Murder City Madison–Follow up

I wrote on Wednesday about the rash of shootings and 10 homicides in Madison so far this year. For those interested in the story, I am providing here some updates and additional information.

First, there was another attempted homicide last night.The victim had “non-life threatening injuries.”

There’s a background piece in this week’s Isthmus about the violence and about the conflict among city elected officials and community leaders about how best and most effectively to respond.

Amid all the violence and rancor, there are also signs of hope and success. Selfless Ambition reports on the dramatic changes in one Madison neighborhood over the last few years. One of the city’s poorest communities, the Leopold neighborhood has begun a remarkable transformation. The number of police calls dropped by 25% between 2011 and 2015, thanks to the assignment of a community resource police officer, expanded community programming at the elementary school, and the creation of urban community gardens.

If you want to follow developments in this ongoing story and in the effort to overcome racial disparity in our community, I recommend visiting Madison365 and Selfless Ambition regularly. Both are doing great work!

Murder City Madison

We woke today to learn that overnight another man was shot to death in Madison, the tenth homicide in 2017, the third in the last week. That ties the record with 2007 for the most homicides in a year, on August 2. I took me a while to compile a list of all of the victims’ names (police haven’t released the name of the most recent victim). Here they are:

1 David Edwards March 1
2 Andrew Nesbitt March 27
3 Michael Mederds, May 30
4 Jameel Easter June 10
5 Gerald Moore  June 24
6 Christ Kneubuehl June 26
7 Kub Herr July 2
8 Riccardo C. Simms. July 26
9 Ciara Philumalee July 29

There were domestic incidents (Andrew Nesbitt was killed by his roommate) and Christ Kneubuehl died of a heart attack during and armed robbery at a Culver’s but the most recent killings have seemed frighteningly similar: people gunned down in public. As Police Chief Mike Koval said of the most recent homicide: “This was a brutal assassination.”

The increase in violence has increased tension between elected officials and leaders in the African-American community as they struggle to develop solutions to the immediate problems and the underlying issues. There’s also a knee jerk response that puts the blame on people coming from Chicago or Milwaukee. provides a map that shows all of the serious gun-related incidents in Madison since May. It’s quite revealing. There’s only been one incident in the downtown area, the near east side, or near west side. The remainder of the almost 40 charted on the map occurred in or near largely African-American neighborhoods, along the belt line or near the interstate.

Of course, many of them occurred in places, like a 7-11, where people of all races and classes might come together but Chief Koval has been careful to insist that the most recent killings have been targeted–victims and shooters are known to each other.

Koval has also warned that police will become more proactive, that they will be “rattling the cages” those “creating havoc.” Undoubtedly, this means closer surveillance of African-Americans, arresting people on parole or probation violations. Such tactics will only worsen the already strained relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community.

I’ve got no proposals to make, no great ideas, no possible solutions. I am surprised not only by the spiral of violence but also by the relative silence in the larger community. Perhaps we’re overwhelmed by all of the news coming out of Washington–the healthcare debate, the chaos in the White House, the international crises. The old tagline “if it bleeds, it leads” still seems to be valid. Headlines of the shootings on the home pages of local media, but there is a lot else grabbing our attention, not least the Foxconn deal that has brought the legislature back into special session.

I’ve got nothing to offer, except prayer and an invitation to conversation. We’ll be using a litany this Sunday that I’m adapting from one written by Bishop Stephen Lane of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. We’ll name all ten victims of homicide in Madison this year in those prayers; we’ll remember their friends and family. We’ll pray for healing and hope and that our city will come together across the divisions of neighborhood, class, and race.

And today I’m praying that there are no more killings, tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, or for the rest of the year.



Movement on the homeless shelter?

The long-awaited and overdue feasibility study commissioned by the City of Madison has finally been completed. Architects are proposing several alternatives for using a city-owned property on S. Fairchild St. for a permanent men’s homeless shelter. You can read about their ideas here.

We’ve been waiting for this report for months and its completion is another step in what might be an exciting and very different future both for homeless men in Madison and for Grace Church. The Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984 on a one-year trial basis and we’ve hosted ever since. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to find alternative locations and better solutions, but nothing ever came of them.

A recent series of articles in the Madison State Journal have provided a comprehensive and troubling overview of Madison’s homeless problems and the inadequacies of our shelter system. Those articles are available here.

