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St. Sabina Catholic Church unveils anti-gun violence sculpture in Chicago

The life-size bronze designed by Timothy P. Schmalz depicts a weeping Jesus over the lifeless body of a slain Black youth.

"Thou Shall Not Kill", a new sculpture by Timothy P. Schmalz unveiled this week at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago. (Fr Michael Pfleger/Facebook)

Leaders at St. Sabina Catholic Church on the south side of Chicago have unveiled a new bronze statue of Jesus weeping over a young shooting victim, as the city and region continue to grapple with a gun violence epidemic.

Longtime pastor Fr Michael Pfleger and Pamela Bosley, who co-founded an anti-violence initiative at the historically Black parish, led a livestreamed unveiling ceremony there on Holy Monday. Pfleger, who has headed up the church since 1981, took the opportunity to lament recent shootings and the need for action.

“It's got to be more than shaking our heads. It’s got to be more than just praying. It’s got to be more than just saying how bad things are,” he told the assembled crowd in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood while the statue remained under covers.

“We hope that when people come and look at the pictures and see this sculpture, that maybe it'll put something on their heart or something on their mind, some conviction that this is not acceptable.”

The life-size bronze rendering was designed by Timothy P. Schmalz, a Canadian artist perhaps best known for his “Angels Unaware” bronze work, which brings awareness to migrants and refugees and has had replicas toured around the U.S. in recent years. A previous sculpture, “Homeless Jesus,” also gained international attention and was permanently installed in 2013 at Regis College in Toronto.

The new statue in Chicago is at least the second work from Schmalz connected to Black Catholics, as a large rendering of St Josephine Bakhita escaping slavery, “Let the Oppressed Go Free,” was installed in Italy last year.

The new sculpture in Chicago, titled “Thou Shall Not Kill,” elicits very personal memories for many in the St. Sabina community, some of whom spoke at the ceremony with pictures of family members killed in local shootings.

“April 4, next week, will make 18 years without my son,” said Bosley, who co-founded Purpose Over Pain at the parish to support parents of those lost to gun violence. Her son, Terrell Bosley, was shot and killed on the church grounds in 2006.

“I did the math. Since 2006, there have been 10,259 people murdered [in Chicago]. Most of them look like us, Black and brown.”

Following the unveiling, handled by Pfleger and Bosley, some were brought to tears by the sculpture itself. It features a hooded youth, deceased with bullet holes marking his back—contrasted with the nail-scarred hands of Jesus, which cover his face.

“I know this is hard for all of us to see, because our children looked like this… We need to know that God weeps at this. God is angry. He's angry about what's going on in our communities, in our city,” said Pfleger, whose foster son Jarvis Franklin was killed in gang-related crossfire near St. Sabina in 1998, following a spike in violent crime in the city during the early to mid-1990s.

The Chicago Police Department has reported a marked decrease in shootings and homicides in the first quarter of 2024, though on the local level, the ongoing scourge has been no less impactful. There have been more than 480 people shot in Chicago so far this year, over 90 of whom have died. 

Pfleger, one of the most outspoken voices in the region on the issue, spoke of the new sculpture at his church as a necessarily painful reminder of unjust death.

“It's a hard piece. It's a difficult piece,” he said. “But we believe it's an important piece so that somebody can look at that and see what death looks like and realize everybody [pictured] up here was murdered. Nobody deserves to be lying on the street dead.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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