By Michael Romain
Saturday, May 18, 2013, Maywood – When Patrick Winters got to the podium he held out the bullhorn that served as the event’s impromptu sound system and with it reproduced the blare of emergency sirens. “This is the sound we hear every time our children are killed! This is the sound we’re trying to drown out of our community!”
Winters stood on a wooden stage foregrounded by a fenced-in gazebo that is dilapidated and weathered. In the past, the gazebo may have been the focal point of this gathering, but now it is inaccessible and unused. Hand-colored posters enlivened the fencing around the gazebo, but didn’t quite offset or mute the dying structure’s dirge presence — a dark reminder that in the past this event most likely would not have been needed. And an even darker reminder that that past is gone.
This was billed as a night of prayer for Maywood (“Taking Maywood Back” was the theme on the program), planned and executed by Billy Fowlkes and Ruby Carswell, the stewards of a ministry they call the Covenant Daughters of IAM ‘Elohim’. Carswell, the ministry’s founder, desires to have her organization’s prayers issue forth and support the Village as a chamber supports a heart. Fowlkes, an evangelist and the ministry’s executive assistant, said he was motivated to do something after returning to Maywood from Memphis, TN, and noticing that the Village in which he grew up was not the Village to which he returned.
Fowlkes claims that his family was one of the first that settled in Maywood. His grandmother, Arwilder Fowlkes, was apparently the second black student who graduate from Proviso East and Washington Elementary. She was also one of the organizers of Second Baptist Church in Maywood. And Fowlkes’s father was the first black athletic director of District 89.
Currently, Billy Fowlkes serves as a volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club on 200 S. Fifth Avenue. He observes young people like 19-year-old DaShamone McCarty practically everyday. When he convened the first planning meeting for this night of prayer about a month ago, McCarty was still alive. There were about ten or twelve people who came at his invitation, including Mayor-elect Edwenna Perkins and former mayoral candidate Nicole Gooden. Before the meeting, Folwkes piled a stack of West Suburban Journal newspapers headlining the case of one-year-old Bryeon Hunter on the table where attendees were to sit — a reminder of sorts of why they were there.
Now, two days after McCarty’s shooting death, the program acquired a fresh relevance. “We are losing too many kids over nonsense!” Fowlkes blared into the bullhorn, which, like the gazebo, seemed freighted with symbolism. The microphone system at the podium had proven useless, because the electricity in the park at 4th and Oak had abruptly cut off.
The complication sent Fowlkes into a conspiratorial tantrum. “I need you to write that Maywood cut our power off!” he told me when I arrived. Fowlkes would eventually settle for the more crackly alternative. The persistent presence of the bullhorn, ironically, would add to the event a layer of protestation, of urgency, that makes a microphone staid by comparison. Prayers mouthed from bullhorns seem aesthetically more political, more worldly, than prayers mouthed from mics.
Fowlkes formally opened the ceremony with a moment of silence for Bryeon Hunter. He began reading from Philippians 4:6-9. “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God…” After his scripture, Fowlkes introduced the night’s moderator, Angela Taylor Brown, who followed Prophetess Ruby Carswell, the ceremony’s co-planner.
Carswell ascended the stage dressed in a gleaming white power suit that she seems to have trademarked. She’d worn a similar white suit at the first planning meeting. It is as if Carswell, a reformed drug addict and herself the mother of a son who was shot in Maywood, wants to constantly remind herself and others of her unlikely transformation. She may literally wear her testimony, her deliverance, on her sleeves.
Once she got the podium, Carswell immediately went into a sermonic sing-song, prayers interlacing scriptures interlacing declarations interlacing rapid-fire, indecipherable glossolalia. “We call for the power of the holy ghost to step in right now!” The crowd, enraptured by her charisma, responded with calls of affirmation.
Fowlkes had directed the crowd of about seventy to form an interlocking circle of unity as different speakers approached the podium. At the circle’s focal points were several children holding handmade banners with anti-violence messages. Prayers followed prayers. “We believe this is going to be a catalyst for the Holy Spirit!” one man prayed. “We stomp the devil out of Maywood in Jesus’ name!” prayed Fowlkes. “We want to know why our children are dying!”
Once the circle was broken and people went back to their seats, the camp revival atmosphere shifted somewhat to that of a public memorial, with several people’s personal accounts of the way Maywood used to be sounding more like elegies than nostalgic reminiscences. There was another moment of silence for baby Hunter and DaShamone McCarty.