This is truly a wonderful opportunity but there are significant challenges still to come. The neighborhood meeting on Monday night will be an opportunity to hear about the possibilities and to provide feedback to the architects, city staff, and elected leaders. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be financial. While the city is willing to provide the property, there are no public funds available for renovation of the space. At this point, we don’t have any idea of what those costs might be, and whether the private sector can produce the funds necessary.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the future. We have found a location that could work which is an important step forward and in conversations and meetings I’ve been with other stakeholders, there seems to be a great deal of excitement about the possibility of a new shelter designed for our current needs.

But that leaves a final question. What does all this mean for Grace Church. We have hosted the shelter for over thirty years, and over that time, ministry to and with the homeless has become part of our identity. We have created enormous good will throughout the community because of the shelter’s presence here, and when there is negative publicity, we suffer as well.

If and when the shelter moves, the effects of that move on Grace will be significant. We will have to think about how we might continue to engage in ministry with the homeless; how we might continue to support the work of the shelter and its current operator Porchlight. Beyond that, Grace will have to discern anew what the best uses of our space might be and how best we might share Christ’s love with our neighbors. Those conversations will be exciting as well and I look forward to them.


When wiping the dust from our feet isn’t enough: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year C, 2016


I’ve begun to prepare for my sabbatical later this fall when I will explore how urban churches are doing innovative ministry and mission in our changing 21st century context, As part of that preparation, I’m thinking and reading about cities. While reading urban theorists and historians of the city, I’ve realized I was operating with certain assumptions about the nature, purpose, and history of urban environments, and that those assumptions helped to shape my approach to ministry and mission here at Grace. Continue reading

Madison’s Mayor Trump: The Criminalization of homelessness

The Philosophers’ Stones are gone; as of October 1, the City-County Building will no longer be a place of sanctuary for homeless people. Mayor Soglin has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour. has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour.  has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour. It seems that the Mayor is putting into action for Madison’s homeless population what Donald Trump is proposing for undocumented aliens–deporting them all. Certainly, he’s been successful in riling up passions (and eventually bringing other politicians into line with him–this was the third vote on the ban at the City-County Building).

But just like Trump’s ideas, criminalizing homelessness won’t work.. In the first place, there are serious constitutional questions about the Mayor’s proposed ordinance. And second, if there is no place for homeless people to sleep, then I suppose they’ll be arrested and jailed (where at least they’ll have a roof over their heads and meals.

The harsh reality is that we don’t have housing for all of the people who need. The vacancy rate in Madison hovers around 2%, and although I’ve heard rumors that there are signs that developers have nearly saturated the market for upscale student housing, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of interest in providing adequate, affordable housing in Madison or Dane County.

And then there’s this statistic from the Salvation Army today. They can accommodate at most 18-21 people in their emergency shelter. On August 31, 2015, 80 women and children sought shelter there.

We know what works. Housing First programs in places like Salt Lake City have successfully cut the numbers of chronic people at a significant cost savings. It’s estimated that on average, a homeless person costs taxpayers around $30,000/yr in services, especially emergency services (ER, police). Mayor Soglin likes to talk about Housing First, but he doesn’t actually want to commit city resources to providing housing for people on the scale necessary. Mayor, that’s sixty women and children who didn’t have a place to stay last night!

Where will Madison’s homeless go? I know the Mayor hopes they’ll all go back to where they came from. My guess is they’ll try to hide and eke out an existence where cops and politicians won’t see them. And if they do, the Mayor will have solved his problem. Out of sight, out of mind.

Marching for justice and new community in Madison

Since I’ve been in Madison, I’ve participated in lots of protests. I’ve also been an observer of many. Today’s was unique. I was at Grace this afternoon during the press conference when the DA announced he wouldn’t be pressing charges in the shooting death of Tony Robinson.

I had committed to opening Grace to make it available for people who wanted to pray, so it wasn’t until after the press conference was over, and others had come to be a presence at Grace that I made my way across the square over to the house where Tony was shot, to gather with other clergy and people to stand vigil before our announced march downtown to the Courthouse and to the Capitol.

As I walked across the square, it was eerily quiet. There was little vehicular traffic and almost no pedestrians. The TV satellite trucks were still parked near the City-County building but almost no one was around. It was more like a day in February than in May.

