Reverend Dr. Marcenia Richards is the founder and executive director of Fierce Women of Faith, an interfaith initiative of women promoting peace throughout Chicago. Wrapped in their signature pink pashminas, members of FWF gather on Tuesday mornings for prayer vigils around the city and advocate for peace. Richards founded the coalition about a year ago, after serving as the director of Saint Sabina’s Peace Coalition Against Violence, where she found women had a limited presence in nonviolence organizing in Chicago. Richards says that about two-hundred Chicagoland women actively participate in FWF’s work. They categorize their work into five pillars: increasing public witness to prevent violence, training advocates for peace, pursuing legislation, driving the enforcement of nonviolence, and deepening partnerships with organizations engaged in this work. Dr. Marcenia Richards spoke with the Weekly on a recent Saturday morning shortly after her return from the World Alliance of Religions for Peace in Seoul, South Korea.
How did you become a peace advocate?
I think it was by default. About twenty years ago, I was about to graduate—I’ll never forget this. It was on the West Side, near the Henry Horner Projects, and there were some guys fighting. They had to be between the ages of seven and ten, about twenty of them. And they were fighting and so I took it upon myself to have a conversation with them. And from this conversation I learned that many of them were out of school.
So I started talking to these guys and I made an agreement with them. I said, “Whoever graduates, then we’ll go to Disney World and we’ll visit BET.” Now how was I going to do that? I don’t know. But do you know, like ninety-seven percent of those guys graduated? So I had to find some sponsors and I had to do some training with them on nonviolence because a lot of them were being recruited for gangs and things of that nature. We had to make another agreement that they were going to get a job, or go to college, or something like that. And so I got started. I did get them to Disney World, we did get to BET. We made tapes and everything.
Amazingly, I saw one of the guys in Walgreens and he’s the manager. He came over to me and said “Do you remember?” and I go, “Oh. My. Word!” It’s the little things that make a difference.
What does Fierce Women of Faith do?
The Fierce Women of Faith have been active for just a little over a year, and I think we have done more work in a year than other organizations have done in many years and it’s because—I don’t know if I should say this, but it’s true. Ladies get the job done. Ladies are mothers, we’re nurturers, we’re sisters, we’re aunts, we’re surrogate mothers, so we have a sense of camaraderie that says we have to do something about our youth and about our children.
We have had prayer vigils from Evanston to the South Suburbs, from Englewood to Auburn Gresham. We also walk children to school…we talk to parents in the communities, and sometimes we see children who have dropped out of school and we talk to them to see if there’s something we can do to get them back in schools. But we also train advocates in mentoring and counseling and working with youth.
We have women who come to volunteer. Some volunteer an hour, some volunteer three hours…some can give you forty-five, fifty, sixty hours a week. It’s a very interesting group of women from Jewish to Muslim, Christian, Buddhist; we just have a lot of interfaith people.
Can you tell me about your trip to South Korea?
It was just amazing.
The speakers were from all over the world. We had former presidents, former prime ministers, ambassadors, individuals who have been promoting peace around the world for years. There were counselors, educators, Buddhist monks. You name it. Sometimes you get lost and you become inundated with your own perception that you are just striving alone, but we’re not alone. The entire world is seeking peace.
One thing that was very interesting, that really caught me off guard, was this. We had a group there from Chicago. They performed hip-hop… and the South Koreans just went crazy. I couldn’t believe it. I go, “Are you serious? Is hip-hop this famous?” I didn’t know. I go, “Am I so inundated with a peace movement that I missed that hip-hop is big?”
What’s the international perspective on violence in Chicago?
There is a sentimental tone when it comes to Chicago because individuals are thinking that we have access to so much, but at the same time, people realize that Chicago is very segregated. I think it was Dr. King who said that Chicago was perhaps the most segregated place that he had visited in the nation. However, I think it’s an asset and an advantage that we’re segregated. It means that we have our own individuality and I think that’s okay. And I’ve learned to use that as an asset in Fierce Women of Faith. There’s so much individuality and you can use that to create a great movement.
In terms of how they see us, they call us “Chiraq.” They have all of these terms for us…but Fierce Women of Faith is out to change the perception of who we really are. I think the Jackie Robinson West team gave us an idea that there are some really good things transpiring in Chicago with youth. I think we have to change the perception instead of allowing people to create the perception for us.
How can one advocate for peace?
This summer in Chicago there were a lot of TV channels and billboards saying, “Put the guns down,” but if I say to you, “Put the guns down,” what am I asking you to pick up? If you put something down, you have to put something in your hand. So we started a campaign saying “Pick up Peace.” Pick up the pieces and pick up peace.
It can be anything. I’ve learned, having eulogized so many kids from gun violence, that you can be a peace advocate just by being in the presence of a mother who has lost her child. Sometimes you don’t have the words to say, you just don’t. I could say a prayer but sometimes that person is so numb they don’t even hear it. But you know what, they’ll come back six months later and say, “I remember your presence.”