Figure 1 – The New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church located on the 4400 block of West Monroe; an island of peace on what is reputed to be the most dangerous block in all of Chicago[1]

Just four short miles west of McDonald’s gleaming new corporate headquarters in Chicago’s chic West Loop neighborhood stands the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church (New Mt. Pilgrim).  For over twenty years, the church’s tall spires have shouted defiance at the poverty and violence overrunning the mean streets of Chicago’s West Side — its stone pillars a proud testament to the perseverance of its besieged African-American community.  Recently, I was invited to attend New Mt. Pilgrim’s Sunday worship service as a guest, and therein was witness to perhaps an all-too-familiar scene for the minority neighborhoods passed over in the city’s surging commercial development: mourning the newly-departed and comforting those left behind[2].

Figure 2 – a gospel singer leading worship at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church; a formerly-abandoned property which was purchased from the Chicago Archdiocese in 1993 and painstakingly restored

In much of the Western world, the concept of the church as a physical “sanctuary” where people take refuge from marauders has been relegated to an artifact of the Middle-Ages, but in Chicago four out of every five murders goes unsolved, and over 300 people have been killed so far this year (primarily in Black and Latino boroughs on the city’s West and South Sides)[3].  Exemplifying this terrifying trend, here on this particular Sunday, the congregation of New Mt. Pilgrim assembled at the altar to pray for the mother of yet another murdered young person, singing a long-suffering refrain to their Creator that “Love is where You are… Peace is where You are[4],” and rejoicing that they’ve escaped the predations of Vice-Lords, drug pushers, and overzealous police officers for the privilege of spending just one more Sunday together in the House of the Lord God Almighty.  Yet despite their pain and loss, the congregants of New Mt. Pilgrim have not been content only to shelter behind an impregnable stronghold.  Resounding with the increasingly urgent calls for change, New Mt. Pilgrim’s defenders have begun sallying forth with new projects to retake their streets and lift this long siege of their homes.

Several days prior, I had the opportunity to spend a morning on-site learning about The MAAFA Redemption Project (MAAFA), a dynamic mentorship program largely-run by New Mt. Pilgrim members on behalf of troubled young African-American men aged between 18 and 24, which has already been featured in both POLITICO[5] and Chicago Magazine[6].  The word “Maafa” is derived from the Kiswahili term for “Great Tragedy” or “Great Disaster” and is used to reference the suffering of Africans throughout 500 years of slavery and the great cultural/psychological trauma that experience has left[7].

This “Disaster” has endured into subsequent generations, escalating into an alarming situation where, today, 67% of African-American children grow up in single parent homes[8], almost 20%  are unemployed, and those who do have jobs earn only 75% of the wage that their white counterparts do[9].  Locally, the situation is even more sobering: 47% of all 20 to 24-year-old African-American men in Chicago are both unemployed and out of school[10].  57% of Illinois’ 44,000-person prison inmate population is African American[11].  Most will face nearly-insurmountable employment challenges upon their release into some of the most segregated and economically-depressed areas of Chicago, and approximately 50% will return to jail within three years.  Within this context, MAAFA was developed by New Mt. Pilgrim’s Senior Pastor, Rev. Marshall Hatch Sr., his son Marshall Jr. (also a Youth Minister with the church), and another volunteer to connect these young men (many of whom come from broken homes, from gang-related backgrounds, and/or had dropped out of school) with positive male role models, to teach them job skills to redeem their potential, and to imbue them with a sense of mission to join in healing the great wounds on their own souls and those of their community.

Figure 3 – MAAFA fellows assembling for work in front of their dormitory: the Sankofa House; “Sankofa” is a word from the Ghanaian Twi dialect expressing the sentiment that “it is not wrong to go back and retrieve the things you have lost before you move forward into the future”[12]

The MAAFA Redemption Project operates under a theory of change akin to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and creates a stable environment to foster personal growth by requiring the young men who enroll in their 6-month program (known as “MAAFA Fellows”) to reside together on its campus dormitories during the week[13].  The program then sets high expectations for their MAAFA Fellows by providing them opportunities for cultural, spiritual, and academic enrichment through devotional studies, identity/self-concept courses, and mentorship conversations with life coaches and various special guests from the community (which include on one occasion, the commander of the local police district and several officers)[14].  Finally, MAAFA empowers these young men for career success through enrolling them in financial literacy training and apprenticeships working in the construction trades.  The program has already graduated one cohort of their MAAFA Fellows, whose men have gone on into trade union jobs or are supported by MAAFA to pursue academia.  They will be graduating another cohort in September.

The MAAFA fellows begin their day with scripture.  Their devotionals begin with a prayer and a recitation of the program’s mission statement:

“We are the men of the MAAFA Redemption Project.

We recognize that we cannot redeem our families and our communities

Until we first redeem ourselves.

Therefore, our mission is to invest in the mind, body, and spirit;

So that we may repair and rebuild our city; one life at a time[15].”

