Left, Sister Donna watches as Darius Clark works on a rap song at the Precious Blood Ministries Center; middle, Sister Carolyn chats with Paris Smith at the center; right, Missionary of the Precious Blood Father Dave Kelly, director of PBMR.
CHICAGO – In a room at the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation (PBMR) Center the police officer was waiting for the young man. Precious Blood Sister Donna (M. Dolorine) Liette sensed the officer was anxious. She was, too.
The 16-year-old had been convicted of breaking into the officer’s home. As part of the criminal case, juvenile court gave the young man and the officer the option of participating in a healing circle at PBMR where they could meet, share their stories and mend a fractured relationship. Though the officer had agreed to the session, he acted curt as he arrived at the center, his voice clipped as he asked when the young man would arrive.
During the circle, the young man expressed his remorse and regret for his actions. The officer spoke of the harm done to his family; telling how his young daughter was frightened by the break-in and had trouble sleeping in their home. As they talked, they began to understand each other. Attitudes softened. At the end of the session, when asked what each would need to begin to heal, the officer took out a piece of paper, jotted down his phone number and gave it to the young man. He urged the young man to stay in school and to call him, offering to be a friend, someone to talk with, a father figure.
Sister Donna likes to tell that story as an example of the restorative work being done through (PBMR) in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood on the city’s violent south side. Hurting people hurt people and healing is needed for the violence to stop.
“That’s what we’re really about, restoring broken relationships,” said Sister Donna, who has ministered at PBMR since 2010. “Victims and offenders need to tell stories and see that their lives aren’t really that much different. Negatives turn into positives.”
Based in a former parish school, the PBMR Center sits about 10 miles and a world away from the glitter of Chicago’s Loop. In the neighborhood, however, it is an oasis, where local youth can come for recreation, enrichment, social time, companionship, mentoring and food. It’s an alternative to the streets.
“The center is very important to the community,” said Jonathan Little, a college student who is employed at PBMR. “It’s the only place in the community that reaches out to the youth. It gives them somewhere they can go and be themselves. There are people they can talk with about personal issues.”
The core PBMR staff includes Sisters Donna and Carolyn (M. Agnese) Hoying, Missionaries of the Precious Blood Fathers Dave Kelly and Denny Kinderman in a collaborative ministry along with other staff and volunteers. In addition to operating the center, they offer healing circles, minister to youth who are incarcerated and to mothers who have lost loved ones to violence or incarceration. They participate in a project that enables juvenile offenders to earn money to make restitution to their victims.
Sister Donna is all smiles as she hugs and high-fives the youth at the center, some of whom stand a head taller. Weekly she ministers to kids in detention. She’s with them when they go to court and supports their loved ones through the process.
She prays each night that they are alive the next morning.
The neighborhood is peppered with vacant lots, boarded up homes and businesses protected with iron bars. Gang violence and shootings are routine. Last September a group opened fire on a basketball court a few blocks from PBMR, wounding 13 people, including a 3-year-old and making international news. It’s here, in the heart of a fractured community, that Sisters Donna and Carolyn see Precious Blood spirituality manifest itself and challenge them.
“You see the Pascal Mystery every day,” Sister Donna said. “Every day you see suffering. Every day you see hurt and pain, but you can also see transformation and new life. You can feel that it’s all redeemable. It’s all transformable. Eventually, life does come out of all this suffering. It is our hope.”
Blood flows from the violence, yet the Precious Blood restores life, she explained. She further experiences her spirituality in the building of relationships and bringing “those far off” close through peacemaking circles and restorative practices.
At the same time, the heartbreak is unavoidable. On a wall in the center a cross made of foam board is covered with the names of youth who have been lost to violence. She recalls a young boy she met in juvenile detention being fatally shot while sitting in front of his house. The center is decorated with murals of youth who have been killed.
The Sisters turn to prayer and their community to cope and gain strength.
“I have to have time for prayer,” Sister Donna said. “I feel it when I don’t have quality time for prayer. Prayer is really, really important. You just have to stay connected to Scripture and prayer. I need to have that spiritual foundation or I couldn’t do it.”
Sister Carolyn joined Sister Donna at PBMR in late 2012 after a sabbatical. She oversees a vegetable garden, visits youth in juvenile detention, helps track finances and provides community with Sister Donna. She also enjoys ministering to the kids.
“They’re all just children of God,” Sister Carolyn said. “They’ve just been born into a story they can’t change. It’s hard to break out of some of it.”
PBMR dates to 2001 when four Missionaries of the Precious Blood began talking about the issues surrounding youth coming out juvenile detention or victims of violence, explained Father Dave Kelly, who directs PBMR and has worked for years with those incarcerated. Churches were closing and the priests realized a need for something new.
Fathers Kelly and Kinderman began the ministry in a small apartment at a parish and soon moved to the current location. Today they share the building with a Chicago Public School program for at-risk kids who are working on graduation. The school, courts and social service agencies partner with PBMR. They work with about 75 kids at the center and hundreds more who are incarcerated. In solidarity with the neighborhood, they live near the center.
“We’ve developed a niche,” Father Kelly said. “I think we have a good reputation among those we serve and have a good reputation with our collaborative partners. We’re dealing with a lot of young people who have pretty severe needs and so it’s pretty labor intensive. The ministry is about relationships, not about physical things.”
Little by little, PBMR is making a difference. Seven youth associated with the center are attending college. Another young man, Darius Clark, is a budding rapper who has garnered more than 165,000 views on his YouTube video. Clark uses keyboards and computers available at the center to develop his music. “After I came here I just fell in love with it. All my friends come here, too, and we are all together anyway,” Clark said. “Sisters Donna and Carolyn are angels! They help me out and support me. I love them so much.”
Through their ministry, Sisters Donna and Carolyn advocate for their kids. Most people don’t understand that the youth have little support at home, limited resources and minimal access to a decent education. They live in generational poverty. Yet, they have more talent, creativity and survival skills than many people.
All of which can be brought to the table.
That’s why the Sisters shudder when they see people dismissing their youth with labels and stereotypes, refusing to see all that these youth have to offer.
“Our society is losing out because we haven’t given these kids the opportunity to be everything they can be,” Sister Donna said. “We’re often a voice for the voiceless. We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do as women and men dedicated to the Precious Blood and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
– Story and photos by Dave Eck