While walking, I thought about Tony’s death, the deep racial disparities in our community (about which I’ve written repeatedly), the militarization of the police. I also thought about all those others who have died over the past year: Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Natasha McKenna–those whose names we know, and all those who have died without their stories becoming national media sensations.

I was also aware of the fear in our community–fear of violence, riots, of what might happen. I knew there was a great deal of fear–fear that this protest or ones planned for tomorrow might become violent, fear of police response to a peaceful protest, fear that the injustice that has continued unabated and unaddressed in our society for so long will finally come to light and demand redress.

When I arrived at the meeting place, I saw lots of familiar faces of clergy I knew, many from protests in earlier years. But there were also many I didn’t know–most of the African-American clergy, for example. There were also lay people. As time went on and more people gathered, I saw more familiar faces, and met many unfamiliar ones.

Tony Robinson’s death has had a number of interesting results in our community. In addition to the pain and grief it unleashed, it laid bare for all to see, the racial injustice and disparities that lie at the heart of our city and county. It has put under intense scrutiny the progressive patina that generations of progressive Madisonians have burnished and revealed the rot that lies underneath it. It has showed us that we are not all that different from Ferguson, or Cleveland, or North Charleston, or Baltimore.

But it has had other, positive consequences. It has brought to public awareness and authority a group of eloquent and gifted African-American leadership–Michael Johnson, Everett Mitchell, Alex Gee, Jr., and the members of Young, Gifted and Black. It has given voice to an even younger generation of African-American leaders, many still in their teens, who are articulate, relentless in their pursuit of justice, and committed to non-violence.

And for the first time in decades, it has brought together clergy from across racial divides and denominational divides, clergy who are committed to work to remind our city and county of the moral obligation to end the racial disparities and oppression in our community, to demand accountability from our police forces and to demand justice.

I was honored to accompany David Couper on much of our walk today. Now an Episcopal priest, Couper was Madison’s Chief of Police for many years. While we were walking, he commented on police tactics. He also pointed out the place where an officer was shot while he was chief. He writes extensively on his blog Improving Police about how policing needs to change and can change. It was heart-breaking to listen to him talk about what is going wrong in Madison right now.

But there are some things going right. We have a unique opportunity, in the midst of this tragedy and injustice, to work for a better, a new community. We can only do it if we break down the fear that divides us–racially, politically, religiously, the fear between police and civilians, too. We can also do it only if we come together, committed to work for a bette, more just, new community where racial disparities and inequities are overcome.

There is a great deal to do; a great deal that stands in our way. In spite of the fear, sadness, grief, and anger today, there is hope. There are also signs of new community.

The clergy who came together for today’s vigil and rally issued a letter expressing our hopes for justice and our commitment to work for equity and a less-militarized police force. We have committed to work together and to bring our communities of faith together and to continue to voice our demand for moral change in our community. Let us pray that from the death of Tony Robinson, new life, new hope, justice will grow forth.

Only then can we rest. Only then can our marches end. For until justice comes forth, the blood on the pavement of Willy Street will continue to cry out.

Clergy marching for justice and peace in Madison

On Friday May 8th an unprecedented meeting of faith leaders was held here in the MUM offices. We came together over the systemic injustices that exist in our County and out of concern for our community.  Attached you will find a letter  from that coalition reflecting the purpose and outcome of that meeting. We know that as clergy and people of faith we are called across traditions to work for justice. Our meeting on May 8th represents the beginning of our work as a faith coalition, we recognize that there is much, much more to be done and we pledge to continue
TomorrowTuesday, May 12th at 2:30 p.m. the District Attorney will announce his decision regarding the officer involved shooting of Tony Robinson. We know that the decision, regardless of what it is, will not heal our divided and suffering community. We know that our community will still be in pain.
At 2:30  p.m. tomorrow, May 12th, Clergy and members of faith communities from throughout Dane County are invited to gather outside the residence where Tony Robinson was killed. We will join in prayer and song and at 5:00 p.m. we will march down Williamson Street to Grace Episcopal Church for more prayer and song we will then march to the Dane County Courthouse.
We  ask that you join us as people of faith in calling for racial justice in our community, in action, and in our support of the letter sent by the African American Council of churches to of Dane County law enforcement officials (also attached). Please feel free to share this announcement with others as you see fit.