin. Yet, it’s a place where we have been attending church since March and where we are increasingly invested emotionally and spiritually.
When I related the news of Elijah’s murder, and that my family now has our church home in Austin, a friend—a man of genuine and fervent faith—said, “Time to find another church.”
It was a variation on the “don’t go over there” admonition to Oak Park kids.
But in the “macro”—my place and my family’s place in the larger fabric of our society—I can’t help but think: Don’t we have a responsibility to try to be part of the solution rather than simply taking steps to run from the problem?
So now, again, we are left with this latest heartbreak that is unspeakably raw for those who personally knew and loved Elijah. To them, I wish God’s peace and comfort to endure and to honor Elijah’s life by living theirs as fully and as lovingly as possible amidst the darkness of their loss.
On an undeniably different level, there is the dull, diffuse heartbreak felt by so many others like me. What are we to do? “Fight or flight” are the two basic choices that kick in when we are confronted by danger and are looking to survive.
While there are countless reactions that are understandable, what’s more relevant, particularly for those who are part of faith communities, is not to settle for mere survival. We must insist on thriving, and an essential step is to frame our response through the filter of fear versus faith.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
So what’s it going to be, fellow Oak Parkers? Which will you feed and nurture and allow to grow?