"Joel, it's Sarah. . . Sheneka is missing! . . . "
Sarah explained that 6 yr old Sheneka was last seen on her front porch, that her older sister had been watching her and that she was just gone. Sheneka is in our building pretty much every day, too young for our programs, but she sits at Sarah's desk doing her homework.
I asked a few questions. . . asked what we could do. . . we didn't know. I told her we'd pray and hung up the phone.
Paula and I along with 4 older kids gathered to pray. During the prayer we all had the same gut instinct: we had to go look. So, we found flashlights, jackets and car keys and headed out. This began a roughly 24 hour period of intense turmoil, agony, faith, teamwork and learning.
We quickly learned that the Chicago Police are not set up to coordinate this kind of search effort. They can work with each other. . . sort of. . . but not with a team of volunteers who show up to help. The response we got from local cops made me so angry I almost said something to get myself arrested! To be kind, the initial response on the part of CPD was uncoordinated, unprofessional (at least in interaction with me), and uncaring.
Area 2 detectives showed up by 12:30 and while they were also not prepared to involve volunteers, they were professional and demonstrated concern not seen previously from local cops. I commend Det. Pallapully in particular who not only worked carefully on the case, gave me his contact info and encouraged me to keep in touch, but called me after she was found to see if I had questions.
We worked until about 2am, searching the local park and lagoon, and attempting to get the police to coordinate with us (which never happened). After sitting in the Third District Office for an hour with no one willing to speak with us about our search efforts, I called the 800 # for the national hotline for missing and exploited children. I immediately (about midnight I think) reached a woman there who was helpful, responsive and ultimately called the police. . . triggering a response from the sergeant in charge who would not speak to me.
The next morning we set up a search HQ of sorts at Sunshine. we cleared out a room, began copying detailed block by block maps of the community, got coffee, water and printing "missing" flyers with Shaneka's photo on it. We set up teams to re-search the park, go door to door, down alleys looking in dumpsters (yikes!) and unsecure empty buildings (we have hundreds here) and working busy corners talking to people. all the while thinking. . . is this what we are supposed to do?
We prayed, contacted the press, put up notices on facebook, called our local political officials, and prayed some more.
The press showed up and got the story out. . . for which I am very grateful. But, they also showed their ugly side in that they had "zero" patience for the mother who after giving them some initial information, was not interested in responding to the paprazzi style hoard of clamoring reporters knocking on her door after she (in a state of clear emotional angst) had told them that she had answered their questions. "How are you FEELING???!!!!" the shouted at her.
By 3pm Sheneka was found, alive. Resurrection Wednesday!
She was apparently well, found in a nearby apartment. We have lots of questions about what actually happened, but to respect the process and family I am going to leave out some details here. Suffice to say that (a) the news reports are still showing some clear errors and (b) she is healthy, safe and at home.
The interaction I had with the reporters showed me that this is an ugly business, perhaps just like the role of the late night beat cops. The press had no concern for Shaneka, only for the story. On the part of the press, there was a palpable sense of disappointment in her being found unharmed. Perhaps that says as much about the reading/listening/watching public as it does the reporters, but they were clearly unable to maintain a real concern for real people in the midst of trying to get the scoop.
So what lessons are learned here? Part of this is yet another role in urban ministry that I was unprepared for. I will be meeting with other local leaders to try to capture the process we discovered and have it as an emergency plan for future experiences like this. We have kids go missing around here every year. We have a lot of sex offenders around. We have a memorial near our building where a 16 yr old girl was found in a barrel a few years ago.
But what of the church? I was so blessed by the response we got. the church did show up. we had dozens of people from Christ Bible Church, Chicago Embassy and GRIP outreach come right away. We had others from the community and even the suburbs mobilizing to bring food, to pray and to come and search. Together we celebrate an act of resurrection on the part of God.
For the church to show up in this context, we must not only pray and comfort, but mobilize, organize and work hard together to intervene. Another aspect, however, is that we (the church), at least part of us, must already be there when death stalks the door. Those who were closest to the situation could not have responded without those further away. Yet those around the country and Chicagoland area would have had less resurrection to celebrate being a part of without the close up intimate location and role of the church who live and breath in proximity to suffering.
I know full well this is not just about us, or about Sunshine. This is about the insanity of a missing little girl, the role of the body of Christ in all of its parts, and how together we can celebrate the kingdom work of the cross and the 1000's of acts of resurrection every day. Our call jointly is to enter the suffering of others in the name of Christ.
One other thing for now: the brokenness of the police and of the press and of the entire situation stirred up in me my own anger, insecurity, and weakness. Yet another call occurs in the midst and aftermath of the day: cling to the cross, from where my help comes from!
I think it will take a few more days for the sense of panic to leave my muscles and for me to process this whole thing. Please pray for Sheneka and for her loved ones who are still sorting this whole thing out. Pray that God would be glorified in her safe return. Pray that everyone involved would learn from this in such a way that the lessons would be valuable going forward.