Figure 4 – Malcolm Davis, a Life Coach at the MAAFA Redemption Project, leads students through a devotional on “Justice” from the book of Isaiah

MAAFA’s volunteer life coaches, joined by Marshall Hatch Jr., then lead the MAAFA Fellows through a devotional Bible study.  That morning, the men meditated together on the book of Isaiah and the topic of “Justice.”  It was a hard teaching that touched on the value of work and rejecting the concept of “an eye-for-an-eye.”  Tempers flared, and one young man’s passions ran exceptionally hot. The work is hard; after several long months of living away from home, he was frustrated and impatient for change to happen in his own life and for the restoration of his community to begin.  He had to be taken aside by Marshall for a private conversation to regain his composure before rejoining his peers.

Figure 5 – with Marshall Hatch, Jr., a Youth Minister at the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and a co-founder of the MAAFA Redemption Project

After breakfast, the MAAFA Fellows departed for work as general-contractors at a construction site, while I had the pleasure of sitting down with Marshall Hatch Jr. for a deeper discussion about the New Mt. Pilgrim community and the MAAFA program.  A University of Chicago alumnus who studied in both their schools of Divinity and Social Work, Marshall Jr. exudes intensity and intelligence.  Our conversation took us back into the pews of New Mt. Pilgrim’s sanctuary where he shared about the motivations which inspired him to help his father start the MAAFA Redemption Project.  We bemoaned the sad disparity between a modern Evangelical Christianity too often characterized by “political whiteness” and Bebbington’s classical Evangelical movement of Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism[16].  We also spoke of the painful history of “being Black and being a Christian” – both in terms of historic injustices as well as persisting, modern-day indignities in the “Age of Trump” such as the vicious cycle of poverty, despair, and rage which MAAFA seeks to heal.  To illustrate these statements, he pointed to several stained-glass windows that grace the walls of New Mt. Pilgrim, depicting themes from the African-American Christian experience.

Figure 6 – the “Maafa Remembrance” Window, the one of several stained-glass windows at the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church depicting themes of religious and cultural significance to its community of African-American worshippers

The eponymous “Maafa Remembrance” Window depicts the slave ship “Brookes” undergoing the infamous Middle Passage to bring slaves from Africa into the New World.   The bodies of Africans crammed into the ship’s belly form the Body of a suffering Christ, chained and standing with the afflicted and oppressed, yet ascendant and rising into victory.  This scene is ringed by several smaller images – of Africa, in remembrance of their ancestral home, and of the Lord’s Supper, in remembrance of Christ until He comes again to wipe away every tear from their eyes.  A second window describes the Great Migration journey of African Americans from the American South into the “True North,” while a third window remains unfinished.  This “Sankofa” Window, slated for completion later this year, will display the portraits of children murdered in the Civil Rights-era Birmingham Bombings as well as those of contemporary victims of gun violence, all encircled around the likeness of Jesus, who leads these innocents into glory – a stern warning that more lives will be lost if things remain unchanged, but also a picture of hope in a better tomorrow.  Combined, these windows form a grand account of the MAAFA Redemption Project: remembering the “Great Tragedy” of the past, persevering and returning to retrieve what was lost amidst that tragedy and moving forward into the redemption, love, and peace of Christ.

Figure 7 – the planned “Sankofa” Window, scheduled for completion in December 2018

Soon afterwards, the interview concluded.  Marshall and I shook hands and I drove home. I left the most dangerous block in Chicago humbled and renewed, and looking forward to the day that the siege of this West Side neighborhood will be will lifted, when hope will burst forth onto its streets from the pews of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church because of the powerful testimony of its people, and because I too believe that truly, “Love is where You are… Peace is where You are.”  Amen.

 

[1] https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20161228/garfield-park/chicagos-most-dangerous-block/

[2] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-chicago-shootings-violence-20180804-story.html#

[3] https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2018/08/07/playing-politics-after-a-weekend-of-carnage-in-chicago

[4] Cobbs, Tasha “For Your Glory.”  Grace.  By Mia S. Booker.

[5] https://www.politico.com/magazine/gallery/2017/09/21/chicago-church-crime-photos-000749?slide=0

[6] http://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/February-2018/DeAndre-Turner/

[7] http://africanholocaust.net/africanholocaust/

[8] https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/jul/29/don-lemon/cnns-don-lemon-says-more-72-percent-african-americ/

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/26/america-has-locked-up-so-many-black-people-it-has-warped-our-sense-of-reality/?utm_term=.ed55e33e4ac5

[10] http://www.chicagotribune.com/ct-youth-unemployment-urban-league-0126-biz-20160124-story.html

[11] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-guns-chicago-jail-violence-perspec-0410-20170428-story.html

[12] https://www.berea.edu/cgwc/the-power-of-sankofa/

[13] Pamphlet.  MAAFA Redemption Project, Summer 2018

[14] “The MAAFA Redemption Project: Snapshot 2018-19.”  MAAFA Redemption Project, Summer 2018

[15] Pamphlet.  MAAFA Redemption Project, Summer 2018

[16] https://www.nae.net/what-is-an-evangelical/