CHICAGO — Outside the rectory of Saint Sabina’s, a Catholic church on Chicago’s South Side, a crowd gathers to begin their usual Friday night walk to their neighborhood’s most afflicted regions.
They are led in prayer by a man wearing a turquoise short-sleeved button down shirt instead of the traditional Roman collar. And on top of that, another t-shirt, which reads: “Our Children Have the Right to Grow Up.”
With his bullhorn in hand and a tone more attuned to a Baptist preacher than a Roman Catholic priest, Father Michael Pfleger tells the crowd, “God blesses the soldiers, when they’re in the right army.” The crowd responds with a loud “Amen!”
In a year when the city of Chicago is seeing its highest number of gun fatalities on record, Pfleger’s army of parishioners and community activists are simply taking matters into their own hands.
“We’re addressing this thing,” Pfleger told NBC News. “We’re gonna be vigilant in the streets. We’re gonna occupy our blocks, occupy our neighborhoods.”
‘Living in Fear’
For more than 40 years, Pfleger -- known by his parishioners as Father Mike -- has served as pastor of the faith community of Saint Sabina’s, out-serving three of the last cardinals who’ve headed up the Chicago Archdiocese and surviving several suspensions from priestly ministry.
But in all of his years serving Saint Sabina’s, the largest African-American Catholic church in Chicago, Father Pfleger said this year is hands down the worst he’s ever seen violence in the city of Chicago.
“Our children live in war zones, so if they’re not processing that, it either has them living in fear or being overwhelmed or living in denial.”
The shootings in Chicago have reached such a high point that even schools are trying to figure out ways to intervene.
Code of Conduct
Perspectives, a network of charter schools on Chicago’s South Side, saw 10 of its current and former students fatally shot in the last year alone.
This summer it decided to do something about it, launching a peace and leadership camp for its students to figure out best practices for diffusing tense situations that could easily become violent.
But even doing that is not enough. The kids of Chicago’s South Side are forced to live under a code of conduct just to survive.
“You have to be aware of gangs and affiliates in that neighborhood,” said Montrell Kennedy, 16. “And you have to be on your toes at all times so you don't end up a victim.”
According to data gathered by the Chicago Tribune, at least 1,200 shootings have been reported since 2011 for kids 17 and under, while more than 100 have been killed.
Simply walking down the streets of Chicago’s South Side unharmed can be a tough ask for kids, as violence on its streets can be entirely random.
“Don't really try to stand out as much,” said Bryant Dean, 15, a Perspectives student. “And don't hang around, because that will bring trouble if you hang around and you're just talking to somebody.”
Mad at God
Many familiar with Chicago's toughest streets realize that even when you’re not standing out, you can still become a victim. That’s exactly what happened to the only son of Annette Holt, a parishioner at Saint Sabina’s almost 10 years ago.
Blair Holt was on his way from a long day at school when a gunman entered the public bus he was on and randomly fired five shots to the back of it. Blair wasn’t the intended target. It was another gang member who happened to be on that bus.
Blair’s mom said he pushed another student he was on the bus with out of the way when he took a fatal hit.
“It like your worst fear,” she said. “'Cause you see it in the streets every day. His dad is a cop. I'm a firefighter. I respond to stuff like this, and he does too.”
Annette Holt said she had safety conversations with her son Blair -– watching your surroundings, travelling in groups, not associating with the wrong people –- but it wasn’t enough to keep her son safe.
“Father Mike would call me and he would just talk with me,” she said. “I would say, ‘I'm mad at God’ and Father Mike was like, ‘You know, that's OK. God knows you're hurt.’ "
Pfleger adopted three sons against the wishes of the Chicago Archdiocese. Jarvis Franklin was one of Pfleger's sons, but was killed in gang crossfire. He was just one month shy of his 18th birthday.
"Jarvis could come in a room and light it up," he said. "He [Jarvis] had the kind of personality that could sell you a car that didn't work and you would thank him for it."
The loss of Jarvis was strong enough to paralyze Pfleger. But in some way, it provided strength for him to carry on marching and even saying funeral masses in one of Chicago's most deadliest years on record.
"I just really told God this is going to be my passion," he said. "To try to save other lives."