Take a look at the Chicago Tribune's "Crime in Chicagoland" chart, which records 2,133 shooting victims through Sept. 17, and one can't miss that the predomimnant victims in the last 30 days (and overall) have been males in their 20s and 30s, with several teenagers included. Among the 20 shooting incidents recorded on Sept. 13 alone, at least five of them occurred in Humboldt Park, the neighborhood that Williams calls home. But some of the victims of gun violence are gang members, taken out by other gangbangers.
Not everyone Williams works with is in a gang, though, and if they are in a gang, that does not mean that they are necessarily violent or actively committing crimes, she explained to CP. Those distinctions speak to some of the biggest misconceptions Williams believes people have about the kind of inner-city or urban youth with whom she works.
"Not all of them kill. Not all of them fight," said Williams. "A lot of them just want to be around a community of people that care for them. It's just a family. They just smoke weed with them. They just hang out on the block. They might sell drugs, but they're not going around killing, shooting, robbing…the whole nine. Probably about 65 percent of the young people I hang around with are not violent. They're just lonely. They're alone."
Another misconception, according to Williams, is that these young people don't' have anything of value to contribute. Williams says she tells her young people all the time, "'The violence that is happening in Chicago, you guys are the answer to it. You have the answer.'" But they insist, she said, that no one is listening to them.
"The fact is, young people want to talk. And young people need to be heard, and we're not listening to them simply because we already have that perception of them," said Williams.
"As I develop programs, as I develop ministries that help others, the first thing I say is, 'Listen to the young people.' If I start a gang ministry, guess what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna hit the street, I'm gonna ask gang leaders and I'm gonna ask the kids, 'What do you want? What do you need? What's lacking?'" she explained.
"So the misconception that they ain't got nothing to say, that they're just stupid, they're just high all the time… No. If you knew some of their stories, you would understand why they joined a gang. If you knew their pain and the darkness, you would get it and understand it," said Williams.
Williams knows her calling requires endurance and a self-less attitude. People do not change overnight, and it really is not her job to get people to change. After all, she said, "It isn't about me." Neither is the work about behavior modification or simply coming up with "programs," she explained.
"Well, what it really comes down to is consistency and being present. So the only way I can really, really develop trust with my guys is that I'm always there. They're used to people coming and going, coming and going. They're used to dads abandoning them. They're used to friends getting locked up or dying. They're used to people not being around for any length of time. That's just the reality of their life.
"So the best way for me to show Christ is to show them that the way God pursues me, is the way that I'm gonna pursue [them]. In the sense of, 'I'm here, I'm available, you're gonna see me. You are who you are and I am fully accepting of that, of who you are and where you are.' That for me has been the first thing, developing that level of trust," said Williams.
Although there are churches in Chicago, of all sizes, trying to address the city's needs, not enough congregations are on the same page, according to Williams. But then again, urban ministry is hard work, she noted.
"What I have found with the work that I do is that gang ministry is very trendy, until you do it. People love saying 'I work with gang members.' But then they come for six weeks and no gang member has opened up to them and they're like, 'I'm good. I'm done.' So there's this thing about the stick–to–itiveness of doing urban ministry," said Williams.
"It's hard, it's messy, we don't have resources, we have to be extra creative, we might not get paid… But what is your motive though for wanting to do it? What is your commitment that you're willing to give to it? I don't know if a lot of people want to sacrifice that, and it makes me sad," she added. "Because I think if we had more of that, and we took better care of our urban leaders, too (financially, with self-care and through accountability), we could just change our cities. Most people don't sign up for this."
The bottom line for Williams when it comes to getting her message across, is to remind others "to start seeing young people the way that God seems them."
"People always ask, 'Why were you called… why are you working with…?' I don't know how I got here," she said early in the conversation. "I just know that I had a heart and a passion ... my entire life for the underdog, for young people that our society considers worthless or useless. I'm just drawn to those kind of young people to remind them, 'No, you have value. You have worth.'
"So what better group of young people than those that are in gangs or those that are in some of the darkest periods of their life and have seen darkness and participated in darkness, to be able to be a light in that kind of darkness and let them know that they do have value, they do have worth and they were God's brilliant idea."