Peacemaking circles become a way of living on Chicago’s South Side

“Four friends of mine were killed this summer,” Jonathan Little tells a group of college students visiting Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, a kind of peace zone in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The young man’s voice is somber but composed, as if he has taken the full measure of this abyss of suffering. He has decided that it’s his duty to honor the dead by methodically pushing on with the work — the quest, really — of finding a way out of the storm of violence that bears down on the young in the precincts of poverty and institutionalized racism on the South Side of Chicago.

While he was still in high school, Jonathan came to Precious Blood and found something that went beyond the typical responses to the wave of violence engulfing his community. Instead of ineffectual hand-wringing, edifying utopian optimism or the punitive sledgehammer of the law, this project — housed in a nondescript building only yards from the border separating one gang’s territory from another — takes a different tack: reweaving the web of life torn by crime and punishment.

Precious Blood is bent on reconciliation, and has launched a raft of creative projects to help make this a reality: theater arts, community mural painting, rituals of hope and healing, and mentoring that connects adults with youth transitioning out of the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. There is an Arts of Peace Center, where participants express themselves and their reality through drawing, rapping, video production and building websites. These efforts sometimes become experiments in feeling one’s way into a new story — visually, dramatically, poetically, digitally and relationally — that often opens up options that didn’t seem to be there before.

Nowhere is the importance of a transformed story more alive than in the flurry of Peacemaking Circles that Jonathan and others lead virtually on a daily basis at the center. A Peacemaking Circle is a practice of restorative justice that seeks an alternative to the traditional approaches of the criminal justice system. It seeks to address and repair the harm that has been done to the victim and the community, but also to not give up on the perpetrator. It does this, as the ministry’s website says, by reaching out

to the victim, the wrongdoer, and the community to create a safe space where healing can begin and where people can find the support and encouragement needed to begin reconciliation. We strive to be a resource to the community to find restorative ways to heal and rebuild after violence and conflict.

This approach stands in contrast to the official U.S. criminal justice system. While the courts often call on the victim to corroborate the charge, she or he is not offered means of healing. Peacemaking Circles offer a way to focus on healing for all.

This, however, is not easy. All parties have to be willing to touch the pain of violence. But the payoff is the possibility of creating a new collective story together, one rooted in “who we are” before getting to “what we did.” As Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation director Fr. Dave Kelly, C.P.P.S., stresses, good does not come from tragedy, but “good can come out of us when we wrestle with disappointment and suffering … good comes out of us in spite of the tragedy.”

The power of the Peacemaking Circle lies in fostering an environment of respect, confidentiality, listening and truth telling. Composed of victims, wrongdoers and members of the community, it creates a container designed to hold anger, frustration, joy, truth, conflict, opposite opinions and strong feelings. The Peacemaking Circle process maintains that no one has the complete truth and strives to create a bigger picture. It does this using shared agreements, rituals, symbols and a talking piece held by the person who asks to speak. A Circle Keeper — what we otherwise might call a facilitator — guides the process. (For a summary of the Peacemaking Circles method, click here.)

There is no guarantee that transformation will take place. But one of the assumptions of Peacemaking Circles is that something good can come out of this process. In the years that Precious Blood has been facilitating Peacemaking Circles, it has seen this repeatedly. As part of an innovative arrangement with the courts in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, a judge can offer some offenders the option of participating in a Peacemaking Circle at Precious Blood. Though Peacemaking Circles do not conduct trials — which could re-traumatize the victim — under some circumstances the process can be held in lieu of a court trial. In other cases, some convicted offenders are offered a choice: sentencing by the court or participating in a Peacemaking Circle, which will focus on creating an outcome that is most healing and transforming for the victim, the wrongdoer and the community. The program has been so successful that six other judges in the area are considering offering this alternative in the near future.

Stories of the Peacemaking Circle process are riveting.

A young man who robbed a house agreed to participate in a circle with the owner. By sharing their pieces of the truth in this safe environment, both experienced a shift in thinking and feeling. Now the young man has joined the basketball team the owner coaches.

Charged with battery, a young man agreed to meet with his victim. Through the Peacemaking Circle he learned that his victim was mentally challenged. This came as an unexpected and stunning revelation, and he felt compelled to repair the harm that he had done. He learned that the boy he had attacked liked video games, and he offered to teach him how to play some of his new games.

A drunk driver ran a red light and, colliding with another car, killed a man who left behind a wife and several young children. The offender served a lengthy prison sentence. When one of the children was older, she wondered if the wrongdoer ever thought about the damage he had done. Approached about holding a Peacemaking Circle in this case, Fr. Dave contacted all parties and they agreed to take part. Their Peacemaking Circle lasted a day and a half. (Most are typically a couple of hours.) The widow and her children shared their wrenching pain and how all their lives had instantly and catastrophically changed. The offender shared his deep trauma at the horror he had inflicted and had thought about it every day since then. At the end of the circle, the children forgave the perpetrator. Their mother couldn’t, but asked to stay in touch with the man. After six months of emailing, she, too, decided to forgive him.

Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation facilitates Peacemaking Circles for many groups. It holds regular sessions for family members who have lost children to violence, in English and Spanish. It holds weekly Peacemaking Circles for the larger community. It is often called in to schools.

And now it is going farther afield. It is about to train eight community organizations in the South and West Sides of Chicago to bring this process to their parts of the city. And this summer Jonathan Little presented their work to an appreciative restorative justice conference in California. There is a growing community of Circle Keepers in Chicago and elsewhere, and they are slowly bringing this process into many settings.

While this process is beginning to get traction in some places, it is clear that the Peacemaking Circle’s methods and assumptions would be transformative at every level of our society and our world. Sooner rather than later we must enter the age of restorative justice, and Precious Blood — where the circle is a way of living — is pointing us in this direction.

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