It was twenty-five years ago. Pastor Duane Beck of Belmont Mennonite Church had just done a funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had died from a gunshot wound. At the service, Pastor Duane told the young man’s friends: If you would like to do something to bring meaning and change from this death, then I’ll help you organize yourselves. Out of that offer, a local movement began – it was entirely youth led, and it called itself Drop Your Guns. Over the next number of months, DYG organized themselves into a hopeful force in Elkhart. They spoke to local businesses, to churches, to schools, to service clubs, they cooperated with the police, they lobbied the City council on behalf of a gun safety ordinance. They raised money. They organized six gun buy-back events at which over 250 illegal guns were taken off the streets. Drop Your Guns crossed barriers of class and culture. It was African American, it was White, it was Latino. One of the significant leaders was a local rap star. For many participants, the movement helped them refocus their lives. They learned the skills of community leadership. They brought meaning out of a tragedy. Notably, at the trials of three young men who had been arrested before Drop Your Guns began, their sentences were changed from prison time to probation because of their change and positive impact on the city through DYG.
Drop Your Guns only lasted a short time, but it gave birth to several other important local movements. One offshoot was the Violence Intervention Project – VIP – which worked in the schools and with young people on violence prevention and intervention techniques. Another offshoot was the group that called itself Healing Elkhart Through Little People – HELP – a group of local teens that advocated for peace and healthy lifestyles in the community.
HELP, working with the Violence Intervention Project asked for, and received, a Genesis Grant from the City of Elkhart. With that money, they supported the painting of a giant 30-foot-tall mural on the side of the building housing the Louie and Kelly Bar at the corner of Prairie Street and Main Street just south of downtown Elkhart. The young people gave their input for the content of the mural, but the painting itself was done by a gifted local artist, Kelby Love.
Kelby, like those young people, was an Elkhart native. He’d gone to Roosevelt elementary, Pierre Moran Middle School, Central High School. He was a gifted athlete, and also a tremendous artist. And when the time came to choose, Kelby chose the arts. He trained first at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, then later at the prestigious Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn NY. Kelby’s skill in the painting of animals brought him particular recognition. But on his return to Elkhart, he carried his gifts humbly, and put himself into the service of his community.
I remember Kelby working for years at Roosevelt Elementary School. My kids all can still picture him and his bald head presiding over the In-School Suspension room – a role model, a disciplinarian, a mentor to so many. So how appropriate to have Kelby helping give voice to the movement of young people he knew and cared about.
The mural went up in July 1996. And it is stunning, even now. A giant figure with flowing hair reaches down from the heavens, using a strong right arm to separate two warring figures who “drop their guns” in surprise. Above the heads of the two figures we see a brown hand and a white hand clasped in unity. We see a book and an apple for the schools. We see a cross, for the faith community. We see a garden for new growth. We see the Violence Intervention Project logo, with its’ central figure holding out hands to stop conflict. We see the houses of Elkhart. We see four figures – adults and young people – with their arms linked. The whole mural just sings – sings the story of young people who want hope and change, a community that unites across barriers of race and says No More to violence.
I drive past that mural every day on the way to work. And it seems like its message is as important today as ever. In my view, it represents the very best of the city of Elkhart. It’s a testament to what happens when older powerful people allow young people to lead change. That’s what Duane Beck did when he offered to help Drop Your Guns get started. It’s what Kelby Love did when he took the spirit of the youth movement and painted it sky high for all of us to see.
Music: "Have Mercy" by Eryn Allen Kane