Feature Story

Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation 

Reconciles with the Pandemic and Zoom

PBMR continues to serve local communities in need both virtually and in person during the Covid-19 pandemic

Curtis’s Flower Box ministry bringing comfort to local families.                                        Photo by Holly O’Hara

By Theophilus Donoghue

CHICAGO, April 15, 2021 — As can only be expected, Chicago’s Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation has been greatly restricted in its ability to help its local community this past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the ministry has continued its mission to “restore human dignity through hospitality, hope and healing” and to provide connection and restoration even in a world of social distancing.

At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, PBMR immediately obtained the necessary hand sanitizers and masks and limited the amount of people entering their buildings and the number of youth in their programs. 

PBMR started to perform well-being checks on local families while also hand-delivering educational materials about the pandemic and encouraging the neighborhood to wear masks, use hand-sanitizer and observe social distancing. However, PBMR knew that they needed to continue to support their community even more so during this time of confusion and isolation. 

One of PBMR’s primary ways of assisting the neighborhood during the pandemic has been through food deliveries. In addition to distributing the vegetables harvested from their Urban Farm, PBMR has managed to deliver an abundance of donated food and was even able to provide Mother’s Day baskets in 2020.

“At Mother’s Day, even though it was May, not long into the Covid, we delivered Mother’s Day baskets to most of our mothers,” states Sister Donna Liette, Family Forward program coordinator for PBMR. “I had them in the car in the trunk and I would call to say I’m coming. And they’d have masks, I’d have masks and they would get their baskets. It wasn’t as warm and loving and huggy as it could’ve been, but at least they knew we were thinking about them, and they understood that we couldn’t do the physical hugs that we used to do. But it was still kind of like a hug.”

A similar type of “hug” was given through a new ministry created during the pandemic: Curtis’s Flower Boxes. Curtis, a local youth who has been mentored at PBMR, was deeply affected by the murder of George Floyd. He wanted to devise a means of interacting with his community in order to discuss racism and other important issues. With the help of PBMR staff and volunteers, Curtis has been constructing and delivering flower boxes to mothers who have lost their children to gun violence.

“One time I was delivering one to one of the person’s grandmas,” states Curtis regarding one of his flower box deliveries. “And we were just sitting there talking and taking pictures, and then she just got to speaking…It was almost like she was gonna start crying. She was like, ‘It just feels like he’s here because you here, and you remind me of him.’ And that was cool. That made me feel good, you know? Seeing their reaction and making them smile.” 

PBMR began back in 2002 when a small group of Catholic priests from Missionaries of the Precious Blood moved into Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in order to establish a ministry of reconciliation to prevent gang violence and support the families affected by it. PBMR became a 501(c)3 in 2004 and has since expanded its ministry immensely throughout the years to include juvenile prison ministry, an education and tutoring program, a screen-printing press, a carpentry school and its own public art gallery among various other programs and restorative initiatives

Like much of the world, PBMR has had to work remotely during the pandemic. Despite the drawbacks, there have been some advantages.

“I probably got closer to the mothers that I work with that month than I had been before,” says Liette as she reflects upon the initial month of quarantine. “If I wanted to call a mother who had lost a son maybe three months ago, I’d have brief conversations with her, but now I could have a longer one and listen more deeply without interruptions, so it was giving me a much better opportunity for giving the women a voice in a safe place.”

Liette leads the monthly Mothers Circle in which mothers who have lost their children to gun violence or incarceration can process their grief and build friendships with one another.

Shortly after quarantine began, Liette created a monthly Zoom meeting for the Mothers Circle to replace the in-person gatherings. 

“They needed that community of women that could talk about the loss of their children and lament together,” says Liette.

The hour and a half meeting traditionally begins with an opening prayer, poem or psalm, followed by an introduction and “check-in” by each mother regarding how they came to the circle. Liette then presents a question for the members of the group to reflect on and discuss.

“Usually the check-in took the whole time,” states Liette regarding the early Zoom meetings. “They were losing family members to Covid, they were isolated, they were lonely, they couldn’t see their children incarcerated. It was just a lot of pain, a lot of hurt. So I just let them talk one-by-one.”

“One of our mothers, her son was in prison and he died in prison from Covid. She couldn’t be with him when he was really ill,” states Liette. “She didn’t know what happened to the body after that. It took a long time before she could find out what happened. And so it was a terrible stress for her.” After years of being separated from his family, the young gentleman was slated to be released only a few months later.

Although the Mothers Circle has continued to meet virtually, the number of participating mothers has decreased from 80 to around 25. Liette attributes this to the lack of technological resources.

“I can’t say many but a number of our mothers, families, do not even have Wi-Fi,” says Liette. “And so they can’t come in. And then they don’t have computers, they don’t have tablets or they don’t have a phone where they can get the Zoom app. So that’s not all of them, but that’s enough that that limited them from the opportunity to come.” 

Despite PBMR mainly having to work remotely, executive director Father David Kelly is one of the few staff members who has been able to minister in person as a chaplain and witness firsthand how Covid has negatively impacted the prisons. Prior to each visit, he performs a requisite Covid test.

“In general, it obviously was worse in these detention centers and jails and prisons than out in the community because when you isolate, you have to isolate in your cell,” states Kelly. 

“No visiting, limited court via Zoom, no trials, so people are kind of in limbo often times” is how he describes the prison circumstances during Covid. “No programming to speak of, so guys could not use the yard a lot of times or congregate in the gym or anything like that. So a lot of lockdowns both in juvenile and in the prisons and jails.”

Although the pandemic has strongly limited PBMR’s ability to help inside and outside of the prisons, Kelly sees a faint silver lining. “The only benefit that I can see is that I think we found ways in which we can use Zoom to gather people who would not be able to gather because of distance. We’ve done a number of Zoom gatherings, a series on Women’s International, on things like that where people can work or are able to connect from all over the country versus just locally.”

Reflecting upon this past year, Liette feels that the community has developed a newfound appreciation for what has been lost during the pandemic. “We found out that we really can care about each other,” states Liette. “We need each other. We need touches. We need the warmth of relationships. The isolation, the loneliness is hard. But I think we kind of had to find new ways to stay in touch. We had to find new ways of being connected.”

“I think there is a deeper level of caring that I hope will continue,” Liette adds.

As most of the PBMR staff has been fully vaccinated, together they look forward to a not-so-distant future in which they can deliver food with a visible smile and a tangible hug. Until then, PBMR continues to provide much-needed social connection and support for communities not only battling Covid and isolation but also poverty and gun violence. Legislation can greatly help in such areas, but PBMR’s direct connection with its community seems crucial for providing the essential human needs of food and housing as well as “hope and healing.”