GARFIELD PARK – Looked at from a distance, the scene in the lower level of Purcell Hall in West Garfield Park could easily have been mistaken for some kind of church gathering. Perhaps even a bazaar or informal social.
A groundskeeper at the facility stopped a woman en route to the gathering to ask what was going on. He wondered whether or not a group had commandeered the basement for a steppers set. No, the woman explained patiently. The group was here to quilt.
But the man’s guess wasn’t too far off considering the surprisingly jovial atmosphere; surprising because those who streamed in and out of the facility at 4300 W. Washington included friends and relatives of murdered gun violence victims.
The Aug. 23 event was part of the Mother’s Dream Quilt Project, sponsored by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The organization’s local chapters have hosted similar events this summer in cities nationwide since May. The project, organizers say, brings a sense of healing for those directly affected by gun violence. St. Sabina Church on the South Side hosted an earlier quilting event in May.
At Purcell Hall Saturday, at least 80 people participated throughout the course of the day, with tables filled with vibrant fabrics of various textures, colors and hues.
After cutting the fabric, the quilters were directed to one of several sewing stations setup along the room’s perimeter. Some participants were more hands-on than others. Bypassing the services of the onsite sewing experts, they brought fabrics of their own choosing to stitch together on what the organization promises to be one gigantic quilt.
The day was a patchwork of feelings as well. Family and friends of victims interacted warmly, playfully, and, sometimes tearfully with volunteers like Mindy Winkle.
A member of her church’s quilting group, Winkle came Saturday from Hawthorn Woods after receiving information about the event online. This is her first Moms quilting event, but she said that it won’t be her last.
“It’s been enriching and inspiring,” she said. “It breaks my heart to hear their stories. This is a nice way to heal. It really does bring home the stories — makes those stories I hear about on the news very real, especially when someone sitting right across from you is talking about their daughters or grandparents or sons. It’s not just a story, really. It becomes the truth.”
Winkle plans to come to another event and wants other members of her church quilting group to get involved.
Erin Hill, an advocacy leader for Moms Demand Action, said the purpose of these quilting events is to promote the kind of understanding and empathy that comes from face-to-face interactions. This kind of outreach, she added, may be able to carve space for dialogue leading to effective gun regulations.
“A lot of our members aren’t necessarily affected directly by gun violence, but they cry every time they read the newspaper,” Hill said. “We’re working really hard to make change. We want legislators to know that there are many members in their districts who want more safeguards [with respect to gun usage] under existing laws.”
The organization has launched a public awareness campaign for more effective gun laws.
“We want to know why legislators aren’t sitting in this room with us,” Hill said, adding that organization’s driving purpose is to promote dialogue about the consequences of guns in America.
The people affected, she said, are real people, not symbols or cases or news stories. People like Lorraine Mahaffrey, who showed off her finished patch as if it were jewelry.
“Royal blue was his favorite color,” she said of her grandson, Carnice Morgan.
“He had to wear it as a school uniform. When he was in eighth grade, he wore this royal blue walking suit with white shoes that had royal blue trim,” she said, beaming.
Morgan, 22, was shot in the head in 2010 as part of what Mahaffrey believes was a gang initiation. He was just walking down Lake Street in Austin, she recalled.
Alice Norris brought her own material to the event: two of her daughter’s favorite outfits.
She was sitting in front of a volunteer quilter, waiting to see the final patch. Norris’s daughter, Rolanda LaKeisha Marshall, was a singer, a poet and a Chicago Bulls fan who loved the color purple. She loved it so much that she wrote a poem about it, which was printed in her obituary.
“The color of love is purple; a royal color, a color that is loyal,” the poem begins.
On Aug. 28, 1993, Marshall was shot inside of a Beefee restaurant at 5267 W. North Ave. She was 14-years old and had just graduated from Portage Park School.
Not long before her death, she wore an outfit to her eighth-grade luncheon, the remnants of which her mother clutched tightly in one hand at the quilting event Saturday. In the other, Norris held part of a shirt her daughter wore when she sang the Black National Anthem at the DuSable Museum while attending a gifted course in African-American history.
Nine days after the shooting on Sept. 6, Norris took her daughter off of life support. This month marks the 21st anniversary of Marshall’s shooting. Norris said she’s planning a vigil outside of the restaurant in commemoration.
“I used to wear something purple every day,” said Norris, a founding member of Purpose Over Pain, an organization created in 2007 for parents who have lost children to gun violence. Currently, the organization has about 40 members.
“The membership grows every month,” Norris said.
Matilda Llorens lost her grandson, John Llorens, 35 years ago when an intruder came into his home and shot him to death. There were items stolen, but John’s three-year-old child, who was there when it happened, was unharmed. The case has never been solved.
Llorens was busy Saturday sewing her own square patch from pieces she and her granddaughter Julie Richardson, and her great-granddaughter Angelica Richardson, picked from the center table. They’d picked three pieces of fabric, including one that featured musical notes and other that was psychedelic.
John, 23, played lead guitar in a band he formed along with his two brothers, Mike, who played drums, and Tony, the keyboardist. Mike would go on to play with such artists as Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Muddy Waters.
“He was a big fan of Jimi Hendrix, so that was the reason for the psychedelic piece,” Richardson said. “The musical notes were added as flourishes because he was a musician who played blues, jazz and classical music. We picked the piece with the trees because Matilda has a big family. She has 10 children and dozens of grandchildren who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, actresses and musicians. All of them finished college.”
Llorens has lived on Adams Street in Austin since 1962. She said her family was the first black family to move into the neighborhood, and a lot has happened in the 50 years since. While reflecting on her family’s deep history in Austin, Richardson thought about John. The quilting experience, she said, has brought his presence rushing back to her.
“It’s made me think of things I hadn’t thought of in years. It brought back stuff I had forgotten. I think about him everyday, but just who he was came back to me when I was putting these squares together.”
Michael Romain is founder and editor of TheVillageFreePress.org