The Star and St. James Church team up for discussions to fight causes of gun violence | Opinion

You might have noticed that reporters and editors from The Kansas City Star have been getting out and about in Kansas City, attending reader events, helping nonprofits spread the word about the dangers of drugs, and just out talking to real people.

This is intentional. The Star has put a premium on community engagement and stepping out of the shadows of being an anonymous news giant. We’ve said as much in our update on “The Truth in Black and White” project about our past and present coverage of African Americans, and in our current series “Voices of Kansas City.”

Gun violence is a topic we have covered deeply and we wanted to engage with residents about this city plague, so on Wednesday night, a few of us gathered with about 40 community leaders at St. James Church for an event called “Dinner with Discourse.”

Why gun violence? Because it affects every person in Kansas City, even if you aren’t personally impacted by a shooting. It was the first topic to surface when leaders from St. James and The Star discussed bringing together the community over a meal.

“It has torn our city apart and destroyed too many of our young people, families and neighborhoods,” said Mara Rose Williams, assistant managing editor for race and equity at The Star.

Senior pastor Emanuel Cleaver III called the gathering “some of the brightest minds in the city,” but whether or not that’s true, there were certainly some of the most passionate minds in the room.

Alex and Alice Ellison, second from left, talked about the need for progress at the event Wednesday.
Alex and Alice Ellison, second from left, talked about the need for progress at the event Wednesday.

‘Almost given up hope’ on gun violence

St. James Church member Alice Ellison came with her husband, Alex. She was one of many who wanted to see real progress. “I’m here for the discussion because I’m one of those who has almost given up hope for doing anything about gun violence in our community.”

Representing The Star was Managing Editor Andale Gross, Politics and Investigations Editor Glenn Rice, Breaking News Editor Jennifer Babich, Service Team Editor Chandler Boese, reporter Andrea Klick, Williams and yours truly. From St. James was Cleaver, Executive Director Jeremy Lillig, and Yvette Richards, director of community connections and mission.

Many guests from the community, but not all, were St. James church members.

The dinner was the first of four discussions over the next year. Williams explained the partnership between St. James and The Star and what it hopes to accomplish:

“When I was a kid, my mom who was an educator, used to say all the time, ‘each one teach one,’ “ Williams said. “ ‘Because if everyone teaches one everyone gets taught.’ And that’s what we’re here for today. We’re going to find our little one thing that we can do as a community to make a difference.”

As we went around the room with introductions, community activist Ester Holzendorf made it clear that at first she really didn’t want to come. She responded to an invitation from Williams saying she “does not meet just to be meeting,” and adding that we must find the causes to the problems or else continue to deal with the effects of violence.

But Holzendorf, like many others who were there that evening, cares deeply about the problems of gun violence in our city. “We are so tired of burying people’s kids,” she said.

At my table was Joyce Hall, whose son, Tim, was killed in 1998 in a shooting intended for his friend. Tim Hall was a promising Northeast High School athlete who had interest from the NFL and even was auditioning for teams.

More than 20 years later, the case has never been solved.

“He was helping his friend down the street (with his car). One of his other childhood friends called him and asked him to go to the store. What we didn’t know is someone was after this other guy,” his mother said.

With emotion in her voice, Hall said the men were ambushed. “He had his future ahead of him,” she said of her son.

Richards of St. James said Hall has never stopped mothering: to her other children and to the community.

“She has been a resilient mom, even through her loss,” Richards said. “It is a heavy burden on her even to this day, but she continues to have a heart of compassion.”

Lillig of St. James projected sobering statistics on a screen: how gun violence has increased over time, and how the deaths of Black men far outpace other demographic groups. But numbers can’t fully describe the pain and anguish felt by those who have lost people to a bullet, so, the bulk of the evening was taken up by table discussion, testimonies and discovering small actions that we could actually accomplish over the year.

Ideas written on sticky notes were gathered up to be reviewed by St. James and Star leaders, in an effort to find common ground and similarities. The next meetings will identify action steps for a workable project. But first, talk.

“We wanted to take this to a community level and first talk about how we feel about the violence, how it might be affecting us personally, and then talk about what we think may be missing from the community. And what action might we take that might make a positive impact and change for the better.” Williams said.

If that night was any indication, the group has plenty of ideas to share. I look forward to seeing the conclusion of our efforts.

Dr. Yvette Richards, left, and Yvette Walker, opinion editor for The Star, talked Wednesday evening.
Dr. Yvette Richards, left, and Yvette Walker, opinion editor for The Star, talked Wednesday evening.