Sonja McCoy, a 26-year employee of Loyola and lifelong Maywoodian who runs Eternal Light Community Services, an organization that facilitates positive programming for the town’s youth, talked about her own youth in the Village. “I remember when,” she said as a refrain, providing a litany of things that once were, but are no longer. Swift merry-go-rounds. Softball games at Winfield Park. Tag at the Rec. The swirly slide at Water Works Park. The A&P. The time when Maywood had not one, but two libraries.
If McCoy’s version of Maywood was paradisaical, Debra Spears’s Maywood was paradise lost. Maywood was her home. She shared McCoy’s enthusiasm about everything the town offered in its heyday. But then things changed. “It got to a point where I had to leave Maywood,” said Spears, who spoke later on in the program. “I lost my son to gun violence in 2003. I had to leave the house where I was raised. I had neighbors who were selling drugs,” she said. Spears, whose son lived for more than a year after he was shot, said that she reached out to the Board, the police, the Mayor. “They still did nothing.”
“I love Maywood. I was raised here,” said Stacy Kemp. “I remember having fights with some of my best friends. Now kids fight and one ends up dead and one is going to the penitentiary.”
Kemp is an ex-convict. “In a lot of different situations they don’t allow us to speak out! We need the community to allow us to speak to these kids!” He said that he is only one of many who are typically silenced because of their past. “There are a lot of us…My story is not unique. I’m just up here talking. There are thousands of us!” And then Kemp’s talk took an unexpected turn into economics. “I hate to get into the business of the correctional system, but if it don’t make money, it don’t make sense,” he said.
Minister Noel Caffey III was dressed in a suit and tie, a serious-looking man who looked no older than twenty-five. He delivered a kind of sermonette, riffing on a rap song by Nas entitled, “I Know I Can.” He ended his brief performance by reciting the lyrics. “If I just work hard at it, I can be what I want to be!” After getting down from the stage, Caffey donned an accessory that seemed more congruent with his age, but sort of clashed with the stiff formality of his suit — a fitted baseball cap.
Caffey’s merging of the spiritual with the explicit materiality of Hip-Hop (the world of sagged pants, of bling, of rampant hedonism, of political immaturity) may have been the night’s moment of foreshadowing. Caffey, DaShamone McCarty’s generational peer, is the future. He is the objectified ‘them’, the recklessly self-destructive young so often referenced throughout the night, but rarely heard. His message symbolized one of the ways the youth themselves have sought to transcend the destructive limitations of a world they had no say in devising.
As the evening wore on, the park darkening, barely illuminated by the lamp posts lining Oak Street, the communal discussion extended to universal considerations. Phyllis Duncan, the founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons (MOMS), said, “We have lost our moral dignity. We have given our children to the streets.” At one point during her message, she invited all of the mothers who had lost children to gun violence to stand. I was looking for the mother of McCarty, but didn’t see her. There was, however, a woman seated in a chair not far from the stage. She was hunched over, weeping.
“Erica can’t stand, because her son was killed by a Maywood police officer on Madison and 19th on November of last year,” Duncan said. “This is not new to our community. When we lose one child it affects us all. When we lose our black males, it takes away from the generations…Who is going to marry my granddaughter?”
Who is going to marry my granddaughter?
Duncan addressed a question often heard after the shooting deaths of black males. “Was he in a gang? What difference does it make! We got to stop putting these labels on our sons!” Duncan talked about the murder of her own son. “I think about that boy when I go to bed and when I wake up,” she said. Duncan has since sublimated her pain into action and awareness.
She referenced Stacy Kemp, the ex-convict who offered his own succinct economic theory of the business of incarceration. “This brother is part of the solution!” she said. According to Duncan, Kemp’s condition, along with that of millions of other young black men, is symptomatic of a much grander crime. “This is systematic! This is not something that happens over night!” However, she was emphatic that, although the problem is systematic, the solution is much closer to home. “We have to save ourselves for ourselves.” She offered a few immediate solutions. “Get to know your neighbor! Get to know the children in your communities!”
After she spoke, Duncan introduced William Hampton, the brother of slain Black Panther and Maywood icon Fred Hampton. Bill Hampton, a Maywood Park District Commissioner, was careful to qualify the night’s persistent haranguing about the lack of activities for Maywood youth by mentioning some initiatives his park district is sponsoring, such as a leadership program for young women. Things aren’t all lost, he seemed to be implying. “We all have to come together as one whole community!” he said.
As it became clear that this collective prayer gathering would go well into the night, I left, walking in the direction of 1st Avenue, toward the Phoenix Rising sculpture and the Fred Hampton Pool and the baseball diamond overran by dandelions. Debra Spears’s voice trailed me, its invisible frequency colliding with Hampton’s bronze bust and dipping into relative silence before an older, much more casual congregation of people (seated at picnic tables across the street from the Way Back Inn) could hear its resonance.