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July 24, 1999
Kerala Christian Priest Fights For Chicago Neighborhood
Sonia Chopra in Albany
A pastor from Kerala who runs a church in one of the most impoverished, depressed, drug-ridden and neglected neighborhoods in Chicago is determined to fight for its survival. Englewood is arguably among the bleakest places in the entire country with more than 30 per cent of its people unemployed and others having marginal jobs.
He has been fighting for years to keep the hope alive for his African American parishioners but in recent months, he has been also fighting the City Hall here to step up its investigations into the murder of 11 women. A serial killer was suspected of raping and killing the women.
Reverend Thomas Varghese's presence in this community and his role in comforting his people has brought him to the attention of the mainstream publications in America.
He is the only Indian American pastor in the National Baptist Convention Inc, an organization under which the churches with the eight million membership of African Americans belong.
Reverend Varghese came to America to do a graduate degree in theology and decided to stay on. He has been a pastor for 23 years, 16 of which have been spent at his current location.
"There is poverty, sadness, neglect and so much confusion here. There are rapes, murder and mayhem and the police do nothing," the cleric of the Fairfield Baptist Church in a phone interview.
"No one is paying any attention to us and we see no hope for the future," he added.
A day after this interview, on July 22, the Chicago police announced that four men apparently acting separately have sexually attacked and killed 11 women who were either prostitutes or drug users. The police said they are expanding their search for the killers to the entire city because DNA evidence, which was used to link the slayings to the unidentified men, also tied one of them to a sexual assault on the North Side.
Detectives believe the killers have worked independently, enticing women to abandoned buildings where many of their bodies were found. Most of the victims had used crack cocaine before they were killed, tests revealed. Three victims survived sexual attacks, but they have been unco-operative with the police, Area 1 Commander Frank Trigg said.
"That has made this investigation difficult," Trigg said, urging anyone who spots unusual activity near an abandoned building to call the police.
"I am outraged that the killer was not caught though these murders have been taking place for many years," Reverend Varghese said
"I am upset by the tragedy of the lives lost but I am more concerned about the safety of my congregation. When things hit so close to home, it puts fear and hopelessness in people, which I do not want to happen," he said and added that the streets the killings took place were within a few miles of the impressive skyscrapers of downtown Chicago.
Reverend Varghese had vowed early this month, with the help of local activists, to fight the killer and the city -- by holding a candlelight vigil in August -- to bring back hope to this community. The candlelight protest would go on even if the alleged killer is caught, the fellow activists believed, for it also focuses on the need to get more help for the neighborhood to fight crime and unemployment.
He is among more than 500 Christian priests from India who are working in American parishes, hospitals, prisons and institutions for the mentally ill. Their presence is more apparent in the Catholic church which is acutely short of priests, as the number of Americans joining priesthood has declined steeply in recent years, and hordes of priests have abandoned their vocation to get married.
Most of the Indian priests are from Kerala -- no surprise there, for nearly 33 per cent of Kerala's population is Christian.
"If we can't stand together and wipe each other tears, place a comforting hand on a shoulder, then we shouldn't be on this earth," the reverend said.
He admits that it is an "amazing accomplishment, something that only God can do."
Of his congregation of 80 people, 98 per cent are African Americans. The race of victims does not really matter, he says. "They are all God's children and they deserve the same things as everyone else."
Asked if it is difficult to bridge the gap between the two cultures, he said that," with God's help, everything is possible. And all that is required from us is to roll up our sleeves and do the best we can."
Reverend Varghese said his community is "overwhelmed by their struggle for survival" in an area where many are unemployed and very poor. There are vacant lots filled with garbage, abandoned houses and many closed businesses.
"We have to stand up for ourselves. We have to bring salvation and love back. We have to be safe from violence. That is our right," he said.
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