By Sony Kassam
Increased tension over racism and violence following the police shooting and death of Laquan McDonald was the common theme at the annual Chicago Leadership Prayer Breakfast Friday morning.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle hastened to address race and class in a politically charged statement to more than 600 business, religious, and political leaders in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Chicago hotel.
“A profound racism continues to plague our society,” she said at the breakfast, which was sponsored by the Chicago Sunday Evening Club. “It’s reflected not just in who is detained or incarcerated, but who is shot and killed by the police on our street. I’ve lived in Chicago for 50 years. I’ve always believed that the police could shoot and kill people with impunity.”
Preckwinkle said Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was arrested for 17-year-old McDonald’s death thanks to dash-cam videos, adding that without them, the word of the police would be against the word of the witnesses.
“The mayor and others have been critical of people in the black and brown community for not coming forward when terrible things happen, yet we have to be equally critical of the police who – when bad things happen – cover-up, misplay information (and) perjure themselves,” Preckwinkle said. “We are surely in a time of crisis…a prayer breakfast is an appropriate place for a call to action.”
Loud applause and murmurs of agreement filled the crowded ballroom. The Cook County Board president then transitioned her statements to next year’s March elections.
“This isn’t a government event, so I guess I can speak candidly,” she said as the audience laughed.
Preckwinkle said the elections mark an opportunity for the public to address the issues of race, class, and the performance of elected officials. She hoped the audience would keep her former colleague, Michelle Harris, in mind for Clerk of the Circuit Court and her former chief of staff, Kimberly Foxx, in mind for State’s Attorney.
In contrast, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner focused his brief remarks on the need to restore faith and trust in the city’s public safety institutions with “prayer, communication, and coming together…to find solutions.”
Mimi Alschuler, director of development at Access Living, an organization that helps people with disabilities, said she was not convinced of Rauner’s sincerity.
“I think the divisiveness continues,” the first-time attendee said. “There are a lot of things that weren’t said, and there’s a lot going on in this world, and you don’t know what all the answers are.”
Alschuler did, however, enjoy the keynote address and said she thought the speaker was “fantastic.”
Keynoter Rev. Shannon Kershner, pastor at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, said she had to work hard in grounding herself with hope and peace in the wake of McDonald’s death, the threat to the University of Chicago, and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. But what concerned her most are the “polarizing ways” of political and public discourse at the local, state and national levels.
“It would be much easier to give in to cynicism…to disengage in community life, to turn away from people who are different than us, whoever the ‘us’ is,” she said. “But Chicago needs people (and) needs leaders who are committed to promoting an atmosphere of honest collegiality.”
Kershner urged community leaders to transform their speech and resist language that demonizes others.
“We cannot tolerate words that demean another citizen based on their race, their religion, their ethnicity, their neighborhood, their economic status, their physical abilities. We cannot sit by and abide language that barely conceals contempt for another,” she said as the room erupted in applause.
Like Rauner, Kershner explained the situation’s impact on children.
“Our words shape the atmosphere of our city. They shape how our children see themselves, and I guarantee the words that we use about ourselves and each other shape what (children) can imagine for their future,” she said. “…It is only the beginning, but it is a start.”
Kershner’s conclusion was met with a strong standing ovation from the audience.
The morning also included individual prayers from business and religious leaders of varying faiths and races who recited prayers for thanksgiving, civic leadership, peace of the city, and benediction. Each prayer alternated with performances by the Chamber Choir from Henry Hendricks Weddington School for the Performing Arts, in association with Chicago Public Schools.
Mayor Rahm Emmanuel did not attend the annual prayer breakfast.
A portion of the Chicago Leadership Prayer Breakfast can be viewed on the Sanctuary program from the Greater Chicago Broadcast Ministries Sanctuary on Channel 7 on Dec. 27 at noon.