Rev. Gerald Smith stood on the busy corner at Central Ave. and Jackson Blvd. in Austin last Friday armed with a sound speaker, his faith and what members of his Oak Park congregation, New Life Community Church, have started calling a “purple cross master list.”
“We’re kind of playing catch up, because they’re happening so fast,” said Smith, referencing his mission to pitch purple crosses everywhere gunfire in Austin has led to an injury or death this year.
As of May 23, according to Chicago Police Department data, there have been more than 1,200 shooting victims in the city — the highest rate of gun violence since the 1990s — and no community has been wracked by more of them than Austin.
In Austin’s 15th and 11th police districts, there have been more than 250 shooting incidents this year — more than double the number that occurred in the two districts last year.
Smith’s master list, which is an Excel spreadsheet of crime data obtained from CPD, shows that 54 handgun-related incidents involving injury or death took place in the 15th District between January and April. That’s not including the incidents that have happened since then or the ones that took place in the 11th District.
Since May 7, Smith said, the church, which holds services each Sunday inside the Ernest Hemingway Museum, has planted somewhere between 65 and 70 of the three-foot by two-foot wooden crosses. The pastor said the purple crosses, each of which features the New Life logo neatly on its cross-point, depict “hope as opposed to hopelessness, life as opposed to death, love instead of hatred.”
“We started this because Austin has experienced an upheaval and great tragedy this year,” Smith said. “We started seeing so many people being shot and wondered how we could respond. We felt that apathy was not going to be an acceptable response and wanted to do something that might act as a continual reminder of the violence and raise the moral consciousness of our community.”
A group of people among New Life’s roughly 40 church members buy wood in bulk from Home Depot. They cut and paint the simple markers in their homes, and then go out to the sites to plant them. Sometimes, like the evening of May 20, the act of planting becomes ceremonial — an erstwhile crime scene morphed, by church goers, into an impromptu Sunday service or a graveside gathering.
After Smith made some introductory remarks, Reginald Hughes poured himself into a song, belting out “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” over the bustle of traffic and the occasional siren screams of rushing ambulances, two of which sped past the group within a span of roughly 20 minutes.
“Somebody got shot here,” said Michael McGonigal, a New Life member who lives in Oak Park. McGonigal said he hopes the wooden symbols can shock passersby out of the apathy that works to normalize crises like the city’s outbreak of gun violence.
“We’re trying to memorialize what’s happened,” he said. “Too often you hear on the news about somebody shot or killed and it almost becomes just life as usual or life in Chicago.”
The cross at the corner of Central and Jackson is the first one New Life planted — one day after Mother’s Day, Smith said. The incident it memorializes appears as a clinical, lifeless stat on the Excel spreadsheet.
“Crime_Type: Homicide – 1st or 2nd Degree. Secondary: FIRST DEGREE MURDER. Arrest: N. Location: Other. Domestic: N.”
The victim was a 22-year-old African-American man named Natyia Kyrell Bowen. He was standing in the area near Columbus Park and two major thoroughfares on the afternoon of May 2 — steady traffic and trees flanking him — when someone walked up to Bowen, shot him in the head and torso, and ran. Bowen was pronounced dead at the scene a few hours later, according to media reports.
“I don’t know when people will say, ‘You know that’s enough; we’ve seen enough crosses,'” said Smith. “But I think we need to keep using them as a call to action. I hope that, one day, we’ll never to have plant another cross, but until then, we’ll keep raising the consciousness of the community.”